Tag: Baltic Air Policing

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Russian Su-30SM and Italian F-35As Had Their First Close Encounter Over The Baltic Sea

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Russian Su-30SM Italian F-35A
A screenshot of the video released by the Fighter Bomber instagram account showing the Russian Su-30SM and the Italian F-35A.

A video shows an interesting intercept that occurred in international airspace off Estonia.

It was just a matter of time but, in the end, a pretty interesting (and quite relaxed) close encounter between a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM two-seat multirole aircraft and two Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft, took place in the Baltic Region.

One video and two shots, released today by the popular “Fighter Bomber” (@fighter_bomber_) Instagram account, show a Russian Su-30SM Flanker derivative flying alongside two F-35As over the Baltic Sea, somewhere off Estonia, where the Italian stealth jets are deployed to carry out QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) task in support of NATO Baltic Air Policing mission.

The short clip shows the two F-35s approaching what seems to be a An-12 (like the one already intercepted by the Italians in that scenario on May 14) aircraft that is probably flying to/from Kaliningrad oblast escorted by at least one Su-30SM.

The Italian F-35A involved in the intercept belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, the first unit of the Aeronautica Militare to receive the Lightning in 2016 and the first in Europe to achieve IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in November 2018. As explained in details in a few recent articles, the Italian jets have arrived in Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021, marking both the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to the Baltic and the first time 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States. On May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.

The Italian F-35A jets carry out the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service in the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay. They also carry RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers (so they don’t fly in stealth mode).

Interestingly, the Su-30SM in the video appears to carry an IR-guided R-27T/ET (NATO reporting name AA-10 Alamo) air-to-air missile. Even more worth of remark is the fact that the Flanker was escorting an An-12: unless this was some special mission variant of the “Cub”, it seems quite weird that the Russian Su-30SM was escorting a simple transport aircraft. Unless, they knew NATO would scramble the F-35s and wanted the close encounter to take place.  Anyway, let’s also wait for NATO to release some details (and possibly photo) of the intercept.

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Italian Air Force Identifies Russian An-12 Off Estonia In First Ever Intercept By F-35 Supporting NATO BAP

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F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
File photo of an F-35A supporting NATO mission in Iceland in 2019 (Image credit: Author)

The Italian F-35 jets deployed to Estonia, scored their first intercept under NATO command in the Baltic region.

On May 14, 2021, the Italian Air Force F-35 aircraft deployed to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission, were scrambled and executed their first intercept.

“The Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, recorded an unidentified track in the Baltic Sea  flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad and ordered an alert scramble for the F-35s mission to identify that track. Upon take-off, the Italian NATO aircraft approached and identified a Russian An-12 transport aircraft executing the first ever intercept by an F-35 under NATO orders in the Baltic Sea,” NATO Allied Air Command said in a public statement.

“The Russian military transport plane was flying over international waters close to the Estonian coast; it was not on a flight plan and not sending a transponder signal causing a potential risk to other airspace users. Upon completing the identification, the Italian fighter aircraft returned to Ämari Air Base.”

The Italian F-35A involved in the intercept belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, the first unit of the Aeronautica Militare to receive the Lightning in 2016 and the first in Europe to achieve IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in November 2018.

F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
An F-35A of the Aeronautica Militare launches from Amari AB, Estonia. (Image credit: ItAF)

The Italian F-35A jets carry out the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service in the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay.

The Italian jets have arrived in Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021, marking both the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to the Baltic and the first time 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States. On May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.

Italian F-35 Intercept
An Italian Air Force F-35A at Amari AB, Estonia. (Image credit: ItAF)

Under NATO command, the Italian F-35s will remain in Estonia until August, supporting “Baltic Eagle II” (as the mission has been dubbed at national level), operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia. The F-35s will then be replaced by the Italian Typhoons: in other words, Italy will support NATO BAP in Estonia until the end of 2021.

