There has been a threefold increase in the number of scrambles NATO fighters have had to make since January, compared with the whole of 2013. Even non NATO states, such as Sweden and Finland, have reported a significant uptick in airspace incidents involving Russian aircraft.
“We have seen a big increase in operational tempo for us 24/7,” says Lieutenant-Colonel David Pletz, the most senior officer in the current Canadian deployment of six CF-18 fighter jets – part of the NATO Baltic air policing mission based at Šiauliai in Lithuania.
“From a Norad [North American Aerospace Defense Command] perspective we are used to working with the big [Russian] Tu-95 bears, or their long range bombers but here we are seeing a significant different part of the air force – the most modern, advanced fighters as well as electronics surveillance planes – this is considerably more dynamic.”
In all, NATO now has 16 jets on high alert patrolling the skies over the Baltic states and eastern Europe. Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it had just four. The increase in hardware is the tip of the iceberg. Each extra national deployment requires dozens of extra air crew and support staff.
As well as the air policing mission’s base at Šiauliai, NATO has now deployed quick reaction alert fighters to Ämari in Estonia and Malbork in Poland.
Analysts say NATO is unlikely to scale the deployment back anytime soon.