On Thursday, a news conference with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at an airbase in Siauliai, Lithuania was briefly interrupted when NATO fighter jets scrambled to intercept two Russian jets. The two national leaders had been just three minutes into their joint news conference, which was being televised live from the NATO base, when flight crews responded to an alarm.
The leaders, as well as those in the media, were subsequently led away to safety.
NATO officials confirmed that the Spanish Eurofighter Typhoon jets, based in Lithuania on a NATO mission to help police Baltic airspace, were activated following reports that a pair of Russian Sukhoi Su-24 combat aircraft had taken off from Russia’s Kaliningrad region without filing flight plans, and without their transponders on. NATO also said that the Russian aircraft failed to respond to regional air traffic control.
The event proved to make the point as well as anything that the politicians could have said.
“We have seen a real-life case of what happens and precisely it justifies the presence of Spanish troops with the seven Eurofighters in Lithuania,” Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez told reporters when the news conference resumed.
Sánchez had been visiting Lithuania as part of a three-day trip to the Baltic region, and earlier had met with officials in Estonia and Latvia.
Moscow Refutes the Claims
Russia has disputed any claims by NATO that its aircraft had breached the airspace of other states during what it called a scheduled training flight.
“On July 8, 2021, two Su-24 planes from the Baltic Fleet’s naval aviation performed a scheduled training flight in the airspace over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, reported by Tass.
The Russian aircraft conducted their flight in what the ministry maintained was “in strict compliance with the international rules of using the airspace, without violating other countries’ borders.”
The Sukhoi Su-24 (NATO reporting name “Fencer”) is a supersonic all-weather attack aircraft that had been developed by the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. It features a variable-sweep wing, twin-engines and side-by-side seating for its two-person crew. It was the first of the Soviet Air Force’s combat planes to feature an integrated digital navigation/attack system.
The Su-24 is primarily a low-flying, medium-range attack and ground support aircraft. Despite its age, the Su-24 has remained in service with the Russian Air Force as well as the Ukrainian Air Force and numerous other nations around the world.
Protecting the Baltics
There are currently seven Spanish Eurofighters stationed at the Siauliai airbase, and they arrived on April 30 for the Baltic air-policing mission. In addition, four Italian F-35 Lightning II fighters at stationed at Estonia’s Amari airbase.
The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania each joined NATO in 2004, yet none have fighter jets of their own. It has been NATO’s responsibility to police the Baltic airspace on a rotational four-month basis from Siauliai and Amari.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.