“The integration of the F-35 advanced capabilities demonstrates how the Allies bring their cutting-edge technology and support NATO’s enduring defensive mission in the region,” said Brigadier General Andrew Hansen, Deputy Chief of Staff Operations at Allied Air Command, said in a public release. “The mission in the Baltics epitomises NATO cohesion and solidarity; at Ämari, the deployed Allied fighter detachments have enabled us at AIRCOM to flexibly conduct the mission and at the same time assure the Baltic populations of NATO’s commitment,” General Hansen added.

F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
File photo of an F-35A about to launch for a QRA mission from Keflavik International Airport during the 2019 deployment in support of NATO Icelandic Air Policing. Note the AIM-120C inside the weapons bay (Image credit: Author)

Although it’s the first time they operate from Estonia, the Italian Air Force F-35A jets have already supported NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland twice: the first time was in 2019, the second in 2020, when the Italian Lightnings scrambled for the first time to intercept a formation of three Russian Tu-142s. As happened back then, no official photo of the intercepted Russian aircraft has been released. Actually, unlike the majority of the other allies, Italy rarely releases images of the “zombies” (as the targets of the intercept mission are called in fighter pilot lingo) taken by the Italian pilots during their QRA launches in support of NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing missions around Europe.

F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
An Italian Air Force F-35A at Amari AB, Estonia. (Image credit: ItAF)

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

The Italian F-35As Have Deployed To Estonia For NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission

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Italian F-35 Estonia
Two Italian Air Force F-35As. (Image credit: Author)

It’s the first time 5th generation aircraft take part in BAP mission.

On Apr. 30, 2021, four Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II jets landed at Amari Air Base, Estonia, to take over the NATO’s BAP (Baltic Air Policing) mission. It’s the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to Estonia (even though the Italian Eurofighter Typhoons operated there for BAP in 2018) and also the first time that 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States.

The Italian F-35s belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, and their deployment to Estonia was supported by a KC-767A tanker, flying as IAM1447 (and tracking online), from Pratica di Mare Air Base.

As part of the “Baltic Eagle II” mission, the Italian F-35A aircraft, operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia will replace the German Air Force Eurofighters which have been deployed to Amari since late August.

At the same time, after leading BAP for 8 months, the Italian Typhoons have completed their rotation at Siauliai, Lithuania.

Although it’s the first time they operate from Estonia, the Italian Air Force F-35A jets have already supported NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland twice: the first time in 2019, the second in 2020, when the Italian Lightnings scrambled for the first time to intercept a formation of three Russian Tu-142s.

In case you are wondering why the F-35A, that is not a “pure” interceptor, is committed to provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert), an air defense mission in Estonia and the Batlic States, here’s the explanation this Author provided in a previous article about the participation of the Italian Lightnings to the Icelandic Air Policing mission:

Well, the reason is quite simple: deploying the 5th gen. stealth aircraft under NATO command allows the service (in this case, the Italian Air Force) to test the asset as part of a different chain of command, with different procedures, on a different base, and in different (sometimes adverse/austere) weather conditions. The peacetime air policing mission requires the aircraft in QRA to scramble with live air-to-air missiles when there is the need to intercept, identify and escort, aircraft approaching or “skirting” NATO Ally’s sovereign airspace: a task that an F-35 is more than able to conduct. Moreover, the deployment on a NATO mission is one of the milestones the Italian Air Force has set along the path to achieve the type’s FOC ( BTW, it’s worth remembering that, first in Europe, the Italians declared the F-35’s IOC on Nov. 30, 2018).

This time the ItAF F-35s will provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) from Estonia, much closer to Russia.

Previous U.S. F-35 trip to Estonia.

Dealing with the F-35 and Estonia, it’s worth remembering what happened in April 2017, when two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Amari for a short visit. In fact, the quick stopover was “accompanied” by a rather unusual activity of U.S. and British spyplanes in the Baltic region: as many as three RC-135s (including a RAF Rivet Joint) operated in the airspaces over or close to Estonia as the F-35s headed to, stayed and returned from Amari. Back then, we speculated the presence of the three spyplanes was related to the F-35s trip: they were probably “covering” the stealth jets, deterring the Russians from using their radars to gather details on the Lightnings at their first trip to Estonia. We also noted that it was not the first time U.S. stealth jets flying to the Baltics were directly or indirectly “accompanied” by Rivet Joints: on Apr. 27, 2016, two F-22s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania supported (so to say) by an RC-135W.

