NATO Halves Size of Baltic Air Police Mission

Despite a rise in Russian air activity over northern Europe, NATO is halving the size of its Baltic Air Policing mission headquartered in Lithuania, as it believes the number of aircraft stationed there exceeds the needs of the mission.

The Air Policing mission has carried out a large part of the interceptions of Russian aircraft approaching and, on rare occasions, violating allied airspace, since the start of the Ukraine conflict in early 2014.

NATO reported that last year allied aircraft scrambled 524 times across Europe, 442 of which were scrambles in response to Russian air activity. It said 150 of these scrambles against Russian air activity took place over the Baltics. This year there have been more than 310 scrambles over Europe, with more than 245 of which being prompted by Russian air activity.

According to NATO's deputy spokesperson Carmen Romero, despite the recent surge in activity near allied airspace, the Baltic air mission is to lose half of its aircraft as of September. Romero says that NATO does not consider the current size of the mission—16 aircraft—necessary, so it will reduce the deployment to eight units.

"Our military commanders assess that this posture is appropriate and adequate," Romero told Newsweek. "This is double the number we had before the start of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Prior to the crisis, the mission normally had four aircraft for each rotation, all based at Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania."

Speaking to Newsweek a NATO official explained that the reason 16 aircraft were stationed in the Baltics in the first place was as a signal of solidarity.

"Changes to the Baltic Air Policing Mission do not represent a change in the efficiency of our Baltic Air Policing, nor a change in our signal to Russia. NATO remains as committed as it was to reinforcing our collective defense measures in the eastern part of the Alliance in reaction to Russia's actions," the NATO official said.

"I would call it a technical adjustment more than anything else. There will be no reduction in our level of vigilance of the Baltic Air Space," the official added.

The new changes to the air policing mission will also impact where the jets are coming from. Hungary and Germany will send four fighters each to the mission, taking over from the UK, Norway, Italy and Belgium, which contributed to the current force.

The Hungarian jets will be based in Šiauliai, while Germany's fighters will be deployed to the Ämari airbase in nearby Estonia until the end of the year.