NATO agreed Wednesday to extend its air policing mission over its Baltic member states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia until 2018.
At the same time, the 28-nation alliance will seek a "sustainable long-term solution" to maintain planes over the three nations, which do not have their own fighter jets, a NATO official told AFP.
"This mission continues to demonstrate the Alliance's commitment to collective defence and solidarity for all its members," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.
The Baltic air policing mission was first launched in 2004, when the three former Soviet states joined NATO.
It was renewed in 2010 for another four years, but the Baltic nations want the operation to become a permanent NATO mission.
NATO nations have been rotating the mission, with more than a dozen member states taking turns, including Britain, Germany, Turkey and the United States. The mission is based at the the Lithuanian First Air Base in Zokniai.
Lithuanian Defence Minister Rasa Jukneviciene told AFP the renewal of the mission was a good example of NATO's "Smart Defence" initiative, aimed at deepening cooperation between allies in an era of economic austerity.
"Those countries who come here to participate (in the air patrols) will have an opportunity to exercise and to get to know this region, and we will have security over our heads, a secure airspace," she said.
Latvia's Defence Minister Artis Pabriks told AFP that it would cost 1.5 billion euros (almost $2.0 billion) for Baltic nations to police their own skies.
"It's much easier if someone else is doing air policing in our airspace and at the same time we contribute our forces and capabilities somewhere else," he said.
Estonian Defence Minister Mart Laar said in a statement: "Estonia has, together with its allies, now made a great step towards increasing the security in Baltic Sea region."
Â© 2012 AFP
Date: Feb 8, 2012