The US military has increased its presence in the Baltics in response to the crisis in Ukraine, having deployed jets now in Britain – six F-15 fighters and one KC-135 re-fueler – to Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania.
The US already has four F-15s in Lithuania as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing rotation – jets that fly patrols and respond to airspace violations in the Baltics.
The Baltic Air Policing mission was established in 2004 to assist Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who have no airborne air defence capability of their own, and was extended indefinitely in February 2012. The aim of the mission is to prevent unauthorised incursion into the airspace of the Baltic states and its most frequent duty is intercepting Russian aircraft and escorting them from the area. To the west of the Baltic states’ airspace is an air corridor often used by aircraft travelling to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad from territorial Russia.
A typical mission day includes two or three planned flights (known as TANGO scrambles) and responding to incidents as they occur.
The NATO air patrols rotate between NATO members in six-month intervals and include military aircraft from the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Belgium, Poland, Romania, Turkey and the Czech Republic.
While testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the US was reaffirming its commitment to allies in Central and Eastern Europe, some of whom spent decades in the last century under Soviet domination. European countries are grappling with their own response to the Ukraine crisis, fearful about moves reminiscent of Russia’s Cold War policy of regional hegemony.
Cover photo: US F-15 taking off from RAF Lakenheath in the UK, flying to Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania.