In Amari, the F-16s keep watch… Russian

An F-16 (© NGV / B2)

(B2 in Ämari) For 4 months, the Belgian F-16s took off or came to park at this Ämari air base, of the Estonian army, located a few cables from the sea. Their mission — surveillance Baltic Air Force — ends to make way for the British pilots who will take their “shift” for the next four months.

The slogan of the RAF material arrived on the spot. A barely ironic tribute to Madame de Pompadour © NGV / B2

A brand new base

Freshly upgraded, with brand new buildings, the Ämari base hosts in turn (every 4 months), normally, the contingents of the Atlantic Alliance responsible for ensuring aerial surveillance of the small Baltic State of 1,7, 140 million inhabitants. The Belgians had not yet left when the British began to arrive. A small detachment from the 617th EAW (Expeditionary Air Wing), which I was able to meet, and the XNUMXth Squadron are already there. With a slogan that sounds (in French please): “After me, the deluge ! "

Reinforcement of aerial surveillance over the Baltic

Since 2014, in fact, the Atlantic Alliance has decided to strengthen aerial surveillance of the Baltic countries. Where a single patrol, based in Šiauliai (in Lithuania), was sufficient in the past, today there are three on duty, simultaneously: the Spanish in Šiauliai, the Poles in Malbork, in Poland, and the Belgians in Amari in Estonia. Which allows us to keep a close eye on our big Russian neighbor! This area is “ strategic » confides Commander Philippe, head of the Belgian operational detachment (DOO) of EAPM (Enhanced Air Policing). " We are in the far north, very close to Russia ».

Twelve alerts in four months

In four months, Belgian planes left 12 times in “A Scramble”, in intervention. 2 times in January, 1 time in February, 3 times in March, 6 times in April. A fairly low number of alerts, due to “ probably in winter explains an officer. " It’s like the ground, the activity is a little frozen”. These four months have been quite difficult for the Belgian drivers and mechanics with very harsh weather, like Estonia. An average temperature of -10°, with peaks of -30°, snow which fell heavily on certain days. Conditions to which crews from the west of the continent are not necessarily accustomed, nor equipped with the equipment.

Full radar surveillance

Surveillance is carried out by Estonian radars whose coverage area covers the entire country, part of Latvia and… part of the Russian zone. They are connected with other radars in the Baltic countries (Latvia and Lithuania). This allows for complete coverage of the area. “ We share all the information, through the NATO system » to the Ramstein CAOC which ensures the fusion of information. The Estonian radar, located furthest north, makes it possible to “hook” Russian planes as soon as they leave.

A classic route for Russian planes from the north to Kaliningrad © NGV/ B2

A regular connection to Kaliningrad

Russian planes usually take off from Russia. They make a loop by sea, more or less above international waters, to connect Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg). “Domestic” flights which have many other objectives as well: to “intimidate” a little no doubt but above all to surely make the Russian presence felt and to gather information no doubt.

The disproportion of forces

The command of the first Russian air region has, in fact, a notable force: nearly 600 aircraft. Russia has 291 combat aircraft: 168 fighters (Mig-29 Mig 25 RB and Su-24 Mr), 63 bombers (SU-24M Fencer and Su-34 Fullback), 60 reconnaissance aircraft (Mig-31 and Su -27 Flanker) — and 259 helicopters: 24 attack helicopters (Mi-28, Ka-52), 86 Mi-24 assault helicopters and 149 Mi-8 transport helicopters. On the other hand, the Estonians do not really have a real air fleet (2 L-39 training planes rented from the Czechs, 4 R-44 light helicopters and 1 old Antonov An-2 Colt, a single-engine biplane which is almost 70 years old). and fly again!).

The Russian show of force

Offshore, everything goes by. " We saw tankers, like the Ilyushin IL-78 Midas (a four-jet engine originally designed for transport, transformed into a tanker plane) - says an officer -, combat planes like the Sukhoi Su-27 Flancker or the Sukhoi SU-24, IL-76 Candid or AN-12 Cub type transport aircraft, even mixed aircraft, such as the Iliouchine IL-20 Coot A, used for transport but above all to collect information or the Tupolev TU-134 ( Crustry) », an aircraft intended for the transport of passengers but which can be reconverted into an intelligence aircraft.

Unarmed planes that listen a lot?

« In general these planes do not seem to be armed » continues our interlocutor. On the other hand, we don't really know what they are doing, the objective of the transit. Is it to go as far as Kaliningrad only, to observe and gather information, to test… All hypotheses are possible.

A violation of aviation rules but not of the territory

There is no territorial violation in the strict sense. But Russian planes flying in the FIR (Flight Information Region) do not give any flight plans, do not communicate by radio and do not have their transponders turned on. So much information that makes the theft suspicious. It is the CAOC, the Ramstein air traffic control center, which alerts the aircraft concerned. It is up to them to intercept the suspect plane and “escort” it until it leaves the area.

“Fair play” interceptions

With Russian planes, in general things go pretty well. It’s “fair” confirms Commander Philippe (*). “ If we don't get too close, if we don't play cowboy with them, they respect us. There is no escalation But don't tickle them though. " Sometimes if we go too close, they push us a little. They do not like ! ". One day when one of our planes was holding him a little close or a little long, the pilot of the SU-27 Flanker stood on his side, just to show us his armament says a pilot. Message understood. " Our plane took a little deviation ».


No escalation, but a continuous presence

An analysis from the field which confirms, with others, that if there is a very clear increase in thefts, we do not have - as some proclaim - a dangerous escalation, with threatening thefts. We are here more in terms of “presence flights”, intended to assert Russian pre-eminence in the Baltic zone, to maintain the continuous link with Kaliningrad to prevent it from being broken. Even if the thefts are not “offensive”, we are nevertheless in an attitude of “intimidation”. And on the Estonian side, we believe that the danger is very real.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

A detachment of 49 people

The Belgian detachment is made up of 49 military personnel from different units (mainly Florennes and Kleine Brogel but also from Beauvechain, the Meteo Wing, the CRC Glons), etc. It was renewed at mid-term, every 2 weeks for pilots.

(*) Borrowed first name. B2 respects the anonymity of operating personnel, according to their request.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

One thought on “In Amari, the F-16s keep watch… Russian"

  • It should be noted that Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad, and not Kaliliningrad, in 1946, named after Mkhaïl Kalinine (Михаил Иванович Калинин), president of the presidium of the supreme soviet, who died on June 3, 1946. Unlike other cities (Léningrad, Stalingrad, Ulyanovsk, Gorky, ….), Kaliningrad was not renamed in 1991, even though it is believed that Kalinin, without signing it, supported the order for the assassination of Polish officers in Katyn.

    You do not mention, quite rightly because this is not the subject of the article, the recent simulations of the attack on the USS Donald Cook by Su-24s in the Baltic, but it seems that, in this case, we were very far from “fair play” ……

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