A Swedish Gripen, Norwegian F-16 and Finnish F/A-18 Hornet participate in the Iceland Air Meet 2014 in February. Stepped-up aerial patrols over eastern Europe are among NATO's options amid the crisis in Ukraine. (NATO)
BRUSSELS — Interim air, land and sea deployments, a review and exercises, and an increase in the readiness level of the NATO Response Force are among the range of options that NATO’s supreme allied commander could present this month to reassure Eastern European nations amid the crisis in Ukraine.
US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, supreme allied commander Europe (SACEUR), is due to present the package of measures in mid-April, based on a request from NATO foreign ministers this month. With the crisis in Ukraine deepening and NATO estimating that 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops are along the border with Ukraine, the main aim of the measures is to reassure NATO allies in Eastern Europe that NATO is committed to defending them.
Details of the proposed measures have not yet been finalized, but they could include a review and update of NATO military defense plans.
According to a NATO source, boosting NATO’s air policing presence in the Baltic countries is likely to be part of the package of measures. Three NATO countries have offered 12 fighter jets that may end up being deployed in the region as part of NATO’s quick-reaction alert force between May and August. If this goes ahead, it would triple the NATO presence of four fighter jets patrolling the region.
NATO also has taken steps to monitor events in Ukraine more closely via surveillance aircraft. NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance aircraft have been deployed to fly over Poland and Romania to monitor what is happening in Ukraine.
From a fleet of 17 aircraft, NATO operates two flights per day, one over Romania and one over Poland. France has recently added one AWACS aircraft to the NATO fleet. The US and the Netherlands are providing aerial refueling planes for the NATO AWACS flights over Poland and Romania, and Turkey has offered a tanker as well.
As for NATO’s quick-reaction alert force that polices the skies over the Baltic countries, NATO air force fighters have been doing this since 2004 on a four-month rotational basis because the three allies do not have fighters of their own. Normally, two jets are on call to respond to violations of Baltic airspace while two act as spares.
The US is responsible for the air policing mission, but its tour of duty will end this month. Four NATO fighters are usually part of the mission, but the US has increased its presence to 10 by adding six F-15s to its original four.
Poland will take over from the US for a four-month period running from May 1 to the end of August. The Poles are expected to contribute four MiG-29s to the mission.
The SACEUR is pooling offers of fighter jets from various NATO countries, including four Typhoons from the UK and four F-16s from Denmark. Denmark has offered two more fighters if needed, but these will stay in Denmark for now.
France has offered four extra fighters (either Rafales or Mirages), and these are expected to go to Poland as a separate reassurance measure to perform air policing training.
Until now, the NATO fighters have been based in Lithuania, but it has a relatively small airfield.
“NATO is currently looking at a second air base in Estonia,” a NATO official said. The four Danish F-16s are set to be stationed in Estonia.
Asked if the measures were designed to protect NATO allies against an attack by Russia, Lt. Jay Janzen, a spokesman at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, said it “does not see an imminent threat to NATO populations or territories.
“We want to send a strong signal to people in NATO countries and to Russia that we are fully committed to defending all the members of the alliance,” he said.
It is not about mobilizing troops because they think Russia is going to attack a NATO country, he added.
NATO’s overall aim is to solve the Ukraine crisis via diplomatic means, Janzen pointed out. NATO is not, therefore, considering sending combat troops toward Ukraine as it does not want to contribute to escalating the tense situation, he said.
However, he added that NATO might send a couple of advisers to help the country with capability development.
Besides the troops along Ukraine’s borders, NATO believes Russia has deployed mechanized infantry, electronic warfare units, helicopters, fighters, logistics troops and field hospitals. Janzen described these as forces needed “to conduct an incursion.”
He noted Breedlove’s concern that the troops are not conducting traditional maneuvers for an exercise, as Russia claims. ■
Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.