Two months after Russian forces began their mostly bloodless annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula, the Canadian air force is sending six CF-18 jet fighters and 200 airmen to Romania.
The open-ended deployment, which began on April 29, is part of Ottawa’s “response to [the] crisis in Ukraine,” according to the Royal Canadian Air Force. The six twin-engine jets—variants of America’s F/A-18—join no fewer than 22 other NATO fighters in patrolling the alliance’s eastern frontier.
Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, but does maintain close ties with the alliance. NATO has warned Russia not to continue its incursion into Ukraine.
The RCAF possesses 77 CF-18s. They’ve seen combat in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991, the Balkans in the late ’90s and Libya in 2011. An upgrade program ended in 2010. “The aircraft is strong, robust and reliable,” Lt. Col. Daniel McLeod, commander of 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, told Combat Aircraft magazine.
For years now, NATO has kept four fighters at a time in Lithuania to help protect it and the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, which lack high-performance warplanes of their own. After Moscow’s move into Ukraine, the U.S. more than doubled its force of F-15Cs in Lithuania from four to 10.
The twin-engine fighters wasted no time intercepting and warding off Russian spy planes.
The F-15s, pictured, are now heading back to their base in England. A dozen NATO fighters are replacing them in the Baltic—four Danish F-16s (plus two on standby in Denmark), four British Typhoons and four French Rafales.
The CF-18s aren’t part of the Baltic mission. They join a more southerly extension of NATO’s air patrols in Poland and Romania. The U.S. Air Force is keeping a dozen F-16s in Poland indefinitely for flights alongside Warsaw’s own F-16s, MiG-29s and Su-22s.
The Americans also have six F-16s in Romania, but they could be leaving soon—perhaps to be replaced by the CF-18s now arriving.
French and NATO E-3 radar planes plus a handful of aerial tankers from the U.S. and Dutch air forces support the fighters. And as a result, Eastern Europe is practically buzzing with warplanes.
The Ukraine crisis could be the CF-18s’ final deployment. Ottawa wants to replace the classic fighters with new models starting in 2017—and could select America’s far less maneuverable F-35, a radar-evading jet that has fared poorly in simulations.
“Canadians are lucky to still have fighter jets that can go toe-to-toe with Russian MiGs and Sukhois,” National Post columnist Michael Byers wrote.