Three years of NATO Baltic Air Policing

When the Belgian Air Component handed over the responsibility for Air Policing over the Baltic States to the French Air Force on 30 March 2007, it also completed three years of Quick Reaction Alert duties by NATO air arms to safeguard the integrity and safety of the airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A review.

The official badge of the 2006-2007 Belgian Air Component Baltic QRA Air Policing detachment.

A history of occupation and grandeur

Today’s Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reached a common point in history for the first time in the late 12th and early 13th century when crusading priests and monks from the west introduced Christianity and feudalism in the region. Estonia and Latvia always remained small states, but Lithuania succeeded in expanding into the former heartland of Kievan Russia in the wake of the Mongol invasions of the middle of the 13th century. During the following centuries, the region became a battlefield between the Teutonic Order, the Hanseatic League, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. A series of acts and alliances with Poland between the late 14th and 16th century made it the largest state in Eastern Europe, reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In the 18th century, however, Russia’s Peter the Great wrested Estonia and Livonia from Sweden and incorporated a large part of Lithuania upon partition of the joint Polish-Lithuanian state. Relief from oppression came only with the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire at the end of World War I. The three Baltic States declared independence from Russia in 1918 and became sovereign nations in 1920, but not without fighting fierce independence wars against Germany and Bolshevist Russia.

Following the German-Russian Non-Agression Pact of 23 August 1939, the Baltic States were placed under German or Russian control. When Nazi Germany defeated Poland in September 1939, they were forced to accept mutual assistance treaties with the USSR, allowing stationing of Soviet troops on their territories. In June 1940, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the Red Army and new, pro-Soviet governments were installed in all three countries, which became Soviet Socialist Republics soon afterwards. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Soviet occupation of the Baltic States was interrupted until the territories were reconquered by the Red Army in 1944/1945.

After World War II, the countries were industrialised. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbatshev allowed increased openness and economic reform with glasnost and peristroika in the late 1980s, opposition groups took advantages to press for independence. The three Baltic States re-declared their independence from the USSR between 1990 and 1991, which was eventually recognized by the Soviet Union on 6 September 1991. Withdrawal of Soviet troops began in 1992 and was completed by 31 August 1993. The new strategic goal of the independent states was integration with the Western world and Western Europe. Membership of NATO was achieved on 29 March 2004 and accession to the European Union took place on 1 May 2004.

Fledgling air arms

With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the Baltic States had to establish and equip their own military defence structures. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed new military air arms between 1992 and 1994. Apart from an Air Force, they also set up a semi-military Border Guard, National Guard or Voluntary National Defence Service with air assets. Limited financial means initially forced the military commanders to equip their air arms with left behind Russian equipment. Lateron, defence and security assistance, as well as newer equipment, were received from Western nations.


The Estonian Air Force (Eesti Õhuvägi) was established on 13 April 1994 and was initially only tasked with ground-based air defence, using old Russian radars and anti-aircraft artillery. In May 1997, the flying branch of the Air Force materialised when it moved into Ämari Air Base, a former Soviet Navy Su-24 Fencer base located approximately 30 km southwest of the capital Tallinn. It then was equipped with a pair of former DOSAAF Antonov An-2 Colt light transport aircraft and a pair of Mil Mi-2U Hoplite piston-engined helicopters. In 1998, a PZL-104 Wilga 35A glider tug and two Let L-13 Blanik gliders were purchased from a local flying club. Three additional An-2s were acquired in 2001 from the civilian market as were four Robinson R-44 light helicopters in 2002. Two R-44s were Clippers, equipped with flotation gear for SAR duties over sea, and two were Ravens, equipped with searchlights, FLIR sensors and TV-cameras for border patrol missions. Modernisation of the Air Force proceeds slowly mainly by lack of budgetary means. An offer for free Saab 105 aircraft from Sweden was declined due to the high operating costs of the aircraft, as was an offer for Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters from the USA because of the high costs of the associated weapons systems.

