UEDEM, Germany (AP) — As Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine accelerated earlier this year, NATO military planners began preparing to send dozens of fighter jets and surveillance planes in the skies near Russia and Ukraine. It was a warning to Moscow not to make the mistake of targeting a member country.
Even in the weeks before the war, politicians and analysts were divided on whether President Vladimir Putin would really order Russian troops to invade. From a military perspective, however, the forces deployed around Ukraine seemed designed to do just that.
There was an urgent need to put more eyes in the sky and tightly link NATO aircraft, warships, ground-based missile systems and radar installations to protect the alliance’s eastern flank.
“We are watching very closely” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week. “Information, the best possible situational awareness, is of course extremely critical in such a dangerous situation as we are currently seeing in Ukraine.”
In the run-up to the February 24 invasion, the alliance’s Combined Air Operations Center in Uedem, western Germany, shifted gears. A few dozen soldiers now manage up to 30 planes simultaneously in the skies from the northern tip of Norway to Slovakia.
From an underground bunker in quiet farmland, patrol planes are hijacked to watch for suspicious Russian planes. Jets waiting 15 minutes are regularly “Alpha Scrambled” across Europe to intercept unidentified aircraft near NATO airspace.
More than 100 planes can work at altitude every day, mixed with around 30,000 civilian flights performed daily in European skies.
Six Boeing E-3A surveillance aircraft from NATO’s aging fleet of early warning and control aircraft are helping to create a “aerial image” to be shared with member countries. these “eyes in the sky” do not fly to Ukraine or Russia, but can see up to 250 miles across borders.
Fighter planes also provide information about what is happening inside part of two warring countries. these “assets” are sometimes sent from as far away as western France, refueled in the air, and can patrol the border area for about an hour before having to return.
The 30-nation military alliance fears being drawn into a wider war with Russia, so borders and airspace are strictly enforced.
“There is always the fog of war, and we don’t want to have NATO assets nearby, because even unintentionally you might suffer casualties,” he added. said Major General Harold Van Pee, NATO Installation Commander Uedem.
The most sensitive areas for unidentified aircraft are the Kola Peninsula – at the high northern borders of Russia and Norway – the Gulf of Finland approaching the Russian city of Saint Petersburg and the skies around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.