The US Air Force (USAF) has increased its commitment to NATO's eastern-most members, following Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's promise of support in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Hagel announced on 5 March that the United States is to increase its military co-operation with Poland and the Baltic states in response to the crisis in Ukraine. The USAF then announced that it will increase joint training through its aviation detachment in Poland, while at the same time bolstering its fighter force in the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission.
"Poland hosts 10 USAF personnel to support rotations of [Lockheed Martin] F-16 [fighters] and C-130 [transport aircraft] for joint training with the Polish Air Force. The aviation detachment, or AVDET, is a practical way to strengthen inter-operability with a key NATO ally, and represents the first continuous presence of a US military unit on Polish soil. The detachment's presence in Poland also makes it possible to host multiple allied air force elements and serve as a regional hub for air training and multinational exercises, and the defense department is consulting with Polish allies on increasing activities associated with the detachment," the USAF quoted a Department of Defense (DoD) official as saying.
In addition to the USAF's increased commitments to Poland, the DoD official noted that an additional six Boeing F-15C Eagle fighters and a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refuelling aircraft will be sent from RAF Lakenheath in the UK to Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania to bolster the four Eagles currently there.
The additional assets for the Baltic Air Policing Mission are reported to have arrived in Lithuania on 6 March, while the F-16s are expected to arrive in Poland on 10 March.
The Baltic Air Policing mission sees NATO member countries provide air defence duties for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during four-month rotations. This mission, started a decade ago and declared 'indefinite' by NATO in February 2012, has included contributions from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and the United States.
"This [increased USAF] action comes at the request of the United States's Baltic allies, and further demonstrates our commitment to NATO security," the DoD official said.
It is worth noting that the F-15C is purely an air defence fighter aircraft with no offensive air-to-ground capability. As such, the deployment of additional aircraft to the Baltics is aimed at providing reassurance to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by warning Moscow against any aggression to these former Soviet states.
It was somewhat fortuitous that the crisis in Ukraine happened at a time when the USAF already had four F-15Cs stationed in Lithuania as part of its normal Baltic Air Policing rotation, with the necessary support personnel and equipment already in place. Had it happened during the previous (Belgian F-16s) or following (not yet announced) watches, reinforcing the mission would have been more complicated.
The F-16s are primarily air defence fighters similar to the F-15C, but they are capable of ground attack. However, their location in Poland is because the USAF's AVDET was set up with the F-16 (for joint training with the Polish Air Force, which also operates the type), rather than a desire by the United States to deploy ground-attack-capable aircraft near NATO's eastern borders.