NATO cutting Baltic air policing mission in half

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NATO will downsize the air policing mission in the Baltic countries by half, with eight fighter-jets due to patrol the skies as of September as compared with the current 16 jets, as well as one contingent left in Lithuania instead of the current two, the Alliance's spokesman confirmed on Tuesday.

«As of Sept. 1, NATO will have eight aircraft assigned to the Baltic air policing mission,» NATO military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jay Janzen of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) told BNS on Tuesday.

Spokesperson for NATO Carmen Romero told the Aktuaalne Kaamera newscast of the public broadcaster that according to NATO's military decision makers eight aircraft is at present enough to defend the Baltic airspace.

Spokesman for the NATO Headquarters Jay Janzen told BNS that NATO will reduce the number of fighter jets taking part in the Baltic air policing mission by half to eight planes. He added that one contingent is to be stationed at Lithuania's Siauliai air base instead of two.

As of Sept. 1 four fighters will still be stationed in Estonia. NATO is to reduce the number of planes stationed in Lithuania and Poland, after which there will be four fighter jets in Lithuania and none in Poland.

«No principled decisions regarding reducing the presence of NATO in the Baltic countries hasn't been made. The consensus reached in Wales is in force and deterrence measures, including strengthening the Baltic air policing mission, has not been called in question,» deputy head of the Defense Ministry's NATO and European Union department Liis Mure said in a press release. «It means that NATO fighters won't be leaving the Amari air base any time soon and the same applies to the contingent in Lithuania's Siauliai air base. We are at present in talks with the allies for executing the rotations at Amari in 2016,» she added.

According to Mure, of the two parallel contingents of fighter jets based in Lithuania one will be missing this fall which means that instead of the planned eight planes four will be present. «The reason behind it is not a conscious decision to downsize the mission but the allies have not been able to find enough fighters to fill the void,» Mure said. «Hopefully the situation will improve in 2016 and the presence in Lithuania will reach the same level as before,» she added.

«This is probably the circumstance The Guardian was referring to and what the NATO Headquarters is also talking about,» Mure said.

According to Mure the assessment of the NATO Headquarters regarding reducing the number of fighters in the Baltic states not only concerns presence in the Baltic countries but also in Poland. «Poland has traditionally not been part of the Baltic air policing mission although operatively NATO treats it that way,» she said. The Baltic air policing mission is made up of the main contingent in Siauliai and two additional contingents in Amari and Siauliai. «That is 12 fighters in total (which will be reduced to eight from September to December of this year), not 16 like the total number is for Baltic and Polish operations combined,» Mure said.

She added that as a result of Russia's military activity near the Baltic air space, Estonia supports both additional contingents continuing in Amari as well as Siauliai also after the end of 2015.

Since the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined NATO in 2004, the air policing mission was usually performed by four jets stationed in Lithuania. After Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region last year, NATO Allies sent additional jets to the three countries, including to Estonia's Amari air base.