Handover of the key to the Baltic airspace from Poland and Denmark to Spain and the Czech Republic.
Handover of the key to the Baltic airspace from Poland and Denmark to Spain and the Czech Republic.

Lithuania and Estonia Welcome New NATO Air Policing Fighter Detachments

NATO’s collective Air Policing mission in the Baltics continues as incoming Allies Spain, Czech Republic and France officially take over from outgoing Allies Poland, Denmark and Belgium. The traditional handover-takeover ceremonies in Šiauliai, Lithuania, and Ämari, Estonia, took place on March 31, with a strong demonstration of unwavering cohesion and firm solidarity within the Alliance. At Šiauliai, where NATO fighters have continuously been deployed since 2004, Lithuania’s Vice Minister of National Defence, Margiris Abukevi?ius underscored that “in light of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine and a greatly deteriorating security environment in the region, NATO’s Air Policing mission in the Baltic region remains as important as ever. “Against this backdrop, the mission for incoming contingents will demand continuous agility and professionalism,” he underscored.

The representative of NATO, Major General Jörg Lebert, Chief of Staff of Headquarters Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany, underscored the importance of the symbolic ceremony “at this time of the worst military aggression in Europe for decades.” The collective approach to shielding Allied skies “demonstrates NATO’s rock-solid commitment to deterrence and defence in response to Russia’s aggressive military incursion into Ukraine,” he said. “The fighter jets and personnel from four NATO nations present here today” (and two detachments in Estonia) “working alongside our Allies, emphasises the deep solidarity between both countries and colleagues,” he added. According to General Lebert, “Allies are maintaining around 130 combat aircraft on alert – a strong signal of the Alliance’s capability and readiness to shield and protect every inch of our territory.”

The outgoing Belgian detachment assembled in the background of one of their F-16 fighters during the ceremony. Photo by Estonian Defence Force / Siim Verner Teder.

At Ämari, NATO fighters have operated since 2014, augmenting the Air Policing mission in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the time and assuring eastern Allies of NATO’s support. During the handover ceremony here, the Commander of the Estonian Air Force, Brigadier General Rauno Sirk, said: “We thank the Belgian Air Policing detachment for their outstanding completion of the mission . I’ll take the chance to assure you that the people of Estonia and the Baltics remain grateful for your contribution. It is my distinct pleasure to welcome the French detachment for their third iteration of the mission out of Estonia. You will start the mission in troubled times – war is raging in Europe. No doubt your four-month rotation here will be a challenging one, but I am highly confident that we will success in keeping Estonian, Baltic and NATO airspace integrity intact,” he added.

Major General Harold van Pee, Commander of NATO’s northern Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, who represented NATO at Ämari, said that in 2014, “Allies deployed additional jets to the Baltic Sea region to send a crystal-clear message to Russia underlining NATO cohesion and deterring potential aggression. NATO was resolute then and we remain so now; we will not tolerate any attack on Allied sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

On the occasion of the mission handover, Host Nations Lithuania, Estonia, and NATO commended outgoing Allied fighter detachments from Poland, Denmark and Belgium for an excellent job protecting the skies in the region and for their friendship. They also welcomed incoming detachments from Spain, the Czech Republic and France – all of which have repeatedly supported the 24/7 defensive Allied mission in previous years – as a symbol of enduring commitment and further increased readiness and vigilance.

The incoming French detachment assembled in front of one of their Mirage 2000-5 fighters during the ceremony. Photo by Estonian Defence Force / Siim Verner Teder.