Two U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers took off from their temporary home at Orland air base in Norway on Tuesday, looped through international air space over the Baltic Sea then turned south and barreled along the NATO-Russia frontier.
With a pair of NATO Typhoon fighters flanking it, one of the swing-wing bombers roared at low altitude over the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The dramatic sortie had at least three goals. To reassure the governments and populations of NATO’s most vulnerable member states. To demonstrate to Russia the United States’ clear intention to defend its allies.
And, more subtly, to lure Russian forces into responding—and thus giving U.S. reconnaissance aircraft an opportunity to gather useful intelligence.
As the B-1 flew over Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, a U.S. Air Force RC-135V electronic eavesdropping plane—supported by a USAF KC-135 tanker—lurked near Murmansk in northern Russia, home of the Russian Northern Fleet and other major forces.
“This mission sends a clear message that our commitment to our NATO allies is unshakeable,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander, said of the bomber sortie.
NATO fighters flew alongside the swing-swing bombers on their long flight around Northern Europe. Danish and Polish F-16s and Typhoons from Italy and Germany—the latter flying from Lithuania as part of NATO’s rotational Baltic Air Policing force—took turns escorting the B-1s.
The Russian air force responded. At least one Su-27—presumably flying from Kaliningrad, Russia’s isolated exclave on the Baltic Sea—intercepted the B-1s over the water and flew nearby for a while.
Russian media celebrated the interception in the same way Western media celebrated the B-1 mission.
“For Russia, the U.S. military presence and activity in Eastern Europe—that has been significantly increased since 2014—is a ‘provocation’ and part of the American ‘anti-Russian policy’ that is, according to Russia’s official position, damaging the common European security,” explained Pavel Luzin, an independent expert on the Russian military.
Tensions are rising in the region. There’s a fine line between reassuring allies and provoking rivals, explained Hans Kristensen, a military expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. “We are certainly walking that line now and have been for some time, with bombers being sent further east and north more frequently.”
The U.S. Air Force in early February announced it would, for the first time, deploy B-1 bombers to Norway. The bombers arrived on Feb. 22 and wasted no time joining a NATO naval exercise off the Norwegian coast. The Baltic jaunt was the bombers’ second major mission.
“While friendly bombers seen over the Baltic states may feel reassuring to people in those countries, the same bombers are seen just a few miles east as a growing NATO threat,” Kristensen said. “While that may help deter a hypothetical Russian attack, according to deterrence theory, it will do nothing to lessen Russia’s military posturing along the border—and may in fact fuel it further.”
Sure enough, the Russian air force has mobilized its own warplanes to match the American deployment. The Kremlin launched, at Russia’s main bomber base in Engels, a new operation involving Tu-160s and Tu-95s. “Tasks are being worked out, including conducting air patrols in a given zone,” the Kremlin announced.
The Kaliningrad Sukhoi pilots meanwhile have undergone special counter-bomber training. “The crews of the Su-27 will carry out the tasks of intercepting simulated aircraft that violate the borders of the Kaliningrad region, as well as launch missile-launches at targets imitating cruise missiles and strategic bombers of the imaginary enemy,” said Roman Martov, a Russian military spokesman.
It’s not clear where these tit-for-tat operations will end. “Right now the deterrence and reassurance strategy seems to be on autopilot—more, further, better,” Kristensen said. “The contours of a grand strategy that seeks to reassure NATO allies while at the same time seeking to reduce tension and improving relations is much harder to find.”
“According to the current playbook, operations this summer and next year are predictable—more bombers will be sent, landing at additional air bases, displaying more capabilities.”