RIGA - A two-day flight of a NATO observation plane over the Baltic skies was cheered by local military officials and decried by Russian authorities, with U.S. and Baltic brass emphasizing the "open" nature of the plane's flyby.
The E-3 AWACS landed at Lithuania's Zokniai airport, base for the Lithuanian Air Force, on the afternoon of Feb. 24 after visiting Latvia on the previous day as part of a two-day program to show off the technology to future members of the military bloc.
Maj. Gen. Gary Winterberger, who was on board the AWACS - or Airborne Warning and Control System - was quick to reject reports that the aim of the visit was to check compatibility of NATO's air-space surveillance technology with that of the Baltic states' - BALTNET. Technological-ly, Winterberger explained, only the pictures received on displays by crews of the plane and Latvia's radar were compared, not their compatibility.
"Technological compatibility is checked during various training on a regular and methodical basis, and it cannot be done during such brief two-day visits," he said.
Previously Latvia's Defense Ministry had reported that the E-3 AWACS would arrive in Latvia to check compatibility of NATO's air space surveillance technologies with BALTNET.
Speaking of Russian unease, Winterberger said NATO commanders in Europe had informed Russia about the flight and its operational characteristics in due time.
Russian military, in fact, were invited to take part in some of the flights planned for the future, said the major general, and that such flight could take place above Russia's territory or launch from any of NATO bases at the choice of Russia's specialists. "The coordination of participant composition of this particular visit meanwhile was up to Latvia's officials," he noted.
Winterberger also denied the plane's visit had any strategic goals. "Strategic goals are issues to be decided on the political level, whereas our task is only to build dialogue and demonstrate technical capacities of the plane," he said.
Russia and Belarus were nevertheless indignant about the flight, fearing it might attempt to make an in-depth reconnaissance study of Russia's northwestern region. Belarus air defense systems reportedly tracked the flight throughout its time in the Baltics.
"AWACS flights over Latvia and Lithuania... are another step in rendering operative compatibility to the BALTNET system with existing NATO intelligence systems. This is intended to gather more intelligence in Northern Europe. First of all, NATO is interested in Russia and her armed forces," a military diplomat told the Interfax news agency on Feb. 19.
He said that AWACS flights in 2003 over Georgia clearly indicated NATO policy toward Russia. According to the diplomat, spy planes of some NATO member states fly near Russia's northwestern region almost every day, at a distance of 40 to 60 kilometers from the Baltic fleet's harbors.
"Since 2000 NATO has been studying the Tallinn, Riga and Siauliai airfields for the use as [forward military bases] for AWACS planes," the diplomat said.
For their part Baltic military officials rejected these claims. Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius said the plane posed no threat to Russian security and that by integrating into the alliance Lithuania was also integrating into NATO's air defense system, air space control system and will use various technical devices.