The 493rd FS ‘Grim Reapers’ on the NATO frontline.
When the world woke up to a new political era of East-West relations in the aftermath of the Ukrainian presidential overthrow, NATO found itself needing to respond with diplomacy and strength in equal measures. The ‘Grim Reapers’ of the 493rd FS were already well positioned to answer the NATO’s call of duty and provide air superiority cover for the Baltic States against the unknown drive of Russian ambition. Four F-15C Eagles had deployed to Lithuania on regular Air Policing duties in January and this presence was increased to 10 jets in March as Russian muscles flexed. With the increased presence came a new focus of attention, a raised stretegic impetus and increased geographical significance as NATO’s response to the situation unfolded and Baltic nerves jangled.

Words & Photography: Rich Cooper / Centre of Aviation Photography

A pair of twin shelters sits out on its own, behind double-barbed wire in a remote corner of the base, just off the end of the runway. As the wind whistles through their open doors, slapping the red 'Remove Before Flight' tags against the yellow stripes of live missiles, there's two sounds that split the calm before the storm.

One is the signal that kicks in the instincts of every military fighter pilot the world over, day or night – the alert siren. The other, heard just seconds after the first, is the squeal of rubber on tarmac as the pedal of the open-doored minivan is smashed through the floor to speed two pilots out to their jets, which are seemingly straining on their reigns as if they too had heard the QRA alert siren and knew of the impending launch – just five swift minutes from now.

Of course, neither man nor machine knows of the nature of the alert. At least not yet. The region they have a duty to protect is under threat, whether intentional or not, and these two pilots, already strapped into their hissing and bristling fighters, are representing NATO's interests in protecting that airspace.

Having rapidly completed the pre-flight checks in a swarm of focused efficiency, the pilots have throttled up, flashed their nosewheel light to signify they are ready to taxi and are now exiting the shelter under quick-fire marshalling.

The taxi is fast. Time is of huge significance. Taking to the active runway, the pair of fighters have had the burners slammed in and their noses pointed skyward, whilst radars are tuned to scan the heavens. The clock is ticking. In the time it takes a mere mortal to drink a cup of bad Joe, the speeding angels are about to intercept the threat and reveal its intentions.

This age-old tale of cat and mouse will be played out under strict Rules of Engagement along the edges of the designated airspace (or, perhaps, just inside it…). Will the intended target – reflected on concerned radar operators' monitors thousands of miles away and the subject of GCIs' RT thousands of feet below – be a deliberate military push played out by an ambitious neighbour in a game of strategic chess? Or, as is often the case, the far less dramatic but nevertheless important case of a stray civilian type, making wayward radio calls or even no communication at all. ‘It is surprising how often a radio seems to have failed and yet it somehow manages to work when a pair of fully armed NATO jets forms up on the offending aircraft’, one alert pilot dryly quipped.

Of course, the protection of airspace is no light-hearted matter – whether the threat is an unintentional mistake or a pre-planned military exercise to test the mettle and response times (and patience) of military players. It's the same the world over, and has taken new responsibilities in recent years with errant civilian aircraft often representing just as much need for ‘shepherding’ as the more traditional influx of military recce, intel and long-range bomber flights.

An age-old tale this may be – the staple diet of adrenaline-fuelled fighter pilots since air combat began – but this time, in this new political arena, the entire world is watching.

Sound of Freedom

It is well versed that the Russian military has found its feet – or, rather, wings – over recent years, and intercepts of Russian AF on probing, testing and gathering missions are frequently on the alert menu. Regularly we have seen proud images of RAF Typhoons escorting Tu-95 ‘Bears’ off the North Sea (eight times in 2013), or jets from Scandinavian air arms shadowing Tu-22 ‘Backfires’ off icy coastlines. Now, as the pages of every newspaper and magazine and every tablet screen have testified, the heat has turned up more than a little. Some would almost say to Cold War heat.

