Permanent Status Sought for NATO’s Baltic Air-Policing Mission

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 27

French Mirage jets taking part in a Baltic Air Policing mission, January 2010 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Discussions are ongoing in NATO about prolonging the air-policing mission over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The mission’s prolongation will necessitate a decision at NATO’s summit in May in Chicago. Resource constraints and political considerations seem to complicate that decision unnecessarily.

This small air-policing mission represents the only military presence of NATO in the Baltic States. It comprises a mere four interceptor aircraft, with some 50 to 100 support personnel, based in Lithuania and covering all three Baltic States. These states’ airspace (like that of any NATO country) counts as an integral part of NATO airspace.

These three states, however, do not have combat aircraft of their own, nor would it make sense for them to procure such aircraft from their meager resources. Larger allied countries provide the planes and crews for the air-policing mission at the Zokniai airport near Sauliai in Lithuania. The planes and crews rotate at four-month intervals, each rotation being carried out by one NATO member country. Germany has been responsible for four rotations, out of the nine rotations since autumn 2009.

Baltic air-policing is a NATO air defense, quick-reaction-alert type mission, guarding the airspace over the three Baltic States from intrusions by unauthorized or “rogue” aircraft. Intrusions occur not infrequently from Russia: some inadvertently, others in a pattern of testing and probing. In such situations, NATO interceptors scramble to escort the intruding aircraft out. Such cases have become more frequent over the Baltic States during 2011, although this is not being publicized. To describe this small policing mission as an “Article-Five”-type mission would be a stretch.

NATO started this air-policing mission when the three Baltic States joined the Alliance in 2004. It last prolonged the mission in 2011, its authorization expiring in 2014. Some allied countries would only authorize prolonging the mission until 2018 at the upcoming Chicago summit. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania call for an open-ended prolongation, rather than a time-limited one. To ensure its continuation, the Baltic air-policing mission needs the status of a permanent NATO mission. Such a status would protect this small mission from the effects of drastic budget cuts and force cuts that are looming throughout NATO in the years ahead.

The United States supports open-ended prolongation of the Baltic air-policing mission for an indefinite period post-2018. The US made this clear again during the latest NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting on February 3 in Brussels. A corresponding political decision at the Chicago summit, however, requires unanimous consent, which still needs to be built up ahead of the event (BNS, February 3).

According to NATO-Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during his recent Baltic visit, the air-policing mission exemplifies the “smart-defense” concept (BNS, January 20). Rasmussen introduced this concept to NATO in 2011 as a means for streamlining defense expenditures in a period of austerity. This concept involves pooling and sharing of assets and resources, division of labor, avoiding duplication, and focusing on niche capabilities of each member country. In this light, the three Baltic States use their meager resources more effectively to advance inter-operability with Allies, while relying on larger countries to police the air space. This idea underlay NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission since its inception, but it dovetails with the recently promulgated smart-defense.

Although this small mission is a light burden by any measurement, only a few NATO countries have participated in the air-policing rotation in recent years (see above). These few countries may plead “some kind of fatigue,” according to NATO’s transformation command head, General Stephane Abrial, in Vilnius (BNS, February 7). The Baltic States are now being asked to increase their support for this mission, in ways yet to be determined; possibly by upgrading the Zokniai base facilities. This could help increase the number of NATO countries rotating in the four-month deployments.

Participation by the non-NATO countries, Sweden and Finland, in this mission is a matter under active consideration, with potentially far-reaching implications. Sweden and Finland are planning closer defense and security ties with NATO on one hand, and with the three Baltic States in a Nordic-Baltic framework on the other hand. While Sweden’s or Finland’s membership in NATO seems distant indeed, practical cooperation is advancing on both of those levels. Swedish and Finnish participation in the Baltic air-policing mission would strengthen both countries’ links with NATO as well as the Nordic-Baltic defense and security cooperation (BNS, February 2).

Baltic States’ governments would welcome Swedish and Finnish participation as an addition to NATO countries, not as a replacement for them in the air-policing mission. NATO cannot delegate the defense of member countries to non-members; nor can non-NATO countries be expected to assume defense obligations vis-à-vis NATO members. Any solution that would replace NATO countries with non-NATO ones in this or any NATO defense mission would look like dilution of the Alliance’s commitment. It could also set a political precedent within NATO for farming out the defense of Allied countries.

Cooperation by Sweden and Finland is essential for NATO or US reinforcements to reach Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania in crisis contingencies. Adding the two Nordic countries to the Baltic air-policing mission would underscore the potential for such cooperation, provided that NATO countries’ own role in this mission remains undiminished. Moreover, the air-policing mission is no substitute for a real NATO presence on the ground in the Baltic States. Such a presence in the form of infrastructure, training centers and exercises is a matter that also needs to be raised for discussion, in advance of the NATO summit in Chicago.