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Is there a Cuban missile crisis looming over the Baltics

U.S. nuclear interests in the Baltic sea area

05.04.2019 18:14 Vladimir Kozin,expert with the Center for Military-Political Studies

Is there a Cuban missile crisis looming over the Baltics

March 30 this year marked the fifteenth anniversary of the launch of the Baltic Air Policing NATO operation that was particularly dangerous as regards Russian national security interests.

From that very day NATO's first medium-range combat aircraft appeared on a rotation basis in the skies of three Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that joined the Alliance as its full members the day before following the "fifth wave" of NATO expansion. Half of its member states gradually provided the following: fighters and fighter-bombers of various types, refueling and reconnaissance aircraft. The mission is controlled by the Combined Air Operations Centre located in Germany's Uedem.

The Baltic Air Policing operation poses a threat to security interests of the Russian Federation for the following reasons.

It is carried out around the clock throughout the year in the immediate vicinity of the Russian borders. Its "zone of responsibility" covers the airspace over not only the three mentioned Baltic States, but also part of the Baltic sea adjacent to the territory of the Kaliningrad and Leningrad regions.

It involves combat aircraft of the Belgian, British, Hungarian, Danish, Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, American, Turkish, French and German air force.

As reflected by this list of NATO member states, the operation involves dual-capable aircraft of all the three nuclear powers of the West: the UK, the United States and France. Such aircraft are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear bombs. Because of this potential nuclear component, an operation of this kind may well be regarded as a "Cuban missile crisis No. 3" or a "Baltic nuclear crisis", considering the US-inflicted "Cuban missile crisis No. 1" in October 1962, as well as the notionally named "Cuban missile crisis No. 2" initiated by members of the Alliance in December 1979, when it gave the go-ahead to the deployment of American Pershing and Tomahawk nuclear missiles in a number of European States.

Combat aircraft of the above mentioned countries of the "transatlantic solidarity" alliance make active use of not only the airspace of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, but also their air bases located near the Latvian Lielvārde, Lithuanian Zokniai and the Estonian settlement of Ämari as base aerodromes. After the three Baltic States joined the Alliance, all these air bases have undergone thorough modernization and became multifunctional. Now they can accommodate all the three types of heavy strategic bombers available in the United States, namely, the B-1B, B-52N and B-2A. A few years ago, all of them, enjoying a "permanent registration" at the UK military bases, began to make flights and landings at the Ämari airbase.

Starting 2014, the United States has been deploying its heavy strategic bombers on the European continent at least once a year. Since then, it is the British Fairford airbase where all the three types of the mentioned American aircraft began to be delivered, with the base being America's alternate location for strategic bomber aviation missions throughout Europe.

The following facts demonstrate that NATO keeps strengthening the force and expand Baltic Air Policing operational missions.

On June 14, 2016 then Deputy Secretary General of NATO Alexander Vershbow, met with the Defense Ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to sign a new agreement on airspace management arrangements in support of NATO’s Air Policing mission and other air activities in the Baltic Sea region. During the signing ceremony, Vershbow stressed that this agreement between NATO and the three Baltic states will facilitate more air training opportunities in the Baltic region. The question arises as to what kind of "activities" he implied?

In accordance with NATO's Joint Air Power Strategy approved on June 26, 2018, the air fleets of its member states should be able to operate in any terrain and in any conditions, including highly protected airspaces and in areas of heavy air traffic. The Baltic region falls under this interpretation of air activity proposed by the bloc's headquarters. Having confirmed readiness to continue the current air operations in the world's various regions, the document aimed NATO countries towards further development of air force doctrines and creation of new resources and capabilities in this sphere.

As announced at the July 2018 NATO summit in Brussels, the bloc agreed on a concerted strategy for joint air force capabilities to become a key factor for the Alliance's air force policing missions in peacetime. This is, among other things, the case of the Baltic Air Policing operation.

In March 2019, the NATO press service newsletter announced that the US strategic nuclear force had sent six long-range B-52N heavy strategic bombers to the UK to conduct a series of training events over Europe. On March 14, these aircraft and more than 450 US air force personnel came to Fairford from the Barksdale air force base located in the US state of Louisiana.

One of the Russian experts, having got acquainted with their route over the Baltic sea airspace in the direction of the Ämari air base, suggested that they supposedly followed the route of the Nord Stream 2 underwater gas pipeline, part of which runs over the bottom of this water area from the coast of Russia's Leningrad region to Germany. The expert started arguing that such flights of American strategic aviation are aimed at the gas pipeline's potential destruction.

It is hard to assume that this is the very mission of America's strategic nuclear forces in the Baltic sea waters. But the fact that the mentioned carriers of US airborne nuclear missile weapons are mastering a hitherto unfamiliar theater of military operations, is beyond any doubt. This, in particular, is indicated by the number of US heavy strategic bombers engaged in flights over the Baltic sea, and their arrivals at the Ämari airfield, as well as the high frequency of their missions in that part of the European continent.

Having qualified the deployment of NATO combat aircraft in this zone as "routine", NATO principal spokesperson Oana Lungescu admitted that "it shows that the US nuclear umbrella protects Europe and demonstrates the unique capabilities could bring to Europe in a crisis." Yet still a nuclear umbrella rather than routine patrolling! What an eloquent confession. Washington obviously has direct nuclear interests in this part of Europe.

Although the official documents of the Alliance indicate that its member states protect the airspace of the three Baltic States on a round-the-clock basis due to their lacking combat aircraft that could undertake the designated task, the peculiarities of the above NATO air force collective operation in the Baltic sky for such a long time and involving specific nuclear tactical and strategic exercises, bear testimony to the fact that it is pursuing wide-range offensive combat objectives undermining European security.

It seems that for the reasons mentioned above the Russian side needs to constantly ask the United States and the rest of the Alliance questions regarding a complete cessation of airspace patrolling in the Baltic States and over the Baltic sea by means of NATO combat aircraft, including American heavy strategic bombers.

The presentation of such a question should be consistently active and serve as a response to the insistent proposals of American and NATO counterparties that the Russian Federation unilaterally reduce or destroy part of its weapons.

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