Responsibility for NATO Baltic Air Policing duties at Ämari base was handed over to members of the Italian Air Force Monday. The Italians arrived last week, attracting plenty of attention surrounding the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters they use, the first time the state-of-the-art plane has been seen in Estonian skies.
The Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare) and their F-35s are not complte newcomers to the Baltic States as a whole, however, having just finished a tour at the other NATO Baltic air base at Šiauliai, Lithuania. The Aeronautica Militare have also served an Ämari rotation before, in 2018.
Col. Vincenzo Sirico, commander of the Italian contingent, said of the F-35s that: "Technologically, the innovative data communication of these fifth-generation aircraft gives them different capabilities. This concerns information processing, which allows the pilot to focus on data that has already been pre-processed."
The F-35 Lightning II the first operational supersonic short take-off and vertical landing aircraft (STOVL) stealth fighter, noted for its its advanced sensors and mission systems. In some aspects it has superseded the F-22 Raptor, also made by Lockheed, and which is still in service.
"This fighter is on the Ämari air security mission for the first time. It has been used on a similar mission in Iceland before," Col. Sirico went on, speaking to ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK).
Commander of the NATO Air Force Command, General Jeffrey L. Harrigian, who participated in the handover ceremony, thanked Estonia for the excellent reception of its allies. "You have provided fantastic support to every air security unit that has been stationed here since 2014," he said, according to an Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) press release, also thanking the German contingent for the eight-month mission and wishing the best of success to the incoming Italian contingent.
"It's a pleasure to see you here with the F-35s, and I'm sure you'll enjoy defending the Baltics the way we've done it every time," Gen. Harrigian went on.
Estonia's defense minister, Kalle Laanet, said that as the latest rotation starts, together with the presence of other NATO allies in Estonia and NATO's eastern flank as a whole, is more pertinent than ever, given the foreign policy and defense situation regarding Russia.
"Russia's foreign policy is still aggressive and is escalating, as evidenced by the recent transfer of Russian troops to its borders with Ukraine, and to Crimea. This is why we must be vigilant and always ready to deter and defend. The special place the Baltic Air Security Mission holds in NATO's deterrence facet is based on the demonstration of political unity, forces, capabilities and, most importantly, a continuous readiness to respond," Laanet said.
Italy's Deputy Defense Minister Giorgio Mulè meanwhile added that despite the difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the air security mission was progressing well.
"NATO's air security efforts do more than simply contribute to civil aviation security – you are the alliance's guardians of integrity," he said.
The German Airforce (Luftwaffe) commander reflected on the experience his fliers and crews had obtained while at Ämari, which they undertook as a double-header deployment which began last August.
Lt. Gen. Klaus Habersetzer said: "For the pilot, every reconnaissance flight, every disruption is a challenge and an effort. But the mission on the NATO frontier, to intercept Russian military aircraft is, of course, on a different level."
NATO Baltic Air Policing has been a fact since 2004 when Estonia joined the alliance. It is a separate entity from the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup, based at Tapa.
Over 600 F-35 Lightning IIs have been built, and the first flights were made in 2006. The F-35 is operated by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps.
Other operators include Britain's RAF, and the Israeli Air Force.
Editor: Andrew Whyte