On Monday the North Atlantic Council announced that it will begin operating airborne early-warning flights in response to the situation in Ukraine, where pro-Russian forces are largely in control of Crimea. NATO will fly Boeing E-3 Awacs airborne early-warning aircraft in the airspace of member states Poland and Romania, which both border Ukraine. The flights are intended to “enhance the alliance’s situational awareness” of events in Ukraine.
The flights will be undertaken by aircraft of the multinational NAEWF (NATO airborne early-warning force) E-3A component flying from Geilenkirchen in Germany, and the associated Royal Air Force E-3D Sentry component based at RAF Waddington in the UK. Between them they will fly a daily line tasking over Romania, and a tasking over Poland every other day.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has responded to the crisis with a number of deployments symbolic of its desire to reassure NATO allies that it will respond if member states are threatened. The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush was deployed to the Aegean Sea while on its way to Middle East waters, while the 48th Fighter Wing, normally based at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, last week sent a Boeing KC-135 tanker and six more F-15C Eagles to the standing NATO air defense detachment at Siauliai-Zokniai in Lithuania. This permanent detachment provides quick-reaction air defense cover for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and recently notched its 10th anniversary. It is normally manned by four aircraft on rotation from NATO members. The U.S. is also sending 12 F-16 fighters to Lask air base in Poland next week for a joint exercise with local forces. This exercise was originally to have involved only transport aircraft, but its remit has been expanded to include fighters in answer to a request from Poland inspired by the troubles in Ukraine.
In Ukraine itself the air force has reportedly been standing armed air defense alert with Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, most likely at Mirgorod air base in central Ukraine. In Crimea, the principal Ukrainian fighter base at Belbek near Sevastopol has been surrounded by pro-Russian forces since a standoff last week, although it is understood that Ukrainian troops remain to guard weapons storage facilities. The base houses the 240th tactical aviation brigade with 45 of Ukraine’s 80 MiG-29 fighters, and four Aero L-39 trainers. However, it is understood that just four of the MiGs and one of the L-39s are operational.