Carpathian Vipers make Baltic debut flying together Portuguese fighters

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing
Romanian Air Force F-16AM combat aircraft.

This year it was the first time in history that the Romanian Air Force joined the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission with their Vipers. The introduction of the F-16AM Fighting Falcon on the scene in the Baltic's is for the Romanians a real milestone after a period of hard working since the introduction of the type in this country. The Romanian Air Force is partnering up during its debut with the Viper with the Portuguese Air Force flying the same type. It is not a coincidence that these countries act together at the Baltic scene as Romania bought its current F-16 fleet from the Portuguese Air Force. Let's dive deeper in this achievement of the cooperation between these two NATO partners.

The Lithuanian Šiauliai Air Base is already for more than 20 years the symbol of NATO's determination for the collective defense of the European skies in the Baltic region. The Baltic Air-Policing (BAP) mission is a NATO air defense Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in order to guard the airspace above the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and nowadays also the north of Poland. The BAP started in 2004 at Siauliai Air base in Lithuania. In May 2014, the mission was expanded and also other airfields were ready to house NATO BAP deployments. These airfields were Ämari in Estonia and Malbork in northern Poland. Every single NATO country participated since the beginning in the mission on one of these locations. This fact alone shows how NATO is prepared and willing to defend its own territory against unwanted intruders. Nowadays NATO is involved in the worst and most dangerous military crisis in Europe since the Second World War. The Baltic Sea region is a sensitive region on the Eastern flank of Europe where on a weekly base aircraft from NATO encounter intercepts of Russian fighters close to the European borders. The tensions between the West and Russia are on a high level since the outbreak of the Ukrainian War where Russian troops invaded the country. The defense of Europe was never in the history of NATO as it is nowadays. It requires flexibility and commitment of NATO partners to employ their assets to ensure collective deterrence of NATO airspace and territory.

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

The Portuguese and Romanian F-16 Fighting Falcon detachments are seamlessly continuing this important mission until the end of July. In early December 2022, the Polish and French detachments secured the skies out of Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, conducting around 50 alert scrambles. The Portuguese and Romanians took over the mission from the French and Polish detachments in March 2023. The detachments maintained a posture of 24/7 vigilance and responsiveness under NATO Air Policing and at the same time they flew combined and joint missions with regional Allies and Partners. For the Portuguese F-16 unit, this is the fifth deployment as lead nation for the Baltic Air Policing. Portugal was already involved in this mission in 2007, 2014, 2016 and 2018. Next to that, Portuguese F-16s also joined the mission as a supplemental nation in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Besides supporting the NATO mission in the Baltic region, Portugal also regularly contributes to Assurance Measures and enhanced Air Policing in the south underlining its commitment to collective defense and Alliance solidarity. The F-16s of the Portuguese Air Force are from the 301 Squadron which is based at Monte-Real Air Base in Portugal. The Portuguese detachment consists of four F-16AM Fighting Falcon fighters.

For Romania, the present BAP deployment is the second one after joining the Baltic Air Policing in 2007 as the 12th Ally on the mission. At the time, the Romanian MiG-21 LanceR C jets patrolled the skies from August to November 2007. The present Romanian detachment is led by Colonel Cosmin Vlad (NATO OF-5) and is the first Romanian BAP with the F-16AM Fighting Falcon. Romania bought these upgraded aircraft from Portugal in an earlier stage. The combined mission of both nations under the NATO flag is a continuation of their consistent cooperation. Colonel Vlad has already a long history in the Romanian Air Force. His first assignment in the air force was in the year 2000. Vlad made more than 1000 flight hours on fighter jets and is currently the Detachment Commander (Detco) of the Romanian detachment in Šiauliai. As Detco Vlad is not flying actively himself despite the fact that he is a pilot himself. His role is to lead the detachment to a success for the Romanian Air Force and to guide the personnel of the Viper Wing. The current Romanian detachment consists, according to Vlad, of almost 100 persons. The main body of the mission arrived on March 25, 2023, and the mission started on April 1, 2023. According to Vlad the Romanian mission will end on August 1, 2023. The unit involved is the 53rd Fighter Squadron (Escadrila 53 Vânătoare) (53 FS) of the Romanian Air Force from Baza 86 Aeriana Fetisti. The unit is also known as the ‘Warhawks’ according to Vlad. Currently the 53 FS is the only unit in Romania operating the F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcon. The Romanian detachment consists of four F-16’s in Lithuania. The detachment of four multi-role F-16 combat aircraft and the designated personnel are wearing the honorary name ‘Carpathian Vipers’. Vlad explains that they currently have approximately 10 pilots who are rotating during the BAP mission. “Currently we are halfway through the mission and about half of the pilots here in Lithuania will be replaced soon by a new group of pilots from Romania for the second half of the mission.”