The Estonian Border Guard (Eesti Piirivalve) was formed in 1990 under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A National Aviation Group (Riiklik Lennusalk) was established in February 1993 to carry out border patrols, search and rescue missions, urgent medical flights and other general transport duties. At its establishment, it received two former German Air Force Let L-410UPV-T Turbolets, followed by four Mil Mi-8S/T/TV Hip helicopters in 1994. The National Aviation Group was renamed Border Guard Aviation Group (Piirivalve Lennusalk) on 22 April 1997. A single Schweizer 300C helicopter entered service in January 1999 and is used for pilot training and controlling along the land borders. In November 2005, the Border Guard signed a contract for a single AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter and an option for a second aircraft.


The Latvian Air Force (Latvijas Gaisa Spéki) was formed at Riga-Spilve airport on 24 February 1992 and started operations with a dozen of Antonov An-2 and An-2R Colt light transport aircraft and 8 PZL Swidnik Mi-2U/R/S Hoplite helicopters, all acquired from civilian sources. Only a handful of these aircraft remain in service today in the role of Para dropping for Special Forces and reconnaissance, while only one helicopter is still operational for pilot training. Germany donated a pair of Let L-410UPV-Ts in 1993, of which one has since been lost in an accident in 1995. In August 1994, the Air Force moved into the former Soviet Air Force Mig-27 Flogger air base at Lielvarde, 50 km southeast of the capital Riga. Plans to acquire former German Mil Mi-8 Hip helicopters were abandoned in 1994, probably because of budgetary reasons. Since 2002, however, three Mi-8MTV-1s have been delivered after overhaul by Lithuanian Helisota Ltd and are to be followed by three more by 2010.

The air arm of the Latvian National Guard (Latvijas Zemessardze) was integrated into the Air Force in 2000. It operates a single An-2 and five PZL-104 Wilga 35A liaison aircraft. All its gliders were donated to civilian flying clubs. The National Guard mainly operates from Daugavpils and Rëzekne.


The Lithuanian Air Force (Karines Oro Pajegos) was established on 2 January 1992 and started operations on 27 April 1992 from the small airfield of Barysiai, in the vicinity of the city of Šiauliai, around 180 km northwest of the capital Vilnius. This airstrip in fact acted as a diversion airfield for the large Zokniai-Šiauliai Air Base, which was once one of the major Soviet air bases in the Baltic region. Upon withdrawal of the Soviet troops from this base, it was immediately occupied by the Lithuanian Air Force. Only a handful of the 25 former civilian Antonov An-2 Colts delivered in 1992 are still operational here. The pair of former German Air Force Let L-410UVP-Ts donated in 1993 are in pristine airworthy condition. Of three Antonov An-26B Curl transports acquired in November 1994 from Lithuanian Airlines two are planned to remain in service until 2012, the third being used as a source for spare parts. The Antonov An-24B Coke that entered service at the same time as the An-26s was withdrawn from use only two years later in 1996. The Air Force’s transport capacity has recently been augmented and made NATO-compatible by an order for three Alenia C-27J Spartans, the first of which was delivered in December 2006. In February 1993, four Aero L-39C Albatros light jets were purchased and delivered from Kyrgystan, followed by two L-39ZAs in October 1998. Only the pair of L-39ZAs remain operational. Of the large helicopter fleet acquired in the 1990s – three Kamov Ka-26 Hoodlums, five ex Polish Mil Mi-2 Hoplites and an estimated 14 Mil Mi-8PS/T/MTV-1 Hips – only the last mentioned are still active in a wide variety of roles ranging from VIP transport, transport and SAR. All of the Mi-2s and part of the Mi-8s were operated from the 2nd Air Base, Panevezys-Pajouste, another former Soviet Air Force air base. Flying activities, however, have been relocated to Zokniai in the past few years.

