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Estonia - NATO Air Policing (AP)

Obama announced 03 September 2014 that the US would send more Air Force units and aircraft to the Baltics, and called Estonia's Amari Air Base an ideal location to base those forces.

Air Policing (AP) remained one of the top military/security priorities for the Government of Estonia representing, as it does, the only concrete security contribution Estonia receives from NATO membership. Due to repeated Russian incursions into Estonian airspace over the years, the Government of Estonia feels that the situation as of 2006 was no longer tenable and inadequate for Estonia's mid to long-term needs. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) therefore produced an internal AP report assessing the current system and possible permanent long-term solutions. While preferring to have a NATO solution, the MOD Report outlined several other possible alternatives: bilateral, regional, and unilateral. Once the Report was approved, it was put forward for governmental review with a decision set for 2008/2009. While a consensus was far from being formed, noticeable divisions were apparent within the MOD and MFA between those who wanted Estonia to develop its own AP capacity and those who believed it to be prohibitively expensive. Depending on its eventual course of action, the Government of Estonia's decision on AP could have a real and substantive knock-on effect on Estonia's contributions to NATO and other out-of-area operations.

Since Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia lack aircraft to protect their own airspace, NATO has been providing an interim 24/7 AP for Baltic airspace since 2004. This AP regime was set to last till the end of 2007. NATO's 24/7 AP coverage continues to be one of the Government of Estonia's highest priorities. However, the September 2005 crash of a Russian SU-27 in Lithuania strengthened sentiment within the Government of Estonia that a permanent AP solution is needed to overcome the current system's shortcomings. The NATO AP squadron based in Siauliai is so far away that the NATO planes are not able to arrive before Russian planes that have violated Estonian airspace are long gone.

The Government of Estonia has recorded 53 air violations between October 2003 and July 2006. Forty-four of the incursions have taken place near Vaindloo Island and lasting no more than two minutes. The most serious incursion took place in September 2003 which lasted over 20 minutes. Since Estonia's membership in NATO, no overtly hostile incursions have taken place, though a wide range of military, bomber, and transport aircraft have committed air incursions. The majority of these air incursions are not malicious in nature, but more as a result of old Soviet habits in which many Russian pilots cut across the small strip of Estonian air space as they did when it was once a part of the USSR.

Notwithstanding the short duration of the majority of these incursions, the Government of Estonia and general public remain highly sensitive over air space violations. While admitting that the threat is minimal, Government of Estonia officials have expressed their unhappiness over NATO's inability to stop these incursions. As Miko Haljas, MFA Director for Security Policy and Arms Control, said, "If the U.S. started to violate Canada's airspace, I'm sure the Canadians would know an American invasion was extremely unlikely, but would still not find the behavior acceptable." NATO AP aircraft are not able to respond in time against these short incursions, nor can they remain for long periods of time patrolling the Estonian border due to fuel constraints. The Government of Estonia has also pointed out that these shortcomings would also be a problem should terrorists attempt to use a civilian aircraft as a weapon against civilian, military, or governmental targets in Estonia.

The Government of Estonia has also repeatedly expressed its discomfort over the lack of certainty regarding NATO AP rotations after 2007. The Government of Estonia is well aware that some NATO Allies (i.e., Denmark, UK, etc.) want to do away with NATO AP altogether due to the low threat probability and/or change the current alert-based posture to a threat-based system in order to free up limited European resources. The discussions emanating from some in the Department of Defense who share a similar view has also been followed closely by the Government of Estonia.

While preferring an alert-based AP system, the Government of Estonia has gradually come to support the current NATO AP Policy Review document, even though it contains language protecting OSD's desire for a "threat-based" AP scheme. However, the Government of Estonia is concerned by the lack of progress in adopting this compromise document. The delay has only added to the Government of Estonia's sense of uncertainty over NATO's AP presence after 2007, giving more ammunition to those in the Government of Estonia advocating a home-grown solution.