Against this background, enter the Baltic Air Policing mission, performed on rotation by NATO fast jets on detachment to Šiauliai, Lithuania, to provide constant watch over the Baltic region. This well established set-up has now been ensuring the people of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania sleep well at night for nearly a decade and has been performed by 14 nations, which send four jets to Šiauliai for four months at a time, 365 days a year. However, there has never been a time such as this.

The paradigm shift over Europe was apparent even on the night that your intrepid reporter landed Lithuania to begin reporting on this mission. There under the dim orange lights on the Vilnius Airport tarmac stood VIP government jets from Germany, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Czech Republic and Poland. NATO and its partners were taking notice. You could hear the sighs of relief as you walked to the terminal.

‘We are a free country and we understand what it means to be free because our nation has a long history of oppression’ explained Lt Ieva Gulbinienė, Commander’s Assistant at the Lithuanian Air Force Base of Šiauliai. ‘We have fought for our freedom. To survive. To have our language. To have our money, our culture. Our freedom is our goal and that's why it's important for us today to us to be in NATO. We have to rely on someone who can protect us because we are just too small’.

Who knew that, when the piano keys of Šiauliai’s Runway 25 took rubber from four F-15C Eagles from the 493rd FS back in January, that they would be at the absolute pinnacle of NATO’s spear within a matter of weeks? As the situation in Ukraine sparked off with the broken glass and spewing flares in Independence Square, the world held its breath. The ‘Grim Reapers’ would find themselves as the most forward deployed NATO unit, and the USAF in the midst of the highest tension between NATO and Russia since the Cold War. To support this mission, a further six jets flew out in March under the glare of the world’s media. The men and women of RAF Lakenheath’s 48th FW could not have been better positioned to take on this complicated mission with the utmost of professionalism.

‘It’s what we do. We train all the time – we are always ready’ said Maj Barak ‘CINC’ Amundson, Eagle driver with the ‘Grim Reapers’, sitting in the new, polished Alert Facility at Šiauliai, as he eased into an exclusive interview in-between the QRA Air Policing sirens. ‘The squadron was already out here at Šiauliai on the pre-planned Air Policing deployment when I got the call up. The Commander called me up at home, and said “Hey fellas, we’re leaving tomorrow…” and, as we are ready to go anywhere at any time, we were ready to roll. This has happened before and it will happen again, even training events come up at a moment’s notice, so we stay ready.’

Ready to Roll

Despite the high state of adrenaline-fuelled readiness and strong political dialogue in the headlines, ‘de-escalation’ was very much the buzzword rattling around the QRA shelters at Šiauliai during our visit. No small feat, given the decision to increase the deployment from four jets to 10 as well as triple the Baltic mission overall. They were absolutely sincere words, said with conviction and a real desire to make sure nothing could inflame the situation, but it was honestly difficult to comprehend on a ramp full of Eagles, with preparations being made for the arrival of another three nations, including the standing up of a newly constructed Amari base in Estonia ready for Denmark to join the beat with four Vipers.

Gen Breedlove himself has made it pretty clear. ‘We are taking measures that should be very easily discerned as being defensive in nature’ he told news agencies in early May. ‘This is about assuring our allies, not provoking Russia, and we are communicating that at every level’.

Lt Keenan Kunst, a spokesman for the 48th FW, carried on the viewpoint. ‘The NATO stance here at Šiauliai is de-escalation. We're not trying to point any fingers or rub anyone the wrong way and with the plus-up and the bolstering of our forces here with the six extra jets since March. That's not against a threat, that's not against Russia. That's not to any particular threat or challenge we have. That's for Lithuania, we're doing it for support of NATO. It's not against anything as much as it is in support of something else.’

Maj Amundson echoed the statement; ‘The message is that America remains committed to NATO and to our NATO partners. We’re committed to ensuring protection to sovereign airspace, that’s is why we are here. We are not here for Russia – that just happened at the same time. We can say we are a deterrent, but had Russia not done anything we would still be here protecting NATO airspace as part of our commitment. I don’t think we are really trying to send any message to Russia, other than that we just happen to be close by to it.’ With CNN running in the background in the crewroom, it was obvious that one eye was on the bigger picture. ‘I personally keep a close tab on world events’ said Maj Amundson, ‘It’s interesting what the Russians are doing now and we just happen to be out here on the NATO mission. The timing is unique’.

