Operation AZOTIZE

In late Apr 2014, elements of No 3 (Fighter) Squadron, ably assisted by personnel from the wider Typhoon Force deployed to Siauliai Airbase, Lithuania to participate in the NATO Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission.

Falling under the command of No 135 Expeditionary Air Wing, made up largely of personnel from RAF Leeming, the deployment was tangible evidence of the Government’s response to the ongoing tension in Ukraine. This was the first time that UK aircraft had supported BAP since the Tornado F3 had deployed to the same air base in 2004.

The task was to provide Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) aircraft alongside those of the other participating nations including Polish MiG29s also at Siauliai, Danish F16s at Amari (near Tallinn) and French Mirage 2000s at Malbork, Poland. Setting up the UK operating location was challenging although our experience from recent deployments and knowledge gained during Op PROTEGO, where QRA was established at RAF Northolt, was very beneficial. Under close media scrutiny, the UK contribution to the reassurance of the Baltic States was rapidly put into effect.

The main day-to-day task of the squadron was to intercept any ‘stranger’ aircraft that were flying in Baltic airspace, or over the Baltic Sea. Very quickly, the detachment received its first operational tasking intercepting Russian helicopters operating over the Baltic Sea to the west of Lithuanian airpsace. RAF Typhoons intercepted Russian Su-27 Flanker aircraft for the first time when, in mid June, two Typhoons were scrambled to intercept and escort a formation comprising Russian Tu-22 Backfire and Flanker aircraft, again flying over the Baltic Sea. Flying alongside an armed Russian Flanker was certainly an experience which will live long in the memories of the pilots involved! Soon afterwards, two more lucky pilots again got the chance to intercept multiple Flanker and Fullback aircraft on a similar route. It’s not often pilots hear a ‘picture’ described over the radio comprising multiple heavy groups on a QRA scramble!

In addition to QRA, there was exciting and beneficial training available with the plethora of fighters from other NATO nations involved in the BAP mission; such opportunities are infrequently seen in the UK. Needless to say, the Typhoon was very much sought after as a training partner being a novelty in the region and we were very happy to oblige! Consequently, many sorties consisted of Dissimilar Air Combat Training against fighters such as the Gripen, Mig-29, Mirage and F-16. They were a great way of reminding us just quite how good the performance of the Typhoon actually is! Other sorties provided Close Air Support to some of the Baltic States’ own ground forces. During this time, command of the detachment was held by each of the 3(F) Sqn Execs which was a great experience.

An important secondary task was to engage with the people of Lithuania, and the detachment had a large presence at many public events across the country. Personnel were on the ground at airshows, country fairs and state events demonstrating to the local public the role of the RAF and the Typhoon and how effective it can be in the airpolicing arena. This was all part of the reassurance task we were deployed to support and we were received exceptionally well on all occasions.