Baltic Air Policing Mission, Siauliai, Lithuania
Photo Report

    Baltic Air Policing Mission, Siauliai, Lithuania

    By Frank Grealish | 9th & 10th February 2015 | Siauliai, Lithuania
    Baltic Air Policing Mission, Siauliai, Lithuania
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    From 1 January 2015 until 30 April 2015, as part of the 37th Rotation of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, four Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons, supported by four Polish Air Force Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrums, were deployed to Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, IrishAirPics reports from Siauliai on this important NATO mission.

    The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a seaport city between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, is one of the reasons that the Baltic Air Policing Mission exists. Russian military flights to and from the enclave, along with other military flights over the Baltic Sea, are the main trade for the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) aircraft deployed as part of the Policing Mission.

    NATO Mission

    Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" - Typical trade for NATO intercepts

    A key role of NATO in peacetime is that of Air Policing. As part of such missions, Allied fighter jets patrol the airspace of Allies who do not have fighter jets of their own, these jets operate on a 24/7 QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) basis.

    Since March 2004, when the Baltic States joined NATO, the task of policing the airspace of the Baltic States was conducted on a three-month rotation from Lithuania's First Air Base at Siauliai, however rotations were later changed to a four-month rotation basis. Usual deployments consist of four fighter aircraft from each nation with between 50 and 100 support personnel, although some deployments have consisted of more aircraft.

    The Baltic Air Policing Mission is a collective peacetime mission that enables NATO to detect, track and identify all violations and infringements of its airspace and to take appropriate action. This involves patrolling the airspace of the Baltic region, where NATO aircraft have intercepted and escorted Russian aircraft that violate Allied airspace.

    Starting in May 2014, due to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, NATO has been taking extra reassurance measures for its Allies. Among these is the boosting of NATO's air policing missions. NATO expanded the Baltic Air Policing Mission to Amari Air Base in Estonia and Malbork Air Base in Poland. 16 nations have so far deployed assets in support of the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission.

    These scrambles, known as Alpha (Active) scrambles, intercept and identify any aircraft that flies into Allied airspace without identification or communication with air traffic control, thus posing a potential threat to other aircraft in the vicinity. In recent years the interception of Russian military flights has multiplied, at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West are at their highest point since the end of the Cold War.

    Italian Detachment

    Italian Detachment Commander, Col. Marco Bertoli

    The Italian detachment, commanded by Col. Marco Bertoli, consisted of aircraft and personnel from three units: 4 Stormo, 36 Stormo and 37 Stormo. Flying the Eurofighter Typhoon, this is the first time Italy has taken part in the Baltic Air Policing Mission, and this deployment makes Italy the first NATO ally to participate in all of NATO's Air Policing Missions conducted over Albania, Slovenia, Iceland and the Baltic States.

    To illustrate how quickly things can happen this close to Russia, while visiting with the Italian detachment, they carried out a Tango (Training) scramble. However this training scramble quickly turned into an Alpha mission as the airborne aircraft were diverted to intercept a Russian Air Force Ilyushin Il-20 Coot ELINT (Electronic Signals Intelligence) flying in international airspace near the borders of the Baltic States on its way to Kaliningrad. The aircraft was flying according to a pre-filed flight plan and maintaining radio communication with Air Traffic Control, but was not using its transponder.

    When asked about typical scramble, Col. Bertoli said "The alarm goes off, our pilots and technicians go to the jets, and usually we get airborne in a very quick manner. Once airborne the pilot receives all the information about the tactical action he has to do and then he proceeds to intercept and visually identify the target that he has to intercept." When asked how he felt about having just carried out a live intercept, he said "it's a great feeling because you feel that what you have done is very helpful to maintain NATO airspace integrity and it's very important for the people of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia"

    Polish Detachment

    Polish Detachment personnel

    The Polish detachment, commanded by Lt. Col. Piotr Iwaszko, is provided by 1. Eskadra Lotnictwa Taktycznego (1.elt), and the unit are flying Mikoyan Gurevich Mig-29 Fulcrums. All the unit aircraft have recently been upgraded in Bydgoszcz by WZL-2 (Wojskowe Zakłady Lotnicze nr 2) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

    All of the 1.elt aircraft (13 MiG-29A single-seaters and three MiG-29UBs two-seaters) were upgraded, the last of which were returned to active duty in November 2014. The upgrade program includes a new multi-function colour display, new mission computer, INS/GPS navigation, up-front control panel, digital video recorder & databus, and a Rockwell Collins RT-8200 UHF/VHF radio.

    Poland has been very active with their support of the Baltic Air Policing Mission, this deployment, PKW ORLIK 6 (Polski Kontyngent Wojskowy ORLIK 6 / Polish Military Contingent ORLIK 6), is, as the number suggests, their sixth deployment.

    Shock Waves

    AFP video report

    Russia's annexation of Crimea, combined with the war in Ukraine, has sent shock waves through Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all fear a Russian attack. Lithuania is particularly fearful of a Russian invasion, so much so that they have decided recently to re-introduce mandatory military conscription.The Baltic Air Policing Mission is vital for NATO as it demonstrates to Russia the organisation's resolve to protect the Baltic States, as well as reassuring the local people that help and support, should it ever be needed, is close at hand.

    A big Thank You goes to:
    The Lithuanian Air Force Public Relations Officer Captain Ieva Gulbiniene and all the Lithuanian Air Force pilots and crew who organised the excellent media facilities at Siauliai Air Base as well as providing the C-27J Spartan aircraft for the air to air photo mission.

    A big thank you also goes to the commanders and crew of both the Italian and Polish detachments, whose help and patience, not to mention skilful flying, made this visit such a success.

    Thank you all.