Integration from on High
Membership of Nato results in immediate airspace protection
The noise is inhuman,” warns the press officer, Lieutenant Ričardas Uzelka, as he approaches the landing strip.
Indeed, even earplugs provide little protection from the deafening roar made by the four F-16 fighter jets now calmly parked in an orderly row, just minutes after having finished a flight that saw them screech through the sky at speeds over twice that of a standard Boeing passenger aircraft.
As intense as the noise from these powerful jet engines may be, it has become a tangible symbol of security in the Baltic states: a harbinger of a new era of peace and cooperation that the region has longed for for centuries.
The F-16s stationed at Šiauliai Air Base in northwest Lithuania are part of Nato’s Alliance-wide Nato Integrated Extended Air Defence System (Natineads), which ensures that the airspace of all members remains safe from intruders.
Since its historic accession to Nato on 29 March, Lithuania has played host to an international team of military staff that monitors the region’s airspace around the clock. But far from taking for granted the extraordinary turn of events that has brought these spectacular flying machines to this corner of Europe, Lithuanians are well aware of the good fortune that has descended upon them from above.
A final challenge
For Lithuanian diplomats and military commanders, Nato accession has been anything but a chance event.
Shortly after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union, it became one of the first post-communist states to seek entry into the Alliance, a high hope for a government that had not had an independent army for almost 50 years.
In addition to the challenge of building its armed forces from scratch, Lithuania had to reshape what scraps of military it had inherited from the Soviet Union into an efficient, modern, Western-style organisation that could stand on an equal footing with longstanding Nato members. And as if these obstacles weren’t daunting enough, the country’s diplomatic envoys had to fight a battle on two fronts, convincing partners in the West of their competence, while quelling Eastern attempts to thwart the process of military integration.
Yet there could have been no more dramatic ending to the hard-won struggle for full and equal status in the world’s most powerful military bloc.
As the last few months before the membership deadline closed, Nato commanders and their soon-to-be colleagues in the Baltic states were faced with a quandary. According to Nato standards, the Alliance members’ fighter aircraft have to be placed on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, meaning that fighter jets would be able to scramble on as little as 15 minutes’ notice to intercept any suspicious aircraft in a member state’s airspace.
While the air forces of large and militarily powerful members required little more than a minor tweaking of regulations to comply with the new mandate, others were left unable to cope. Meanwhile, many of the accession states, including Lithuania, still possessed an air force lacking the necessary equipment to stage QRAs, rendering them doomed to non-compliance.
“There were many unknown factors, right up until the end,” said Colonel Edvardas Ma˛eikis, commander of the Lithuanian Air Force.
Yet it was under these uncertain circumstances that Nato leadership made the bold decision little more than a month before the accession deadline to provide full rapid air response protection to all member states. Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, would be provided with full air protection.
“Nato is a large organisation with many different voices,” said Ma˛eikis. “But in spite of that, the command came to this decision very quickly in the end, something that everybody was happy with.”
In the case of the Baltic nations, this meant an unprecedented reversal of fate. The same area that little more than a decade ago was patrolled by Soviet MiG fighters would soon become open skies for Nato pilots.
Hours before Lithuania was set to join the Alliance, the issue of air patrolling was still undecided; until the government of Belgium answered Nato’s call for assistance to its newest members.
At noon on 29 March, the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhof-stadt, signed an order authorising four of his country’s F-16s to fly to Lithuania. Within hours, the planes’ screaming engines were heard above Šiauliai Air Base.
Major George Franchomme, commander of the Baltic air policing mission, said that Belgium’s decision to volunteer as the lead country in the operation was based on a simple formula of providing help where it was needed.
“A request was sent out to different Nato nations for the mission,” he said. “Belgium was one of the first nations to respond, and we were chosen because we said we could be ready in such a short time.”
Franchomme, a pilot who routinely flies the F-16s, said that his time in Lithuania has been unlike most international missions of which he has been a part.
“It’s a new country in Nato. I was invited to a ceremony for EU enlargement on 1 May as well. You can see it’s very exciting, especially on the Lithuanian side.”
As of mid-May, there were 43 Belgian air force officers on duty at Šiauliai Air Base, constantly on call to defend the airspace of all three Baltic states. Their primary obligation is to launch a QRA in the event of an unidentified aircraft penetrating the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia.
Staging a QRA is a delicate operation involving military personnel in several locations. The mission’s eyes are located at the Regional Air Surveillance Coordination Centre (RASCC), a facility next to Kaunas’ Karmėlava Airport that pieces together radar data to create a comprehensive realtime picture of the airspace over the Baltic states. This picture is then sent to a Nato Combined Air Operations Centre in Germany where it is analysed.
In the event that Nato experts in Germany observe an irregularity, such as a stray civilian or military aircraft flying without identification, they order two of Šiauliai Air Base’s F-16s to take to the air to make a visual identification. While in the air, the planes are under the direction of officers at Karmėlava, who guide the fighters to the exact location where the errant craft is detected. Following visual identification, the Combined Air Operations Centre decides on further action, if necessary.
“Some civilian flights stray off course, some get lost, some have trouble with their radios and can’t respond to ground control,” explained Lieutenant Gregory Bogaerts of the Belgian Air Component’s Information Office. “In these cases, the jets are scrambled to make a visual identification of the aircraft.”
The air policing mission staged its first QRA on June 2, when an unusually low-flying aircraft was detected dangerously close to Estonian airspace near the Russian border.
