Polish pilots started combat duty in protecting the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. For the first time in history the Polish Air Force sent F-16 fighters.
According to Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) at Ramstein, Polish F-16 “Hawk” aircrafts captured the Russian reconnaissance propeller Il20M over the waters of the Baltic Sea. This is the first such action of Polish F-16 under code name PKW “Orlik 7”, which debuted in Baltic air policing operations.
The incident took place on May 15th. When the planes stationed in the Baltic States took the lead twice, they intercepted machines that had their transponders disabled and did not react to attempts to establish radio communications.
Spain’s F-18A + Hornet from the Amari base in Estonia received the first signal to take off from the coordinated operation of Combined Air Operations Center in Uedem. They identified a target as the Russian Su-24M bomber from Kaliningrad.
Approximately an hour later the Polish F-16s were scrambled from the Šiauliai (Szawle) base in Lithuania. Polish fighters apprehended the Russian plane Il-20M over the waters of the Baltic Sea and returned to base after its identification.
Il-20 is one of the lesser-known variants of the military passenger aircraft propeller Il18. It is designed to conduct a comprehensive diagnosis in the border area. It has on-board radar detectors, VHF radio intercepting equipment, a radio observation station, and cameras. The Il20 aircrafts were modernized in service several times, but no successor replacement has been selected by the Russian armed forces.
According to the General Command of the Polish Armed Forces, the operations of the “Orlik 7” contingent are 44th shift between all NATO countries performing the tasks of protecting the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The contingent consists of over 100 airmen with various specializations needed for performing tasks and four F-16 multirole aircraft. Poles are stationed at the Šiauliai base in Lithuania, and the area will be serviced from May to August 2017.
For the first time in history the air policing mission is performed by Polish F-16 C/D fighters. At the Lithuanian base they replace the F-16AM/BM Dutch air force. Both Polish and Dutch fighters can be armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and AIM-9 AMRAAM mid-range missiles.
Previously, Poland’s MiG-29 machines were assigned to operations in Lithuania and they were usually armed only with short-range rockets (R-60M or R-73, thermally-driven). The Polish F-16s are supported by the Spanish F-18, operating from Estonia.
The task of PKW “Orlik 7” is to ensure the NATO airspace of the NATO states in the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) airspace by the effort of 2 aircraft 24/7 and to assist military and civilian aircraft in emergency situations in flight.
Machines performing the mission of Baltic Air Policing are often picked up to intercept / identify Russian aircraft operating in the Baltic Sea region. Generally (though not always) Russians fly in international space, but without a flight plan or with transponders turned off. For example, from April 17 to April 30, fighters flew three times.
On April18, the An-26 transport escort flew with the transponder off, although it had a flight plan and maintained radio communications with air traffic control. Two days later, four Su-24M’s flying to Kaliningrad were captured by Lithuanian Ministry of Defense. Like the transporter, they maintained radio communications and had flight plans, but they did so with transponders off.
The situation was somewhat different on April 28th. NATO fighters identified and escorted a group of planes consisting of one Tu-134 and two Su-27s. Tu-134 flew with transponder on and had a flight plan from Kaliningrad towards the rest of Russia. Two Su-27 escorted Tupolev to the border with Estonia (then turned back), had no flight plan, had no transponder, and did not maintain radio communications.