TechNATO strengthens defense with new airbase in Latvia amidst Russian threat

NATO strengthens defense with new airbase in Latvia amidst Russian threat

Ceremony of opening the Lielvārde base in Latvia
Ceremony of opening the Lielvārde base in Latvia
Images source: ©

11:55 AM EDT, March 30, 2024

Facing the threat of an attack by Russia, NATO continues to bolster its defense capabilities. This includes procuring weapons, boosting combat readiness, and developing new infrastructure. In March, the alliance inaugurated a new airbase in Lielvārde, Latvia—a country significantly at risk from Russian aggression.
The opening ceremony saw participation from representatives of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Spain, Canada, and the USA. Before its unveiling, the base was thoroughly inspected and certified by NATO's Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Uedem, Germany, which oversees all the Alliance's air operations north of the Alps. The certification confirmed the base's readiness for aircraft reception, servicing, and safe flight operations.
German Eurofighter jets on standby at the Lielvārde base
German Eurofighter jets on standby at the Lielvārde base©
"This is a landmark day for Latvia and NATO. For the first time, the Baltic Air Policing mission will operate from the Lielvārde base. We're thankful to our allies for committing their forces to protect NATO's airspace and our civilians. Air forces are crucial for our defense and deterrence strategies. The ability to conduct air operations from several locations demonstrates the flexibility and reliability of the integrated air and missile defense system," stated Latvian Defense Minister Andris Sprūds.
The transition to combat duty was swift, leaving no room for delay. Shortly after its official opening, the base began hosting a German Air Forces contingent, assigned to the Baltic Air Policing mission. This included four Eurofighter jets and numerous personnel for maintenance and logistical support. These aircraft now guard the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—countries without their own combat aviation—on a 24/7 basis.
"For nearly two decades, since Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia joined NATO in 2004, the Baltic states have symbolized collective defense. Now, with the Baltic Air Policing mission physically based in Latvia for the first time, NATO boasts three operational bases in the region, one in each country. Both Latvia and Germany have excellently prepared the base to host fighters, as demonstrated when German fighters executed their first mission just hours after the base was declared ready," remarked Major General Harold van Pee, commander of CAOC Uedem.
The Baltic Air Policing mission has been operational since 2004, initially deploying four fighters from various NATO countries on a rotational basis to protect the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These aircraft were based in Šiauliai, Lithuania, and Ämari, Estonia, with each rotation lasting about three months. Due to increased international tensions, the NATO contingent expanded to eight, and then twelve, fighters, evenly distributed among the bases in Šiauliai, Ämari, and Malbork. In the event of an international crisis, reinforcements can be swiftly deployed to these locations.
Eurofighter jet in the colors of the German Luftwaffe
Eurofighter jet in the colors of the German Luftwaffe© Licensor | MACIEJ_HYPS
The Lielvārde base's inauguration not only enhances operational flexibility but also compensates for the temporary closure of the Ämari airport in Estonia, which is undergoing runway refurbishment. Nevertheless, the German Control and Reporting Centre (CRC), supporting similar centers in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, remains operational there. CRCs serve as intermediate command levels, receiving orders from CAOC and directly coordinating the actions of fighters within their jurisdiction.
The principal mission of the fighters stationed in the Baltic states is to safeguard their airspace against potential Russian intrusions. Additionally, NATO aircraft escort Russian military planes traversing international airspace from Saint Petersburg to Kaliningrad or vice versa. Russian planes typically fly without filing a flight plan and with their transponders off, making them invisible to civilian air traffic control and posing a collision risk. In contrast, the NATO aircraft accompanying them keeps its transponder active, ensuring visibility on civilian radars and enabling traffic control to prevent accidents.
French fighter Rafale in a lightweight mobile hangar on a Baltic Air Policing mission
French fighter Rafale in a lightweight mobile hangar on a Baltic Air Policing mission© Licensor | Maciej Hypś
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