A detachment of eight Eurofighters from the 11th Wing of the Spanish Air and Space Force has just completed its deployment in Estonia. From August until the end of November 2023, they accumulated more than 800 flying hours on Air Policing Mission, including combined patrols with their German counterparts.


It is 1:20 pm on a Tuesday at  Ämari Air Base in western Estonia, just 250 km from the Russian border. In less than 10 minutes, two Eurofighter pilots, one Spanish and one German, will be involved in a Tango Scramble, a training exercise designed to simulate a real-life interception mission.

At that precise moment, an alarm echoes through the base. It is an Alpha Scramble. A real alert. The real deal! 

From that moment, training and theory turns into real life operations. 

“The goal of the Baltic Air Policing is basically to avoid any potential violation of allied airspace. When we have an Alpha Scramble, we have 15 minutes to get in the air. You dress up, start your engines and take off quickly”, says Lieutenant Carlos Sánchez, a Spanish Eurofighter pilot from the 11th Wing in Morón Air Base, temporarily deployed to Ämari.

The adrenaline rushes through the ground crew and the pilots who are about to fly.

“After the take off, I would say it gets a bit more relaxed, because once you have started the aircraft, you are more into your habitual patterns. [...] We start the interception of the aircraft, we get all the instructions from ATC (Air Traffic Control) and ground control unit. They will guide us to the aircraft that we are going to intercept,” says the German Air Force Eurofighter pilot*.

Spanish Eurofighter afterburners taking off during a Talgo Scramble


Alpha Scramble! A Ilyushin Il-20 aircraft has been intercepted

Air Traffic Control provides pilots with vital information so they know exactly who and where to intercept. Lieutenant Sánchez explains that during an Alpha Scramble, “you have a 'tally' with the unidentified aircraft, which means that the pilots visually identify it, and then describe the type of aircraft, its colour, etc. “There is a chain of command between you and the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre, where different decisions are taken depending on the behaviour of this aircraft,” he adds.

In this case, a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 electronic reconnaissance aircraft has left Kaliningrad, a small exclave located between Lithuania and Poland, without a transponder or flight plan, posing a possible threat.

Spanish and German Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Eurofighters intercepted it and escorted it out of Alliance's airspace, demonstrating close cooperation and integration between both. “We have to defend the skies of the allies who lack that capability”, says Lieutenant Sánchez.

Spanish QRA Eurofighter pilot getting into the aircraft for a Tango Scramble


The QRA Eurofighter pilot’s training

The training of a QRA Eurofighter pilot is tough and complex. On the one hand, the physical side, including the training centrifuge to resist the anti-G forces, medical encounters and many hours in the gym to stay in good shape. On the other one, the formation.

The life of a fighter pilot is one of constant learning. There are always new weapons, new systems, new radars, and if not, you have to remember things you haven't studied for a while,” says Sánchez.

“We also spent many hours in the simulator. Before we came here, we had already flown a lot of missions in the Baltic airspace. We can develop scenarios, and then when you get here, you are already familiar with them.” 

Spanish and German Eurofighters on the flight line at Ämari Air Base


Combined Quick Reaction operations

Following the crisis in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea in November 2013, NATO reinforced its eastern border with troop deployments in the subsequent years. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Alliance also responded by increasing the number of military forces, with Spain providing additional contributions of air, land and naval assets, particularly on the Eastern flank.

On 1 August 2023, the Amber Detachment from the 11th Wing of the Spanish Air and Space Force took over from the United Kingdom as the lead nation for the defence and deterrence of the Eastern flank with 8 Eurofighters, 1 A400M and 130 military personnel.

In 2022, 4 Eurofighters and 130 Spanish Air and Space Force military personnel were also deployed to Estonia. It was the first time that the Spanish QRA Eurofighter aircraft were configured with weapons from another allied nation, in this case Germany.

As a result of this joint work and the interoperability of the Eurofighter fleet, the logistical footprint was reduced, with “65% less volume of material deployed than would have been necessary for this type of operation”, according to Spanish Defence Staff (EMAD). Similarly, the joint Eurofighter capability was "twice as high" as if the two nations had worked separately with the same resources.

German and Spanish technicians carry out cross maintenance tasks on a Spanish Eurofighter


Stronger together 

This successful experience in 2022, aimed at improving the response to any potential threat  in Alliance airspace, was repeated in November 2023 with eight Spanish and four German Eurofighters.

“This is a huge opportunity for both Air Forces to get to know each other, to learn how they work, and the different ground support equipment they have”, says Lieutenant Herrador, maintenance officer with the Spanish Air and Space Force's 11th Wing.

For 10 days, Spaniards and Germans from the 71st Richthofen Tactical Wing acted as a single squadron, completing 15 flights together sharing maintenance tasks, as well as flight tactics, techniques and procedures.

“The pilots, the mechanics, we all work together. We share parts when we have problems with our jets, of course we share a lot of experiences [...] and we have a lot of fun here,” adds the German pilot.

This cooperation between Spaniards and Germans in the Baltic could well have been part of the ‘Top Gun’ movie, for example, when Tom Cruise, alias Maverick, exchanges a few words with Val Kilmer ‘Iceman’ at the end of the film:

‘You can be my wingman anytime’ - Maverick.

‘You can be mine’ - Iceman.

There is no doubt: When it comes to protecting Baltic airspace, the Allies are "stronger together".


*The name of the German Eurofighter pilot has been omitted for security reasons.

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