US shows off drones at Latvia's Lielvarde airbase

The skies were busy over central Latvia Tuesday with old-school A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft and ultra-modern MQ-1 Predator drones vying for airspace at the Lielvarde airbase. 

Officials, military personnel and press converged on the newly-renovated facility to view the Predator in action on its first ever deployment in Europe - with US brass underlining that Lielvarde is currently the only European facility capable of handling Predators on an ongoing basis.

The drone performed a series of fly-bys to an audience of military and political dignitaries, with a duo of A-10s also landing in a convincing show of force unlikely to be received warmly in the Kremlin.

Speaking at the event, Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis told LSM: “It's important to train for inter-operability between NATO partners. It's a good example of smart defense that we can use equipment that we don't currently have.”

He added that Latvia was considering purchasing its own drones – though he did not specify of what type, saying: “According to our air defence development plan we have ideas to buy some UAVs (unmanned airborne vehicles) but when depends on how we will invest in our defense budget.”

President Vejonis on Latvia buying drones

    The Lielvarde base - originally built for Soviet bombers - has been extensively overhauled to make it the only one in Europe capable of hosting Predator drones on a permanent basis, though the current deployment is due to last just two weeks and involves familiarizing intelligence staff from NATO allies with the aircraft's capabilities and controls.

    “This is a really historic day for Latvia – it's the first time this system has been deployed in Europe and I'm really proud that Latvia is hosting this aircraft. It took three years of hard work,” Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis told the press.

    The pilotless MQ-1 Predator has a range of 2,000 nautical miles with a top speed of 135 mph. Though the two currently deployed in Latvia are not carrying weapons, they are capable of carrying armaments including Hellfire missiles as well as carrying out intelligence and reconnaissance missions.

    US Major General Eric Vollmecke told LSM the primary purpose of the Predator was for "incident awareness".

    US Major General Eric Vollmecke on purpose of drones

      The Baltic states, which regained their independence in 1991 after 50 years of Soviet occupation and joined NATO in 2004 are wary of Russia in the wake of its military intervention in Ukraine and aggressive rhetoric.

      Newly-appointed US ambassador to Latvia Nancy Bikoff Pettit, quoting President Barack Obama's speech in Tallinn a year ago, said the US was committed to defending its NATO allies.

      “Article 5 is crystal clear – an attack on one is an attack on all,” Pettit told reporters.

      Tuesday's showcase came less than a week after US F-22 Raptor fighters visited Estonia for the first time.

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