As part of Nato’s efforts to coordinate an integrated aerial police response on its eastern border in Estonia, the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe will continue to conduct aerial exercises and police the region’s airspace.
The 2023 Operation Azotite, beginning in March 2023, saw a German air force detachment lead the aerial policing mission in Estonia’s airspace, with elements of an RAF detachment.
Now, however, we will see the reverse as the German Luftwaffe hand over leadership of the mission to the RAF, with elements of a German detachment continuing as an integrated part of the joint effort throughout April.
RAF Typhoons have therefore returned to Estonia to lead this integrated aerial police force in Estonian airspace.
This is the second deployment of RAF Typhoons to eastern Europe since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. The last deployment was to Romania as part of Operation Biloxi, in March 2022. Both rotations were planned well before Russia’s incursion as part of an ongoing Nato commitment to provide air policing across its eastern flank.
Integrated aerial policing
Azotite is the latest in a series of exercises and deployments that the two air forces have been conducting over several years with the eventual aim of carrying out a fully joint and integrated Nato air mission. Joint Nato sorties have flown before, but the level and length of integration being planned is a first for Nato Air Policing.
“Nato Air Policing is our bread-and-butter business,” deputy commander of operations for the RAF, Air Marshal Harvey Smyth said. “But what’s different about this particular deployment is the fact that we are operating as a combined unit with our German counterparts.”
Both air forces fly the Eurofighter Typhoon, but there are national differences and for a joint detachment to fully integrate all aspects of the operations must be fully understood. Once achieved, this will allow two jets to fly together on a live interception with one jet from each air force.
This was achieved on the 14 March when two Typhoons, one British and one German, intercepted and escorted a Russian IL78 Midas air-to-air refuelling aircraft after it failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control.
This defence cooperation is the latest in an ever-increasing history of combined defence efforts conducted by the UK Government. This is expressly reiterated in the UK’s national strategy in the Integrated Review Refresh 2023, published on 13 March:
“Beyond our military instruments, an integrated approach to deterrence and defence requires us to bring together the wide levers of state power to increase the costs of aggression by hostile actors above and below the threshold of armed conflict. The UK will continue to develop new levers to adapt to the changing threat environment, and better integrate existing levers for strategic effect.”