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2020.01.16 14:16

To sway Trump on NATO importance, Baltic air policing shows capabilities

LRT.lt2020.01.16 14:16

After US President Donald Trump crticised NATO's importance, air force commanders hope to demonstrate Allies' contribution to collective defence.

Established in 2004, NATO planes in the Baltic air policing mission over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which lack fighter jets of their own, routinely intercept Russian aircraft flying to the Kaliningrad exclave with their transponders turned off and without a pre-filed flight plan.

“They are present more or less every day,” German air force Lieutenant General Klaus Habersetzer, responsible for NATO’s northern European air policing command, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Read more: Russian drills force NATO to scramble jets in Baltics

To identify and intercept Russian jets, NATO planes close in at speeds of up to 900 kilometres per hour, which was demonstrated to journalists aboard a Belgian air force plane enroute to Lithuania.

After Trump’s NATO criticism, commanders hope such displays can showcase how allies are helping protect the continent, according to Reuters,

In August 2019, NATO accused Russian air force of committing unsafe maneuvers when a pair of Spanish jets intercepted Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu’s plane and escorting jets flying over the Baltics without a flight plan and with their transponders switched off.

The frequency of violations of Baltic airspace has fallen, according to Reuters, and NATO has recently reduced the number of fighters jets on stand-by from 13 during Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, to eight today.

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet and is considered a ballistic missile and air-defence bastion by NATO commanders.

In September last year, US Air Forces in Europe Commander Jeff Harrigian said the US had a plan how to take down Kaliningrad’s air defence system, according to Breaking Defense.

“If we have to go in there to take down, for instance, the Kaliningrad IADS [Integrated Air Defense System], let there be no doubt we have a plan to go after that,” he told reporters during the 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in the US.

The statement was crticised by the Russian Foreign Ministry. "Firstly, we consider this a threat. Secondly, we consider such statements to be absolutely irresponsible," said Russian MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Read more: Russia deploys additional air defences in Kaliningrad