Against this complicated background, the atmosphere around the squadron could be described as relaxed yet focused. Whilst the traditional US game of ‘Corn Hole’ would whittle away the downtime, the men and women remained at the peak of readiness and efficiency. ‘We are a very tight team here. I’ve worked with most of these pilots for the last four or five years now so now they are not just good friends but good professional flying colleagues, professional wingmen. One of the greatest things about being out here is the opportunity to work with our allied partners and train them on how we do business as an air-to-air fighter. We all spend a lot of time together and train hard.’

Need for Speed

Indeed, for the men and women of the 493rd ‘staying ready’ and ‘training hard’ at Šiauliai takes on quite a significant meaning – especially if you are a pilot on the alert duty to protect the Baltics from incursion and police the NATO skies. This deployment was the first operational calling for Lt Matthew ‘Grate’ Scott, 24, from Vermont, having been at RAF Lakenheath for around 14 months and gained 200 hours on the F-15C. Lt Scott’s blood runs thick with JP8, as the latest in a long line of family fighter pilots. ‘My Grandpa flew everything from Mustangs to F-100s at Lakenheath and ended as a Three-Star General’ he enthused, wide eyed. ‘My father flew as a Lt Col in the Vermont ANG, transitioning from F-4s to F-16s. So you see, I had to be a fighter pilot and I chose the Eagle over the Raptor as it’s the last, great fourth-generation fighter and it’s combat proven. My Grandpa used to say he loved the Mustang because you really had to fly it – I guess that’s where my desire for the F-15 came in.

‘Here in Lithuania we will have two pilots on 24/7 standby and we rotate that duty throughout the deployed pilots, of which there are around 14 at any one time. Your QRA standby will last for 24hrs and then you will be on standby call-up for a second 24hr period so you are effectively on the hook, or ‘On Status’, for 48hrs. We literally ‘live’ in this great new facility. There’s kind of a hotel room, with beds, a kitchen, good facilities and we’ll be here for the entire period’.

The two alert pilots would be easily identified by their attire – walking around the facility in tracksuit/shorts and trainers, with their flying gear immaculately and purposefully set up by the open doors, ready to be assembled and dressed in a matter of seconds. ‘If and when we are called up by the alert siren is very dependent on any number of factors’ explained ‘Grate’. ‘There have been real world calls but we can’t discuss them, they remain classified. The squadron has been involved in live scrambles since we arrived, and we can say that there have been times when it’s proven that we are needed here. Even the practice alert scrambles (of which there are two a day) are very exciting. You’re throwing on your suit and everything and you get really into it. It’s quite a rush as you’re putting on your flight gear as fast as possible. We undertake the training to become ready for alert duty as soon as we arrive on detachment, we have a spin-up period where we have to demonstrate that we can meet the time requirement. Our requirement is 15mins and we have to airborne within that time and we have to achieve this in-house in order to be progressed to going ‘On Status’ for NATO. We do it in under 10mins a lot of the time’.

To witness an alert launch from within the facility is nothing short of extraordinary. No sooner have your nerve-endings picked up the sound of the alert siren then the two alert pilots are literally sprinting down the stairs towards their flight equipment. Sneakers are scattered, track gear is thrown to the floor and immersion suit, flight gear, g-pants, boots and helmet are pulled on in a blur of limbs and contortionist back-arching. It is utterly exhilarating. In a mere 90 seconds (often to the tune of AC/DC in the background), two pilots have heard the call to arms and, like some JP8-powered supermen, have changed from relaxed, comfortable track gear into g-suited, frontline NATO fighters, armed to the teeth.

