NATO’s Joint Air Mission

By Stefan DeGraef Posted 20 February 2015

When the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, they looked to the West for economic and military support. That support started in earnest in March 2004 when they became members of the European Union and NATO.

With no real air defense assets of their own, the Baltic States turned to their new NATO partners to help defend their airspace. NATO fighter aircraft and pilots soon began three-month rotational deployments to Lithuania's First Air Base in Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport, near the northern city of Šiauliai.

This vast base, one of the largest in the former Soviet Union, was suitable, but still had to be prepared for NATO aircraft. Its main runway and taxiways were resurfaced, and four new aircraft shelters were constructed. More recently, a fully equipped mission building was added to better accommodate visiting aircrews and ground technicians.

Belgium was the first country to be assigned the new NATO mission. With less than a week’s notice, the Belgian Armed Forces Air Component organized and successfully deployed fifty personnel and four F-16s from Kleine Brogel AB to Šiauliai. During their stay, the aircraft were on alert twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week. The Belgians launched more than 100 missions.

More recent events in nearby Ukraine, including the Russian annexation of Crimea and uprisings by Russian-speaking minorities in Eastern Ukraine, have drawn extra attention to the region and to the Baltic Air Policing mission, which now consists of four-month rotations.

BAP-36: F-16s From Portuguese Air Force

The thirty-sixth NATO deployment to secure air space over the Baltic States began on 1 September 2014 when four F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters of the Portuguese Air Force, or Força Aérea Portuguesa, landed at Šiauliai. The F-16s came from Esquadra 201 Falcoes (Falcons) and Esquadra 301 Jaguares, (Jaguars) at Monte Real AB in Portugal. The deployment ended in January 2015.

Portugal served as the lead nation for the contingent, called BAP-36 for Baltic Air Policing No. 36. Portuguese F-16s were joined at Šiauliai by four CF-18 Hornets from the Royal Canadian Air Force. These aircraft and associated personnel relieved a force consisting of four MiG-29 Fulcrums from the Polish Air Force and four Typhoons from the Royal Air Force.

The 2014/2015 deployment to Šiauliai was the second for Portugal, having previously deployed in November 2007. During the four-month BAP-36, pilots rotated in and out of Lithuania from Portugal. They included some pilots who were relatively new to the F-16 and pilots who had already seen operational NATO air policing tours, including a previous one in Lithuania. All participants had to pass minimum reaction-time training before being allowed to take part in the operation.

Ground personnel and support hardware were airlifted from Portugal by crews flying a FAP C-130H Hercules and Lithuanian C-27J Spartan aircraft. Air operations began with all first-time BAP pilots flying familiarization flights to become comfortable with the Baltic operational area.

BAP Operations

Two F-16 pilots remain on alert status at all times during the deployment. Aircraft are ready to scramble on a fifteen-minute notice. The aircraft typically fly with two heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and two radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAMs. Target identification is provided by intake-mounted Litening II targeting pods. Pilots make use of the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System during daytime quick reaction operations and shift to helmets equipped with night vision goggles for night missions.

Pilots who are not on alert status typically fly training missions up to twice a day with the remaining two F-16s.  These missions involve testing reaction times and practicing various air policing and superiority tactics. The regular takeoffs, landings, and air presence also underscore the NATO commitment to the Baltic population.

Baltic air assets are thrown into the mix with Baltic military air controllers for many of the BAP training missions. Lithuanian C-27J Spartan and Let L-410 light transport aircraft, Estonia and /Lithuanian Air Force L-39 Albatross-jet trainers take part in this training, which can also involve Lithuanian Air Force Mi-8 Hip helicopters. These aircraft often act as adversaries and deliberately alter their initial flight plan in flight or lose communication with air traffic control. Once this anomaly detected, the military air traffic controller will scramble alert aircraft to identify the intruding aircraft or helicopters.

If a real-world intrusion should occur during one of these training flights, airborne F-16s can be rerouted and guided to their targets. After intercepting and identifying the potential intruders, BAP pilots implement their rules of engagement and either escort the intercepted aircraft back to their intended flightplan or force them to land at a specific airport for further handling and investigation.

The Portuguese F-16 contingent was replaced in January by Eurofighters of the Italian Aeronautica Militare and MiG-29 Fulcrums of the Polish Air Force.

Stefan DeGraef is an aviation writer based in Belgium.