Mi-8T 23 blue (c/n 9 90 50203) and Mi-8MTV-1 21 white, former 01 blue (c/n 9 5911) were being worked on in the Maintenance and Repair Depot hangar on 30 March 2007. Click to enlarge. Antonov An-2R 12 blue, former 07 blue (c/n 1G201-07) is one of the many of the type in storage at Šiauliai Air Base. Click to enlarge. Antonov An-26 05 blue (c/n 1 73 112 03) is based at Šiauliai Air Base together with two aircraft of the same type: 03 blue (c/n 1 73 115 03) and 04 blue (c/n 0 73 101 01). The former is used as source for spare parts and is lacking its port enige. Click to enlarge. The Lithuanian Air Force operates two Let L-410UVP-T Turbolet light transport aircraft. 01 blue (c/n 820738, ex Luftwaffe 53+04) is now painted in a new grey colour scheme, while 02 blue (c/n 820739, ex Luftwaffe 53+05) retains its two-tone green camouflage. Click to enlarge. Alenia C-27J Spartan 06 blue (c/n 4115) is the first of three of the type on order for the Lithuanian Air Force and was delivered in December 2006. Click to enlarge.

The Lithuanian Voluntary Border Defence Service or, short, Border Guard (Savanoriskoji Krasto Apsaugos Tarnyba – SKAT) was established on 17 January 1991. It started operations from Kyviskes and Silute with a wide range of liaison aircraft, among others Yakovlev Yak 18Ts, 50s, 52s and 55s, Antonov An-2s, PZL-104 Wilgas and a single Piper PA-38-112 Tomahawk. Some of these are still operational, others were lost in accidents or are not airworthy due to lack of maintenance or spare parts. In 1999, the SKAT was reorganised and renamed Voluntary National Defence Service (Krasto Apsaugos Savanoriskos Pajegos - KASP).

As was the case when Lithuania became a sovereign state in 1920, the present day State Border Guard Service (Valstybes Sienor Apsaugos Tarnyba – VSAT) was first established under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence and soon afterwards transerd to the Ministry of the Interior. VSAT received its first airborne assets in 2002-2003 in the form of a pair of Eurocopter EC120 Colibris. In 2006, VSAT’s Helicopter Squadron ordered and received three more fully mission-equipped helicopters in the framework of and financed by the EU Schengen agreement: two Eurocopter EC135s and a single EC145.

First operational NATO deployment

The transition from centrally led to free market economy and the changeover from defence assistance by an occupying force to own national defence proved to be not feasible for the Baltic States during the first years after declaration of independence. By joining the European Union on 1 May 2004, the new members received considerable amounts of economic and financial aid to improve their infrastructure and industrial capacity. Financial means to bring their armed forces up to NATO standards, however, were not available. Because of their very limited, almost non-existent air assets, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as soon as possible. On 17 March 2004, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) approved an interim solution for air policing to help these countries in safeguarding their national sovereignty. The day they joined the Western military alliance on 29 March 2006, the mutual air defence umbrella of NATO spread immediately over the Baltic States and secured their airspace, which at that moment had become NATO airspace.

Following a request from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, and the approval from the Belgian Council of Ministers and the Belgian Defence Minister André Flahaut, the first NATO combat aircraft entering Baltic airspace were four Lockheed Martin F-16AM fighters of the Belgian Air Component (FA-82, 98, 106 and 119). The deployment of these four combat aircraft was supported and prepared by about 50 Belgian and 22 Danish ground personnel, including maintenance crews, fire fighters, as well as command and control, air traffic control and meteorological specialists. Personnel of these two countries, supported by Lithuania, re-established the runway and quick reaction alert (QRA) area infrastructure and communications, as the Soviet troops had excessively dismantled the air base when they vacated it in 1993. The UK and USA provided navigational aids (TACAN) and Norway set up radio relay stations throughout the Baltic States and a mobile air combat mission control centre. After a number of day and night familiarisation flights, the Belgian F-16s began the air policing mission on 1 April 2004. During the first six weeks, the aircraft were flown by pilots of the 10th Tactical Wing in Kleine-Brogel under the command of Major Harold Van Pee. He was superseded by Major Olivier Van Der Linden and his aircrews of the 2nd Tactical Wing in Florennes for the last six weeks. Ground crews were a mix from both units.