Maj Amundson tries to let us into his mindset during this transformation. ‘I’m going through everything from where are my jets and what the weather’s like outside, to potentially what could happen up there because we don’t always know what we are being called to do. You try and keep in the moment, concentrate on what you’re doing with your limbs whilst you’re getting kitted up. Then you’re thinking about your game plan, you get to the jet and you focus on the aircraft, make sure it’s good, that you’re strapping in right and you’re good with your equipment’. We are talking seconds here... The wheels of the open-doored minvan have squealed towards the alert shelters where the jets are straining at the chocks. In the time it would take any mortal to walk to the jet, the Eagle drivers are already taxiing. By the time they take off in full afterburner, the shelter doors will not have even had the time to shut…

Back to Lt Scott to explain the next phase. As a jet lifts out of Šiauliai, what’s happening in the cockpit? ‘They try and give us as much situation awareness as we're taking off as to what they think or how many contacts they think there are but they don't know. That's why we go up there and visually identify how many there are.

We get a lot of the information they have as we're taxiing towards the runway, we're writing it all down and then we take off towards the intercept. Usually it's out over the water so we have some time and hopefully we're getting more data as we intercept, which may take 15-20mins to reach’. Lt Scott was keen to point out that Air Policing is a lot more than military intercepts, ‘A lot of the times the air traffic control and the nations don't know how many or what type of aircraft or what kind of altitude specifically they're flying at. They don't fly along their, they don't publish where they're going to go anything, so it's a good safety response to go up there and fly on their wing so we can say how many aircraft, what specific aircraft so that air traffic can be routed away from them and there can be a buffer to avoid any potential collision courses and just notify everyone. It could be anything, radio trouble, flightplan issues. Anything. That said, you could get an idea if it’s a fighter-specific group or something from the airspeed they’re flying.’

The typical flying program during this increased deployment would see two of the alert Eagles and four of the extra jets launch for a 2v4, twice a day. This CT (Continuation Training) mission would see the two alert jets launched as a practice ‘Tango’ scramble from the four shelters on the western end of the base, whilst four unarmed F-15Cs would launch from the equally fresh (and vast) ramp by the control tower in the center of the base, which became known as the ‘Narnia Ramp’ during the deployment due to its long, out-of-sight distance from the main alert area. ‘If we’re taking a jet off the Narnia ramp, we’ll brief about 2.5hrs before take-off’ explained Lt Scott, ‘and this will usually last an hour, then we get to our gear and receive a step brief to go through the weather, airfield statues and then get to the jets about 50mins before take-off’. Quite a difference to the burst of speed and urgency on the alert ‘Alpha’ launches.

The standard weapons fit for the QRA was either two AIM-9X Sidewinders and two AIM-120 AMRAAMs, or four AIM-9X and four AIM-120 (and two droptanks for both fits), also giving the weapons loaders some valuable training. The four ‘Narnia Jets’ would usually be two completely ‘clean’ airframes and two with tanks and standard data pods. Interestingly, the two alert F-15Cs would be used as ‘Red Air’, and one jet would often carry the ALQ-188 Electronic Attack training pod on the centerline. ‘We actually use the jets in the alert shed as ‘Red Air’ jets during our local training flights because with live missiles loaded on them we are not allowed to use them for ‘Blue Air’, it's a training rule restriction so that is why we put the 188 pods on those jets. Since we already have external tanks loaded on them, it's not a big deal to leave the pods on the alert jets in case of an Alpha scramble’.

Lt Scott continued to explain the missions being flown out of Šiauliai. ‘The missions would typically include Defensive Counter Air, then progress to a short range 2v2 in the visual arena’ explained Lt Scott. ‘Wheras the 2v4 is generally Beyond Visual Range, we'll do 2v2 at short range, so that'll be a more within visual arena where we will aim to detect an enemy at a short distance rather than an extended setup, and we’ll also do a 1v1 BFM dependent on fuel state.

‘The airspace we work in is over the top of Lithuania and into all three Baltic States and generally ranges from 7,500ft to 27,000ft and our sortie times are typically around 1.5-2hrs. We are controlled by ‘Galaxy’, the primary in-country controller for our missions and intercepts. Obviously the airspace has an international border and we also put a self-imposed buffer on that of around 20-30nm in order not to stray over into Russian airspace, for example!’

