European Exercises Stress Realism As Russia Looms Large

A B-52H Stratofortress from the 2nd Bomb Wing refuels from a KC-135R Stratotanker during BALTOPS over Latvia, June 14, 2017. Air Force photo by SSgt. Jonathan Snyder.

Krzesiny AB, Poland—More than 100 USAF airmen, primarily deployed from Aviano AB, Italy, were at this F-16 base in central Poland June 16 preparing for Saturday’s Baltic Operations flights. Aviano’s 510th Fighter Squadron sent eight Vipers along with the pilots, maintainers, security forces, logisticians, and other airmen needed to sustain the aircraft that were to participate in the roughly three-week long Baltic Operations deployment.

This month’s largely simultaneous Saber Strike and BALTOPS exercises brought in a big Air Force presence for realistic training along NATO’s eastern frontiers. The Navy-led BALTOPS is primarily over and around Poland and the Baltic Sea, while Saber Strike is an Army-led event centered on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Veterans of multiple BALTOPS and Saber Strike exercises said this year’s iterations really ramped up the realism and intensity. For example, Saturday’s sorties were to simulate a “Suwalki Gap scenario,” officials told Air Force Magazine.

The Suwalki Gap, named for a nearby Polish town, is shorthand for the area around the short, 65-mile border shared by NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Officially, the BALTOPS and Saber Strike exercises deal with “adversaries.”

To the west of the Poland-Lithuania border lies the highly militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and to the east is Russia’s ally Belarus. If Russia were to attack NATO, it could cut off the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from their only land connection to the rest of NATO by seizing this narrow strip of land. It is NATO’s job to ensure Russia knows attempting to do so would be a terrible move.

Poland is highly interested in the area too, as the nation largely lacks natural defenses and has fallen victim to foreign invasion and occupation many times. In many ways, the Suwalki Gap is the spiritual successor to the Cold War’s Fulda Gap.

The USAF forces supporting BALTOPS and Saber Strike tended to flow back and forth between the various locations and exercises, depending upon the needs of the day.

Earlier last week, Air National Guardsmen out of Selfridge ANGB, Mich., took reporters up on KC-135 flights out of Riga Airport, Latvia, to fuel B-52 bombers operating out of the UK. B-1 Lancers operating in the same Latvian airspace as the B-52s that day were refueled by other tankers—also on hand in north-central Europe for the exercises were a pair of Air Force Reserve KC-135s out of JB Andrews, Md.; and two Active Duty Stratotankers from RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. B-2 stealth bombers also participated in this year’s BALTOPS/Saber Strike, marking the first time all three USAF bomber types flew in the exercises.

The Mildenhall and Andrews tanker crews were flying from Powidz Air Base in Poland, and pilots with Mildenhall’s 100th Air Refueling Wing said, in addition to the bombers, they had refueled US and Polish F-16s and German Eurofighters during the exercises.

Airmen repeatedly stressed the importance of high-intensity training like this to develop their skills, publicly demonstrate their commitment to European security, and build relationships with other nations that would be critical in time of war. Typical taskings include offensive and defensive counter air, close air support, ISR, and maritime interdiction.

At Latvia’s Lielvarde Air Base, the 435th Contingency Response Group out of Ramstein Air Base in Germany was busy honing its ability to deploy into an austere environment and quickly open a base. Over 100 airmen from 27 Air Force specialty codes were on hand, living out of tents and deployable buildings in the rain and helping prove Ramstein-based C-130Js could perform their missions in a wartime environment.

The day before, some of the CRG’s airmen had moved to Estonia for the day to assess and approve a grass strip for C-130 operations. Once they gave it the green light, the Hercs performed 24 landings and takeoffs and made airdrops in the Estonian field.

Lielvarde was also host to a large number of soldiers and Army helicopters, and the parking ramp was crowded with Apaches, Black Hawks, and Chinooks. While Air Force Magazine was visiting the base, Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, arrived to meet with some of the Saber Strike soldiers. These exercises attract considerable high-level attention: That same day, Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and NATO’s air component commander, was at Amari AB, Estonia, for meetings with the Estonian air chief.

Much of the groundwork for these operations was already laid by members of the 52nd Operations Group’s Det. 1, USAF’s only permanently assigned team in Poland. Entering its fifth year of existence, the 10-person “AvDet,” as it is colloquially known, paves the way for other USAF forces to flow into Poland and operate from various host-nation bases—with all the logistics and local connections already in place.

The detachment predates Russia’s seizure of Ukraine, and has only grown in importance in recent years. Airmen assigned to the detachment typically support operations at three central-Poland air bases, but Det. 1’s permanent station at Lask Air Base is currently closed for runway improvements and expansion—work that will take over a year.

BALTOPS and Saber Strike fit in well with the detachment’s US European Command requirement to bring in at least two fighter and two mobility deployments per year.

NATO’s goal is for the Suwalki Gap to remain what the Fulda Gap was in the Cold War: a?n invasion route in theory only. Highly visible exercises like BALTOPS and Saber Strike develop the skills, demonstrate the commitment, and foster the partnerships needed to keep the peace in Eastern Europe.