Lieutenant Colonel Kjetil Hjelset of the Royal Norwegian Air Force is chief of operations at the Karmėlava surveillance unit. Hjelset, who was commanding the unit when the QRA was ordered, said the event had the feel of a routine exercise.
While June’s QRA ended without incident, observers took note that the plans which had been meticulously laid for the successful completion of such an operation went off with military precision.
The defence minister, Linas Linkevičius, believes that aside from the obvious security advantages of having the air policing mission and its QRAs based in Lithuania, these F-16s and their pilots represent more than just air protection.
“It’s tangible evidence of the fact that the obligations of Nato are more than just words,” he said. “Politically, it’s a sign that we have the full backing of our fellow Nato members; and practically, it’s a sign that the commitments that come with Nato aren’t empty promises.
“When on 29 March, at 4.46pm, Nato planes entered the country’s airspace it was a sure sign that we are under the Nato shield.”
But while the F-16s are the most visible component of Nato’s special Baltic air policing mission, they are only the pinnacle of a whole range of behind-the-scenes tasks being expertly executed closer to the ground.
When Belgium’s planes landed at Šiauliai Air Base, they were greeted by a waiting crew of international specialists sent to Lithuania to provide support in the mission.
On 28 March, a contingent of 24 personnel from the Danish armed forces arrived at Šiauliai Air Base and Riga Airport in Latvia. Since that time, they have maintained command of refuelling, fire and rescue, and ground support operations.
One of the most important services provided by the Danish contingent at Šiauliai Air Base is a process called “sweeping”, or removing small debris from the runway before take-off and landing.
While it may appear like a humble activity, sweeping is actually a matter of flight safety to pilots of F-16 aircraft. The planes’ unbearable noise is made by the massive air intake at the front of the aircraft, which acts like a tremendous vacuum cleaner, sucking up air for the engines.
Thus, any small particle on or near the runway could get drawn in with the forceful current produced by the air intake, with dire consequences for the plane and pilot.
In addition to the Danes, an international team of officers from Norway, Great Britain, Belgium and the three Baltic states man the surveillance operations at Karmėlava.
Splitting their time between a permanent underground bunker and the ultra-modern mobile surveillance equipment brought to the site from Norway, officers here keep a constant watchful eye on the skies above Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
While the three Baltic nations have maintained collective air surveillance since 2000, this is the first time that the information collected and analysed at Karmėlava has been backed up by such powerful guns.
Prior to the arrival of the F-16s, Lithuania had no choice but to intercept suspicious aircraft with its L-39 Albatross planes.
“It’s like comparing a bicycle to a Porsche,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jurij Parfenčik, chief of staff at the Lithuanian Air Force’s Air Surveillance and Control Command.
The international flavour of operations at the surveillance site is punctuated by the unique period of time in which these officers from many nations have come together for the common cause of Nato security
While Lieutenant Colonel John Reisersolmoen, who heads up the aircraft control unit, has participated in a number of international missions, he said that working in Lithuania at such a unique time in the country’s military history was especially rewarding.
“We were there at the flag-raising ceremony the day that Lithuania joined Nato,” he recounted. “I know that there were a lot of people in my detachment who had a little lump in their throats at that moment; the same for the Lithuanians. It was a special moment.”
An unlikely setting
To be certain, the infrastructure at Šiauliai Air Base is an epoch away from what Nato officers who have spent their careers west of the former Iron Curtain are acclimated to.
This strategically located airport was established in independent Lithuania between the two world wars.
Šiauliai Air Base became one of the Soviet Union’s largest military air force bases in the 1980s, when gargantuan parallel runways, almost four kilometres in length each, were constructed.
Šiauliai Air Base’s strategic location, occupying 471 hectares just a few kilometres outside the city of Šiauliai, put it near the westernmost frontier of the Soviet empire, making it one of the communist regime’s closest contact points with the West.
“When the air base was at its most active, there used to be a fighter jet or a cargo plane landing or taking off here every three or four minutes,” said Uzelka.
After Lithuania declared independence and the Russian military withdrew from its former Baltic satellite in 1993, the country’s relatively miniscule air force had little need for such a behemoth facility.
While the airfield was redesigned for civilian cargo operations in 1997, much of the over seven kilometres of runway at the site has been left untouched, but not to the detriment of military air operations.
“The runway is incredibly long. We use only about 2,000 metres of it for the F-16s,” said Bogaerts.
Moreover, proof of Šiauliai Air Base’s potential, in spite of its eccentrically grandiose dimensions, can be found in the fact that it was chosen over all other air facilities in the region to host the Nato mission.
“A team of Nato experts visited all the airports in the Baltic states,” Ma˛eikis said. “Šiauliai Air Base was chosen because it was specially equipped for military operations and wouldn’t conflict with civilian aviation. Imagine the chaos and confusion if F-16s had to share a runway with small civilian aircraft at Vilnius Airport.”
With the Baltic air policing mission so far a success, Šiauliai Air Base is positioned to retain its status as the region’s centre for airborne military might.
Preliminary plans hold for the Belgians to be replaced by a group from Denmark on 1 July, and given that the Nato QRA regulation will remain in effect for the foreseeable future, chances are that foreign pilots will be using the base for quite a long time to come.
And as for Šiauliai Air Base’s distant fate, Lithuania’s military brass hope that one day it will be home to a domestic air force capable of policing its own territory with fighter jets.
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