While deployed, the American F-16s will fly with Polish F-16s in Lithuania as part of their Baltic air policing mission; and with Belgian F-16s in Estonia for their enhanced air policing mission.
The training is aimed at increasing interoperability and rehearsing rapid deployment of aircraft to alternate bases, the press release stated. That’s in line with USAF’s increasing focus on agile combat employment, a concept that relies on multi-capable Airmen who can operate in austere locations and move quickly.
The F-16s from the U.S., Poland, and Belgium will “practice advanced airborne maneuvers and work closely with Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem (CAOCUE) to enhance command and control procedures,” the release said.
“The supplemental U.S. fighters will provide improved capabilities in the region and demonstrate a seamless integration into the long-standing Baltic and enhanced Air Policing missions,” USAF Brig. Gen. Joel L. Carey, deputy chief of staff for operations for Allied Air Command, said in a statement. “These deployments demonstrate the Alliance’s ability to rapidly and effectively deploy assets to vital regions, to assure partners, and safeguard Allied airspace.”
NATO’s press release stressed that the F-16 deployment was “long planned” for the U.S., but it comes at a time of increasingly high tensions in eastern Europe. Russia has maintained a troop presence of some 100,000 along the Ukrainian border, with sophisticated air force and anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities that experts believe would allow for a swift invasion.
U.S. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has warned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, of a “heavy price” if Russia does invade Ukraine, including sanctions and reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank.
Still, those allies along NATO’s eastern flank have pushed for more support from the U.S. in recent weeks, with representatives from the Bucharest Nine (B9) group of nations telling Biden and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on a Dec. 16 call that more American presence is needed now to deter an invasion of Ukraine. Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania are all members of the B9; Belgium is not.
NATO’s air policing mission is focused on monitoring for “airspace violations, suspicious air activity close to the alliance’s borders, or other kinds of unsafe air traffic,” with fighters being tasked to scramble in response to any threat.