Airspace: Germans and Spaniards secure NATO's eastern flank

With a deafening noise, the fighter planes climb steeply into the cloudy sky over Estonia.

Airspace: Germans and Spaniards secure NATO's eastern flank

With a deafening noise, the fighter planes climb steeply into the cloudy sky over Estonia. First, a Eurofighter of the German Air Force takes off from the runway at Ämari military airport, followed shortly afterwards by a Spanish Eurofighter. Their joint mission in "NATO Air Policing": protecting the NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania bordering Russia, which do not have their own air forces. For the first time, German-Spanish alarm squads patrolled together - and secured the airspace over the Baltic States wing to wing for almost three weeks from the end of August.

From the Federal Government's point of view, the interlinked flight operations are exemplary for closer cooperation in Europe in protection against threats from the air. This goal is also served by the air defense system that Chancellor Olaf Scholz is aiming for, which he wants to set up together with European neighbors against the background of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. A first step in this direction is now to be taken on the fringes of the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels with the signing of a declaration of intent.

The guiding idea behind both initiatives: jointly ensure the air defense of Europe in an efficient and interoperable manner. Air surveillance in Estonia, which the Air Force took over for the ninth time at the beginning of August - for a total of nine months, shows how this could work. The Eurofighter crews from Germany and Spain sometimes completed protective flights together to identify Russian aircraft. According to the Bundeswehr, the mixed squads had to ascend twice to alarm starts called "Alpha Scrambles". There were also numerous training sessions.

What is the Quick Reaction Alert?

"You see the pilots, you literally look the pilots in the eye," says an Air Force pilot with the rank of major, describing his experience of the intercept maneuvers several thousand meters above the Baltic Sea. One German and one Spanish fighter jet each took off together in the event of an alert from NATO. The so-called Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) is always triggered when flying objects approach Estonian airspace unannounced and without identifying themselves - and thus also the NATO border.

Despite Russia's war in Ukraine, there have not yet been any dangerous situations in the air. For the most part, Russian pilots acted cooperatively when the Eurofighters approached them and established visual contact. "Both sides are behaving very professionally," says the German soldier. For example, people wave to each other or greet each other in a military manner. Nevertheless, it is "something not commonplace when you fly next to the other plane there".

Most of them are Russian military aircraft that fly between St. Petersburg and the Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad around the former Königsberg. If they want to reach their bases by air, the route is north of Estonia through a narrow, narrow corridor over the Gulf of Finland. Nowhere else do the armed forces of NATO and Russia come as close as there in international airspace over the Baltic Sea.

A main goal of the cooperation was the "Plug

"It is important now to give this strong signal that the NATO air force is here on NATO's eastern flank," stressed the Air Force Inspector, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, during a visit to the troops in Ämari. For him, the joint mission in Estonia with Spain sent a clear signal of alliance solidarity. "Especially now, with the war in Ukraine, it has a very special meaning, of course." This should signal: "The limit is the red line - and it must not be crossed."

But showing limits in the air requires a great deal of effort on the ground. Five Eurofighters and around 140 German soldiers are stationed at the military base in Ämari, around 50 kilometers south-west of the Estonian capital of Tallinn. In the meantime, they were supported in their task by four Eurofighters and 60 soldiers from the Spanish Air Force.

A main goal of the German-Spanish cooperation was the so-called "Plug

Pilot training largely standardized within NATO

"It's the first time that we're exchanging spare parts and that the Spanish Air Force is taking over our armament," says Gerhartz, referring to the close cooperation. "That's a high level, a high degree of entanglement." Spain's air force chief, General Javier Salto, also praises the German-Spanish cooperation to the skies - and speaks of a "quality leap both in the operational and in the logistical area". After a meeting with Gerhartz, he emphasized that the air force was stronger thanks to the cooperation.

The "plug

"We were able to almost double the mission output compared to what we expect as individual nations," says Lieutenant Colonel Georg Hummel, who leads the German mission contingent in Ämari, summarizing the cooperation on NATO's eastern flank that took place until mid-September. The Spaniards were therefore able to reduce their logistics and personnel costs by around 65 percent. "So it's a big win for us, and I think it's a big win for NATO too."