Whatever, although the peacetime NATO QRA configuration does not require the F-35s to keep their LO (Low Observability) – this is the reason why the Lightnings on alert are equipped with radar reflectors/RCS enhancers – it’s quite likely that the presence of the Italian F-35A 5th generation stealth aircraft in Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia, will attract some interest by the Russians land and airborne ELINT sensors, targeting, if not the F-35’s radar signature at specific wavelengths, at least its valuable radar emissions… We will see.

A big thank you to our friend Giovanni Colla for sending us additional details about the deployment!

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

NATO Interceptors Scrambled 10 Times In 6 Hours To Shadow Russian Bombers And Fighters Near Alliance Airspace

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NATO Eurofighter escorting Russian group
An Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon escorting a group of Russian military aircraft in international airspace over the Baltic Sea off the Lithuanian Coast during an intercept on March 29, 2021. (Image credit: Italian Air Force via NATO).

NATO fighter jets shadowed Russian bombers and fighters during an “unusual peak of flights” over the North Atlantic, North Sea, Black Sea and Baltic Sea, yesterday.

Monday Mar. 29, 2021, was particularly busy for NATO fighters. According to the NATO Allied Air Command, its fighters, providing Air Policing at various locations along the borders of the Alliance, intercepted different groups of Russian military aircraft near NATO airspace in less than six hours.

“Intercepting multiple groups of Russian aircraft demonstrates NATO forces’ readiness and capability to guard Allied skies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” said Brigadier General Andrew Hansen, Deputy Chief of Staff Operations at Allied Air Command, Ramstein, Germany, in a public release.

In the High North, Norwegian F-16s scrambled after radars spotted two groups of Russian military aircraft flying near Norway’s coast.

“The Norwegian jets intercepted two Tu-95 Bear bombers, which continued to fly south over the North Sea prompting the United Kingdom and Belgium to scramble Typhoon and F-16 fighters, respectively,” says the NATO statement, although the aircraft depicted in the photographs released by the Royal Air Force were Tu-142 “Bear-F” long-range maritime patrol reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft

The Belgian Air Force F-16s were also scrambled to respond to the Russian bombers presence over the North Sea. The Belgian Vipers have recently returned to full operational status after being grounded following an incident last month in which an F-16 experienced an engine problem taking off from Florennes.

Later in the day, the Norwegian F-16s intercepted two Tu-160 Blackjack bombers over international waters.

Turkish, Romanian and Bulgarian fighter aircraft were also scrambled  track Russian aircraft operating in the Black Sea area. The types of Russian aircraft in this group have not been disclosed.

In the Baltic Sea, the Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons deployed to Šiauliai, Lithunia, to support NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, were launched to identify a Russian Il-38 “Dolphin” (NATO reporting name “May”) ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) aircraft which was escorted by the F-2000s over the Baltic Sea flying into and out of Kaliningrad Oblast.

Interestingly, a photo of this intercept has been released by NATO Allied Air Command and shows the Russian Il-38 escorted by two Su-27 Flankers flying in “formation” with the Italian Eurofighters (one clearly visible in the photo, another one not visible, because it was the camera ship).

“The men and women at NATO’s two Combined Air Operations Centres in Uedem, Germany, and Torrejón, Spain, quickly responded to unidentified aircraft near the Alliance’s borders by launching fighters from Norway, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to investigate and protect allied airspace”, Brigadier Hansen said, adding that NATO’s Air Policing mission is a “truly collective effort”.

Obviously, the Russian aircraft intercepted on Monday remained in international airspace near NATO airspace, and the interceptions “were conducted in a safe and routine manner”. However, as explained by NATO “Russian military aircraft often do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, do not file a flight plan, or do not communicate with air traffic controllers, posing a potential risk to civilian airliners,” as happened a few years ago in the Baltic Sea, when an Il-20 almost collided with a civilian aircraft near Sweden.

