The air-to-air missile launched by the Spanish Air Force fighter over Pangodi, Tartu County, on Tuesday at 15.44 flew over three counties and covered 80 kilometers before falling into a forest in an uninhabited area at Jõeküla, near the Endla nature reserve in Järva County.
The Air Force had not announced the precise flight path of the missile and the site of its impact by yesterday evening, but considering where it was launched and found, the weapon carrying some ten kilograms of explosives crossed the Tallinn-Tartu road over the Kärevere-Puurmani stretch, flew over Jõgeva County and fell in an uninhabited area near Jõeküla in Järva County.
Commander of the Air Force, Colonel Riivo Valge told a news conference yesterday evening that the Defense Forces are 95 percent certain of having found the missile launched by the Spanish fighter. A crater caused by explosion was found in the forest near Jõeküla, but the military had not yet found fragments of the missile at the site by the time of the news press conference.
The Spanish pilot of the Eurofighter understood the seriousness of the situation as soon as the AMRAAM air-to-air missile left his aircraft. “The first idea that something had happened came when the pilot warned his colleagues about his error,” Valge said.
A regular active exercise took place over Pangodi on Tuesday; the NATO air policing units carry out such exercises all the time. Four fighters took part in the exercise – two Spanish Eurofighters and two French Mirages. After the launching of the missile the Spanish pilots were ordered back to the Zokniai air base near Šiauliai, Lithuania, where the Spanish contingent is based.
Information needed to be checked
The Air Force commander said that, due to a misunderstanding, incorrect information has been released according to which he had been first informed about the incident only 1.5 hours after the missile had been launched. Valge explained that the Estonian Air Force had received initial report within minutes, but that the information needed to be checked.
“It took half an hour to verify that the report was correct. Within an hour we informed the police and the Rescue Board. After that it took another half-hour to receive definite confirmation about the launching of the missile. An hour and a half is an estimated time that passed before we began the real recovery operation,” Valge said.
The Air Force radar tracked the mistakenly launched missile, but the data did not allow for determining the precise flight path and impact site of the missile. The Air Force Robinson helicopters and land patrols were used yesterday to look for the missile.
According to the Defense Forces chief of staff, Major General Martin Herem, the army takes the incident seriously and makes its conclusions.
“The Ministry of Defense will form a working group in the next few weeks involving all relevant departments, including the Ministry of Economy and Communications. All air exercise procedures will be reviewed. We shall think about what type of exercises will be carried out later, what will be the participants’ rights and where the exercise areas will be,” Herem said.
The Air Force reported already on Tuesday that an AMRAAM missile had been launched by the Spanish Eurofighter, but the military remain taciturn about its modification and other details. Herem said that the technical details of the missile are confidential and he cannot share them.
Colonel Valge said as well that he would not be able to discuss the specifics of the missile. “The advantage of such weapons today is that they operate on the fire-and-forget principle. Such missiles would not lock on any random targets. To make the missile choose a target, the pilot must first select it.” Valge said. He added that there had been thus no danger of the missile targeting a civilian aircraft.
Cooperation in investigation
The AMRAAM air-to-air missiles which are produced in the USA since 1991 have been improved and developed further several times and there are currently five different modifications. The cost of a missile remains between USD 300,000 and 1.7 million, dependent on the type.
Margarita Robles Fernández, the Minister of Defense of Spain, expressed regret about the missile incident to Estonia’s Minister of Defense Jüri Luik in a telephone conversation yesterday. “We agreed to cooperate closely in the investigation,” Luik said. Both parties emphasized the need for the NATO air policing mission to continue.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas discussed the incident with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone yesterday. “I said that this is a serious incident. Thank God that no one was hurt as far as we know,” Ratas said. The prime minister asked Stoltenberg to see that NATO would take the incident very seriously and clarify the details rapidly. Stoltenberg promised to do so.