Now, more than ever, the role that the Eurofighter is playing in protecting nations and policing behaviours across the globe is a critical capability for our customer’s armed forces.
The Baltic Patrols are just one of a number of policing duties that the Eurofighter undertakes as it protects skies around Europe, the Middle East, and even in the southern hemisphere where Eurofighters are on duty in the Falkland Islands. The British, Italian, Spanish and Germany air forces have all recently been on active deployment in the Baltic region. Here you can read more about these deployments:
High on the shoulder of Europe, a short ferry-hop from Scandinavia, nestles the proud and beautiful country of Estonia. Rich in history and generous in spirit it is a magical place to visit. It also happens to be right next door to Russia. Eurofighter WORLD’s Simon Shrouder went to Estonia to witness the work of the NATO Air Policing operations in the Baltic States. There we met with the Luftwaffe who were just coming to the end of a three-month tour which involved four Eurofighter aircraft ‘on base’ and another two on ’96 hour’ standby.
Policing operations are very much a part of the history of the Baltic region and recent events have heightened the sense of awareness of just how important it is to make clear where borders begin and where they end.
A dawn drive across the windswept plains between Estonia’s capital Tallinn, and the Amari Air Base, home to the Luftwaffe for the last 12 weeks, revealed a country that felt palpably vulnerable to the might and the whims of the nations that surround it. Close to the air base, almost hidden in the pine forest, there was a stark reminder that this had once been Russian territory. Here among the trees is an aviation graveyard, complete with tombstone tailfins and images of those who had died on mission.
Estonia is a relatively small country, with a population of just 1.3 million, a population whose ancestors have been ravaged by war on all fronts. It was only in 1988 that Estonia declared independence from the USSR. It joined NATO in 2004. Now described as a Baltic Tiger because of its improving economy, it became part of the Eurozone in 2011 and is considered to be punching well above its weight.
At the Amari Air Base there is a real sense of pride about the work that is being carried out there. NATO-approved, and recently refurbished, this is now the most modern and high capacity military air base in the Baltics. There is good reason for it. Recent world events have challenged the integrity of borders and transgressions into foreign airspace have risen dramatically.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is at the centre of operations. The task of policing the airspace of the Baltic States under NATO began in 2004. Rotational deployments typically last three months each involving 50 to 100 personnel. NATO has now decided the Eurofighter Typhoon Quick Reaction Alert capability should last at least through 2015. It’s a testament to the aircraft.
While initially, the patrols began from the Lithuanian air base of Šiauliai, latterly the Amari Air Base is taking a greater role, and in September 2014 it too, became a centre for Baltic Region Training Events. Now, after what the Commander of the Estonian Air Force, Jakk Tarien, described as a ‘breathtaking’ year, the Amari base has been scaled up to full 24/7 operational capability.
It was against this backdrop that the German Air Force began their tour of duty – a tour which since September has involved 255 sorties – a number of which have been classified as what are known as Alpha sorties. These are reactive response flights rather than scheduled policing patrols, or Tango sorties as they are known.
Commander Tarien explained that the incursions into NATO airspace were not seen as aggressive acts, but more ‘cutting a corner’ as Russian aircraft flew over the Baltic Sea from Leningrad and St Petersberg. However, he also noted though, that there had been a number of occasions where Russian bombers have been intercepted flying over Baltic.
The Commander said that in the past they had often seen fighters, transport and surveillance aircraft over the region, but never the Tu-95 – the Bear – something for which he said there was ‘no operational need’ and which was ‘a definite show of force’.
“What we do is crucial for deterrence and sending a signal letting everyone know that this area is part of NATO. Deterrence is in the head of your potential opponent and, if he believes that the rest of NATO will stand up and defend Estonia, Lativia and Lithuania, then this reduces the threat of it actually happening. We don’t want any miscalculation that Russian can get away with a bilateral conflict here and NATO will not get involved. We don’t want this to materialise.
