Current NATO air defense capacity in Eastern Europe includes 48 combat-capable F-16 fighter jets operated by Poland, which as of last month, also hosts several forward-deployed U.S. F-15 fighters. Romania has 17 older but capable F-16s previously owned by Portugal. Additionally, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania operate a joint radar network known as the Baltic Air Surveillance Network and Control System, or BALTNET. NATO relies on this system to assist its aircraft during Baltic Air Policing missions, in which small numbers of fighter aircraft from NATO nations with sufficient airpower (such as the Netherlands, France, Germany) patrol the skies of more vulnerable allies. These aircraft have already been buttressed by the deployment of two U.S. Patriot missile batteries in Poland and will be further strengthened by the impending deployment of German Patriot missile batteries in Slovakia.
The deployment of Patriots reflects transatlantic concern that NATO’s Eastern European member states may soon need more advanced surface-to-air missile systems to deal with the growing Russian threat. In fact, Polish defense planners have long anticipated the need for additional forces beyond the latest Patriot deployments to improve or replace its existing, Soviet-era equipment.
For years, Warsaw has worked to field air and missile defense systems known as Wisła and Narew. Based on the Patriot system, Wisła will upgrade Poland’s air defense network by linking sensors that can detect aerial threats to medium-range missile launchers that shoot those threats out of the sky. Recent estimates predict the program’s first phase, during which Poland is slated to obtain two of its own Patriot batteries, will be completed by the end of this year. Full integration, culminating in Poland accumulating eight Patriot batteries, will take until 2025.
The new U.S. Patriot deployment seems intended to bridge the gap until phase one is complete, but it still represents just a quarter of Poland’s ultimate goal — a target set before Russia invaded Ukraine. Likewise, the Narew system, a shorter-range air defense system of which Warsaw intends to procure 23 batteries, has been delayed by six years and is not expected to be completed until 2025.
Estonian and Latvian air defenses are even more inadequate. Both countries maintain only very short-range and man-portable systems, like the Stinger. As recently as last November, Estonia’s legislature was noncommittal about borrowing funds to procure a medium-range air defense system. For its part, Tallinn did not expect such a system to be in place until 2025. Latvia’s most recent State Defense Concept ruled out the near-term procurement of a new air defense system, due to budgetary shortfalls.
To date, Lithuania is the lone country in Eastern Europe to procure a modern air defense system, having received its first medium-range air defense battery in 2020. Called the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), it can reliably identify, target, and destroy Russian airborne threats, including fighter jets, cruise missiles, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Since these programs take years to put in place, NATO must reinforce eastern flank countries with additional firepower — now. Fortunately, wealthier NATO nations have capable missile defense systems. Norway, Spain, and the Netherlands all possess multiple NASAMS batteries. The French and Italians have a capable SAMP/T missile defense system. And the British are replacing their aging Rapier system with the Sky Saber air defense system.
NATO or U.S. European Command could coordinate deployment of these various medium-range air defense systems to supplement the longer-range Patriot systems already deployed. These additional systems could be deployed to Poland, Estonia, and Latvia, then replaced as quickly as possible by newly manufactured systems or alternative capabilities. This would represent a temporary sacrifice for the donating countries, but it would significantly reduce the cruise missile threat to NATO’s Eastern flank. On Thursday, the British government announced just such a move, it will send the new Sky Saber system to Poland.
Furthermore, NATO allies must continue to forward-deploy aircraft to the region. While NATO nations have committed up to 130 fighter aircraft to Eastern Europe if the crisis expands, only a fraction are currently deployed. And even the full 130 would likely not decisively defeat a concerted attack by Russia’s Air Force.
NATO should also continue to commit elements of its fleet of 14 Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning & Control System aircraft to patrol the skies while the heightened threat from Russia persists. Efforts to modernize this fleet in the medium-term, including upgrades to engines, communications, and networking equipment, must be expedited as well.
These steps would provide a credible air defense over NATO territory and demonstrate commitment in the face of Russian aggression. And it can all be done relatively quickly.
Looking further into the future, the alliance must prioritize upgrading air defenses in Eastern Europe. They should resemble the quantity and exceed the quality of weapons stationed in West Germany and its NATO neighbors during the Cold War. If Russian forces continue to occupy even part of Ukraine or operate their aircraft out of Belarus, the de facto border between NATO and Russia will expand, and NATO air defenses will have to adjust to cover more territory. Similar efforts helped deter Soviet aggression in the 1970s and 1980s. They can do the same today.
As the confrontation between Russia and the West intensifies, Vladimir Putin will surely continue to probe NATO defenses for weaknesses. He should not find any. That will require NATO to continually upgrade its air and missile defense posture, starting right now.
RADM Mark Montgomery (U.S. Navy Ret.) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He previously served as policy director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and as Director for Plans and Policy at US European Command. Jack Sullivan is a research associate at FDD. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkCMontgomery. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.