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German and Spanish jets secure NATO’s eastern flank

In Estonia, European fighters control the skies of the Baltic states. In the midst of the war in Ukraine, a signal should come out.

With a deafening noise, fighter planes soar steeply into the cloudy sky above Estonia. First, a German Eurofighter takes off with thunder

The Luftwaffe takes off from the runway of the military airport in Ämari, followed shortly after by a Spanish Eurofighter. Their joint mission in “NATO Air Policing”: to protect NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the border with Russia, who do not have their own air forces. For the first time, German-Spanish alarm teams have patrolled together and secured airspace over the Baltic states from wing to wing for nearly three weeks since the end of August.

From the point of view of the federal government, interconnected flight operations are exemplary for closer cooperation in Europe in protecting against airborne threats. This goal was also served by the air defense system that Chancellor Olaf Scholz aims at, which he wants to establish together with European neighbors against the backdrop of the Russian aggressive war against Ukraine. A first step in this direction is now to be taken on the sidelines of the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels with the signing of a declaration of intent.

The guiding idea behind both initiatives: jointly ensure Europe’s air defense in an efficient and interoperable way. Aerial surveillance in Estonia, which the Air Force hired for the ninth time in early August, for a total of nine months, shows how it could work. Eurofighter crews from Germany and Spain sometimes completed protection flights together to identify Russian aircraft. According to the Bundeswehr, the mixed teams had to go up twice to alarm the departures called “Alpha Scrambles”. There were also numerous trainings.

“You see the pilots, you literally look the pilots in the eye,” says an Air Force pilot with the rank of major, describing his experience of interception maneuvers several thousand meters above the Baltic Sea. A German and a Spanish fighter took off together in the event of a NATO alert. The so-called Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) is always activated when flying objects approach the Estonian airspace without warning and without identifying themselves, and therefore also the NATO border.

Despite Russia’s war in Ukraine, dangerous situations in the air have not yet occurred. For the most part, the Russian pilots acted cooperatively as the Eurofighters approached them and made eye contact. “Both sides are behaving very professionally,” says the German soldier. For example, people greet each other or greet each other in a military way. However, it is “something uncommon when you fly next to the other plane there”.

Most of them are Russian military aircraft flying between St. Petersburg and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea around the former Königsberg. If they want to reach their bases by plane, the route is north of Estonia through a narrow and narrow corridor over the Gulf of Finland. Nowhere else do the armed forces of NATO and Russia come so close in international airspace over the Baltic Sea.

“Now it is important to give this strong signal that NATO aviation is here on NATO’s eastern flank,” said Air Force Inspector Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz during a visit to troops in Ämari. For him, the joint mission in Estonia with Spain sent a clear signal of solidarity alliance. “Especially now, with the war in Ukraine, it has a very special meaning, of course.” This should signal: “The limit is the red line – and it must not be exceeded”.

But showing the limits in the air takes a lot of effort on the ground. Five Eurofighters and around 140 German soldiers are stationed at the Ämari military base, about 50 kilometers southwest of the Estonian capital Tallinn. In the meantime, they were supported in their task by four Eurofighters and 60 soldiers of the Spanish Air Force.

One of the main objectives of the German-Spanish cooperation was the so-called “Plug & Fight”, in which the joint use of technology and the maintenance of partially identical aircraft of both countries is practiced. For example, the Spanish Eurofighters in Ämari were mainly repaired by German technicians and refueled for aircraft by German tankers. This is intended to increase interoperability and save both NATO partners in terms of personnel and costs.

“This is the first time that we have exchanged spare parts and that the Spanish Air Force has taken over our armament,” says Gerhartz, referring to the close cooperation. “This is a high level, a high degree of entanglement.” Even the head of the Spanish aviation, General Javier Salto, praises German-Spanish cooperation in the skies – and speaks of a “qualitative leap in both the operational and the logistics area”. After a meeting with Gerhartz, he pointed out that the aviation was stronger thanks to the cooperation.

The “Plug & Fight” concept was previously implemented with Great Britain and Italy. According to the soldiers, cooperation on the ground in Estonia went smoothly. And there were no problems in the air either: Pilot training is largely standardized within NATO, and many German pilots were once trained in Spain on the Eurofighter, the Air Force points out.

“We were able to nearly double the mission result compared to what we expect as individual nations,” says Lieutenant Colonel Georg Hummel, who leads the German mission contingent to Ämari, summing up the cooperation on NATO’s eastern flank that has took place until mid-September. The Spaniards were therefore able to reduce logistics and personnel costs by around 65%. “So it’s a big win for us, and I think it’s a big win for NATO too.”

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