This will be the Polish Air Force's second rotation in Estonia and pilots will be on duty 24 hours a day patrolling skies over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Estonian Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) thanked the Spanish at the handover ceremony on December 1.
"Your service and presence here is an affirmation of the common values and shared security space of the members of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO)," he said.
NATO's Air Policing Unit has been present in the Baltics since 2004, first in Lithuania, and since 2014 in Estonia as well.
As previously reported by LSM, next year during the refurbishment of Estonia's Ämari airbase, the planes of NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission will instead by stationed at Lielvārde airbase in Latvia from spring to autumn. The upgrading work at Ämari is expected to take up to eight months.
In parallel with Poland taking up the gauntlet in Estonia, four Belgian F-16s and four French Mirage 2000-5 jets will protect NATO airspace out of Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania, replacing Italian planes, reports LRT in Lithuania. In addition, Italy will continue its deployment of four F-35s to Malbork airbase in Poland into 2024.
“The Alliance collective defence commitment has a special meaning in the current security situation. The air policing is a proof of NATO solidarity and credibility. The Allies play a critical role ensuring protection of the Baltic skies and enhancing readiness for deterrence and defence. This is exactly why we continue consulting with NATO Allies about the possibility to deploy additional fighter aircraft and ground-based air defence systems in Lithuania,” said Lithuanian Vice Minister of National Defence Žilvinas Tomkus who attended the official handover ceremony at the Lithuanian Air Force Base in Šiauliai on November 30.
The Belgian Air Force will be providing its seventh rotation of the mission. It includes around 80 people including pilots, technicians, medical personnel, support groups, and communications specialists. The French will be guarding the Baltic skies for the seventh time as well with a contingent of aeound 100 military specialists.
NATO allies take turns deploying to air bases at Šiauliai, Lithuania, and Ämari, Estonia, on a four-month rotational basis, ready to be launched by NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem, Germany if required. The Air Forces of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia contribute to the mission with host nation support in the form of air command and control infrastructure and personnel, as they lack their own fleets of suitable planes.
In response to Russia’s full-fledged war against Ukraine, NATO has substantially reinforced its air defences in the eastern part of the Alliance, including with more fighter jets, surveillance flights and ground-based air defences. Russian jets often approach NATO airspace without using transponders, communicating with air traffic control or having filed filing a flight plan. Each year, NATO jets intercept, on average, several hundred Russian military jets near Allied airspace.