Predators and airmen arrive in Latvia on reassurance mission
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 1, 2015
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Two MQ-1 Predators and about 70 U.S. airmen have arrived at Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia, in the latest of a series of temporary aircraft and personnel deployments aimed at promoting security in eastern Europe and the Baltics.
The airmen and the drones are from the 147th Reconnaissance Wing of the Texas Air National Guard based at Ellington Field in Houston. They began arriving in Latvia on Aug. 24, U.S. Air Forces in Europe–Air Forces Africa officials said in a statement late Monday.
In addition, two A-10s arrived at Lielvarde on Aug. 26, marking the first time U.S. fighter aircraft have landed at the former Soviet base, Air Force officials said. The pilots are with the 303rd Fighter Squadron out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. The purpose was to show the buildup of the base, Lt. Col. Tim Brock, bilateral affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Riga, said in a statement.
The deployment of the drones is funded by the European Reassurance Initiative, a nearly $1 billion strategy backed by Congress to bolster military activities and training on the Continent, particularly in eastern Europe, where allies have been rattled by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
“The intent is to reassure our allies, by showing them a different capability set,” Lt. Col. Anthony Bellione, USAFE-AFAFRICA commander’s action group chief, said. “This is the intelligence component that deepens our commitment with our NATO partners in the region.”
The Predator deployment to Latvia comes on the heels of the Air Force’s deployment of its most sophisticated fighter jets to Europe for the first time. Four F-22 Raptors from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base on Friday for a temporary deployment. Earlier this month, 12 A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft and about 300 airmen from the 355th Fighter Wing returned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., after a six-month deployment to Europe.
The Texas National Guard unit deploying to Latvia is taking a ground control station that will allow it to locally operate the remotely piloted aircraft. “They’re deploying everything they need right there to Latvia,” said Master Sgt. Jess Harvey, USAFE-AFAFRICA spokesman.
Airmen with the unit won’t be gathering intelligence for operational use. But the deployment will allow them to test the ability to share intelligence and the security of the NATO pipeline used to disseminate intelligence, officials said.
Two intelligence officers each from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were invited to participate.
“While the crew is flying in Latvia, we will sit shoulder to shoulder with our Baltic allies and teach them how we go through full-motion video processing,” Bellione said. Drones can capture and transmit real-time video footage.
Plans call for NATO joint terminal attack controllers to receive training in calling in airstrikes in coordination with the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and information received from the Predators.
The deployment will also allow the Air Force to test mobility and to practice operations at a deployed location.
“The big win is being able to rapidly deploy, set up shop, fly and exercise all of the agreements, arrangements and relationships that went into making this happen,” Lt. Col. Christopher Recker, USAFE-AFAFRICA operations directorate staffer, said. “It validates basing and airspace arrangements, operations and host-nation agreements in a very real way.”
The resulting airspace arrangement, he said, “is enduring, so when we need to go back, it will be available.”
Two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs with the 303d Fighter Squadron out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., land at Leilvarde Air Base in Latvia on Aug. 26, 2015. The Warthogs are the first two U.S. fighter jets to ever land at the former Soviet base. The mission, part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, is aimed at strengthening the partnership with with European allies.
DENISE HAEUSSLER/U.S. AIR FORCE