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

The Romanians for the mission in the Baltic’s have a mixed level of experience among the pilots involved. According to Vlad the number of experienced pilots versus younger pilots is 50-50. All pilots are fully qualified for the job as this is not a training, but a real deal deployment where the defense of Europe is guarded. The young pilots are mission ready both in the role of flight lead and wing man. In Romania the pilots have the same mission according to Vlad. “We are using the same procedures and TTP’s (Tactics, Techniques & Procedures), the only difference is that in Romania the Air Policing mission is under control of the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center) in Torrejon while here we are under control of the CAOC in Uedem in Germany.” Colonel Vlad explains how a mission like the BAP starts for the Romanian Air Force. “First, it was started volunteering. Normally in Romania the services make the proposal to the Joint Force Command and after the ministry of defense for approval. The proposal was submitted to the National Security Council after that. In the end, it is a political-military decision.” After approval for the BAP mission the Romanian had a Work up plan towards the mission. “We had a complex work-up plan that included months of preparation, intense training and tough evaluations. At the end of this period, the ‘Carpathian Vipers’ Detachment was certified to participate in the NATO Air Policing Mission in the Baltic's. Overcoming maintenance and operational challenges, the detachment managed through hard work and dedication to deploy in due time, complete the handover with our French partners and declare the Full Operational Capability in accordance with the NATO AIRCOM (NATO Allied Air Command) timeline and intention.”

Six days after taking over the Baltic Air Policing mission at Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, two Romanian F-16 fighter jets were scrambled by the Combined Air Operations Center Uedem, Germany. The aircraft were for the first time able to respond to an air incident in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. A formation of two unidentified aircraft was detected flying over international waters within NATO area of responsibility. The aircraft involved did not communicate their identity and were not in contact with civilian Air Traffic Control agencies. In line with the Alliance's standard procedures, the Romanian F-16s were scrambled and subsequently identified two Russian Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’ fighter jets. After conducting the intercept and the identification maneuver in professional manner, the NATO jets safely escorted the Russian aircraft and returned to Šiauliai Air Base. “The successful completion of the first scramble task within the enhanced Air Policing mission in the Baltic States confirms the high level of readiness of the ‘Carpathian Vipers’ detachment to secure the skies and the ability of the Romanian Air Force to deploy and use our F-16 aircraft in NATO missions'' said the commander of the F-16 detachment. Since the beginning of the mission in the Baltic’s, the Romanians have flown over 100 sorties halfway through their mission period. According to Vlad approximately 10 aircraft like the Su-27 in the example were intercepted by the Romanians and Portuguese air forces. About the deployment in the Baltics until now Vlad was clear in his answers; “We have collected some of the lessons identified, some of them being already implemented in our deployment check-list or in the SOP’s (Standard Operating procedures). For sure, all of them are going to make our life easier on future deployments.'' He is very satisfied about the result while working together with the Portuguese Air Force. On the question if the Romanians will come back for a future BAP, Vlad was clear; “As I stated at the beginning, this is more a political-military decision. But most likely we will be here again in the near future.”