The deployment of NATO combat aircraft to a former Warsaw Pact country so close to the Russian border aroused much press attention. The departure of the aircraft from Kleine-Brogel Air Base in Belgium and their arrival at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania were covered live by numerous radio and television stations. The announced arrival in Lithuania was front page news for several days throughout the country. During the Soviet period, Šiauliai was a closed city for its own inhabitants and a forbidden city for foreigners because of its military importance. Inhabitants of the city could not travel freely and nobody could visit them except for once a year during an organised meeting on a specific place. This meant that the local population had not been much in contact with other people or foreigners and by no means with members of NATO, the former adversary. This led, in Luthuania as well as in Belgium, to an out of proportion press coverage of some minor incidents between members of the detachment and local people. The attention given to these rather anecdotic events was so disproportionate in scale and in time that the Belgians still encountered some prejudices at the beginning of their second detachment in 2006.

Šiauliai was chosen as location for the deployment by a team of NATO experts that visited all airports in the Baltic States. Most suitable would be a military air base equipped with the necessary minimal infrastructure for fast jet operations and without conflicting civil aviation movements. Šiauliai fulfilled these major requirements. For its operational orders, the air policing detachment came under the 2nd Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Kalkar, Germany, which is part of Allied Air Forces Northern Europe (AIRNORTH). A pair of aircraft stood on a 15 minutes QRA status, 24 hours on 24, seven days on seven. During the three months of the mission, the Belgian pilots flew around 100 practice or Tango-scrambles with a set of detailed pre-planned training objectives and a single operational or Alpha Scramble. This occurred on 2 June 2004 when a Bombardier Learjet left Russian airspace and passed just north of Estonia without emitting the proper identification signals. Two F-16s were scrambled by the 2nd CAOC, but before they reached their target the business jet had already been intercepted by a pair of Finnish Air Force fighters. This incident is a perfect example of what the air policing mission is meant for in the first place: assisting civilian aircraft having technical, mainly communications problems or straying off course.

On the political level, much attention was given not to burden good relations with Russia. By deploying a small number of aircraft from a small country the perception of a threat to Russia could be downplayed significantly. On the other hand, the deployment was symbolic of the mutual defence which is the core of the Atlantic alliance and which is valid for all members, small or large, old or new. For the Baltic States it symbolised the entrance into the Western world.

Shared duty

NATO’s partner nations share in the duty of air-policing over the Baltic States on a rotational basis. At first a rotation lasted three months, but from the third year onwards rotations changed to a four month basis. By the end of 2007, 12 nations will have participated in this mission. A deployment usually consists of 4 or 5 aircraft, 4 to 6 pilots and between 50 and 120 ground personnel.


NATO member state

Aircraft type

April 2004 – June 2004



July 2004 – October 2004



October 2004 – January 2005

United Kingdom

Tornado F.3

January 2005 – March 2005



April 2005 – June 2005



July 2005 – September 2005


F-4F Phantom

October 2005 – December 2005

United States


January 2006 – March 2006



April 2006 – July 2006



August 2006 – November 2006


Mirage F-1M

December 2006 – March 2007



April 2007 – July 2007


Mirage 2000C

August 2007 – November 2007


MiG-21MF-75 Lancer C

Second Belgian deployment

On 1 December 2006, the Belgian Air Component took on for the second time the air policing mission in the NATO airspace over the Baltic States with four Lockheed Martin F-16AM aircraft (FA-98, 115, 124, 133 and replacement aircraft FA-94). During the first two months, the 52 strong detachment consisted mainly of personnel of the 2nd Tactical Wing under the command of Major Thierry Closset. The second part of the deployment was commanded by Major Mark Meeuwissen of the 10th Tactical Wing. Six ground personnel were tactical air traffic controllers from the Control and Reporting Centre in Glons, Belgium. They came along to train their Lithuanian counterparts at Kaunas and to prepare them for their NATO certification.

