The NATO air policing mission in the Baltic states was cut down from September because more than half of the fighter-jets assigned to the mission had been standing idle for the past six months, says the head of the Alliance's Military Committee General Petr Pavel.
General Petr Pavel
© AP/Scanpix

In an interview to BNS Lithuania, Pavel of the Czech Republic said that the downsizing of the mission was not announced in a proper manner, assuring that the eight fighter-jets stationed in Lithuania and Estonia are fully sufficient for airspace protection.

After Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined NATO in 2004 and until the Ukrainian crisis, the Baltic air-policing mission was conducted by four fighter-jets deployed in the Lithuanian Aviation Base in Šiauliai, northern Lithuania. After Russia annexed Crimea, Allies kept sending 16 jets – eight to Lithuania and four to Estonia and Poland each. From September, the mission is continued by four jets in each of the Baltic countries of Lithuania and Estonia.

The Czech general who presides over meetings of NATO military representatives said the decision to reduce the mission by half was "purely technical" based on the fact that NATO jets were scrambled every second day on average to identify and accompany Russian warplanes.

"After about half a year of experience, air command came to an assessment that out of these 12 planes, which were put on the top of four already in place, only two were actually used," Pavel said.

"Two packages of eight planes were not used at all. They were sitting here on standby, not able to do training because they have to be in a very short readiness, and, of course, nations were a little bit impatient why to keep planes sitting when they have for them jobs to do," he added.

NATO military representatives announced the plans to downsize the mission in August, a report that came as a surprise to the Lithuanian society and some high-ranking officials.

"I have to admit that this was not very fortunate in terms of communication to the public. If you tell the public that we are reducing air-policing by eight aircraft when they hear at the same time that Russian air activity is increasing, it doesn't make much sense. If you say that Russian air activity raised by 50 percent since comparable period in previous years but we have raised air police in the Baltics by 100 percent, it makes more sense. With these 12 aircraft, we have increased it in fact 400 percent," Pavel said.

"In no way air policing was reduced to the extent that it would be limited. The number of planes fully meets current military requirement. This requirement will be the driving force. If the assessment based on Russian air activity is that we need more planes, they will be here," the general told BNS.

Lithuanian governmental officials maintain they are continuing talks with the Allies to have two air-policing mission contingents stationed in Šiauliai in the future, however, no decisions have been announced yet.

NATO's Military Committee headed by the Czech general is the Alliance's highest military institution, which includes chiefs of defence of NATO member-states on the top level, however, are represented by military representatives in day-to-day operations.

Pavel was elected to head the committee during the NATO summit in Vilnius last September and took office in June.

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