The DoD will be sending additional fighters to the Baltics, and possibly Poland, to beef up the NATO air policing roles along Russia's border with greater Europe.
Things are heating up very quickly. Russia has made it clear that they are not interested in giving Crimea back... Ever. At the same time they have also said that any foreign sanctions could lead to the seizing of foreign assets and means of production within Russia.
Two separate sources have informed me that at least a half dozen F-15Cs will be heading to Lithuania to bolster NATO's quick reaction alert (QRA) aircraft already on station, which are reported to be four F-15Cs on a normal NATO led air defense rotation in the area. I honestly cannot remember the last time something like this was done in Europe outside of a big world-scope event like the Olympics or G8 summit etc.
During peacetime, QRA aircraft fulfill the "air sovereignty" mission for a country or a region. In Europe, NATO has a well developed network that tracks aircraft throughout European airspace and will assign an alert site the mission to intercept an aircraft if it is not "squawking" the proper transponder code and/or if radio communications with the contact in question cannot be established.
Once the siren goes off in the alert hut, the pilots will run to their aircraft, which are already sitting with electronic power plugged in and fully armed, otherwise known as in "cocked and locked" condition. The jets are rapidly started, checked for malfunctions and missiles and the cannon are armed. The idea is to be off the ground and headed in the right direction as fast as possible. Usually this can occur in as little as five minutes, or even less time depending on the type of fighter aircraft being used and what type of air traffic is in the area.
Once the jets are airborne they will race out to the contact in question via directions from an air controller based either on the ground or in an orbiting airborne warning and control aircraft (AWACS). Sometimes these transits will occur at over the speed of sound, which is a rare occurrence over populated areas in the western world. As the intercept commences the crews will determine what type of threat the aircraft poses.
If the aircraft does not show any signs of threatening behavior, the intercept can be completed, and the aircraft in question can be shadowed and photographed. The crews will usually also attempt to contact the target on guard frequency or by using hand signals, in an attempt to tell it to turn around, land or simply to "check up" on them. If these types of communication do not work, and the aircraft is deemed a possible threat, wing rocking, certain formation movements and flares can be used to tell the target that the interceptors mean business. The final option would be to attempt to disable the aircraft via precision cannon fire and/or shoot the aircraft down. Yep, this is a very serious business folks...
During times of tension, the QRA forces are really the very front line of a potential conflict. The chances that the first shot happens during an intercept as described above are higher in most cases than any other medium of combat. What is worse, is that mistakes can be made on both sides, and what was a tense situation or stalemate can turn into a real shooting war within a matter seconds. Hopefully this is not the case under the current circumstances, but the rhetoric we are hearing is very Cold War like. Sadly, with both sides rattling their sabers there is a good chance that someone will eventually get cut.
Hang on to your coffee ladies and gentleman, our flight may be about to hit a serious patch of geopolitical turbulence...
Photo credit Tyler Rogoway. Last image via the USAF