Baltic States: Pentagon's Training Grounds For Afghan and Future Wars
With the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe from 1999-2009, the U.S.-led military alliance has grown by 75 percent, from 16 to 28 members.
By 2009 all former non-Soviet Warsaw Pact member states had been incorporated into NATO, the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) being absorbed with its merger into the Federal Republic in 1990. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999 and Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia in 2004. Albania, which suspended participation in the Warsaw Pact six years after its founding, in 1961, was brought into the Alliance last year.
The 2004 expansion included seven nations in all, the three mentioned above, the first former Yugoslav republic, Slovenia, and the first former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Immediately upon their accession, the United States began to employ the new members' territory for military bases, troop deployments, air patrols and the initial stages of a continent-wide anti-ballistic missile system beyond already existing NATO plans for the bloc's Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence Programme.
The year after Romania was brought into NATO's ranks, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement with its government to acquire the use of four military bases in the country, including the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in southeast Romania near the Black Sea which had been used two years before for the invasion of Iraq. Romanian President Traian Basescu paid his first official visit to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld five months before the treaty was signed.
At the time the Pentagon's acquisition of the bases was characterized as part of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's "strategic shift intended to place US forces closer to potential areas of conflict in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia."  Washington had led NATO's nearly three-month air war against nearby Yugoslavia five years before, invaded Afghanistan two years after that and launched the attack on Iraq another two years later. Three wars in less than four years and all to the east of NATO's former area of responsibility.
The pact with Romania was the first of its kind in a former Warsaw Pact nation. It was followed the next year by a comparable arrangement with neighboring Bulgaria in which the U.S. secured the indefinite use of four military facilities, including two air bases.
This February the governments of Romania and Bulgaria announced their willingness to host components of the American interceptor missile system designed to cover all of Europe under what the White House and the Pentagon call a new phased adaptive approach.
But the first U.S. and NATO military presence in what had been Warsaw Pact member states occurred the year before the U.S.-Romanian Defense Cooperation Agreement and moreover was in former Soviet space. After Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO in March of 2004 the North Atlantic bloc immediately began what it deems a Baltic air policing mission in the airspace of the three nations as a Quick Reaction Alert operation.
In the interim warplanes from several NATO member states - the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Turkey, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania to date - have flown what at first were three-month and are now four-month around-the-clock rotations over the three Baltic states, all of which have borders with Russia. Estonia and Latvia adjoin the Russian mainland to their east and Lithuania Russia's Kaliningrad exclave to its west. (Northeast Poland also borders Kaliningrad.)
On September 1 the U.S. took over NATO's Baltic air patrol with the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deployed from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England to the Siauliai International Airport in Lithuania where the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission is based. Four U.S. F-15 C Eagle jet fighters, capable of being armed with four types of air-to-air weapons including Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, and 120 personnel are assigned to the mission.
It is the third time American warplanes have been deployed for the Baltic air operation and the second time F-15 C Eagles have been employed for the purpose.
U.S. ambassador to Lithuania Anne Derse, who came to the position from being American envoy to Azerbaijan, said as the U.S. Air Force took over from its Polish counterpart: "The (493rd has) already established a legacy of professionalism in the Baltics, and we look forward to building upon it. As all warriors know, the surest way to maintain peace is to exercise constant vigilance and rigorously prepare to meet all potential threats. The Baltic air policing mission is just one of many facets of NATO's vigilance and preparation." Derse didn't indicate which potential threats the warriors were preparing to confront, but a look at a map of the Baltic Sea does.
Major General Mark Zamzow, vice commander of the 3rd Air Force based at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, added, "Our relationship with the Baltic nations has grown remarkably since the inception of the Air policing mission."
He was also cited claiming "a 2008 endeavor designed to provide complex air policing training has since evolved with a broader scope emphasizing a wide spectrum of air operations over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia."