STUTTGART, Germany — While there are some concerns in the soccer community about whether Ukraine’s soccer venues will be ready when it co-hosts with Poland next summer’s Euro Cup — one of the largest soccer contests in the world — U.S. pilots are working with the countries’ air forces to ensure they will be ready.
In a mix of English, Ukrainian, Polish and Russian, U.S. pilots and their counterparts from Ukraine and Poland are navigating the skies this week in their F-16s and Russian-built MiGs as part of Safe Skies — a mission that focuses on air space protection tactics for high-profile sporting events.
“So far, we’re helping to train and prepare, but we’ve offered to assist and are willing to, if asked,” said Capt. Jack Gaines, a U.S. European Command spokesman. “These kinds of events help everyone figure out how to work together.”
More than 50 air intercept missions are planned during the Safe Skies operation, which will be conducted in both Ukrainian and Polish airspace, according to U.S. officials.
The two-week event kicked off last week, and is the first of its kind in the region and also the first time U.S. Air National Guard fighter planes have flown out of Ukrainian territory, according to a mission spokesman. About 130 Air National Guard Unit troops from California and Alabama are taking part in the effort. The pilots are working on tactics that could be used in the event of a plane hijacking. They also are working on methods for imposing a mini no-fly zone around the sites of the soccer matches, according to Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, the mission coordinator for the United States.
“Like the Super Bowl for us, you want to make sure you’re defending the people attending the game,” Swertfager said in a telephone interview.
Planning for the Safe Skies mission began two years ago as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which pairs state guard units with countries around the world.
For EUCOM, the State Partnership Program has become increasingly important as force levels decline in Europe and troops still stationed here frequently deploy downrange.
“The State Partnership Program is a real mission amplifier,” Gaines said.
In addition to tactics, the mission in Ukraine and Poland also helps pilots with different cultural and language backgrounds get comfortable working together in the air, said Col. Victor Hamora, deputy chief of staff for the Ukraine Air Force.
“These exercises will help us to coordinate, exchange experiences and also work on terrorism avoidance,” he said.