On Wednesday, the United States Air Force assumed control of the ongoing NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission from the Polish Air Force in a handover ceremony that took place at Šiauliai Air Base, in Lithuania. American forces will be joined by about 140 Airmen and seven F-15C Eagles deployed to Lithuania from the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.
“I’m excited as a NATO air chief and I’m excited as a U.S. citizen to welcome the 493rd from the 48th Fighter Wing, an F-15C squadron, to serve the next rotation of Baltic air policing,” said Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of NATO Allied Air Command and U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
“It is the U.S.’s fifth opportunity to rotate and serve the region, and I know that all of our maintainers, operators, mission supporters and that beautiful F-15C will do whatever it takes over the next 120 days to protect the beautiful sovereign skies above Lithuania.”
The United States also sent additional aircraft and personnel to police the skies about the Baltic region earlier this week. The skies above Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia are of consistent concern to NATO leaders, who recognize the Baltic nations as perhaps the most vulnerable to a Russian offensive. Next month, Russia will be sending tens of thousands of troops, along with heavy equipment already en route, to Belarus, where the allied nations are planning a massive joint military exercise called Zapad ’17. U.S. officials are expecting more than 90,000 troops to amass near the border of Russian-friendly, and NATO-defended, territory.
“We are reinforcing the air police mission for the period (of Zapad). And we are glad to also have additional land troops here,” Lithuanian Deputy Defense Minister Vytautas Umbrasas told reporters at Siauliai. In addition to three more F-15s than are normally present bolstering the air policing effort, 600 extra U.S. Airborne troops have also been deployed to the region in preparation for the Russian exercise. “This is very helpful in a situation like this,” he said.
NATO jets serving as part of the Baltic air policing effort have intercepted Russian military jets a number of times in recent months, including one situation earlier this month that saw two Spanish F-18 fighter jets scrambled to escort two Russian MiG-31 fighter jets and an AN-26 transport plane.
“No threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east,” American Vice President Mike Pence said during an appearance with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania last month.
“Under President Donald Trump, the United States of America rejects any attempt to use force, threats, intimidation, or malign influence in the Baltic States or against any of our treaty allies,” he added.
Despite serious concerns levied by U.S. and Baltic officials, the Air Force intends to conduct operations as usual high above the Baltic nations throughout the Zapad exercises. In fact, Air Force General Tod Wolters even claimed the additional aircraft were there to support an increase in training opportunities, rather than as an increased presence intended to bolster NATO defenses in the face of the scheduled drills.
“The air policing mission will remain as it has been. And the purpose of the air policing mission is to protect the sovereign skies of the three Baltic nations,” said Wolters, who did not mention Russia at all in his statement.
Nonetheless, Lithuania has made it clear that they value the American presence, as well as NATO’s commitment to their defense.
“We know that all of NATO stands alongside us in defense of our shared values and principles,” said Vytautas Umbrasas, Lithuania’s vice defense minister.
“I speak on behalf of every U.S. airman here, when I say that it is our honor to protect and defend the sovereignty of the Baltic borders,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Cody Blake, 493rd EFS detachment commander.
Images courtesy of the Department of Defense