Gallery: US F-15s join Belgian F-16s at Ämari air base

US McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagles are settling in at Ämari alongside the F-16 Fighting Falcons of the Belgian Air Force, which have been based there since early December. While the US jets were originally due to stay in Estonia for a few days as part of an exercise, that stay has now been extended to an open-ended deployment, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported Tuesday night.

As if to underscore the point, a Russian military plane recently transgressed Estonia's air space over the island of Vaindloo, a common hotspot for such violations.

The twin-engined F-15s currently at Ämari total six (see gallery) and join the several single-engined General Dynamics F-16 multi-role fighters already based there. The planes will rehearse air-to-air and air-to-ground training procedures across the Baltics.

Lt. Col.Taylor Gifford, commander of the U.S. contingent, told AK that: "Right now, we're here until we're told to leave; we've been here since last Wednesday I believe, and until we're told to leave, we'll continue to support the enhanced air policing mission out of Ämari airfield."

"We had the opportunity to not only do the EAP mission, but also to do local integration training, so even right now as we speak we have air-to-air integration training between F-15s and F-16s, as well as air-to-ground training with Estonian military and U.S. military forces," Lt. Col. Gifford continued.

From the Belgian contingent, Maj. Avi Pierre-Yves Libert told AK that: "For now I must say that it is business as usual; we do not see any change in the activity so far, and we are doing routine operation as we have been doing for many years now in the Baltic States."

The Belgian Air Force, the Luchtcomponent/Composante air, took on the NATO Air Policing mission on December 1; the Belgians have taken part in the mission at Ämari twice before.

So far, poor weather conditions have prevented any of the planned joint rehearsals with the Americans, though these are still scheduled and will involve the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) as well as the Americans and the Belgians, Estonian Air Force (Õhuvägi) commander Brig. Gen. Rauno Sirk told AK:

"There were flights here on Saturday. Reports also appeared in the media when Russian aircraft flew over the Baltic Sea, moved southwards to Kaliningrad and one violated the Estonian air border. So the operations are divided between these units," Sirk said.

The fact that the U.S. F-15s are staying longer than the original few days scheduled comes shortly after Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) called for greater numbers of U.S. military personnel and equipment to be brought to Estonia and the Baltic States.

Kallas did the rounds of the international media the weekend before last, including one appearance in the U.K.'s Financial Times, where she stated that the U.S. flag is the biggest single deterrent to Russian aggression.

This U.S. and NATO presence should be bolstered in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regardless of Russia's actions towards Ukraine, the prime minister added.

As reported by ERR News, a U.S. Embassy in Tallinn spokesperson recently said that the F-15s are due to stay on in Estonia for "some time", following their arrival at Ämari last Wednesday.

The jets had flown from RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk in the U.K., having originally traveled from North Carolina in the U.S. C-130 transport planes had also arrived in Ämari, supplying the F-15s.

The F-15s had originally been slated to stay for a shot time, to take past in the Astute Protector exercise, itself set u pin response to the recent Russian military build-up on its borders with Ukraine, and statements that NATO should roll back to its 1997 borders (Estonia joined NATO in 2004).

Four F-16s in Danish Air Force service also flew to Šiauliai air base in Lithuania, to take part in last week's Exercise Astute Protector.

The U.S. has made ready 8,500 troops in the event of any move by Russian Federation forces, while NATO has sent additional warships and fighter jets to both the Baltic and Black Seas.

Air support elements are also takinng part in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup's Winter Camp exercise. The exercise also involves the EDF's Scouts Battalion (Scoutspataljon).

The video below (in Estonian and English) from Tuesday's edition of AK provides more footage of the U.S. and Belgian planes at Ämari.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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