Since Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO officials have been working tirelessly to find ways to effectively counter Russian aggression throughout Europe’s Eastern flank. Troops from throughout the alliance have established new commands all over the continent, and plans continue to develop to mount an even more robust defensive posture in the region. Despite this, U.S. Defense officials have made it clear that a concerted Russian incursion into Europe, particularly in or around the Baltics, would be nearly impossible to stop — the best NATO forces could hope to do is delay the Russian advance until reinforcements could arrive.

This Cold War-esque posture is different that the types of warfare the United States has become accustomed to throughout nearly two straight decades of counter-insurgency warfare, prompting a shift in tactics and strategies that are better suited to the region. Eastern Europe, for instance, has a number of old airfields and abandoned strips of highway, relics of the Cold War, that would offer little value to most advanced military aircraft that require well manicured strips of blacktop to prevent Foreign Object Damage (FOD), as debris from the blacktop is kicked up into functioning engines.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, however, is not like most modern military aircraft.

On a rural highway in northern Estonia, a pilot flies an A-10 Thunderbolt II attached to the 107th Fighter Squadron, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., from Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia, to practice landings and take offs, during the Exercise Saber Strike 18 on June 7, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. David Kujawa)

Thanks to engines mounted above the wings, the A-10 isn’t nearly as susceptible to damage caused by runway debris kicking up during take off and landing operations, making it uniquely suited for austere runway environments like an abandoned highway in Poland or a disused runway in Estonia. A Russian invasion of the Baltics would undoubtedly include massive numbers of land assets — from troops to artillery — and the A-10 would play a vital role in hindering Russian armor from running amok while an allied response could be mounted.

While economics may be what is truly preventing any further Russian expansion into European territory, NATO continues to operate under the assumption that Russia’s currently struggling economy may one day find its footing — or worse, may seek a gain its footing through more annexed territories. As a result, training exercises like the annual Sabre Strike not only help NATO troops better acclimate to the idea of combat on the European continent, but it gives A-10 pilots a chance to show off their landing and take off skills on unusual bits of terrain.

Because A-10s can land on all sorts of terrain, it’s possible to establish hasty refueling and re-arming points in austere environments, supplemented by heavy lift helicopters that can keep the flow of massive 30mm rounds for the aircraft’s signature gun, the GAU-8 Avenger, as well as fuel coming. Occasionally, training for such an endeavor results in embarrassing mishaps, like last year when an A-10 crushed a road sign on the highway it chose to land on, but those types of challenges are exactly what exercises like Sabre Strike help familiarize pilots with.

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Watch A-10s conduct austere landing training in Europe in the video below:

Modified feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force