On April 30, the symbolic “key to the Baltic skies” was exchanged in a brief ceremony marking the changing of the guard in NATO’s Baltic Air-policing mission. A French Air Force group was replaced by a similar Polish contingent during a ceremony held on Lithuania’s LAF Siauliai Air Base. The Polish force consists of Four MiG-29s, who will take over from the French forces. The ceremony was attended by French diplomats, NATO officials, and military commanders in the French, Polish, Lithuanian, and Estonian militaries as well as local representatives of Siauliai, Lithuania’s fourth largest city.
The scheduled change comes just days after U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene, and expressed the Pentagon’s support for a continued NATO commitment to Baltic air policing. That meeting also produced productive discussion towards extending NATO’s mission in the Baltics.
Fifteen different NATO member countries have participated in the four month deployments since the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Baltic air-policing mission was launched by NATO in 2004. The German Luftwaffe have lead all NATO countries with four QRA tours in the Baltic states. The Poles will be completing their third tour at Siauliai, Lithuania’s unofficial northern capital. The Poles previously completed tours there from January to March 2006 and from March to June 2008. Each deployment was of similar size and consisted of Polish MiG-29 fighter-jets.
The current Polish force has been designated as “Eagle 3” and is projected to include 100 airmen. This total includes eight fighter pilots assigned to the four MiG-29s. The bulk of the deployed force is originally from the 23rd Air Base of the Polish Air Force, based near Warsaw in Minsk Mazowiecki.
The departing French force consisted of four French Mirage fighters and 140 airmen. This force was part of the Fighter Squadron 1/12 “Cambresis,” originally based at Cambrai Air Base in northern France. The French forces conducted both air-policing and integrated themselves into the local community with support activities. Community outreach included French language instruction in local Lithuanian schools and delegation visits.
The NATO Air-Baltic deployments are voluntary and serve several purposes. First, as a training exercise they are an important way for NATO forces to stay battle ready. German military observers have commented that the opportunity allows the Luftwaffe to experience operations in extreme cold weather conditions.
Secondly, the patrols protect the sovereignty of Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian airspace. While not a sizeable deterrent, the fighters are meant to act as a “tripwire force” to reassure the Baltics of NATO’s commitment to their defense. Other NATO members, such as Iceland, have requested intermittent air-policing from NATO. Only the Baltic deployment has proved to be a sustained commitment of the military alliance.
This commitment to the Baltic States is one that NATO leaders have repeatedly made, most recently perhaps at the meeting between Gates and Jukneviciene in Washington D.C. Gates said the U.S. supported extending the mission after it expires in 2014 to at least 2018. The idea of a permanent NATO airbase in the Baltics has also been floated. The U.S. has also pledged continued commitment to the Lithuanian military and regular training exercises, something that Jukneviciene has pressed for. In the past two years the region has seen large military scale exercises, both by Russia and by NATO.
The United States has also committed itself to a third tour at Siauliai as part of the Baltic air-policing mission later this year. Ironically, prior to being a NATO base, Siauliai’s strategic location made it home to numerous fighter and bomber units of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.The Siauliai International Airport, from which the QRA mission is now based, was merely a simple air-strip in the 1930s, but was rapidly expanded during Soviet occupation. In the 1950s and 1960s it became one of the largest airbases in the region, specially outfitted to service Russian heavy bombers.