USAFE, NATO team up for air policing mission in Latvia

Lt. Col. Eric Schnaible
USAFE  Public Affairs

 U.S. Air Forces in Europe Airmen teamed up with their Latvian counterparts and other NATO allies to ensure safe skies for President George W. Bush’s recent Baltic nation visit.

More than 50 USAFE Airmen from across the command supported Task Force Salty Weasel, the operational name for USAFE’s augmentation of NATO’s air policing mission for the president’s visit to Latvia May 6 to 7.

The USAFE Air Forces Europe Headquarters staff and the 32nd Air Operations Group here led the task force planning effort and provided air battle managers, air traffic ground controllers, aircraft operators and intelligence officers.

“The best part of being in the Air Force is watching a team come together this rapidly to execute a mission,” said Lt. Col. Pete Castor, 32nd AOG deputy commander and site commander of the deployed forces. “The mission was conducted under the NATO structure, so we successfully exercised those relations in ‘real-world’ ops.”

The task force integrated the 32nd Air Operations Center here, tankers, fighters, here, regional air surveillance centers, control reporting centers, communications and other assets across eight locations and multi-layered command relationships to provide critical presidential support. 
In addition, 11 members of 1st Combat Communications Squadron deployed in advance with equipment to provide and maintain secure communications with all participants in the task force. Aerospace Ground Equipment, light carts, R-11 aviation fuel trucks and security forces personnel rounded out the support.

Other participants were F-16CJ ‘Wild Weasels’ from the 22nd and 23rd fighter squadrons in Spangdahlem Air Base and KC-135E Stratotankers from the 351st Air Refueling Squadron in Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.

NATO air forces routinely maintain vigilance across member nations’ airspace against military threats, but transfer authority to the host nation for engagement of renegade civilian aircraft. In the post-Sept.11 world, they also conduct air policing. The on-call forces flying the NATO air policing mission over Latvia included forward deploying Dutch F-16s providing a defensive counter air capability and NATO E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System from Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, providing a recognized air picture.

Viper pilots and tanker aircrews maintained a 24-hour combat air patrol over Latvian airspace, with rotatational aircraft launched from and recovered to their home stations every several hours through the duration. 

Adhering to pre-established and rehearsed Rules of Engagement, four U.S. F-16s were continually “on station” to deter and monitor any renegade commercial air threat that might try to penetrate Latvian airspace.

Gen. Robert “Doc” Foglesong, USAFE commander, triple-hatted as the commander for the task force and NATO’s Air Component Command for northern Europe, monitored all aircraft movements from an Air Operations Center here. Working beside Latvian air traffic controllers, the Latvian air force commander and a U.S. Secret Service agent, the task force monitored all flying activity for airspace situational awareness.

“This tasking was a unique opportunity to demonstrate NATO’s air forces inter-operability in a real-world air policing mission,” said General Foglesong. “I’m very proud how we employ airpower on a daily basis in this theater to ensure the sovereign airspace of fellow NATO members – and in this op, to protect our president.

“Working closely with a newer NATO member air force was also rewarding, developing personal relationships and working together to coordinate, support and execute such an important, time-sensitive mission,” he added.

With no newsworthy response actions to be taken, the participants’ labors were transparent to the traveling presidential delegation. But for the USAFE Airmen and NATO professionals who executed their assigned tasks, Salty Weasel was a demanding mission well accomplished. In this operation, making no news was great news.