Lithuania has completed a three-week investigation into the Russian Su-27 fighter jet’s September 15 intrusion and crash in the country (see EDM, September 20, 27). The plane, flying tail in a seven-plane squadron en route from Russia’s Leningrad Region to Kaliningrad Region over the Baltic Sea, deviated some 200 kilometers overland into Lithuania, lingered more than 20 minutes in Lithuanian airspace while changing its direction and altitude several times, and finally crashed into a field. Radar spotted the Russian plane belatedly, and NATO jets only “intercepted” it when it was already nose-diving, after the pilot had ejected.
Lithuania’s Defense Ministry has released a summary of the classified investigation results. This lays to rest the hypothesis that the incident was a botched intelligence mission or attempt to test NATO air defenses. Lithuania has lifted the charges against the pilot, Major Valery Troyanov, and repatriated him to Russia.
The investigation has traced the incident to a combination of technical, organizational, and human factors on all sides. Troyanov, an experienced pilot and deputy wing commander, did not make full and correct use of the Su-27’s navigational equipment, and had only clocked 14 flight hours in 2005 prior to the crash. Russian maintenance personnel overlooked some technical problems when preparing the plane for the flight. Russian ground control in Kaliningrad made some mistakes of its own in losing contact with the plane.
Unusually, Russia’s Air Force says publicly that it concurs with some of Lithuania’s findings. General Vladimir Mikhailov, Russian Air Force and Air Defense Commander-in-Chief, told the press at his headquarters that the pilot had failed to use some components of the navigational system to restore his lost bearings and was late in issuing a distress signal. Mikhailov further conceded that the squadron and the Russian ground control made mistakes in losing contact with the plane. In another, equally unusual televised interview, Troyanov’s regimental commander and deputy commander described him as “one of the best,” but conceded that he and other Russian pilots are inadequately trained because they do not spend enough time flying (NTV Mir, October 7).
The Lithuanians have found the IFF (identification friend-or-foe) system, the plane’s most prized component from an intelligence standpoint, at the crash site. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Armed Force Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky, Armed Forces’ flight safety service chief Maj.-General Sergei Baynetov, as well as Mikhailov, have all deemed it necessary to make public statements dismissing the possibility that the plane’s IFF fell into “wrong hands.” The IFF is designed to self-destruct automatically when the pilot ejects and/or when the plane crashes.
It remains unclear why the Russian plane was fully armed as if for combat (four missiles and a loaded gun with a reserve ammunition box) on this flight. The Russian side was uncooperative with and indeed obstructive of the investigation until the end. It initially denied that the plane was armed, changed the story on various technical matters several times, withheld critical information at all times, and orchestrated an anti-Lithuanian propaganda campaign by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the controlled media.
For its part, the Lithuanian side followed the letter of international law, treated the Russian pilot with full courtesies, and allowed a Russian team of officers headed by Baynetov to witness all phases of the investigation. The Lithuanians rejected Russia’s demand to turn the Lithuanian investigation commission into a joint Lithuanian-Russian commission. Lithuania dismissed its air force commander, Colonel Jonas Marcinkus, for carelessly revealing classified information about the investigation to Russian officers over drinks.
The Su-27 incident exposed gaps as well as technical and organizational flaws in the air defense system, which in Lithuania as well as in Estonia and Latvia forms an integral part of NATO’s air defenses. The obsolescent radars briefly spotted and lost the intruding Russian plane several times over. Three-dimensional radars are urgently needed in this NATO sector. Lithuania’s defense budget can only afford the purchase of one such radar over a three-year period. Meanwhile, Lithuania as well as Estonia and Latvia spend their scarce resources in NATO peacekeeping and expeditionary operations in distant theaters. This is a national choice of the Baltic states in the spirit of allied solidarity, but it takes away resources from homeland defense, as this incident demonstrates. NATO allies could reciprocate that solidarity by funding radar coverage of air space over the Baltic states, which is NATO’s own air space.
The three Baltic states do not and cannot afford to have combat air forces. Since March 2004, NATO conducts an air-policing operation using four interceptor fighters based at Zokniai airfield near Sauliai in north-central Lithuania, covering Latvia and Estonia as well. Lithuania and NATO have invested in the upgrade of Zokniai. NATO allies rotate on a three-month basis providing those four planes and the crews. Germany with four F-4 planes was in charge when the Su-27 incident occurred, and the United States took over on September 30 with five F-16 planes as part of the prescheduled rotation.
Under the existing modus operandi, military and civilian radars in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania transmit information to NATO’s Regional Airspace Surveillance and Control Center (RASCC) at Karmelava in Lithuania, which is manned by personnel from the three Baltic states and other NATO countries. RASCC transmits the information if necessary to a German-based NATO Joint Air Operations Center, which analyzes it and is authorized to order NATO’s planes at Zokniai to scramble. The reaction time for those planes is said to be 15 minutes based on a political decision.
The Su-27 incident has demonstrated that this entire air defense system requires urgent improvements. NATO allies can assume greater responsibility for deploying adequate radars in this sector of the alliance’s air space. They also need to reconsider favorably a long-standing request for a Command and Reporting Center to be based in the Baltic states, with authority to analyze real-time radar information and to order the planes to scramble if necessary. And they must make certain that all of Estonia’s territory is reliably covered by the air-policing operation. Until now, most of the Russian violations have occurred over parts of Estonia.
(BNS, ELTA, Interfax, October 1-12; see EDM, September 20, 27)