NATO Strengthens Force in the East

 - April 30, 2014, 8:08 AM
Armed with MICA EM and IR missiles, one of four French Rafales arrives at Malbork airfield in Poland on April 28 to conduct air-defense training exercises (Photo: French MOD)

As part of enhanced collective measures agreed to by member countries in April, NATO has deployed more fighters to eastern Europe in response to the continuing crisis in Ukraine. France and Canada have dispatched aircraft this week, while a new NATO multinational team is taking over the enhanced air defense detachment in the Baltic republics.

As part of the initial response to events in Ukraine, 12 U.S. Air Force F-16s were dispatched to Lask in Poland for exercises in March. In April another group of U.S. F-16s was deployed to Campia Turzii air base in Romania, also to conduct planned exercises. On April 29 six Boeing CF-18 Hornets from the Canadian Armed Forces began deployment to Romania, one day after four French Dassault Rafales were deployed from their base at Saint-Dizier to Malbork in Poland, home to the MiG-29s of Poland’s 41st tactical squadron.

On an operational level the aims of these detachments are to exercise with local forces to enhance their readiness. However, the deployments also send clear political messages, not only to Moscow but also to reassure host nations as to NATO’s defensive resolve. Other NATO members have pledged support to the effort, including the Czech Republic, which has offered four Saab Gripen fighters should they be requested.

Change is also taking place at NATO’s air defense detachment that covers the Baltic states. For most of its 10-year existence the detachment has been manned by four fighters deployed on a four-month roulement basis to Siauliai air base in Lithuania from a succession of NATO member countries. During the current U.S. tenure the number of fighters was increased to 10 F-15Cs in response to events in Ukraine.

On May 2 Poland takes over responsibility for the Baltic detachment, and has deployed four Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters to Siauliai. To maintain the enhanced nature of the Baltic force, the UK has also sent four Eurofighter Typhoons from RAF Coningsby to the Lithuanian base. In addition, Denmark has provided four F-16s, but they will operate from Amari in Estonia, the first time NATO has used that location. Throughout the crisis Boeing E-3 Awacs radar platforms from France, the UK and NATO’s multinational force have been flying routine patrols in Polish and Romanian airspace.

Russia itself has also built up air forces in the region, centered on air bases close to Ukraine’s eastern border. The previously dormant Buturlinovka air base, some 90 miles from the border, has been reactivated to house Su-27 Flanker fighters and MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors. Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers have also been deployed to the base, and an aircraft of this type repeatedly flew low over the destroyer USS Donald Cook in mid-April as the vessel sailed the Black Sea. Beriev A-50 Mainstay airborne early-warning systems have also been dispatched to the region, while a large helicopter force has been assembled. That force includes Kamov Ka-52 Alligators, which were reported to have been involved in the initial Russian occupation of Crimea, and which have been patrolling the border with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s aircraft have also been active, including low-level shows of force by MiG-29s and Su-27s over pro-Russian forces in the east of the country. Mil Mi-8/17 Hip helicopters have been used for troop transport in recent special-forces operations against groups that have seized towns and established checkpoints.

During one of these operations, pro-Russian forces claimed the first aircraft victim of the conflict. An Mi-8 was reportedly shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade while taking off from Kramatorsk airfield. The helicopter was apparently the machine that had been used the day before to drop leaflets over the contested town of Slovyansk.