MILAN — The Baltic states have presented a joint contribution to the emerging NATO air defense rotational model in the region, a recent alliance policy meant to create a beefier defensive posture on Europe’s north-eastern flank.

The three nations hope that the move, an outgrowth of NATO’s plans for a regionalized defense concept, will tweak the alliance’s longstanding air-policing mission into a more comprehensive air-defense operation, combining ground-based systems with warplane patrols.

Since 2004, NATO allies have deployed their air personnel and capabilities to conduct the Baltic Air Policing mission based out of the Lithuanian air base of Šiauliai. Since March 2023, the responsibility to patrol the Baltic skies has rested with Portugal and Romania, who each have provided a detachment of four F-16s.

They are expected to carry out these duties until the end of July before handing over the mission to the Italian Air Force that will send four Eurofighters to Lithuania. A Spanish Air Force detachment, with eight Eurofighters, will as of August be stationed at the Amari airbase in Estonia to further enhance NATO air policing in Baltic states.

According to the annual report published by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service in February, Russia would consider the so-called Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – to be the “most vulnerable part of NATO.”

In the eventuality of a NATO-Russia conflict, it could make the region a focal point of military pressure for Moscow, the document concluded.

Last month, NATO defense ministers approved a rotational air defense model that laid out the standards for allies to contribute air and missile defense capabilities with an initial focus on the Eastern flank.

“The air defense rotational model consists of surface-based air- and missile-defense systems, Patriot, SAMP-T or NASAMs type, as well as additional air-defense, squadron-size capable fighters,” a Lithuanian defense official told Defense News. Such formations typically include 12 to 24 aircraft.

In terms of Lithuania’s contribution to support the model, the official highlighted that it focuses on the following: ensuring quality host nation support, further improvement of the Šiauliai air base services, providing a common air picture, sharing of radar data, and ensuring availability and access to a singular Baltic military airspace for training.

“We are planning to invest approximately $157 million (€142 million) into the Šiauliai air base infrastructure over the next decade,” the official said. “Lithuania is also moving forward with the second phase of NASAMS air defense capabilities by acquiring a second battery.”

Apart from this, Vilnius is further strengthening its short-range air defense by purchasing Saab’s Bolide and MK-II missiles for the RBS-70 short-range anti-aircraft defense system. The government will also jointly procure with Poland additional missiles for the GROM air defense system valued at over $22 million, according to the official.

Lithuania also partakes in the German-led European Sky Shield Initiative, which plans to create a ground-based integrated European air defense system.

One Baltic sky

Under their joint offering, Estonia and Latvia will also provide their respective Ämari and Lielvārde air bases to receive and host allied fighters, command planes as well as air-to-air refueling and surveillance aircraft.

All three countries will further make available their national Control and Reporting Centers (CRCs) equipped with modern equipment to produce an overview of civil and military air traffic. Necessary CRC personnel will be allocated to identify and share early warning information with NATO, including air threats such as aircraft, missiles and drones, defense officials said.

The dense Baltic network of national radars for surveillance operations, part of the BALTNET project, can also be used to track air targets.

Latvia and Estonia recently announced that they plan to jointly procure Diehl Defense’s IRIS-T medium-range missile systems to bolster their capabilities.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on July 27 to correct the upcoming sequence of nations involved in NATO’s air policing mission.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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