Major Thierry Closset, the detachment commander for the first period. Click to enlarge. Major Mark "Mioef" Meeuwissen of the 10th Tactical Wing handed over the symbolic key to the NATO airspace over the Baltic States to his successor Lieutenant-Colonel Yves Girard of Escadre de Chasse EC 12 during a change over ceremony at Šiauliai Air Base on 30 March 2007. Click to enlarge.

This second deployment differed from the first in two respects: infrastructure quality and meteorological conditions. Since 2004, the main concrete runway had been covered with a new asphalt toplayer, smoothening its surface and reducing the risk of foreign object damage by bitumen coming loose from cracks between concrete plates. The smoother surface also resulted in less maintenance, especially to tyres. The first deployment started in sping and ended in summer. This time, however, it took place in midwinter with temperatures going down as low as -26°C and with short periods of daylight. These harsh weather conditions hampered maintenance work on the aircraft that were accomodated in plastic field tents, installed and left behind by the RAF in the winter of 2004-2005. The brought along heating equipment could barely keep the temperature pleasently warm. The low temperatures and short days also confined most of the social life to the inside.

The Belgian bunch prior to the ceremony. Click to enlarge. The Belgian flight during the ceremony. Click to enlarge.

From December to March, the Belgian pilots achieved about 275 flying hours in exactly 100 scrambles, three of which were Alpha-scrambles. During one of the Alpha-scrambles an aircraft not emitting the proper IFF-code was identified as a light sportsplane. In the two other cases, the targets were ultra light motorized aircraft straying off course.

Lockheed Martin F-16AM FA-94, flagship of No. 31 "Tiger" Squadron of the 10th Tactical Wing at Kleine-Brogel Air Base in one of the four field aircraft shelters at the QRA area of Šiauliai Air Base. Click to enlarge. Lockheed Martin F-16AM FA-133 leaving the Quick Reaction Alert area at Šiauliai Air Base for another Tango-scramble. Click to enlarge. Lockheed Martin F-16AM FA-98 revving up its engine before blasting off the recently resurfaced 3,500 meter long main runway of Šiauliai Air Base for another air defence training mission. Click to enlarge. Lockheed Martin F-16AM FA-98 and FA-133 returning to Šiauliai Air Base after completing the 100th Tango-scramble at the end of the 2nd Belgian Baltic Air Policing deployment. Click to enlarge. Mirage 2000 107 12-YD of Escadron de Chasse 01.012 "Cambrésis" from Cambrai/Epinoy Air Base waiting in the QRA area to replace one of the Belgian Air Component F-16AM aircraft. Click to enlarge.


Although the Baltic States are collaborating closely to set up a common air defence structures, this is advancing at a rather slow pace. In April 2006, NATO released 30 million euros for the modernisation of Ämari Air Base in Estonia, which now serves as a diversion airfield for the air-policing aircraft. The envisaged construction works consist of renovating the runways and improving the maintenance facilities. It is also planned to build a new fuel storage depot, a backup power system and a new command and control centre. All these works should prepare this former Soviet air base to receive NATO fast jet fighters by the end of 2009. By 2011 it should meet all NATO airbase standards. Similar upgrades are envisaged to start at Lielvarde Air Base in Latvia in 2008.

Once the upgrades have been implemented, each of the Baltic States will dispose of an airfield capable of handling 24 transport aircraft and 14 to 16 fast jet aircraft in 24 hours in an emergency, as well as 2,000 tons of cargo and 1,000 personnel. Then, the NATO airspace policing mission will probably be rotated among the three countries. At present, it is envisaged that the mission will continue till 2018, when the three Air Forces will be operational on their own dedicated fighter aircraft.

