Ahead of the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels, several Baltic nations are pushing to expand the role of NATO in air defense. (Aaron Mehta and Jeff Martin/Staff) Jeff Martin

WASHINGTON – On NATO’s eastern flank, the Baltic nations find themselves constantly worrying that their nascent air defense systems could be overwhelmed by a Russian attack from the skies.

As a result, the nations have begun pushing to change NATO’s air-policing mission, in which partner nations provide aircraft that patrol the skies but under strict rules about how they can and cannot interact with any non-NATO aircraft. The effort aims for a more active air defense mission, which would feature different rules of engagement and integration with ground-based air defense systems.

Officials from Lithuania and Estonia have been publicly lobbying their NATO colleagues for such a change, which would have to come at the political level.

For instance, Raimundas Karoblis, Lithuania’s defense minister, called for the air-policing mission to shift to one of air defense during a June interview with Defense News. And Jonatan Vseviov, the permanent secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defence, said the topic “is one of the discussions, and there are many discussions, that are ongoing on a daily basis.”

“That may not necessarily mean that we need to deploy more physical forces, and you don’t necessarily mean that we need to build up more, you know, physical infrastructure,” Vseviov added. “The most important thing is to achieve interoperability, achieve cohesion in our plans and test them [in], you know, exercises. That is something that we are working on very hard.”

Some nations who provide the air capabilities, however, have expressed reservations about shifting from policing to defense, over concerns that doing so would be seen by Russia as an aggressive move. To set up greater air defense capabilities requires U.S. leadership on the issue, said Magnus Nordenman of the Atlantic Council.

“It’s a bit of a Washington cliché that we require American leadership on various issues,” he said. “But I think in NATO, you can point to it time and time again that a relatively modest American investment in time and effort will sort of generate more allied contributions, and that will help the allies actually overcome some of their political difficulties.”

Frank Gorenc, a former U.S. Air Force general who retired in 2016 after a three-year stint as the joint commander for both U.S. Air Forces in Europe and NATO Allied Air Command, supports such a shift, saying at an Atlantic Council event in June that doing so “really wouldn’t cost a dime.”

“Right now, air policing is an activity that really deals with airplanes and a set of radars and things like that, but air defense is much more than that,” Gorenc said “It’s also ground-based air defense and aerospace control measures. And that’s how the joint commander would control a conflict in the air, and I believe it would be good to practice that in peacetime with a full-up staff to be able to do the air defense.”

Said Nordenman: “The technical difficulties are relatively few. You need to change the [rules of engagement], make sure the ground-based systems can interact.

“It will probably take more cajoling at the political level, and further discussion, but I’m convinced that we can get there.”