These Are the First U.S. Forces to Deploy Against Russia
Pentagon sending seven more warplanes to Lithuania
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe is sending a KC-135R aerial tanker and an extra six F-15C fighters to join four F-15s already defending Lithuania and its neighbors against Russian air patrols.
The seven planes are the first American forces to deploy in apparent reaction to Russia’s bloodless invasion of Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region starting in late February. The twin-engine, single-seat F-15 routinely carries up to eight air-to-air missiles in additions to its built-in 20-millimeter cannon.
At least 15,000 Russian troops occupy key Ukrainian facilities, eliciting outrage from some countries and world bodies—and pointed silence from other, less assertive states. Germany and the U.K. are unwilling to jeopardize Russian gas imports, but the U.S. has threatened a wide range of economics sanctions.
The supersonic F-15s and their accompanying tanker so far represent the West’s only obvious military response to the Russian attack—and an indirect one, at that. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the deployment during Senate testimony on March 5.
Technically, the planes are reinforcing an existing four-plane F-15 detachment at Siauliai air base in Lithuania. Since 2004, NATO states have sent fighters to the alliance’s Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—on three-month rotations. Lacking high-performance fighters of their own, the Baltic states are normally defenseless against increasingly frequent incursions by Russian patrol planes.
The Baltic governments requested the extra F-15s, according to an Air Force release. The deployment of the U.K.-based American planes “further demonstrates our commitment to NATO security,” an official states in the release. Ukraine is not a NATO member.
On Feb. 24, two of the F-15s were participating in a ceremonial flyover to commemorate Estonia’s independence day when a Russian spy plane approached Estonian airspace. The F-15s quickly diverted to ward off the Russian plane. Since deploying in January, the American jets have intercepted Moscow’s warplanes on no fewer than six occasions.
Hagel also indicated the U.S. might expand its military ties with Poland—clearly another reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. U.S. warplanes frequently rotate to Poland for training alongside Warsaw’s own rapidly-improving air force. U.S. European Command maintains roughly 75,000 troops plus some 200 warplanes on the continent.