Correction: This story was updated to clarify details about the status of the agreement’s signing.
CONSTANTA, Romania — On a bright, blustery afternoon about 14 miles from the western coast of the Black Sea, a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fighter jet operated by the Romanian Air Force raced down the runway at Mihail Kogălniceanu International Airport and up into the clouds. It was quickly followed by two Eurofighter Typhoon jets, one operated by the German Air Force and the other by the British Royal Air Force.
These aircraft were participating in a “tango scramble,” a training effort to demonstrate how the three nations would activate their forces within 15 minutes of notice in response to an unidentified military aircraft entering national airspace. The mission falls under NATO’s enhanced Air Policing South effort.
From June 28 to July 9, two German Eurofighter Typhoons are policing the skies over the Black Sea region, side by side with British Typhoons and Romanian MiG-21s. The German Luftwaffe aircraft will rely on maintainers, refuelers and other servicers from Britain’s 121 Expeditionary Air Wing, and the two nations’ jets will scramble in a mixed formation during missions.
“With our enhanced U.K.-German NATO air-policing mission and our advanced concept of interoperability, we have reached a new level of cooperation within the NATO air power community,” German Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz said at a July 1 ceremony on the airfield.
What’s the goal?
During the ceremony—held on the 60th anniversary of the NATO air policing mission—Gerhartz and Royal Air Force Deputy Commander of Operations Air Marshal Gerry Mayhew jointly committed to promoting Eurofighter Typhoon interoperability between their two nations.
“Our adversaries exploit our seams, and they exploit our legal, moral and ethical thresholds for response,” Mayhew said during the ceremony. “That is why integration — and interoperability — is so critical.”
Gerhartz noted that such integrated partnerships were sometimes a challenge for NATO allies: While the Typhoon was a multinational program, led by the Eurofighter consortium that included Airbus Defence and Space, BAE Systems, and Leonardo, the aircraft underwent separate configurations and added different weapon systems and sensor packages once each nation received its platforms.
This first Anglo-German Eurofighter detachment is a unique opportunity for both air forces to develop true interoperability with each other, he said. While the Luftwaffe will only spend two weeks in Romania this time around, the service wants to launch a combined air-policing detachment with the Royal Air Force once again, as well as with the Spanish and Italian air forces’ Typhoon units. That detachment would last three to four months, and is anticipated to take place in the late 2022 or early 2023 time frame, Gerhartz said.
“In the future, we will cooperate even closer, operating our fighter fleets together wherever possible to exploit the effectiveness and efficiency based on a mutual intent,” he said.
The Romanian and German air chiefs also signed a declaration of intent at Thursday’s ceremony to further enhance bilateral relations in the air domain.
Romanian Air Force Chief Viorel Pana noted in his remarks that the air-policing mission provides “a great occasion” for the three allies to train together and to demonstrate NATO’s commitment to the mission, from the Baltic to the Black seas.
“First of July will certainly remain as a milestone in our history, as the new concept of interoperability and enhanced cooperation will definitely help us better construct our future efforts,” he said.
Why is this important?
NATO’s enhanced Air Policing South mission was introduced in 2014, following increased tension along the Black Sea region, mainly as a result of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The international community is split on the legitimacy of the annexation. In December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted three resolutions that urged Russia to withdrawal its troops from Crimea. The General Assembly’s vote was 63 in favor to 17 against, with 62 abstentions.
The timing of this latest German deployment is notable, as NATO forces have recently witnessed an uptick of Russian military activity in the region. On June 23, British Navy destroyer HMS Defender sailed through the Black Sea near the border of Crimea, where Russian military aircraft reportedly buzzed the ship and a naval vessel reportedly fired warning shots.
The United Kingdom stated it did not consider the firing to be warning shots, and asserted its right to traverse international waters. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since accused the United States and the United Kingdom of staging a “complex provocation” in the region, according to the BBC.
The NATO alliance understands the strategic importance of the Black Sea to Russia, said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who leads the Pershing chair of strategic studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis and previously commanded U.S. Army Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany.
“The Black Sea is the launching pad for the Russians for everything they do — not just in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Ukraine, but also into Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa,” he told Defense News. “Their illegal annexation of Crimea has secured for them a base — Sevastopol — that allows them to continue not only commercial traffic but [also] the Russian desire to limit anybody else’s use of the Black Sea — to make it their own sort of lake, if you will — versus treating it and respecting it as international water.”
The southern air-policing mission remains much smaller than its counterpart in the Baltic Sea, which has multinational ground troops embedded into local brigades in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Hodges noted. “There’s nothing like that in the Black Sea region.”
Meanwhile, military personnel from over 30 nations launched the annual Sea Breeze exercise, led by the United States and Ukraine, on June 28 in the Black Sea. The exercise will continue through July 10 and includes 5,000 troops from 32 countries, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams, per the U.S. Navy.
Hodges sees both the Sea Breeze exercise and the air-policing mission as critical demonstrations of NATO’s commitment in the region.
“We’re going to compete here in the Black Sea, and we’re going to keep training and building readiness and carrying out our mission.”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.