Defense

Spanish Eurofighters eye the Russians at 300 meters

Spain takes over rotating command of NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission Defense Minister: “We’re not here to create problems, we’re here to avoid them”

About 3,200 kilometers separate the Morón de la Frontera base outside Seville and the Ämari Air Base in Estonia, not to mention around 30 degrees in temperature.

Nevertheless, the Baltic republic’s brutal -15ºC weather has not hampered Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons from their duties protecting the region’s airspace. Planes from Group 11 of the Spanish Air Force have been in control of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission (BAPM), based in Ämari, since January 1 and will continue there until May 4.

So far, the Eurofighters have conducted 108 patrols, clocking up nearly 200 hours of flight time. Only one flight had to be canceled because of technical problems.

Eurofighters have conducted 108 patrols, clocking up nearly 200 hours of flight time

“It has been better than we thought,” said Lt. Col. Enrique Fernández Ambel, who is heading the team of 115 Spanish officers of the Ambar detachment.

But the fears are real and the tension exists. NATO is concerned that the conflict may spill over from Ukraine, where the Kiev government has been fighting pro-Russian separatists.

Along the icy waters of the Baltic, two old Cold War adversaries can look directly into each others’ eyes at distances sometimes as close as 300 meters – that is how near Spanish Eurofighters have come to Russian aircraft during the interceptions that have taken place.

These testy encounters have occurred about half-a-dozen times when Russian Ilyushin and Antonov transport planes – modified for spying or electronic warfare – fly from St Petersburg to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, which is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.

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Although the Russian jets have not violated Baltic airspace, they ignore international air navigation rules by not filing a flight plan, turning off their transponders so they can’t be identified, or refusing to communicate with civil aviation authorities.

The Spanish Eurofighters usually intercept and escort them under the orders of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), based in Uedem, Germany.

Commander Eladio Daniel Leal said the tensest moments usually occur when the alarm goes off and “you just don’t know who you are going to encounter, or how they are going to react.”

NATO has been helping the Baltic nations patrol their airspace since 2004 as none of them has an air force of their own. Member countries take turns leading the mission.

But since the Ukraine crisis, NATO has beefed up its patrols. Besides the Spanish EF-2000s, fighter jets have also been dispatched from Italy, Poland and Belgium.

In a tense war of nerves, any wrong move can turn into a catastrophe. According to NATO figures, more than 400 interceptions of Russian planes by the Alliance’s jets occurred last year – more than double the number in 2013.

Although the Russian jets have not violated Baltic airspace, they ignore international air navigation rules

And each day the Kremlin is getting bolder. Last month, two Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bombers ventured as far as the English Channel, setting off an emergency dispatch of British and French jets.

The Norwegian government released a video that showed how an F-16 fighter nearly collided with one of the Russian bombers. But the biggest risk is that of a commercial jet getting entangled in these dangerous standoffs.

“We’re not here to create problems, but instead we’re here to avoid them,” said Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenés, who visited the detachment in Ämari on Wednesday.

The Spanish government is spending €9 million on having its four Eurofighters take part in the BAPM and hopes to repeat the mission next year.