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Air Force to send more fighters to Poland; USS Cook headed to Black Sea

Fire Controlman 3rd Class Thomas Colton mans a Mark 38 25 mm machine gun console on the bridge of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, April 3, 2014. The Cook is the third warship headed to the Black Sea in three months amid tensions over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.

The U.S. Air Force plans to send 18 Europe-based fighter jets to Poland in June for joint training at Lask Air Base, officials said Wednesday.

The F-16s from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, will also participate in a maritime exercise in the Baltic Sea, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa officials said.

Meanwhile, another U.S. warship is headed to the Black Sea for the third time in the past three months.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook was slated to arrive Thursday after steaming in the Aegean Sea toward the Turkish Straits on Wednesday, according to a news release from U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.

The immediate and longer-term bolstering of forces in eastern Europe comes amid expanded American efforts to reassure NATO allies after last month’s Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. Agitation by pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine and troop buildups on the Russian side of the border have upped tensions in the region and caused Washington to warn against further Kremlin incursions.

Currently, 12 F-16 fighter jets from Aviano Air Base’s 555th Fighter Squadron in Italy are deployed to Lask. The Pentagon ordered the warplanes there, at the request of Poland, after tensions with Russia began mounting in Ukraine last month. The jets augmented three C-130s from Ramstein that were already scheduled to train in Poland for several weeks. The C-130s — along with about 100 airmen — from the 37th Airlift Squadron are due to return to Ramstein on Saturday, USAFE-AFAFRICA officials said. No end date for the current fighter jet rotation has been announced, USAFE officials said.

The Germany-based F-16s will deploy to Lask from June 2 to 21. In addition, two KC-135 refueling tankers from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, U.K., will deploy to Powidz at the same time in support of the same mission, USAFE-AFAFRICA officials said.

During the rotation, the aircraft will participate in BALTOPS, an annual joint and combined maritime exercise in the Baltic Sea scheduled annually by European Command and led by NAVEUR, Capt. Michael Hertzog II, a USAFE-AFAFRICA plans officer, said in an email.

Meanwhile, the Cook’s operations in the Black Sea will be routine, suggests the Navy release, likely involving port visits or simple maneuvers with NATO nations. Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are all members of the alliance. 

Last month, the destroyer USS Truxtun exercised with Bulgarian and Romanian navies, and in February the command ship USS Mount Whitney and frigate USS Taylor entered before the Sochi Olympic Games. The Taylor later ran aground while attempting to port in Turkey. All those ships have since left the Black Sea.

Previous U.S. naval visits to the Black Sea were typically separated by months.

The consecutive visits send a clear message to Moscow. Russia, whose Black Sea Fleet is located in Sevastopol, frowned upon U.S. operations in the Black Sea even before recent events.

That the visiting ship is the Donald Cook carries added significance, as the vessel is the first of four Arleigh-Burke class destroyers to be stationed in southern Spain as part of a European ballistic missile shield widely opposed by Russia. The Donald Cook is on its first patrol since arrival in Spain in February.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @SJBeardsley

svan.jennifer@stripes.com
 

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