The huge Šiauliai Air Base and its 3,500 m long main runway were once designated as one of the diversion landing fields for the Soviet space shuttle Buran. Click to enlarge. Official titles of the Lithuanian Air Force as carried by its Antonov An-24B aircraft. The Soviet VVS constructed not less than 40 hardened aircraft shelters at Šiauliai Air Base. The Lithuanian Air Force operated from a number of these until a pair of more appropriate buildings was erected in 2000. Click to enlarge.


Zokniai-Šiauliai Air Base

Zokniai Air Base, also known as Šiauliai Air Base after the neighbouring city, was constructed before World War II and used as a military base by the Lithuanian Air Force. From 1928 onwards, many different types of aircraft operated from this base: Fiat CR.20, Ansaldo A.120, LVG Albatros C.VI, ANBO III, IV, 41 and V, Letov Š-20, Gloster Gladiator etc.

In 1940, the Red Army moved into Šiauliai Air Base with among others Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 fighters, Tupolev SB-series medium bombers and Tupolev TB-3 heavy bombers. When Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941, the air base was occupied by Luftwaffe units.

After the war, the Soviet Air Force took control over the air base and constructed two large parallel runways. The main runway is 3,500 m (11,483 ft) long and 45 m (148 ft) wide, while the parallel runway measures 3,280 m by 32 m (10,761 by 105 ft). The air base is equipped with hardstands for 40 large aircraft, an alert area with about 10 fighter-size revetments and 40 hardened aircraft shelters.

In the mid 1950s, Šiauliai was one of only six Soviet bases capable of handling the new Myasishchev M-4 Bison strategic bomber. The five other bases were Engels (southern Russia), Semipalatinsk (Kazakhstan), Dyaghilevo (central Russia), Seryshevo (Far East) and Ookraïnka (Far East).

In 1966, the 67th Independent Aviation Regiment for long-range radar detection and observation was established at Šiauliai and equipped with Tupolev Tu-126 Moss AWACS aircraft. It remained the sole base operating the type until it was withdrawn from use in 1984 and replaced by the Beriev A-50 Mainstay. The Mainstays of the 144th Long-Range Electronic Independent Aviation Regiment stayed at Šiauliai until 1991, when they were moved further north to Beryozovka Air Base near Pechora on the Kola Peninsula for obvious political reasons.

The 196th Minskii Guards Military Transport Aviation Regiment flew Ilyushin Il-76 Candid transport aircraft at Šiauliai until it moved to Migalovo Air Base near Tver, roughly 180 km northwest of Moscow, in 1993. The 117th Independent Aviation Regiment operated the Antonov An-12PP/PPS Cub-C ECM-variants of this venerable transport aircraft between 1969 and 1993.

Šiauliai was also home to the 53rd Fighter Aviation Regiment, flying MiG-23ML Flogger-G, MiG-23MLD Flogger-K and MiG-29 Fulcrum-A fighters and MiG-23UB Flogger-C trainers. When the unit became the 53rd Fighter-Bomber Aviation Regiment in 1989, it was reequipped with MiG-27D Flogger-J fighter-bombers until it was disbanded in 1992.

With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Šiauliai in June 1993, the Lithuanian Air Force moved from the crowded Barysiai airfield into this huge airbase, naming it the 1st Air Base. The Lithuanian Voluntary National Defence Service followed somewhat later in December 1994. In the early years at the 1st Air Base, the Air Force used a number of hardened aircraft shelters to operate from. This changed when two hangars were established in 2000.

From the very beginning in 1995, it was decided to integrate a civilian cargo and passenger airport in the reconstruction plans of the air base. On 28 August 1997, Šiauliai International Airport was officially inaugurated and awarded with ICAO CAT I status. The main object of the airport is to offer the proper services to attract major cargo operators. It can handle cargo aircraft up to the size of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan, Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and Boeing 747. The airport also offers parking facilities for light aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of less than 7,000 kg.


With thanks to Jos Schoofs, the author of this article.