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Lavrov threatens NATO over Estonian missile accident

Beyond the large-scale geopolitical game, a Spanish fighter jet comes close to triggering an event with unforeseeable consequences for NATO and Russia.

November 6, 2018 - Joseph Hammond - Articles and Commentary

Spanish Air Force Typhoon taking off during Exercise Anatolian Eagle from 3rd Air Force Base Konya, Turkey 2014 Photo: Helen Farrer (cc) wikimedia.org

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that a NATO air patrol in Estonia came close to firing a missile sparking World War III.

“A Spanish fighter recently accidentally fired an air-to-air missile in Estonia,” he told TASS the Russian news agency, “Thank God, it didn’t kill anyone.”

In the same interview, Lavrov highlighted the fact that almost all communication between NATO and Russia had collapsed in the aftermath of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, save for phone calls between Chief of Russia’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Curtis Scaparrotti.

“What if it fell on our soil rather than in Estonia?” Lavrov said. ”After all, it was very close.”

The veiled warning suggests that the incident continues to spark tensions between Russia and NATO. In the same interview, Lavrov bemoaned the state of the NATO-Russia Council – a body formed to alleviate tension between Russia and the NATO states.

Rising tensions

In a move that further perturbed Russian authorities. The Spanish pilot who was involved in the incident received the minimum punishment from the Spanish authorities.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to inquiries for comment on this story. Lavrov’s statements comes as NATO’s Eastern Flank have witnessed a number of alarming incidents. Two individuals including an American pilot were killed in the crash of a Ukranian Su-27 on October 17th. A day later two Canadian CF-18s deployed to Romania scrambled for the first time in response to the approach of a Russian warplane which eventually altered its course.

Lavrov’s comments may be designed to distract from the recent news that Russia has begun a significant military build-up in Kalingrad, its Baltic enclave according to recently released satellite images.

The official Spanish investigation into the incident concluded that human error with “mitigating factors” contributed to the launch of an AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile from a Spanish Eurofighter Typhon near the town of Tartu on August 7, 2018.

Despite the findings, some questions remain about how and why an incident unprecedented in NATO air patrols occurred.

“After launching the missile, the missile’s radar was turned off, so it was a risk not only to people on the ground but, to the other pilots on patrol,” said a European defence official with knowledge of the incident who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the issue. In doing so the pilot lost the ability to engage the missile’s self-destruct mechanism.

Instead it struck somewhere near Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city which is located some 30 miles from the border with Russia. Though a search for the weapon failed to determine where it struck, Lavrov’s recent comment on the incident would confirm the assertion of NATO officials that the missile did not land inside Russian territory.

Spanish investigations

The two fighter patrol was part of six fighters and 135 Spanish military personnel deployed at the airbase in Siauliai, Lithuania from last May until August 31 as part of NATO Baltic Air Policing which first began in 2004. Spain had contributed to the mission before but, its six fighters was its largest ever deployment to the Baltics in support of the mission.

“It is unacceptable for something like this to happen, and the investigation is ongoing,” said Lt. Col. Gaztuel of the Spanish Air Force’s Ala 12, a Spanish F-18 air-wing based at the Torrejón Air Base near Madrid.

Gaztuel stressed that Spanish pilots are well trained and have completed training missions in difficult conditions in recent years including in Alaska — where they a joint exercise with the American and Japanese air forces. Still, critics point to accidents involving the Spanish air force in recent years. Analyst suggests that the fact Spain operates two different varieties perhaps contributed to these incidents.

Spain is one of only a handful of countries that operate multiple fighter jets. The Spanish Air Force includes both the F-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon. That could soon be three fighter jets as Spain may also decide this year if it seeks to acquire the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, made by Lockheed Martin.

The Spanish pilot at the heart of the incident had previously logged some 2,000 flight hours. Ironically, the pilot’s experience may have contributed to the disaster as some theorize “muscle memory” played a role in the accident. Normally in most conditions the pilots are flying in there are no live missiles attached in air policing drills but, the warplanes involved in the NATO air defence Quick Reaction Alert are always armed. As part of the mission the Spanish pilot was supposed to stop short of completing the entire launch sequence. On unarmed missions, pilots usually complete the entire launch sequence.

“There is a mañana culture,” said the same European defence official quoted earlier describing the slow pace of the Spanish investigation which took over a month to complete its investigation.

The Estonian Ministry of Defense did not respond to multiple direct requests for comments on this story. Estonia and the other Baltic States are keen to see the armed patrols continued despite Lavrov’s comments.

Last year a Spanish Eurofighter Typhoon crashed close to Madrid following the Spanish National Day parade – killing the pilot. The year prior a Greek F-16 crashed near Madrid during a NATO exercise which led to the deaths of 11 and injured another 21.

Conversely, the Spanish Air Force has had an impeccable safety record regarding the Starfighter. The German Luftwaffe and Navy lost 30 per cent of its Starfighters in accidents earning the craft nickname Witwenmacher or Widowmaker. Canada lost a few and there is a high accident rate in American service. Not a single Starfighter in Spanish service was lost. A number of mitigating factors may have contributed to this. Spanish Starfighter pilots all had prior jet experience prior to flying the craft. Secondly, Spain used its Starfighter solely for air-to-air missions but, other countries (Germany in particular) used the craft for air-to-ground attack missions.

Walking through the unit museum on the Torrejón air base, Gaztuel waxes on how “fire and forget” air-to-air missiles like the type launched over Estonian has changed the nature of air-to-air combat.

“Before we acquired  weapon systems like this, we had to develop tactics for dogfights, but that doesn’t happen any more, sure with each system we develop new doctrines. But such systems, you shoot the missile from 12 miles away and then turn,” he explains using his hands to model an F-18 making a sharp turn.

Joseph Hammond is a former correspondent for Radio Free Europe and a freelance writer. He has written for The Economist and the International Business Times, amongst other publications.

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