NATO Airpower Steps Up Response to Ukraine Crisis

 - May 12, 2022, 6:23 AM
Lockheed Martin F-35As of the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, are seen shortly after their arrival at Spangdahlem air base in Germany in early May. They replaced the F-35 detachment from the 388th FW, which had been contributing to NATO’s air defense activities. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

In response to the attempted Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization immediately activated its defense plans. As well as deploying troops into eastern Europe, NATO activated a Joint Forces Air Component (JFAC) within Allied Air Command at Ramstein air base in Germany. The existing Combined Air Operations Centers in Uedem, Germany, and Torrejón, Spain, and the Deployable Command and Control Center at Poggio Renatico, Italy, deployed personnel to staff the JFAC.

NATO has now released some details of its ongoing air activities that, combined with other sources, provide an overview of what missions the member states' air arms are performing in connection with the war in Ukraine. The most important of these is a significant increase in defensive combat air patrols (CAPs).

In recent years, as tensions with Russia have grown, NATO triggered its Expanded Air Policing operation, which has seen additional fighter deployments to bolster defenses in eastern Europe. Since the start of the war these have increased dramatically, as has the tempo of operations. NATO now classifies these operations as Enhanced Vigilance Activities.

“Several dozen fighter jets are on alert at any time to respond to possible airspace violations and to deter aggression,” said Headquarters Allied Air Command Chief of Staff, Major General Jörg Lebert. “Allied Air Command integrates the Allied air forces' fighters, air-to-air refueling, and transport aircraft as well as Allied and NATO airborne warning and control (AWACS) platforms into the standing arrangements to safeguard the skies above the Allies.” The NATO release notes that around 30 surveillance and fighter aircraft are airborne at any one time.

Currently the alliance operates CAPs in six principal areas. In the north, the two air policing detachments in the Baltic states—at Amari in Estonia and Siauliai in Lithuania—patrol the eastern borders of the Baltic republics with Russia and Belarus, and also patrol over the Baltic Sea, with particular emphasis on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The Amari detachment hosts Belgian F-16s and French Mirage 2000s, while Siauliai is the base for Spanish F/A-18s and Czech Gripens, with Polish fighters also deployed. The U.S. Marine Corps also operates a TPS-80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar to assist air defense efforts.

Poland’s long border with Belarus and Ukraine is defended by Poland’s own F-16s and MiG-29s, assisted by U.S. fighters, including F-35As flying from Spangdahlem in Germany. Slovakia and Hungary patrol their own borders with Ukraine with MiG-29s and Gripens, Hungary being aided by F/A-18s flying from a U.S. Navy carrier sailing in the Adriatic. U.S. fighters and British Typhoons augment Romanian F-16s in protecting their airspace. Finally, Bulgaria’s air defenses are bolstered by Dutch F-16s.

Supporting these enhanced vigilance activities is an armada of tankers. U.S. Air Force KC-135s and KC-10s are flying from RAF Mildenhall in the UK and several German bases. Boeing KC-46As were recently deployed to Germany, giving the U.S. Air Force’s latest tanker its first taste of operational duty. Airbus A330 MRTTs are heavily utilized, with RAF Voyagers flying from Brize Norton (UK) and Akrotiri (Cyprus), while those of NATO’s own Multinational MRTT Fleet are operating from their bases at Eindhoven (Netherlands) and Köln-Bonn (Germany). French A330s have been involved, too, as have Italian Boeing KC-767s and Turkish KC-135s, while A400Ms and USMC KC-130Js have also provided tanker capability on occasion.

Airborne early warning is another important aspect of the air defense operations, with orbits being undertaken over Poland and Romania. They are mostly flown by NATO E-3 Sentries operating from Geilenkirchen (Germany), Preveza (Greece) and Konya (Turkey). Italy’s Gulfstream E-550 AEW platforms have also been employed over Romania. British and U.S. P-8A Poseidons operate on maritime surveillance missions, including those over the Black Sea.

Reconnaissance is another important aspect of the NATO air effort, providing useful intelligence on Russian military capabilities and processes, and also information to aid Ukrainian defenses. U.S. aircraft have naturally dominated these efforts, with regular U-2S flights from Fairford (England), and presumably from Akrotiri as well. Their high-altitude missions are augmented by USAF RQ-4B Global Hawks and occasionally the NATO RQ-4D Phoenix, both operating from Sigonella in Sicily. These high-flyers mostly maintain long-endurance orbits over the Black Sea, but on occasion reach up along the Ukrainian border into Poland. MQ-9A Reapers have also been employed on border patrols.

A major campaign of signals intelligence (Sigint) flights has been conducted, with two principal areas of operation: along the Polish borders with Kaliningrad, Belarus and Ukraine; and along the Romanian borders with Moldova and Ukraine. The workhorse of these missions is the UK/U.S. RC-135W Rivet Joint fleet flying from England (Mildenhall and Waddington) and Crete (Souda Bay). RAF Rivet Joint missions have occasionally reached out into the eastern Black Sea to monitor Russian activities.

Other Sigint aircraft that have been active include U.S. Army RC-12Ks that monitor Belarus and Kaliningrad from their base at Siauliai, and U.S. Navy EP-3Es flying in Romanian airspace from Souda Bay. The specialist RC-135U Combat Sent has made a number of appearances, although mostly targeting Kaliningrad. France conducts Sigint missions, mainly in Romanian airspace, with the C-160G Gabriel and King Air 350 ALSR. Following a brief period back in the U.S., the Leidos Artemis Challenger has returned to Constanta in Romania to resume its patrols. Despite not being a NATO member, Sweden has been contributing regular patrols over eastern Poland with a Sigint-configured Gulfstream IV.

One other notable platform is the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint STARS battlefield surveillance aircraft, which operates regular missions from Ramstein. The aircraft typically flies an orbit over southeast Poland, with its powerful radar being used to detect and plot military vehicle movements in Belarus and Ukraine.

In addition to this activity, NATO transport aircraft—together with contracted commercial freighters—have been active not only on supplying the deployed NATO forces, but also ferrying supplies and equipment to aid Ukraine. The airfield at Rzeszow in southeast Poland has been the focus of these operations.

In the future the alliance's defensive shield may expand, particularly if Finland and Sweden join NATO, as appears to be imminently likely. At the same time, assets from both nations would be available to join the deployment roster to provide additional defensive capacity. Both countries became members of NATO's Partnership for Peace in May 1994, their air assets are NATO-compatible, and their forces have regularly operated with NATO nations to develop and practise interoperability.