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What has NATO Deployed?
Since 2004, larger NATO members have undertaken the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) air policing role on a rotational basis for Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia who do not have air forces capable of the role themselves. As a result, there are established NATO-standard air bases at Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport in Lithuania and Ämari in Estonia which allow for rapid relocation of NATO fast jet assets to Eastern Europe with minimal logistical difficulties.
In response to escalating tensions in the region, the RAF has deployed four advanced Typhoon air superiority fighters to Lithuania alongside older Polish Mig-29s and Danish F-16s. Germany has also offered to deploy Luftwaffe Typhoons to the region if requested and France offered Mirage 2000s and Rafales. The US Air Force reinforced its deployed force of four F-15C fighters in Lithuania with six additional F-15Cs. Separately, the USAF also deployed twelve F-16s, along with Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) assets, to Lask airbase in Poland for ‘an unspecified duration’ to boost Polish confidence in NATO support in March 2014 and Canada has sent six CF-18s to Romania.
That Russia took notice was amply demonstrated by the deployment of six Su-27 air superiority fighters to Belarus immediately after the USAF announced its Polish deployment and numerous Su-33, Su-27, Su-24 and Mig-31 warplanes photographed by satellite at the previously deserted Buturlinovka airfield near the Ukrainian/Russian border in early April.
Why is it Significant?
Whilst NATO has sent paratroops for cooperative training with Eastern European member states, neither the US, nor the large West-European nations have the resources or the will to deploy heavy ground forces to Eastern Europe in sufficient quantity to provide a militarily significant deterrent force to Russian adventurism in the region. Current ground force deployments are essentially symbolic reminders of the Article 5 ‘tripwire’ that Mr Putin is careful not to cross directly. By contrast, advanced air assets such as F-15C, Typhoon and Rafale can deploy quickly and relatively cheaply whilst providing a genuinely credible military counterbalance to Russian air forces in the region.
If Mr Putin decided to invade Eastern Ukraine, Transnistria, or hypothetically even a NATO member, a handful of air superiority fighters could not stop him. However, deterring Russian Air Force incursions into the sovereign airspace of Eastern European allies is important for regional stability. The Ukrainian Air Force proved unable to prevent Russian jets and helicopters from operating over Crimea which contributed to its visible weakness in the East. Airspace incursions are a powerful intimidation tool which has historically been used by Russia against its neighbours. Having air assets which can credibly intercept and hold at risk the most advanced Russian warplanes is therefore a strong defensive tool which NATO can and has deployed to reassure its Eastern members and allies.
Are NATO Air Assets Credible?
Due to the huge scale of Russian military deployments to the borders of Ukraine and cultural memories of the Cold War standoff, there is a temptation to assume that any NATO military deployments to the region have only symbolic importance and are not militarily credible deterrent forces. However, the relatively small numbers of Western air assets in Eastern Europe should be considered a serious potential threat to all the Russian aircraft they might come into contact with. The ‘fifth-generation’ stealth PAK FA/T-50 has yet to enter frontline service, whilst only forty-eight of the formidable Su-35S air superiority fighters have been ordered so far by Russia, of which thirty-four have been delivered to date.
The bulk of the Russian Air Force’s air superiority fleet is therefore a mix of older Mig-29 and Su-27 models which have been modernised to varying degrees. These continue to be hampered by poor serviceability rates, older sensors and avionics, and limited pilot flight training hours. By contrast, the Typhoon and F-15C aircraft NATO has deployed are combat proven, extremely potent air superiority platforms with experienced and highly trained crews, excellent reliability and formidable air-to-air weaponry and sensors. The most modern Russian Su-35S fighters are roughly comparable to Typhoon in air-to-air capability terms, having a slight theoretical disadvantage at beyond visual range (BVR) and being marginally superior within visual range (WVR). Meanwhile the F-15Cs and F-16s of the USAF and Royal Danish Air Force are formidable opponents for Russia’s legacy fighters.
There is an entertaining irony to NATO’s airpower capabilities in Eastern Europe. The European Typhoon and French Rafale originated as late Cold War programmes designed to counter large numbers of the next generation of supermanoeuvrable Russian fighters. Due to difficulties in development, both entered service more than a decade after the Cold War ended and are hugely expensive. They have long been condemned by critics as unnecessary and irrelevant relics of the Cold War, designed for a requirement that no longer existed since Russia was neither producing up-to-date aircraft, nor offering any threat to peace in Europe.
The Crimean annexation of 2014 has changed the European security landscape in a way not predicted. The Russian military aviation industry, kept alive by export orders during the lean 1990s and now fuelled by more valuable oil and natural gas exports, is also resurgent. The irony is that NATO has found itself in possession of combat aircraft perfectly suited to the unexpected situation in Eastern Europe due to having aircraft that for their entire service lives have been controversial for being designed for a Cold War threat that was supposed to be a thing of the past.