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The BAP mission started right after Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined the Alliance back in 2004. In the beginning there was only a single air force base in Lithuania. Today, the BAP mission is also conducted from the Amari base in Estonia and supported from the Polish Malbork base.

The airspace itself is patrolled by the air forces provided by other NATO members. Over the last 12 years, almost 60 detachments from 17 countries have been keeping an eye on the Baltic skies.

[On the image: a welcoming sign at the Lithuanian Air Force base in Siauliai]

The strategic oversight of all NATO Air Policing missions, including those over the territories of Albania, Iceland, Luxembourg, Slovenia and the Baltic states, is carried out by the Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) headquartered in Ramstein, Germany. The tactical command of the BAP mission and control of Quick-Reaction Alert Forces falls to the NATO's Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Uedem, Germany.

[On the image: AIRCOM’s system of the airborne warning and control system]

“I’m a pacifist, but yes,” states Arturas Visockas, the mayor of a small city of Siauliai, when asked if the BAP mission should have less restrictions while patrolling the airspace over the three Baltic States. Today, Siauliai hosts four out of eight fighters engaged in the BAP mission. The residents of the Lithuanian city like no others have witnessed the increasing activity of NATO jets over the years.

During the first six years of the mission – from 2004 to 2010, the BAP fighters escorted less than 10 Russian airplanes per year. But in 2010, the number increased by a staggering five times and reached 50 cases per year.

As the geopolitical situation in eastern Ukraine was becoming less and less stable, in 2014 the BAP was ramped up with another detachment based in Estonia and an air force group in Poland. Nevertheless, the number of cases when NATO airplanes had to escort Russian jets kept growing until it reached 140. A year later, the number increased by another 20.

This unprecedented jump – from less than 10 to 160 cases of NATO interceptors being forced to take off and monitor Russian jets – clearly reflects the increasing tension on the eastern NATO frontiers.

Naturally, such drastic changes couldn’t be left unnoticed by the Allies. In April 2015, General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) at the time, said that “Russian military operations over the past year, in Ukraine and in the Baltic region more broadly, have underscored that there are critical gaps in our collection and situation analysis.”

Indeed, as the latest situation analysis has revealed, the gap is as broad and deep as a canyon. For instance, so far there is no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters, meaning that the parties are not bound to any restrictions when it comes to risky or adventuristic actions, such as conducting low-altitude flights or ignoring identification requests.

“We have to recognize that it is now a common practice for Russian fighter aircraft to fly over the Baltic region without any identification response, the absence of any communication with ATC and turned off transponders,” states the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence.

In April 2016, a Russian Su-27 jet intercepted a USAF RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea. The Pentagon said that “the unsafe and unprofessional actions of a single pilot had the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries.”

[In the video: Dutch F-16 intercepts Russian fighters over the Baltics in December, 2014]

Another case of a risky encounter – two Russian Su-24M aircraft and a Ka-27 helicopter making low-altitude passes near a U.S. guided-missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea.

[On the image: Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft over the USS Donald Cook]

In the wake of the increasing tension in the Baltic skies, NATO has moved to reassuring and demonstrating commitment against potential Russian hostility. In 2016, the Alliance decided to deploy four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The discussions about whether the BAP mission itself requires changes have also intensified both inside and outside the organization. However, it’s worth mentioning that despite the obvious failure in terms of restraining Russia, the BAP mission in general keeps receiving wide political, military and public support. After all, following the events in eastern Ukraine few would argue that the mission should be shut down.

 
   
 

Ojars Eriks Kalnins, the Chairman of the Political Committee at NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the member of the Latvian Parliament, says that the mission “has served as an essential security umbrella for the Baltic region,” and that it plays an important role in the unified Alliance’s defence strategy.

The Head of Lithuania’s Armed Forces Association Kostas Mickevicius also emphasizes that for the Baltic states the BAP mission is as important as ever: “…[reacting to] Russian military actions in Ukraine, NATO proved it can promptly adapt to the changing geopolitical situation by strengthening the Baltic Air Policing mission.”

However, some experts doubt that NATO is truly adapting to new realities. And since with every new day the situation in the eastern airspace of NATO is not becoming less intense, some even claim that NATO in general is currently unfit to prevent a Russian takeover of the Baltic states should full-fledged military actions start.

[On the image: Portuguese F-16 welcomes a new day at Siauliai Air Base]

For instance, Omar Lamrani, a Senior Military Analyst from an international geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, believes that the BAP mission “is completely incapable of protecting Baltic airspace against a Russian invasion.”

