On the Baltic border, the Rafales ready to “calm” Russian fighters

From our special correspondent in Lithuania, in Siauliai

They approached “a few meters” from Russian fighters. Halfway through the “air policing” mission, or eAP for “enhanced Air Policing”, carried out by France on behalf of NATO along the Baltic airspace, the six Rafale pilots deployed on the Siauliai base in Lithuania since December 1, are returning this weekend to BA 118 in Mont-de-Marsan (Landes) with the feeling of “duty accomplished. »

They are relieved these days by new pilots, who also arrive from the 30th fighter squadron of Mont-de-Marsan, and who will take over until April 1. 20 minutes was exceptionally able to spend two days on the Lithuanian base, where the French contingent has a total of around a hundred soldiers, including all the mechanics necessary for the armament and maintenance of the four Rafales F3-R positioned on site.

Speed ​​at the limit of supersonic

In two months, the French fighters were put on real alert (alpha scramble) eight times, to intercept a dozen aircraft. Each time, it was Russian military planes flying up the Baltic Sea from Kaliningrad – a Russian enclave located between Poland and Lithuania. If this corridor represents the only possible way for them to reach Russia without violating the territorial integrity of the Baltic countries, these aircraft had “forgotten” to signal themselves, thus justifying an emergency take-off of a French patrol, to ensure that the intentions of the pilots were not hostile.

The latest alert dates back to Tuesday morning. “We were triggered around 10 a.m., says Commander Burguy. When the alarm sounded, we didn’t know what it was, but we immediately got the planes under way and took off as soon as possible. It was only once in the air that the two Rafale pilots got the information from the control tower.

“We were told that the radar had spotted a transport plane which had just taken off from the South and which was transiting along the sea off the Baltic countries, continues Commander Burguy. Our objective then was to get there as quickly as possible, and we flew at the limit of supersonic, at Mach 0.95. No need to scare people with the characteristic “boom” of the sound barrier, triggered at Mach 1.

“We didn’t get too close, for safety”

The two French fighters arrived in the area in less than ten minutes, and had confirmation, as the control tower had indicated to them in a second time, that it was not one, but three Russian planes who were flying in Baltic airspace, and who had not established radio contact.

Commander Burguy, fighter pilot of the 30th squadron of Mont-de-Marsan
Commander Burguy, fighter pilot of the 30th squadron of Mont-de-Marsan – Mickaël Bosredon

“From a distance, we quickly identified a transport-type aircraft, accompanied by two other fighter-type aircraft,” says Captain Burguy. We went to the visual, and we identified an Ilouichine-Il 20 accompanied by two armed Sukhoi 27s. It was therefore an escorted transport mission, which posed no particular threat. We didn’t get too close, however, to ensure our safety, and we just watched them, to make sure they were just passing through. They also saw us but had no particular reaction. The two Sukhoi 27s eventually turned around to return home and we continued to escort the carrier to Amari in Estonia, where we let it continue on its way. »

The “eyes and ears” of command centers

Each alert is triggered by the CAOC (combined air operation center) of NATO based in Germany, after signaling the air traffic controllers of the countries concerned. “We are the eyes and ears, and the armed arm if necessary, of these NATO command centers”, summarizes Commander Burguy, who alone participated in five of the eight real alerts triggered since the arrival of the French detachment in Lithuania.

Burst returning from a mission to the Baltic border, on the Siauliai base (Lithuania), on Wednesday February 1.
Burst returning from a mission to the Baltic border, on the Siauliai base (Lithuania), on Wednesday February 1. – Mickael Bosredon

The very first took place on December 1, the day of the official start of the permanence of the 30th fighter squadron of Mont-de-Marsan, in Siauliai. “It was about two Russian transport and reconnaissance planes which crossed on the north side then west of the Baltic countries, says the 36-year-old officer. Again we went to make sure there was no hostile intent, and in this case they were peaceful, it was just a transit flight. Once that was confirmed, we headed back. »

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“Faced with a fighter, it’s not the same as a transport plane”

On December 16, another alert sounded. “This time it was a Sukhoi 34, a bomber plane from the early 2010s resembling a large fighter, describes the commander. Clearly, when you come face to face with a fighter, it’s not the same thing as a transport plane. We say to ourselves OK, there is still potentially a danger, because we do not know his intentions, so we keep a certain margin of safety, we come from behind and see if he is armed… ”

The Sukhoi 34 was not, which quickly reassured the French patrol. “So we adapted our behavior by showing him that we had no intention of attacking him, because he too could believe that we are hostile towards him. “Now is not the time for climbing… The two French hunters approached “a few meters away. “Then as we left, we saluted each other with the Russian airman… We remain fighter pilots. »

“The Russians are testing whether NATO has the means to ensure its operational permanence”

Russian planes, by using this air corridor of the Baltic Sea located beyond 12 nautical miles (25 km) from the coast, do not violate airspace. “They are in what is called the FIR (flight information region), a kind of intermediate zone located beyond the sovereign territory of a country, and accessible to everyone, on the condition of being in contact with the controllers of the countries in question, deciphers Commander Burguy. They therefore have the right to be there, but by not announcing themselves, they are not in conformity with the general rules of the air. »

The Rafales are armed with MICA air-to-air missiles
The Rafales are armed with MICA air-to-air missiles – Mickaël Bosredon

Even if they still take off armed with MICA air-to-air missiles and 30 mm guns, the French Rafales have the priority mission of showing their presence along the border of the three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. “The Russians are testing whether NATO has the means to ensure its operational permanence along the Baltic border, analyzes a French officer. They approach and they look, if no one came to meet them it would mean that the way is clear. »

“The purpose of the mission is also to calm tensions”

This NATO sky police mission has been reinforced since 2014, and has obviously resonated more strongly since the start of the war in Ukraine, a neighboring country supported by Lithuania. The permanence is ensured from Siauliai, where two “PLO” are positioned – the Rafales and four Polish F-16s at the moment – and Amani in Estonia, with a third PLO of four German Eurofighters. The NATO countries take turns regularly on these bases, for the benefit of the three Baltic countries which do not have fighter aircraft.

The instruction for all NATO pilots is therefore to show themselves, while “remaining in a non-escalating posture. “We know exactly how to react, and generally we are inclined to withdraw, to keep our distance, rather than to raise the mayonnaise, adds another driver, captain Mickaël. This is important because the purpose of the mission is also to calm tensions. »

The other goal for the Air and Space Force is to take advantage of this deployment to train, through refueling and combat exercises, and to carry out ground reconnaissance. The workouts can be programmed in advance, or triggered off the cuff during simulated exercises, the “Tango Scramble.” “But when an alarm goes off, we don’t know if it’s a Tango or an Alpha Scramble,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan, the head of the French detachment. So there is always an adrenaline rush. “ Which will be able to taste the six new French hunters who take up the torch this week.

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