From Soviet base to NATO stage

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By Craig Hoyle

In its fifth year of continuous operation, NATO's Baltic air policing service is perhaps the strongest symbol of its commitment to augment military capabilities of recent entrants Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Staged from Lithuania's Siauliai air base since the three Baltic states gained accession in March 2004, NATO's quick reaction alert (QRA) duty has involved the air forces of 14 of its other 23 nations. Its 20th aircraft detachment, with four Czech air force Saab Gripen Cs, began operating at the site on 1 May.

The presence of NATO fighters represents a dramatic transformation from Siauliai's not-so-distant past: the base was until 1992 a Soviet facility and housed types including Ilyushin Il-76-based A-50 airborne early warning and control system aircraft and RSK MiG-29 fighters.

Geoffrey Lee/Plane Focus
© Geoffrey Lee/Plane Focus

The base was in 2004 acquired for the Lithuanian air force, which today has its fewer than 20 aircraft at the site, which boasts a 3,500m-long (11,400ft) main runway.

Early Baltic QRA missions required participating nations to provide the bulk of support services themselves, including meteorological forecasts and firefighting cover. However, "the only things now that are left for the nations are the deployment, aircraft, maintenance personnel, jet fuel and meals", says 1st Lt Gedas Virbukas, host nation support co-ordinator at Siauliai.

NATO has pledged to continue its Baltic QRA commitment until 2018, with slots already filled out to 2011. The German air force plans to deploy four Eurofighters from 1 September for a two-month cover period, before replacing them with six McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms through December. Services will be delivered by France, Poland and the USA during 2010.

Siauliai is the subject of a major modernisation programme, including the construction of new parking aprons, arming/disarming areas, a wing operations building and fuel storage facilities. Being conducted using funds from the NATO security investment programme, the work will also overhaul its current QRA taxiway, parking apron and temporary shelters.

Beyond supporting the current air policing task and domestic operations, the modernisation could in future see the site become a deployed operating base for a squadron of allied fighters, air-to-air refuelling aircraft or strategic transports, says Lt Col Virginijus Steponavicius, chief of staff at Siauliai. Infrastructure work is expected to conclude in 2011. He says Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe is already "waiting for this option".

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