“The Baltic States are investing in numerous areas to improve their ability to fight back in a war, including electronic warfare, but realistically the most they can hope for is to delay a Russian invasion in a major conflict,” adds Mr. Lamrani.

The concerns over the BAP mission’s ability to ensure airspace safety over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are also shared by Lukasz Kulesa, an International Security Analyst and the Research Director at European Leadership Network (ELN).

“The eight aircraft are not enough to guarantee peace. It is folly to think that the BAP mission in its present state is capable to protect anyone. The biggest challenge at the moment is to integrate BAP into broader defensive plans of the Alliance in the region,” says the expert.

 
   
 

Notably, the issue is acknowledged by NATO itself. In March 2016, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip M. Breedlove, stated that the Alliance does need to be ready for the Air Defence mission and “we, as military, are moving towards that capability.”

However, upgrading a peacetime programme to an air defence mission would require significant resources. While the detailed spending is classified, the publicly available data shows that by now NATO has already spent approx. €50 million in modernizing the Siauliai base alone.

Constructing hardened shelters, enhancing runaways and expanding the ramp space as well as making other major upgrades required to meet the needs of an air defence mission calls for much more substantial investment. Luckily, it can be done through a courtesy of multi-billion military budgets of both the Alliance and its largest members. But what NATO may lack is time – something that can vanish instantly should the geopolitical situation drastically change.

In the meantime, the Vice-Minister of National Defence of Lithuania Marijus Velicka says that even despite the obvious threat, there is no need to incrementally boost the BAP mission.

“The BOP mission allows us to fully understand the real threat that the ruling regime in Russia with its ambitious foreign policy poses to us. However, I don’t think that [changing the currently conducted defence mission] is a good way out. If something goes wrong, the BAP will change to NATO Crisis [Management Process] and so will the rules of engagement. The current mission already has what it takes.”

[On the image: Mr. Velicka at Siauliai air base after Portugal AF take the lead of NATO BAP]

However, many other politicians in the region claim that NATO can no longer ignore the necessity of enhancing its members’ resilience against the increasing danger in the Baltic region.

For instance, Poland's new conservative Prime Minister Beata Szydlo says that “NATO must conclude with concrete solutions to face a threat that Russia could destroy Poland and the Baltic states.”

Reacting to the concerns over the security in Eastern Europe, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in his speech at Warsaw University on 31 May, 2016 re-assured that “an attack on Poland – or any other Ally – will trigger a response from the entire Alliance”.

 
 

And while NATO states it does not seek confrontation with Russia, Mr. Stoltenberg acknowledges that Russia becomes more assertive, intimidates its neighbors and changes borders by force. He also adds that “NATO is adapting to other existing and emerging challenges. With more troops, more infrastructure and more pre-positioned equipment.”

Meantime, the Chairman of the Political Committee at NATO PA Ojars Eriks Kalnins indicates that more troops and equipment on ground is not enough. He says that the aggressive actions of Russia and its increasing provocations in the air and on the sea have made the transition to an air defence mission necessary.

“NATO is increasing its presence in the Baltic region on the ground, and this should be accompanied by comparable adjustment and enhancement in the Baltic air security,” says Kalnins.

Kostas Mickevicius, the Head of Lithuania’s Armed Forces Association, adds that “Lithuanian politicians have been talking about the threat for several years; yet, they have not carried out any serious actions – especially in the field of airspace defence.”

For Urmas Paet, a Member of the European Parliament and its Subcommittee on Security and Defence, the mission status – whether it’s peacetime or defence – doesn’t play a critical role. “What matters is that there are as few restrictions as possible when defending the airspace,” he argues, adding that the mission has to have maximum efficiency when needed.

“You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second.”

-Niccolò Machiavelli

While the change to an air defence mission may send a much more persuasive message to the airspace violators, it can also substantially escalate the situation and bring NATO-Russia relations to a point where even a minor incident may spark irrevocable actions. And it’s hard to say whether NATO members are willing to take the risk by making the decision at the upcoming Warsaw NATO summit in July.

The hesitation is fully understandable, because if the situation complicates even further, each NATO member will have to face the question that Sir Christopher Meyer puts in the BBC’s televised war room experiment: “are we ready to die for [the Latvian city of] Daugavpils?”

Anton Tisov Julija Iljenko
NATO HQ Press Office Members of EP, NATO PA Industry experts and other contributors