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Colonel Mihaita Marin ‘Mitza’ is in the current detachment the Deputy Detachment Commander for the flying ops at Siauliai. Mitza is a very experienced pilot in the Romanian Air Force. He gained his wings 19 years ago in 2004. Currently he has 1800 flight hours on his name of which about 1100 on the Viper. Mitza was the lead pilot who joined the Lithuanian C-27J Spartan for the formation shoot. The Romanian jets flew under the callsign Warhawk 01 to 04 which is typical as this is the name of the 53 Fighter Squadron. Mitza explained; “We had a common briefing with the media in the morning, followed by our regular mission briefing. Total, I would say the entire morning of the first day was preparing for the flight in the afternoon.” The media shoot was performed along the western coast of Lithuania and above Siauliai AB, where the BAP mission is located. “Escorting a slow mover like the Spartan is a challenge.” said Mitza. A plane like a Spartan is flying much slower than the Viper does which makes it difficult to form a formation for an escort. Escorting a Spartan like in today’s mission is an important training for the Viper pilots. Also under operational circumstances the pilots intercept slow moving aircraft high above the Baltic Sea. Mitza has been involved in the BAP mission since the start in March. Also Mitza learned a lot and gained mainly a lot of experiences during the Romanian BAP mission. Mitza explains; “The best is the huge number of opportunities to train together with almost all the platforms and troops that could be imagined. The very best is that on every training or real mission we have proved, mainly to ourselves, but to the others also, that we are fully interoperable and trustworthy.” Mitza ends his story about the deployment with his experiences; “Probably the most important aspect is that this is for our squadron the first deployment abroad with the Viper. It was not planned like this, but the Ukrainian War canceled all our practice deployments in 2022, therefore we had to go straight to operational flights. Half way through the mission, all the feedback shows that we are doing the job, and more importantly, all the airmen see that their training pays off and there's nothing better than the ‘feel good about my job’ sentiment.”

The Air Force of Romania is next to the BAP mission on its way to become future proof. Currently the fighter fleet consists of seventeen F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcon aircraft which were bought from the Portuguese Air Force. Halfway during the Romanian BAP mission the country said goodbye to the aging MiG-21 LanceR fleet in Romania. On May 15, 2023, the last MiG-21 LanceR took off from the 71st Air Base “General Emanoil Ionescu” located in Câmpia Turzii after more than 60 years of service in the Romanian Air Force. This fighter and interceptor jet entered service with the Romanian Air Force in 1962. For over six decades it was the fighter aircraft that watched over Romania's skies when the country was a non-aligned State. With the membership of NATO in 2004, the upgraded MiG-21 LanceR contributed to the NATO Air Policing in Romania for over a quarter of a century. From August to November 2007, Romania deployed four of their MiG-21 LanceR aircraft to lead NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia which was at that moment an incredible achievement for the country. The ‘Carpathian Vipers’ joined the national air policing missions for the first time in 2019. Now the MiG-21 is retired from duty, the Viper took fully over this task. Romania has joined NATO’s F-16 user community which has already a long history in Europe and America.

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

At the end of 2022 the government of Romania announced that the country will purchase another batch of 32 F-16AM/BM fighters. The planes in this batch will be bought from Norway. The Norwegian Air Force is currently already operational with the F-35A Lightning II. The usage of the F-16s during the BAP mission showed already what the capabilities are of the Romanian Air Force and its staff. This will only grow with the purchase of more aircraft. About his period until now about the BAP, Vlad was very clear; “The level of interoperability and integration between NATO allies and partners is incredible! Quite large air engagements (with 10 or more aircraft) are planned and executed in a very short time frame (sometimes in just one day). Formations have a diverse composition of mostly four or more types of aircraft from different nations. This definitely increases our confidence in the alliance and demonstrates that “stronger together” is not just a concept on a paper.” With these words Vlad is pointing out that he is very proud to be part of the NATO alliance with Romania and Portugal. Especially in this period where Europe is on the move it is important to work together and defend the common goods within the alliance. Vlad ended his story with some words about the Lithuanian host; “I have a special thought and consideration for our Lithuanian partners who have constantly supported our mission here from the very beginning. None of this would have been possible without their dedication and hard work, thank you!”

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing

Romania Portugal Baltic Air Policing


Text: Alex van Noije and Joris van Boven
Photos: NATO AIRCOM/Arnaud Chamberlin

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