UEDEM, Germany (AP) – As Russia’s military buildup accelerated near Ukraine earlier this year, NATO military planners began preparing to deploy dozens of warplanes and surveillance planes into the skies near Russia and Ukraine. It was a warning to Moscow not to make the mistake of targeting any member country.
In the weeks leading up to the war, politicians and analysts were divided over whether President Vladimir Putin would actually order Russian troops to invade. From a military point of view, however, the forces deployed around Ukraine seemed designed to do just that.
There was an urgent need to keep more eyes on the sky and tightly network NATO aircraft, warships, ground-launched missile systems and radar equipment to protect the alliance’s eastern flank.
“We are watching very closely,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week. “Information, the best possible situational awareness, are of course extremely important in such a dangerous situation as we are now experiencing in Ukraine.”
In the run-up to the February 24 invasion, the Alliance’s Combined Air Operations Center in Uedem, West Germany, shifted into gear. A few dozen military personnel are now simultaneously piloting up to 30 planes in the skies from the northern tip of Norway down to Slovakia.
From an underground bunker in quiet farmland, patrolling planes are diverted to monitor suspicious Russian planes. Jets on 15-minute standby are routinely “alpha-scrambled” from across Europe to intercept unidentified aircraft near NATO airspace.
More than 100 aircraft may be operating in the air on any given day, mixed with approximately 30,000 civil flights operating through European skies each day.
Six Boeing E-3A surveillance aircraft from NATO’s aging fleet of early warning and surveillance aircraft are helping to create an “aerial view” that can be shared with member nations. These “eyes in the sky” do not fly to Ukraine or Russia, but can see up to 400 kilometers across borders.
Fighter jets are also providing information about what’s going on in parts of two countries at war. These “assets” are sometimes sent from as far west as France, are refueled in the air and can patrol the border area for about an hour before having to return.
The 30-nation military alliance fears being drawn into a major war with Russia, so borders and airspace are meticulously respected.
“There’s always a fog of war and we don’t want NATO assets around because even accidentally you could take casualties,” said Major General Harold Van Pee, commander of NATO’s Uedem facility.
The most sensitive zones for unidentified aircraft are the Kola Peninsula – on the far northern borders of Russia and Norway – the Gulf of Finland approaching the Russian city of St Petersburg, and the skies around the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Lithuania and Poland .
From their computer screens, NATO officials can also follow cruise missiles like the ones Russia used last month to bomb a military training ground in western Ukraine near NATO member Poland, killing 35 people.
But shadowing them with planes is a risky endeavor, especially at night, in inclement weather, or when the missiles hit the ground and fly so low that power poles and cables become a hazard. “We have to be convinced that there is a credible threat” to pursue one, Van Pee said.
A less obvious challenge to NATO airspace is malicious drones. Military officials said Russia uses powerful electromagnetic devices for communication jamming purposes that can disrupt remotely piloted flights.
Last month, a military drone drifted uncontrolled out of Ukraine through the airspace of three members – Romania, Hungary and Croatia – before crashing in the Croatian capital. A few parked cars were damaged, but no one was hurt.
The drone weighed just over 6 tons. Both Russia and Ukraine refused to launch. Military officers and NATO officials are refusing to comment on the incident until an investigation is complete.
“Even if you fly next to one of these drones, will you do anything about it? You have to be wondering, because if you shoot it, you’re bound to cause damage to the ground. Hopefully if you let it fly it will crash into the sea. I mean, you don’t know,” Van Pee said.
Whether it’s a rogue drone or a missile threat, political and legal experts should be involved in any decision to shoot something down. Despite the war in its backyard, NATO operates under strict peace rules and is determined to keep it that way.
“Before you begin the use of force, there must be an imminent threat to NATO forces or the NATO population. That’s a judgment call, and that’s always hard to come by,” Van Pee said.
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