Our friends in Western Europe can sleep well; NATO’s air forces are on guard, and ready to defend the alliance against potential airliner threats.
For the second time in less than a week, NATO fighters scrambled to intercept a commercial jetliner that lost radio contact in European skies. In the latest incident (which occurred yesterday), a pair of RAF Typhoons escorted an Air France jet traveling from Paris to Newcastle after it developed a radio problem. The British jets triggered at least two sonic booms across northern England as they rushed to intercept the commercial flight.
Last week, passengers on a British Airways jet over Hungary were surprised when a pair of JAS-39 Gripen fighters appeared alongside their aircraft. The Gripens, which serve as front-line interceptors for the Hungarian Air Force, were dispatched after controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777, enroute from Dubai to Heathrow Airport in London. Both airliners landed safely, and aside from a few nervous passengers, no further problems were reported.
Post 9-11, intercepting a jetliner that loses its transponder or doesn’t respond to ATC communications has become standard practice–and rightfully so. But these incidents also highlight an apparent dichotomy in dealing with airborne threats, both potential and real.
While NATO was quick to react to those non-responsive jetliners, it’s air assets were noticeably absent during Russia’s recent harassment of a Navy destroyer and RC-135 reconnaissance jets operating in the Baltic Region. Last week, Russian SU-27 fighters flew dangerously close to an RC-135 on a routine collection mission over the Baltic; the pilot capped his intercept with a barrel roll around the lumbering recce jet, a move the U.S. described as “dangerous” and “unprofessional.” It was the second time in less than a month that a Russian fighter conducted that maneuver while shadowing an RC-135.
While the U.S. has vigorously protested these incidents (you can almost hear the laughter from the Kremlin), we’ve been less aggressive in taking steps to protect our assets in the region. Specifically, there is still no evidence that NATO’s vaunted Baltic “Air Policing” force was ever scrambled in support of the RC-135 missions, or to assist the USS Donald Cook, the destroyer that endured dozens of dangerously low passes from Russian SU-24 attack jets in early April.
As we’ve noted previously, the air policing mission was implemented when the Baltic states–Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia–joined NATO more than a decade ago. With no air forces of their own, the Baltic countries rely on rotating packages of aircraft, pilots and ground crews to provide some semblance of air defense protection against Russian incursions. Currently, the air policing mission is being handled by six RAF Typhoons and four F-16s from Portugal’s Air Force. The UK dispatched two additional Typhoons to the region after the recent incidents involving U.S. assets.
Of course, these detachments are little more than a token force which could offer modest resistance if Vladimir Putin decided one day to retake one–or all–of the Baltic countries. But they could be effective in chasing off Russian fighters that are harassing other NATO assets. The Typhoon, for example, is an advanced, fourth-generation fighter that is more than a match for the Flankers and Fencers that have been buzzing US ships and aircraft. But an aircraft like the Typhoon isn’t much good if it’s sitting on the ground while, not far away, a Flanker is closing to within 25 feet of an RC-135, endangering the lives of all crew members involved.
And, it’s not that NATO was unaware of these episodes. Senior officers watched them unfold at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Ramstein AB, Germany, which has melded situational displays of all activity in the alliance’s northern tier. Yet, as far as we can discern, no scramble order was given; the sailors on the Cook and the crews of those RC-135s were on their own.
That’s not to say NATO’s “air police” are purely a ground-bound force. Earlier this year, it was disclosed that alliance fighters in the Baltic scrambled back on the night of March 29, 2013, when a pair of Russian TU-22 Backfire bombers (escorted by four SU-27s) flew a simulated nuclear strike profile against Sweden. Stockholm was caught completely surprised by the move; the Swedish Air Force apparently had no aircraft, pilots or crews on ground alert, so a pair of Danish Air Force F-16s, assigned to the air policing mission, intercepted the Russian package as it flew over the Baltic.
Curiously, we can’t find a single instance where the media–particularly the so-called “defense press”–has bothered to ask about the rules of engagement for the air police mission, and the criteria used for scrambling those assets. Sending the F-16s up in support of Sweden made sense, but leaving them on the ground while Russian fighters harass U.S. aircraft and ships left many observers shaking their heads.
These latest provocations from Moscow came as NATO prepared to welcome a new Supreme Allied Commander. U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti assumed the post yesterday, replacing Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who is retiring. Before relinquishing his final command, General Breedlove sat for an interview with Stars and Stripes, advocating that U.S. forces in Europe (along with the rest of NATO), get back into the business of war planning.
Breedlove said more work needs to be done to lift EUCOM out of its post-Cold War mindset, which resulted in “building partner capacity,” military parlance for training missions. EUCOM is a “mere fraction” of what it was a generation ago, a downsizing that occurred when the U.S. was trying to make a partner out of Russia.
“We changed EUCOM based on that paradigm,” Breedlove said.
Reorienting EUCOM into a warfighting headquarters likely would demand more resources, more troops and new contingency plans to conduct combat operations within Europe.
But re-orienting NATO and its American component towards warfighting won’t be easy–or cheap. Only a handful of alliance members spend more than 2% of their GDP on defense, and most have made major cuts in their armed forces over the last 15 years. Restoring even a portion of those capabilities will require herculean efforts, and there are no guarantees that our European allies will make those investments.
Meanwhile, President Obama is proposing a significant increase in defense spending in Europe, and the U.S. is deploying additional assets in the region. A squadron of F-22 Raptors from Tyndall AFB, Florida began a month-long rotation to the UK in April. While deployed, small numbers of Raptors have paid visits to bases in eastern Europe, including a brief stopover in Lithuania last week. A squadron of A-10s from Moody AFB, Georgia recently began a six-month rotation to the region and the U.S. is supporting a NATO proposal to maintain four infantry battalions in the Baltics and Poland, to further deter Russian aggression.
Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin isn’t really impressed by these recent demonstrations of resolve. He knows the Baltic states have no hope of defending themselves without NATO assistance, and the alliance currently lacks the resources (and some would say resolve) to protect its most vulnerable members against the sort of asymmetrical conflict that Moscow waged against Georgia and has been conducting against the Ukraine.
This doesn’t mean a Russian invasion of Estonia is imminent. Putin prefers to play all the cards in his hand, so we can expect more veiled threats and intimidation against NATO’s eastern frontier, along with additional harassment incidents, aimed at depicting the Atlantic Alliance as a paper tiger. He will also take advantage of the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, which have forced many NATO countries to focus security efforts internally. Putin is betting that nations like Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and the UK won’t spend the money required to deal with a rising terror threat and beef up their armed forces to counter his expansionist agenda.
The Russian leader also understands that NATO’s weakness begins in Washington, D.C. Mr. Obama’s feckless policy in Syria opened the door for Putin, and he is seizing the opportunity in the Middle East and Europe. Media reports indicate that Obama and Putin held one of their periodic phone calls last month, just days after one of the harassment incidents. Mr. Obama never raised the issue in his conversation with his Russian counterpart. It doesn’t take an expert to understand that Putin viewed that rectitude as a green light for more adventurism.
No wonder the “air police” are nowhere to be found when a Flanker jock barrel rolls around an RC-135, or a pair of Fencers repeatedly buzz a US destroyer in international waters. Decades of defense cuts, coupled with the failure to recognize a resurgent Russia and weakness among key alliance members have put NATO in quite a hole. And there are few indications that NATO is serious about climbing out.