- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO has decided to extend an operation to protect the airspace of Baltic members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with fighter jets, officials said Wednesday.

Carmen Romero, NATO’s deputy spokeswoman, said the decision “shows NATO’s commitment to air policing in the Baltic States as a long-term and sustainable mission.” NATO did not give an end date for the operation.

None of the three Baltic nations, which joined NATO in 2004, has had fighter planes since they seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, larger member nations have taken turns policing their airspace.

Normally, up to four jets are deployed on four-month rotations, along with 50 to 100 ground crew. The air forces of Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the United States have participated in the missions.

The patrols are carried out from an air base in Lithuania.

In 2010, NATO decided to extend the air-policing mission until the end of 2014. But Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia wanted the mission to last at least until 2018 and for air policing to get the status of a permanent NATO mission.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the extension, saying the kind of cooperation exemplified by the Baltic Air Policing mission sets an example for other collaborative projects within the alliance “as we reconcile our security requirements with budgetary realities.”

NATO wants its 28 members increasingly to pool their military resources as defense spending across the alliance plunges because of the austerity measures implemented by governments to cope with the ongoing economic crisis.

All three Baltic nations border Russia, which has never been happy about the eastward shift of NATO, its old Cold War foe. But Moscow has not objected to the air-policing arrangement.

In 2005, a Russian fighter crashed in the Lithuanian countryside while it was flying through Lithuanian airspace in an agreed air corridor. The air patrol tried to get it back on course but arrived too late.

In August, a French Mirage fighter on policing duty and a Lithuanian L-39 Albatross jet trainer crashed after a midair collision near the Zokniai air base in northern Lithuania.

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