F-16 fighter jets from Spangdahlem Air Base’s 52nd Fighter Wing will begin patrolling the skies above three Baltic nations this week as part of a NATO mission that has rankled some Russian officials.

About 100 airmen from the Germany base’s host wing will leave this week for a 90-day deployment to a base in Lithuania, 52nd spokesman Capt. Tom Crosson said Tuesday.

Members of the wing’s 23rd Fighter Squadron will take over the job of patrolling the skies above Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. They will replace the German air force during a change of command ceremony Friday, said Anthony Pahigian, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania.

NATO countries have guarded the skies there since the three Baltic nations joined the alliance in April 2004. NATO members such as Belgium, Denmark and the United Kingdom have pulled the rotational duty. This will be the first time the U.S. Air Force has been handed the responsibility.

While Lithuania has an air force, it doesn’t possess a modern fleet of fighters, Pahigian said.

The three countries’ main concern is Russia, which has publicly objected to the deployment. Russian politicians have criticized the NATO mission. Last year, NATO F-16s intercepted a Russian IL-18 cargo plane, the Baltic Times reported in October on its Web site.

American F-16s will be stationed at Zoknia air base in Lithuania. Military personnel will do most of the monitoring on the ground, Crosson said. If a suspicious plane enters the airspace of one of the countries, airmen would scramble F-16s to intercept that plane.

In addition to the NATO mission, Pahigian hopes to include 52nd members in several community-service projects. At some point during the deployment, he would like local residents come to the base and look at a static display of an American F-16 fighter.

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