Royal Air Force personnel have returned to the UK after leading NATO’s Baltic air policing mission in Estonia for four months, during which pilots intercepted 50 Russian aircraft and flew for a combined total of more than 500 hours. Members of 140 Expeditionary Air Wing (140 EAW) have been deployed to Ämari Air Base since the start of March, along with a squadron of RAF Typhoon fighter jets, to conduct Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) intercepts of Russian aircraft transiting close to NATO airspace. Typhoon jets and their pilots from IX(Bomber) and 1(Fighter) squadrons had deployed to Estonia from RAF Lossiemouth, where the majority of 140 EAW’s personnel have now returned. The deployment, named Op Azotize, began with RAF pilots flying missions alongside the German Air Force – during which the first ever air joint air intercept between NATO allies took place, as British and German Typhoons shadowed a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft and transport aircraft.
Defence Minister Baroness Goldie DL said:” Following a successful deployment to Estonia from our strategic airbase at Lossiemouth, I pay tribute to the commitment and dedication of personnel from 140 Expeditionary Air Wing for their role in protecting NATO airspace over the last four months. The day to day, personal sacrifices made not only by the individuals but also their families in the name of duty are nothing short of commendable. It is reflective of the important contribution to our defence capability from all parts of the UK.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said:”Hundreds of RAF pilots and personnel have spent months away from their families, working round-the-clock alongside our allies to keep Europe’s skies safe. The UK’s successful leadership of NATO’s air policing mission in Estonia, resulting in the interception of dozens of Russian aircraft by the RAF, sends a strong message to Putin that we stand united with our allies against any threat to our borders.
Personnel from 140EAW were held at a moment’s notice to intercept Russian aircraft that do not liaise with NATO-controlled regional air traffic agencies and do not file flight plans, thus failing to adhere to international norms. This, in turn, creates a flight safety risk that must be investigated and monitored by NATO aircraft to ensure the safety of all air traffic in the region. After taking full leadership of the air policing mission, RAF Typhoons flew QRA intercepts on a regular basis – including a 21-day period in which Russian fighters, long-range bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft were intercepted 21 times. During the course of the deployment, operations were conducted in coordination with the Portuguese and Romanian Air Forces, which jointly led the NATO air policing mission in Lithuania.
While deployed to Estonia, the RAF has also taken part in a number of major exercises with NATO allies, including Exercise Air Defender, the largest NATO Air Deployment exercise since the end of the Cold War, with more than 250 aircraft and 10,000 personnel taking part from 25 nations. The RAF contribution to the exercise combined Typhoons from 140 EAW based in Estonia and 903 EAW based in Cyprus, and included F-35, Voyager and A-400M aircraft flying from the UK. The NATO Baltic Air Policing mission was established at Amari base in Estonia and Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania in 2014 after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Allies who contribute to the mission deploy to the air bases in Eastern Europe on a four month rotational basis, providing protection and assurance to all NATO members as well as partner nations. The UK’s defence commitment to Estonia will continue through Op Cabrit, with more than 1,000 soldiers from the British Army currently stationed at Tapa Army Base to form the UK’s contribution to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence along its eastern border with Russia.