As the Air Policing mission is so varied and involves such a diverse array of nations, an exercise was recently held with the USAF jets and SAAB Gripens of the Swedish AF – the latter making up for its non-NATO alignment with its geographical significance in terms of the Baltic intrusions by Russian hardware. The ‘BRT Exercise’ also involved multi-national ground controllers, including those from Finland, all working with the host nation. The rehearsed scenario was a loss of communications with a civilian slow-mover, which was played out by a Lithuania AF C-27J Spartan, based at Šiauliai. ‘The Spartan simulated an airliner’ explained Lt Scott, ‘And it was not responding to the radio calls from the Swedish Gripens that were sent up between Finland and Sweden and we came as the Spartan was handed over to our control for us to escort it to land here at Šiauliai. There were a lot of moving pieces, high key policing procedures and a lot of international cooperation, so it was a real success’. Of course, Sweden had recently come under scrutiny after Russian aircraft were not intercepted during an Easter holiday period, so the nation remains keen to show its commitment and readiness.

Liberty Lifeline

With the ‘Grim Reapers’ launched for another mission, the groundcrews would find a few minutes to return to the serious business of ‘Corn Hole’. A few hundred miles away in Moscow, Putin continued to plot his next move – although his game has a lot more at stake.

There was no room for doubt about the readiness of the US detachment. ‘We fly an air superiority fighter, this is what we do – it’s our bread and butter’ affirmed Maj Amundson. ‘To be out here protecting NATO sovereign airspace is good. It’s an honor to be the tip of the NATO spear. It’s what we train for so to call us up makes us feel good of course. I feel like we’re giving back, you know we train hard – it’s nice to put our skills to good use. We are part of the ‘Liberty Wing’ and I think that pretty much sums it up. We are trying to protect the Baltic sovereign airspace and we can ensure freedom of movement on the ground so they can do what they need to do’.

The Reaper Shadow

Hanging over the squadron at this time was the shadow of the archetypal grim reaper itself, with an announcement having been made that a USAF F-15C unit was to be axed, and that the 493rd FS – as incredulous as it may seem in this environment – may in fact be cut. ‘I don’t think anyone knows that answer yet’ Maj Amundson commented. ‘They announced this just after we arrived but they haven’t said anything other than there will be cuts, no one knows who is scheduled to go or anything like that. We took the news in our stride and we will continue to do our mission as best we can – news is just news until something happens. I don’t think it really affected our attitudes, of course everyone has their own personal opinion but I don’t think it affects our ability to do the mission, we stay focused, we’ve heard rumors like this before. They’ve said they will reduce the number of airframes, but haven’t said how or who it will affect yet. The plan has been presented but it hasn’t even been through Congress yet so no one knows what will happen. My personal feelings are that if we have to cut money then we have to do it somehow, so there’s tough choices to be made – it would be quite disappointing to see it coming from an air superiority squadron because we don’t have many left. I think we are a very relevant platform. Some people argue that there will never be another air war… I’m not so sure!’

Lt Kunst further affirmed the official status of the unit; ‘We are aware of the proposed budgets set forth by the US government and the cuts they call for, but we can't speculate how those will be implemented or even when they will be. What we do know, is that the F-15C is a combat-proven air superiority fighter that will remain ready to fulfill its mission and its pilots will continue to fly it to meet today's challenges until they're told otherwise’.

Certainly, NATO’s headache may yet turn out to be a life-saving tonic for the ‘Grim Reapers’ of the 493rd FS. As each day brings a new development in the writing of this chapter of European history, the people of the Baltics are benefitting from a new invigorated NATO commitment that will only increase in stature and it was a significant deployment for the squadron and the USAF itself. It has been whispered that, six months ago, if NATO pulled out of this corner of Europe – recently dubbed ‘NATO’s soft eastern flank’ – the no one would bat much of an eyelid. Who knows? Even the future of NATO itself could have been questioned. But today, in the Baltics, NATO is really is a way of life and jet noise is literally the sound of freedom.