The Baltic Air Policing mission (BAP) has been a priority for NATO since April 2004. Since then, a rotating force of fighters and pilots hailing from various NATO nations have assumed the responsibility of patrolling the airspace over the Baltic Sea, intercepting Russian fighters and bombers and serving as a general deterrent in the region. Although Denmark assumed this role in January (the 46th such rotation of forces since the BAP mission began), other prominent militaries often maintain assets in the region as well — sometimes in a support role for the aircraft assigned to the BAP mission, others as an opportunity to train over allied nations and with allied forces.
Although intercepts between NATO allied aircraft and Russian planes over the Baltic Sea are nothing new, there has been a notable increase of frequency and aggressive behavior from Russian aviators in the region. Many intercepts, executed by NATO or by Russia, have concluded with NATO pilots filing reports of “unsafe” or “unprofessional” behavior being demonstrated by Russian aircraft that seem to be poking not only at NATO’s resolve but at the resolve of the pilots themselves. On the ground, similar concerns permeate through the Baltic states as Russia works to bolster their forces in the region.
A narrow stretch of land known as the Suwalki Gap, stretching about sixty miles from the Russian satellite of Kaliningrad on the west to Russian ally Belarus on the eastern flank, represents all the territory a Russian force would need to occupy to cut Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia off from allied support and resupply. According to the analysis of U.S. Defense officials in the region, NATO forces in the area could not withstand a concerted Russian invasion force, and would instead need to try to hold their ground the best they could while a suitable response could be mounted from elsewhere in Europe.
With tensions rising in the air, on land, and at sea in the Baltic Region, some have called the area a powder keg waiting to explode, primed by Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014. Maintaining these high tensions over such an extended period and with so many players involved means mistakes and errors in judgment may be inevitable to some extent, as was the case last year when two Spanish F/A-18s were scrambled to intercept two Russian Mig-31 fighters and an AN-26 military transport plane approaching Estonia. In their fervor to execute the intercept, however, the Spanish pilots failed to keep an eye on the pertinent borders in the region, so while Russia’s aircraft never technically violated Estonian airspace, the Spanish fighters deployed to ensure that found themselves instead violating the airspace of nearby Finland. Finland, while often friendly to NATO efforts, is not a member of the alliance.
Now, Spanish pilots are again in the spotlight, as a Spanish Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon accidentally fired a live AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) over Estonia only about 31 miles from the Russian border on Tuesday. That pilot was accompanied by another Spanish Typhoon as well as two French Mirage 2000 fighters. There are currently conflicting reports as to whether the four jets were participating in a scheduled training exercise or if it was is commonly known as a “quick reaction alert drill.” These drills approximate aggressive acts being taken by nearby opponents like Russia, and often include aircraft being scrambled with live ammunition, suggesting the latter may have been the case.
Immediately following the accidental firing of the missile, which was oriented North, the Spanish jets returned to the base they’ve been operating out of in Lithuania. The missile, which has a self-destruct function intended to prevent live ordnance from reaching the ground, has not been located and no officials have been able to confirm its destruction. A search is ongoing for the missile or its debris.
As the second highly publicized incident in the past year involving Spanish pilots, it’s likely that there will be some tense conversations ongoing between NATO officials in the days to come, though Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas has already gone on record as saying the air policing effort from NATO is “a very important and necessary part” of his nation’s defense, suggesting that despite these embarrassing setbacks, Estonia would still rather have NATO’s military might in the skies above their heads.
Featured image: During the Atlas-18 bilateral exercise three Spanish Air Force Eurofighters fly in formatgion| Spanish Air Force, via Flickr
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