NATO Baltic Air Policing mission made record number of flights in 2019

Russian Tu-160 and Belgian Air Force F-16 fighter jet.
Russian Tu-160 and Belgian Air Force F-16 fighter jet. Source: Belgian Air Force

A record number of NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission flights were made last year, ETV's evening news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported on Thursday.

In total 200 flights were made in Baltic airspace by NATO's jets, an increase from 145 in 2018. AK reported, while on a visit to the mission's base in Lithuania, this was due to an increase in vigilance and training exercises. The number of Russian aircraft flying though the airspace remained approximately the same as the year before.

The air policing mission is carried out from Ämari Air Base in Estonia and Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania.

Lieutenant General Klaus Habersetzer, Commander of the NATO Center for Combined Air Operations told correspondent Epp Ehand: "We had a peak in 2015-2016. In recent years, we have observed almost the same level of activity in the airspace, but it depends on exercises on the NATO side and on the Russian side. If we conduct exercises they try to observe us, we do the same - that's professional behavior."

AK filmed the NATO mission carried out by the Belgian Air Force with their F-16 fighter aircraft based at Siauliai Air Base and how quickly they can become airborne in the event of a disturbance. It takes four minutes from boarding the aircraft to reach the runway. The Belgians took over duties at the base in September alongside the Danes on a four-month rotation.

They were also shown a demonstration of aircraft flown by Danish, British, Polish, and French pilots.

One of the tasks of the air policing mission is to identify, monitor and escort suspiciously behaving Russian aircraft flying through Baltic airspace. It is common for Russian aircraft to fly from mainland Russia to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad through Lithuanian airspace. Many aircraft do not turn on their transponders, respond when contacted, or have not filed flight plans before they fly.

It is rare to speak with Russian pilots Lieut. Col. Roeland van Thienen explained: "Most of the time, we don't communicate by radio, but we try to communicate in many ways. They know we are there and that we are escorting them through the airspace."

Colonel Geert de Decker, Belgian Air Force Chief of Staff explained what NATO was trying to show with the air policing mission. He said: "You show what you can and you tease. This shows how accurate and well-prepared we are and how willing we are to defend our own turf. That is one of the main missions to perform [while we are in the Baltic states]. To show that NATO is as one block and you cannot try to harras one of the members because once you do that, you are immediately harassing the whole of NATO."

Estonia and Latvia have just opened new Air Operations Control Centers and the Baltic States intend to join the unified command system ACCS in the future. Such steps will improve air defense capabilities in times of conflict.

"This is the first step and now the next steps need to be taken. But it is also a question of national procurement. If you are willing and able to procure the systems," said Habersetzer.

The broadcast can be watched here, and is in mostly Estonian but interviews with pilots and military officials were conducted in English.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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