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Portuguese F-16s Deployed to Malbork, Poland, For NATO Enhanced Baltic Air Policing

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File photo of a Portuguese F-16. (Image credit: PoAF)

The Portuguese Air Force has deployed four F-16M Vipers from Monte Real Air Base, Portugal, to 22 Baza Lotnictwa Taktycznego at Malbork Air Base in Poland, along with around 95 military personnel, on Sept. 4, 2020. The goal of the deployment is to conduct training with the NATO allies in the region. The initiative is organized as part of NATO’s Assurance Measures and the deployment is expected to last for around two months.

This is yet another deployment of the Portuguese aircraft to Malbork as a similar operation took place in March last year.

The NATO Aircom press release quotes the Portuguese detachment commander who said that:

(…) F-16 “Vipers” are capable to conduct multi-role missions both Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground, which offers great flexibility and provides for first-rate training opportunities with our friends. My team is scheduled to start the deployment on September 1 and our jets will arrive on September 4. Our F-16 “Vipers” are capable to conduct multi-role missions both Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground, which offers great flexibility and provides for first-rate training opportunities with our friends.

The deployment of the F-16s was supported by a C-130H of the Esq.501 from Montijo. On its way to Malbork, the transport aircraft was intercepted and welcomed by two Polish MiG-29 Fulcrums.

After their stay in Poland, the Portuguese Vipers will return to their original base in Monte Real, to continue their air policing efforts in the Portuguese airspace. BTW, on Aug. 28, the PoAF F-16s intercepted one of the B-52s undertaking the tour of Europe as part of the Allied Sky mission.

A PoAF F-16 escorts a B-52 of the 5th BW deployed to RAF Fairford. (Image credit: PoAF)

Cockpit Footage Of BAF F-16 Intercepting Russian Fighters Flying Over USS Donald Cook Destroyer In The Baltic Sea

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Some screenshots from the BAF footage just released by NATO.

In the late morning of Apr. 17, 2020, Belgian Air Force F-16s currently deployed to Siauliai, Lithuania, to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission intercepted a group of Russian Federation Air Force fighters in the Baltic Sea.

According to the Allied Air Command, “the Russian fighters were maneuvering in international airspace overflying the USS Donald Cook, a US Navy 6th Fleet destroyer currently operating in the Baltic Sea off the Lithuanian coast. The Belgian F-16 conducted a professional intercept and left the scene, demonstrating that NATO remains ready, vigilant and prepared to respond to any potential threat.”

Interestingly, the Belgians released some footage filmed from the cockpit (and through the pilot’s Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) as the F-16s shadowed the Russian Su-24, Su-27 and Su-30SM.

The BAF F-16s deployed in Lithuania have been quite busy lately:

Back to the recent Su-24 intercept, this was not the first time Russian Fencers flew very close or directly over NATO warships in the Baltic Sea or Black Sea. In the past, we have observed unusual and aggressive low flybys that could not be considered particularly worrisome as the Su-24s depicted in the clips and photographs were unarmed and probably only conducting “simulated attacks” on the warships at sea not too far from home.

However, the most recent intercept show a significant change: along with the 3,000 lt PTB-3000 drop tanks the Su-24Ms appear to be armed with Kh-25M (AS-10 KAREN) air-to-surface missiles, as noted by AFM Editor Thomas Newdick. The laser guided Kh-25ML is the most widespread tactical air-to-surface missile in Russian service, according to Piotr Butowski’s “Russia’s Air-launched Weapons”. This missile weights 650lb (295 kg) and is equipped with a a 200lb (90 kg) warhead. It has a max range of 10 km, a minimum launch distance after launch from low altitude of 3km and 8km from high altitude. It’s not an anti-ship missile though: for that type of mission, the Su-24M can carry the larger and heavier Kh-31A (AS-17 Krypton) with a range of 50km (31 miles).

BTW, low passages of Russian planes on U.S. Navy warships (and vice versa) are somehow frequent and usually uneventful. However, once, a show of force had a different ending when, on May 25, 1968, a Soviet Tu-16 Badger-F crashed into the sea close to USN carrier USS Essex in the Norwegian sea after a few flybys.


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