Tag: NATO Baltic Air Policing

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Two Russian Tu-160s And Four Flankers Intercepted By Italian F-35s, Danish F-16s and Swedish Gripens Over The Baltic

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Tu-160 F-35
One of the two Tu-160s involved in the June 15, 2021 mission over the Baltic. (Image credit: Russian MOD)

Two Russian Tu-160s, two Su-27s and two Su-35s were escorted at various stages by NATO and Swedish fighters in the Baltic region.

Two Russian Tu-160 (NATO reporting name “Blackjack”) bombers carried out an 8-hour mission over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea on Jun. 15, 2021. Interestingly, the two “White Swan” missile-carrier bombers were escorted by two Su-35S aircraft of the Aerospace Force and two Su-27 fighters of the Baltic Fleet’s naval aviation during their trip.

The Tu-160s belong to the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment stationed at Engels-2 Air Base in Saratov, Oblast, southwestern Russia, the only unit to fly the 14-16 Blackjack bombers believed to be operational with the Russian Aerospace Forces.

The Russian Long Range Aviation (LRA) mission in the Baltic region caused several NATO aircraft in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duty to scramble: Italian Air Force F-35As, Royal Danish Air Force F-16s and Swedish Air Force JAS 39 Gripens were scrambled to identify and shadow the Russian “package” as it progressed across the region.

The crews of Russian long-range aircraft regularly perform flights over the neutral waters of the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the Black and Baltic Seas and the Pacific Ocean, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

Today’s intercept comes less than a week after the first close encounter between an Italian F-35 and a Russian Su-30SM escorting an An-12 transport aircraft flying to/from Kaliningrad oblast, off Estonia.

As already explained, the Italian F-35A involved in the intercept are two of the four Lightning II aircraft, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, that are currently stationed at Amari, in Estonia, where they arrived on Apr. 30, 2021, to carry out the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission. The Italian F-35s, operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia, in support of “Baltic Eagle II” (as the mission has been dubbed at national level), will remain in Estonia for the BAP mission until August.

As a matter of fact, no photographs nor videos of the most recent intercepts were released by NATO and Italian Air Force. However, it is possible that some images will be made available in the next few days (as happened for the F-35’s first intercept in support of BAP on May 14, whose photos were cleared many days after the event), as the number of intercepts increases.

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.

Here Are The Photos Of The First Ever Intercept Of A Russian Aircraft By F-35 Under NATO Command In The Baltics

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F-35 intercept An-12
An Italian Air Force F-35 fighter aircraft intercepting a Russian An-12 on 14 May 2021. This was the first intercept a modern fighter aircraft executed in the Baltic Sea region as part of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission. Italy has augmented the collective Allied mission safeguarding the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since beginning of May 2021. Photo by Italian Air Force (all rights reserved).

We have obtained the photos of the first intercept by F-35s supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing mission last month.

As already reported, the Italian Air Force F-35 aircraft deployed to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission, carried out their first intercept on May 14, 2021.

The Lightning II jets, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, were scrambled after the Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, detected an unidentified track in the Baltic Sea flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad. Upon take off, the F-35s in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) approached and identified a Russian An-12 transport aircraft flying in international airspace off Estonia.

Initially, no official photo of the intercepted Russian aircraft was 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,” this Author commented back then.

However, responding to a request we submitted immediately after the news of the intercept had been released, NATO Allied Air Command has eventually provided us two images showing one of the two Italian F-35s escorting the An-12 over the Baltics: nothing special to be honest, since the configuration of the Lightning was standard (with RCS enhancers and no external air-to-air missile launchers) and the “zombie” was just a “Cub” transport plane, still interesting, as they represent the only photo evidence of the first ever intercept of an F-35 under NATO command in the Baltics for the records.

Noteworthy, you can also see the pretty distinctive wingtip vortices (similar to contrails) generated by the F-35.

The flaperon and wingtip vortices have long been subject of discussion here at The Aviationist. GAO claimed that these could affect the aircraft’s stealth performance; others suggest these visible “tubes of circulating air which are left behind the aircraft’s wing as it generates lift” may make the aircraft more easily picked up visually by an enemy pilot in a WVR (Within Visual Range) engagement even though some pilots have explained that they are not a factor because if you are close enough to see the F-35’s vortices, you are probably close enough to see the jet. True, although some images taken from the ground and posted online recently of F-35s trailing a tanker indeed seem to confirm that, under certain conditions, those vortices may highlight the presence of the jet from several miles away.

F-35 intercept An-12
An Italian Air Force F-35 fighter aircraft intercepting a Russian An-12 on 14 May 2021. This was the first intercept a modern fighter aircraft executed in the Baltic Sea region as part of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission. Italy has augmented the collective Allied mission safeguarding the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since beginning of May 2021. Photo by Italian Air Force (all rights reserved).

The Italian F-35s deployed to Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021; 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-35s will remain in Estonia for the BAP mission 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 as the plan calls for Italy to support NATO BAP in Estonia until the end of 2021.

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.

Italian Air Force Typhoons Escorted A U.S. B-1B Lancer Bomber During Mission Over Lithuania And Latvia

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Italian Air Force Eurofighter escorting a U.S. Air Force B-1B during a mission over the Baltic on Mar. 3, 2021. (Image credit: ItAF via NATO)

The Italian Eurofighter Typhoons supporting NATO’s Baltic Air Policing integrated with one of the U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers deployed to Norway.

On March 3, 2021, two U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers from the 7th Bomb Wing, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, currently deployed to Orland, Norway, as part of Bomber Task Force 21, launched a mission in areas “including the international airspace of the North and Baltic Seas.”

The flight included integration with Danish F-16s, Polish F-16s and Baltic Air Policing Eurofighter Typhoons belonging to the Italian and German Air Force. In particular, one B-1 and Typhoons also conducted a low-fly over Riga, Latvia; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Tallinn, Estonia.

“The combined mission was flown over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The US-NATO formation conducted fly-bys near the three Baltic Capitals of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn to demonstrate NATO’s presence, readiness, and commitment to the transatlantic link within the Alliance,” NATO Allied Air Command explained in a statement.

The Italian Air Force Typhoons escorted the B-1B during the segment the BONE (from “B-One”) flew over Lithuania and Latvia; whereas the German Air Force Eurofighters escorted the bomber over Estonia.

“The event was a great opportunity for the Italian aircrew to train with the US assets, a chance to further increase the cooperation among NATO allies ,” said Colonel Daniele Donati, Commander of the Italian Detachment. “In addition to such interoperability missions, we are proud to provide our national contribution to the defence and the integrity of the NATO Airspace within the Baltic Air Policing mission framework.” Since Sept. 1, 2020, the Italian Air Force has the lead of the NATO BAP mission. On Sept. 8, the Task Force Air “Baltic Thunder” and its four 4x F-2000A Typhoons, belonging to the 4°, 36° and 37° Stormo (Wing), have achieved the FOC (Full Operational Capability), providing H24 QRA duties in the Baltic. Also deployed in the region, as “augmentees” supporting the BAP mission from Amari, Estonia, are the German Air Force Eurofighters.

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)

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