WARSAW, Poland, and BRUSSELS — Confronted by what they perceive as Russia’s increasingly belligerent activities in Eastern Europe, the three Baltic states are moving toward tightening their air-defense cooperation, and they view NATO’s air-policing mission in their skies as a major part of their security. This is perhaps a sensible approach, as local observers say that without the alliance’s support, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be unable to field sufficient capabilities.

NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission was launched March 30, 2004, one day after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the alliance. More than 15 years later, the three states still depend on other allies, as they lack their own fighter jet fleets that could be deployed to safeguard their skies.

“On a day-to-day basis, NATO air policing can react to airspace intrusions or violations of flight rules that Estonia would be unable to deal with alone — this is important for preserving territorial integrity,” Tony Lawrence, a research fellow at the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence Security think tank, told Defense News. “But more widely, the presence of the air-policing mission … is a significant demonstration of NATO’s solidarity with its Baltic allies and its resolve to take Baltic security seriously. This is an important contribution to deterrence in the region.”

Local analysts point to the noticeable increase in violations of the Baltic states’ airspace since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

“There are frequent flight violations by Russian military aircraft, for example incursions into Baltic airspace, flying with transponders switched off or failures to file flight plans,” Lawrence said. “Concerning Estonia’s airspace, these violations often happen with aircraft transiting from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad, and they are swiftly dealt with by the air-policing mission.”

Lukas Milevski, an assistant professor at Leiden University and a Baltic Sea fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank, told Defense News that the initial rotation of four fighter jets was doubled to between eight and 10 aircraft starting in 2014 in response to Russia’s increased military activities in the region.

“The air-policing mission has had a visibly positive impact on Baltic security, as it has broadly safeguarded the countries’ airspaces against Russian challenges. However, there are concerns whether this is enough after 2014,” Milevski said. “We need to take into account what sort of military challenges these countries are facing. Since Crimea, such challenges have become more frequent, as on average there has been one Russian intrusion every two days.”

Individual programs

Milevski said the air-policing mission has proven itself effective by escorting Russian aircraft out of Baltic airspace, and by responding to other potential threats throughout the region. In 2013, the mission’s jets were scrambled after the Russian Air Force simulated a nuclear strike against Sweden.

However, even the most successful efforts by the air-policing mission cannot provide Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with what they lack: a robust air-defense system capable of covering their respective territories.

“Each of the three countries has its short-range air defense system. They are also making separate efforts to develop their mid-range capacities, but a joint acquisition would be difficult, as they have different budgets and procurement cycles,” Milevski said.

In 2016, Lithuania’s Defence Ministry signed a contract with Norway’s Kongsberg to acquire the Network Centric Air Defence System under a deal worth €109 million (U.S. $123 million).

“Lithuania has ordered a mid-range system with delivery expected in 2020. Latvia has allocated funds for a mid-range system, but to date it has not launched its procurement. Estonia has aspirations to acquire mid-range air defense, but this acquisition was not included in its National Defence Development Plan until 2026,” Milevski said.

Asked about a potential project by the three countries to jointly procure an air defense system, the analyst said that while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania share air-surveillance data and have made arrangements for the combined tactical command and control of their respective airspaces, they “do not have plans for joint acquisition in air defense.”

The Baltic states “have been absolutely on the same page while lobbying for allied support to assist with serious air defense. However, when it comes to joint procurements, Baltic states have not been very collaborative, and in most of occasions they follow individual approaches,” according to Māris Andžāns, a senior research fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.

Despite the hike in defense spending by the Baltic states, observed since 2014, budget constraints make it unlikely that the three countries could significantly develop their air defense capacities on their own. For 2019, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania forecast military spending of about €586 million, €637 million and €948 million, respectively, according to data from their defense ministries.

“Air defense is currently the single largest gap in the Baltic states’ defense capabilities, but it’s not one they can address themselves without NATO’s support,” Milevski said.

A Hungarian Air Force Gripen jet taxis after launching a training scramble in support of NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission in May 2019. (NATO)
A Hungarian Air Force Gripen jet taxis after launching a training scramble in support of NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission in May 2019. (NATO)

NATO priority

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently pointed out that the alliance has increased its presence in the Baltic region with air policing and battlegroups, and that it is striving to deliver “the necessary capabilities to always have the necessary readiness and strength of these battlegroups.”

According to Stoltenberg, air defense is a priority for the alliance. The issue is likely to be on the agenda at a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels later this month.

“Air defense is partly about what we can have stationed there, but also how we can quickly deploy additional capabilities if needed,” he said.

Hungary is scheduled to be the lead nation for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission in Siauliai, Lithuania, together with augmenting nations Spain and the United Kingdom. From this month, Hungary will deploy its JAS 39 Gripen fighter jet to Siauliai, the second time since 2015 that the country deployed an Air Force detachment to lead the mission out of Lithuania, according to a NATO statement.