Four French Rafale fighters landed at Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania to participate in the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission on November 25, 2022.
There, the multirole fighters will protect the Lithuanian airspace by intercepting and identifying suspicious aircraft around the airspace of the Baltic States. Launched in 2004, when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO, the Baltic Air Policing is meant to protect the three countries from aerial incursions and provide support in case of air emergencies since these countries have no airborne capability of their own.
The Dassault Rafales will relieve four F-16C Fighting Falcon that had been deployed in Siauliai by the Polish Air Force on October 1, 2022. The French deployment will last for four months.
The same day in Romania, four Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon jets arrived at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, and six Spanish Air Force F-18s landed at Fetesti Air Base in the framework of NATO’s enhanced Air Policing mission securing the Black Sea coast.
Unusual deployment of the Rafale
It is the first time that Rafales, spearheads of the French Air and Space Force fighter fleet, have been sent to Lithuania, though they had already been sent to Malbork in Poland as part of the same mission in May 2014, shortly after the annexation of Crimea.
During the previous rotations to Siauliai, France chose to send Mirage 2000-5 fighters instead. The Mirage 2000 is a fighter jet developed by Dassault Aviation in the 1970s. The 2000-5 is an air superiority variant of the aircraft, primarily operated by the 1/2 Cigognes [Storks – ed. note] fighter squadron based in Luxeuil, eastern France.
The reason was recently explained by the Chief of Staff of the French Air and Space Force, Stephane Mille, in a parliamentary hearing.
“We take care not to wear out our airframes prematurely while taking into account the needs expressed by NATO,” Mille explained to the National Defence and Armed Forces Committee on October 13, 2022. “We made the choice, initially, to maintain the Rafale in mainland France and to project only Mirage 2000-5 in Eastern Europe […] because an aircraft deployed is used 100% for this mission. It is, therefore, an aircraft that we lack for the training of our pilots at a time when […] twenty-four of our Rafales have been sold.”
This training concern echoes a recent report on the challenges to be faced by the French Air Force in 2023, which highlighted an alarming training deficit for fighter pilots. The limited availability of flight hours was mainly blamed on the two batches of 12 Rafale F3R fighter jets deducted from the inventory of the French Air Force to be sold to Greece and Croatia in 2021.
More than meets the eye?
The role of the Rafales deployed to Lithuania might not be limited to air policing. As first noticed by the defense portal Opex 360, footage from the fighters arriving in Siauliai shared by the French General Staff shows at least one aircraft carrying what appears to be a designation pod.
The Rafale F3R fighters operated by the French Air Force and Navy currently use two types of targeting pods: Damocles, which entered service in 2010, and Talios, inducted in 2020. Both are produced by the French manufacturer Thales.
These pods are mainly designed for air-to-ground and air-to-air targeting missions and offer some medium-range target reconnaissance capabilities. Thus, the presence of such a pod on a Rafale in Siauliai might mean that the fighters will be employed for other missions, such as the training of allied troops for ground strikes.
AeroTime sent a request for comment to the French General Staff.