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WARSAW, Poland — Maj. Jacek Wrotniewski, eyes fixed on the flashing map in front of him, couldn’t see the Russian jets scrambled from their base near the Baltic Sea.

“We do not observe Russian fighters,” Wrotniewski told his Russian counterpart in a Moscow air control center.

“Stand-by,” the Russian answered by radio.

A technical glitch was fixed.

After a rapid fire exchange of coordinates and call signs, the Polish air traffic operators in Warsaw spotted what appeared to be a Russian Su-27 flashing its way across the flight map. “Is this the Russian fighter?” asked Wroitniewski.

“Yes, yes, yes,” said the Russian operator.

Minutes later, some 20,000 feet over the Baltic Sea, Polish F-16s and Russian Su-27s converged upon the “hijacked” aircraft, in tight formation, flanking the plane on each side as close as 50 meters.

“This is a historic moment. Russian fighters just joined the Polish formation,” said Lt. Col. Radoslaw Kwiatkowski— chief of the NATO coordination center in Warsaw.

For NATO and Russia, Wednesday’s flight drill was a step forward in a counter-terrorism initiative dubbed “Vigilant Skies,” which aims to identify rogue aircraft. It also provides a key communication link among three NATO countries — Poland, Turkey and Norway — and Russia.

“There is a feeling that the Russian attitude is positive,” Kwiatkowski said. “We just do our job, and I think there is an understanding on the Russian side that is the same.”

In 2002, NATO and Russia agreed to develop a way to better monitor airspace for possible threats such as the kind that occurred in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked passenger jets were flown into the World Trade Center towers.

In the first few years, the focus was on building a special system to enable NATO partners and Russia to communicate, By 2011, the system allowed the two sides to look at the same air traffic map in real time — a map that reaches about 150 kilometers across each participating country’s border.

To be sure, there are already in place military radars that keep an eye out for air traffic irregularities, looking out beyond national borders. What makes the NATO/Russian partnership unique is real-time communication between NATO and Russia during a crisis, officials said.

For NATO and Russia, this week’s Vigilant Skies exercise, which involves a joint response to commercial aircraft hijacking scenarios, comes at a time of tension between the U.S., its western European allies and old Cold War foe Russia.

The sources of conflict are wide-ranging: NATO’s expansion east and a European missile defense program Russia says the alliance should abandon; then there are entanglements that have infuriated the U.S., such as Russia’s offer of asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden; and consternation over Russia’s backing of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.

The airspace surveillance partnership has survived such political disputes. When NATO suspended its activities with Russia following its brief 2008 war with the Republic of Georgia, the one activity that was kept in place was Vigilant Skies, a demonstration of the program’s value, NATO officials say.

“This is one of the most solid and successful initiatives,” said Lt. Col. Yusuf Bozdogan, Turkey’s air traffic representative to NATO, who was monitoring the exercise.

Russian Lt. Gen. Yevgeni Potapov, speaking from Moscow, also emphasized the positive on Wednesday following the exercise. “We have common goals that unite us,” Potapov said. “The spirit of cooperation remains.”

Yet for all the achievements in the program since its launch, there is unfinished business. A legal framework to man the mission around the clock, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, still needs to be worked out, officials said. Currently, the four participating nations are in contact for eight-hour daily shifts.

Also, the mission relies on commercial radar to monitor the sky, but additional military radar would help controllers get a clearer picture of potential threats in the air, officials said.

“My dream is to get information from [primary] surveillance radars,” said Polish Col. Sylwester Bartoszewski, deputy director of the Vigilant Skies exercise. “We need better sources of information. This is our future.”

Adding military radars that can tap into classified information should be a goal for the program, Bartoszewski said. Officials also want to expand participation in the years ahead, to include other NATO or non-NATO countries. Potential partners who are observers in this year’s weeklong exercise, are Finland, Sweden, Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the U.S.

“Now, we need to engage with other nations and explain the benefits of the program,” said Michal Kalivoda, project officer for defense investment at NATO.

While the operational benefit of the system is that it helps countries get a jump start on identifying potentially threatening aircraft, resulting in the quicker scrambling of fighter jets, the deeper underlying advantage is maintaining an open line with Russia.

“It’s a way to build transparency and trust,” Kalivoda said.

Wrotniewski, the air controller in Warsaw, said he is on a first name basis with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, who goes by Sergei.

“We cooperate every day, exercise every day, and it’s always very friendly. But today is different because we have real planes in the air,” Wrotniewski said.

Meanwhile, Vigilant Skies also could serve as a model for how to cooperate with Russia in other areas, said Kwiatkowski, who is in charge of NATO’s air control center in Warsaw. “The concept could be reconfigured for other threats, coming from ocean or land,” Kwiatkowski said.

With Polish and Russian fighters flying in close formation above the Baltic on Wednesday, positioned alongside the “hijacked” aircraft, officials dubbed the mission a success.

In the scenario, a commercial flight from Krakow, bound for Oslo, Norway, veered off course in the direction of St. Petersburg, Russia. Air traffic controllers in Warsaw and Moscow kept in constant touch. When Russian and Polish aircraft scrambled to the rogue aircraft, the controllers kept an eye on the map, charting the course of the fighters, confirming that their communication network was up to the job.

On Thursday, the exercise was to continue with a similar mission involving Russian and Turkish aircraft over the Black Sea.

In a real world terrorist hijacking, perhaps there would be a decision at some point to shoot down the controlled aircraft. But that wasn’t the point of Wednesday’s drill, said Kalivoda. Instead, the imaginary hijacking ended with the crew re-establishing control of the plane.

“The point of the exercise is sharing the information and getting the necessary information to decision-makers,” Kalivoda said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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