August 19, 2021

Fifth Generation Air Policing: The F-35 and Baltic Air Policing
F-35 fighters of the Italian air force arrive in Estonia
F-35 fighters of the Italian air force arrive in Estonia

Defence cost inflation often means that new generations of equipment are fielded in smaller numbers than their predecessors. Allies introducing the F-35 to replace existing combat aircraft will see both increased operating costs and smaller fleet sizes, raising questions for the future of Baltic Air Policing.

The Baltic Air Policing mission ensures the “integrity, safety, and security of [NATO] airspace” primarily through the intercept of unknown aircraft flying without flight plans, transponder signals or radio communication. As the Baltic States lack their own combat aircraft, NATO nations volunteer aircraft and crew to carry out the mission. In the week of July 11-17th alone, six Russian aircraft intruding into Baltic airspace were intercepted by NATO air forces operating from Šiauliai and Ämari air bases.

Many NATO nations have begun to upgrade their 4th generation fighter aircraft fleets with 5th generation models, primarily the F-35 multirole combat aircraft. While the initial procurement cost of the F-35 has decreased over time, its high operating costs will raise the cost of air policing missions for contributing nations. Additionally, nations are retiring 4th generation aircraft faster than they are acquiring the F-35, leading to a decrease in fighter-fleet size. This decrease is more severe for many of the smaller nations that actively participate in Baltic Air Policing.

Download and read: Fifth Generation Air Policing

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