“As for the little border violations, well if there was no NATO air policing, and if we allowed them to fly wherever they wanted, they would probably be more aggressive. It is the fact of what they are not doing that reflects the effect of what we are doing.”
With that Eurofighter WORLD was taken to the apron at the side of the Amari airstrip to see one of the two regular ‘Tango sorties’ swing into operation. Against a backdrop of grass-covered former Russian bunkers and with a flourish of cold Estonian spray, two German Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon roared into a cold Estonian morning. They were on one of the two daily regular patrols that makes it absolutely clear to everyone that NATO is alive and well.
The German Air Force Eurofighters left the Amari Air Base in January handing over the baton to the Spanish Air Force – the Italians and the British will follow with similar rotations taking place in Lithuania. As the backbone aircraft of many air forces, Eurofighter Typhoon is operation on Quick Reaction Alert and as a policing deterrent in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Its high kinetic capability and its air superiority make it the default choice of many.
Successful Spanish detachment in Estonia
It was in the deepest northern winter when the Spanish Air Force took over the lead to provide 24/7 Air Policing at Ämari Air Base in Estonia. They followed the German Eurofighter detachment featured in the last issue of Eurofighter WORLD.
To gain a deeper insight into how the Spanish detachment operates, we joined them on their tour of duty in Estonia. On board for the trip were Eurofighter CEO Alberto Gutierrez, NETMA Commercial Director General Salvador Alvarez, and 5 journalists from Spanish aviation press.
NATO Baltic Air Policing has been operational in place since 2004 at Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, and in May 2014, the Ämari Air Base in Estonia became the second Baltic location from where Eurofighters from Germany, Spain, the UK and Italy are taking on the duties on a rotational basis.
Arriving at the base, about an hour’s drive from the picturesque Estonian capital city of Tallinn, we were warmly welcomed by the Spanish chief detachment Commander Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Fernández Ambel.
In the morning briefing at the Base, the Commander underlined the importance of the mission which is led by the Spanish Air Force from January 1st – May 4th this year. It consists of immediate reassurance measures and shows Spanish solidarity with fellow NATO members.
The Spanish Detachment in Ämari is operated by 4 Eurofighter Typhoons from Morón Air Base close to Seville in the South of Spain. In total, 115 people have been deployed on the mission, covering everyone from pilots, maintenance crew and support personnel, right through to a doctor and fire rescue team. It’s a tried and tested formula which generates a proven and professional result.
The Spanish mission in Estonia provides further evidence of the reliability and the strong performance of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
During our visit, Colonel Ambel told us that the alert response time required by NATO has now been reduced from 30 minutes to 15 minutes – whatever the weather. On the subject of weather, he explained that the Spanish Eurofighters had been operating under severe conditions meaning snow and frozen tracks at temperatures down -20c. He also said that there had only been a handful of occasions, during 300 start-ups, where there had been any serviceability issues.
After the briefing, we were given a tour of the facility’s maintenance hangar. It’s the core technical centre – the place where skilled engineers and technicians ensure the aircraft are serviced and ready for rapid deployment. The feeling of a good team spirit was palpable – and the spirit of true collaboration amongst the different parties at the Base without doubt contributes to what is another successful detachment.
All of this, of course, only makes sense when the reality of what this is all about hits home. That moment comes when the fighters scramble, their twin EJ200 engines lighting up the runway as the sound of 40,000lbs of unleashed power echoes between the forest that flanks either side of the runway. It’s a defining moment. A moment of purpose. A moment of power. And it makes a statement to those that need to know.
- At the time when Eurofighter WORLD was on base the Spanish detachment reached the outstanding number of 400 flying hours in the Eurofighter Typhoon in the NATO Air Policing mission.
- The Spanish Eurofighters took part in more than 10 interceptions
- The increase in violations of borders and safety incidents in recent years from zero violations and 53 incidents in 2011 to 8 violations and 144 incidents 2014m tells its own story
- On May 4th the Spanish Air Force handed the baton to the Royal Air Force.