The Government of Estonia understands the cost to NATO allies of contributing to Baltic AP. In the Government of Estonia's eyes, however, Estonia has worked hard to fulfill its NATO obligations to transform its military and ensure interoperability through steady increases in defense spending (which is on track to reach NATO's 2% of GDP target by 2010) and proactive out-of-area military contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "AP is the one visible and tangible benefit of NATO membership," said Sander Soone, MFA Director General for Political Affairs, "that we can bring to the public to help justify not only our military reforms and spending, but also our troop contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Dissatisfied with the current AP regime's shortcomings, the Government of Estonia mandated the MOD to produce an internal AP analysis report. The report does not make any final recommendation. The report laid out several possible scenarios: modifying and making the current NATO AP coverage permanent; a bilateral or regional arrangement for AP coverage; and a unilateral/domestic response with Estonian aircraft. The objective is for the MOD to devote 8-9% of its defense budget by 2018 to AP whatever the Government of Estonia decides. Though some monies will have to be siphoned from other areas (i.e., operations), the MOD is confident that due to the steady increase of defense spending and the projected economic growth rate (presently close to 10%) it will not have to divert funds from other areas.

As part of the MOD's long term plan, it will upgrade Amari airbase. Estonia has received confirmation of NATO Capability Package funding for the initial phase of Amari's upgrade ($28 million). The Government of Estonia will provide an additional $40 million (though not all the funding has yet been approved). The MOD's timetable for the completion of Amari's upgrade is 2018. The MOD envisions Amari having the capacity to base up to a dozen F-16s and two to three C-17s. The upgraded Amari airbase is planned to feature prominently in whatever Estonia's AP policy is.

Government of Estonia officials all agreed that their first choice is to have NATO AP coverage made permanent but with some key modifications. The report insists on the continuation of 24/7 coverage and recommends that rotations be longer (one figure mentioned in our briefing was six months) and involve a core group of NATO allies willing to contribute permanently. Poland, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and the United States were all mentioned as possible contributors. Finally, the report recommends having some of the AP aircraft actually based in Estonia at Amari airbase in order to deal with the short incursions and possible renegades.

The report also explores the possibility of bilateral and/or regional agreements. One scenario would involve Poland extending its AP coverage to Lithuania with Finland expanding its AP coverage to include Estonia and Latvia. (However, the Government of Estonia has reservations over the practicality of an agreement with a non-NATO member such as Finland.) The Estonians had not approached the Poles or Finns to discuss this idea. Another option is for all three Balts to pool resources to procure and maintain aircraft. While the report has been shown to both Lithuania and Latvia, no serious discussions on this subject have taken place.

The most controversial option is for Estonia to acquire its own aircraft. The MOD believes that 2018 is realistically the earliest date the Government of Estonia can afford this. The report outlines a number of options for Estonia to acquire aircraft. The most feasible plan is for Estonia to acquire second-hand aircraft from other NATO allies for free (i.e., recently decommissioned) or at a reduced price. There has been some informal talk in the MOD and MFA about acquiring some of Sweden's aging Grippens. Some mid- to senior-level MOD and MFA officials still even mention the Javelin as a possibility. (The Javelin is a U.S. designed aircraft not yet in production designed principally to deal with renegades.)

A number of MFA and MOD officials have openly expressed their preference for "Estonian pilots in Estonian aircraft to patrol Estonian skies." MOD Policy Planning Director Sven Sakkov admitted that even with its own aircraft, Estonia could not mount a serious defense of its airspace against Russia but that the purpose of Estonian aircraft is mainly to act as physical deterrence against further Russian incursions. The Finnish model (of shadowing their Russian counterparts in the air to escort, monitor, and photograph any and all Russian incursions) is the example Government of Estonia officials most often cite.

Most of the Government of Estonia officials involved understood that procuring fighter aircraft would be a bad use of limited military resources and diminish Estonia's contributions to the GWOT and NATO operations. The fact that they are willing to consider such a solution indicated how important, psychologically and politically, the Air Policing issue is in Estonia.

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Page last modified: 03-09-2014 19:49:55 ZULU