19:25 Mar. 29, 2016
Force of about 600 American troops have been present in each Baltic country since April 2014
NATO needs to prepare for defence of airspace of the Baltic States outside its current peace-time mission, NATO's top commander in Europe said on Tuesday, March 29, Reuters reports.
In a measure of reassurance, the multinational NATO force which patrols the skies of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have been increased from four to eight jets since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Now the alliance, worried that Moscow could rapidly take over invade the Baltic states or Poland, is considering upgrading the patrols - "a peace time mission" - into a combat-ready force, Philip Breedlove, outgoing NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said on Tuesday.
"I think that the alliance does need to be ready for the air defence mission, and of course we as military men and women are looking at that capability," Breedlove told reporters in Vilnius.
"[A]ir policing and air defence, of course these are for two different situations. The Baltic air policing is a peacetime mission," he added.
A force of about 600 of the American troops have been present in each Baltic country and Poland since April 2014, augmented by occasional rotations of other NATO allies.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a speech he delivered in Estonia in 2014, said that NATO will help ensure the independence of the three Baltic states.
Now, backed by an increase in U.S. military spending, NATO is planning its biggest build-up in eastern Europe since the Cold War.
The plans have been welcomed by the Baltic States, annexed into Soviet Union in 1940's but now part of both NATO and the European Union, which have asked NATO command for a permanent presence of battalion-sized deployments of allied troops in each of their territories, which would rotate on a NATO-approved schedule. A NATO battalion typically consists of 300 to 800 troops.
"We no longer want multinational forces to be present only as a measure of assurance or for political visibility. We want forces of deterrence, with a clear understanding that they would engage in case of a conventional attack," Lithuania's chief of defence Jonas Zukas said on Tuesday, March 29. "The air defence problem is real," he added. "It is obvious that in case of a military conflict (in the Baltics) neither four nor eight jets would be enough."
Worried since Russia's seizure of Crimea that Moscow could rapidly invade Poland or the Baltic states, the Western military alliance wants to bolster defenses on its eastern flank without provoking the Kremlin by stationing large forces permanently.
U.S. plans for a four-fold increase in military spending in Europe to USD 3.4 billion in 2017 are central to the strategy, which has been shaped in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.