UEDEM, Germany (AP) — As Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine accelerated early this year, military planners at NATO began preparations to launch dozens of fighter jets and surveillance aircraft into skies near Russia and Ukraine. It was a warning to Moscow not to make the mistake of targeting a Member State.
Even in the weeks leading up to the war, politicians and analysts were divided over whether President Vladimir Putin would really order Russian troops to invade. But from a military standpoint, the troops deployed around Ukraine seemed to do just that.
It became an urgent matter to put more eyes in the sky and to closely link NATO aircraft, warships, ground missile systems and radar installations to protect the eastern flank of the alliance.
“We are watching it closely,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week. “Information, the best possible situation awareness, is of course extremely critical in such a dangerous situation as we see it now in Ukraine.”
Leading up to the February 24 invasion, the alliance’s Combined Air Operations Center in Uedem, West Germany, stepped up a gear. Several dozen military personnel now simultaneously manage up to 30 aircraft in the skies from the northern tip of Norway to Slovakia.
Patrol planes are diverted from an underground bunker in quiet farmland to keep an eye on suspected Russian aircraft. Fighter jets on 15-minute standby are routinely “Alpha Scrambled” from across Europe to intercept unidentified aircraft near NATO airspace.
More than 100 aircraft may be airborne on any given day, amid approximately 30,000 civilian flights made daily through European airspace.
Six Boeing E-3A surveillance aircraft from NATO’s aging fleet of early warning and control aircraft help create an “aerial image” to share with member states. These “eyes in the sky” don’t fly to Ukraine or Russia, but can see as far as 400 kilometers (250 miles) across the border.
Fighter planes also provide information about what is going on in part of two countries at war. These “assets” are sometimes sent from as far afield as western France, air refueled, and can patrol the border area for about an hour before having to return.
The military alliance of 30 countries is wary of getting involved in a wider war with Russia, so borders and airspace are scrupulously respected.
“There is always a fog of war and we don’t want to have NATO assets around because even unintentionally you can suffer losses,” said Major General Harold Van Pee, commander of the NATO facility in Uedem.
The most sensitive zones for unidentified aircraft are the Kola Peninsula – on the high northern border of Russia and Norway – the Gulf of Finland approaching the Russian city of St. Petersburg, and the skies around the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.
From their computer screens, NATO personnel can also track cruise missiles, such as the one Russia used last month to shell a military training base in western Ukraine near NATO member Poland, killing 35 people.
But shading them with planes is a risky business, especially at night, in bad weather, or when the missiles hit the ground and fly so low that electrical pylons and cables become a hazard. “We have to be convinced that there is a credible threat,” said Van Pee.
A less obvious challenge to NATO airspace is rogue drones. Military officers said Russia is using powerful electromagnetic devices for communications jamming that could disrupt remote-controlled flights.
Last month, a military drone drifted unchecked from Ukraine through the skies of three members – Romania, Hungary and Croatia – before crashing into the Croatian capital. Several parked cars were damaged, but no one was injured.
The drone weighed just over 6 tons. Both Russia and Ukraine denied its launch. Military officers and NATO officials are refusing to comment on the incident until an investigation is completed.
“Even if you fly next to one of those drones, are you going to do something about it? You have to ask yourself because if you shoot it, you are definitely going to do damage on the ground. If you let it fly, hopefully it will crash into the sea. I mean, you don’t know,’ said Van Pee.
Be it a rogue drone or a missile threat, political and legal experts are expected to be involved in any decision to shoot anything down. Despite the war in its backyard, NATO operates under strict rules in peacetime and is determined to keep it that way.
“Before you use force, there must be an imminent threat to NATO forces or the NATO people. That’s a judgment, and it’s always hard to make,” said Van Pee.
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