The Pentagon has deployed four F-16 fighter jets to eastern Romania as part of NATO’s efforts to secure the airspace, which has experienced repeated violations by Russian drones and cruise missiles.
On September 22, four U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets arrived at Fetesti Air Base in Romania to further strengthen NATO’s air policing mission in the Black Sea region. This move is in response to the ongoing challenges in the region.
According to a statement from the North Atlantic Alliance, images released by NATO depict these F-16C Block 50 fighters, which appear to be equipped for extended air superiority operations. Each aircraft is seen carrying auxiliary fuel tanks, twin AAMRAM/AIM-120 long-range missiles, and four AIM-9 medium-range missiles.
The tail lettering on these jets identifies them as belonging to the U.S. Air Force’s 480th Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing based in Spangdahlem, Germany. Notably, this unit has been regularly deploying sub-units to Poland as part of NATO’s ongoing air policing efforts in the Baltic region.
News reports have indicated that the recently deployed American air and ground crew will be stationed at the 86th Air Base of the Romanian Air Force, located near the town of Fetesti in the southeastern part of the country.
In the NATO statement, Russia was not explicitly mentioned, nor were the rules of engagement for the U.S. airmen detailed in relation to potential encounters with guided weapons launched by the Russian military during their patrols in the region.
The deployment of American combat jets to the Black Sea coastal region occurred five days after a September 17th announcement by Bucharest. This announcement stated that airspace along Romania’s eastern border would be closed to all aircraft, with NATO responsible for enforcing the no-fly zone. This decision was made in response to numerous Russian missile and drone attacks targeting Ukrainian civilian port facilities along the Danube River. The Danube River serves as the regional border separating Ukraine from NATO territory.
It’s worth noting that Russian kamikaze drones, which were intended for attacks on Ukrainian grain-handling port facilities along the waterway, missed their targets twice in September and detonated in Romanian territory. These incidents were a source of embarrassment for Romania’s National Liberal Party-led government, which has adopted a restrained and non-confrontational approach toward Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Romanian F-16 fighter aircraft based in locations such as Fetesti and other airfields in eastern Romania are regularly joined by combat units from various NATO member states for air policing operations over the Black Sea. Previously, contingents from the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Great Britain have contributed to these efforts.
While open-source data indicates that the US Air Force has been the primary operator of military reconnaissance aircraft in the western and central Black Sea since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the deployment of US combat aircraft to eastern Romania has been relatively infrequent. US Air Force F-16s from Germany and Italy operated from the Fetesti base in 2022, but both contingents had left by the end of that year, as reported in the news.
The repeated Russian drone and missile strikes targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, some of which occurred just a few hundred meters from the Romanian border, represent the latest example of potential confrontations between NATO and Russian military forces in the region.
NATO’s observation and reconnaissance aircraft operating over the Black Sea near the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula remain a potential flashpoint. The Kremlin believes these aircraft are collecting targeting data to share with Ukrainian military intelligence. Consequently, Russian combat jets frequently harass and interfere with NATO aircraft operating in international airspace.
On March 14th, a Russian Air Force Su-27 accidentally collided with a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone in international airspace approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Crimea, resulting in the destruction of the drone. Despite the provision of NATO’s Article 5, which permits the alliance to respond with military force to attacks on NATO units and personnel, both Moscow and Washington downplayed the incident.
Nearly a year earlier, on September 29, 2022, a Russian Su-27, with the apparent intent to shoot down, fired two missiles at an unarmed Royal Air Force RC-135 aircraft flying over the Black Sea. However, both missiles malfunctioned, as reported by the BBC. At the time, London officials acknowledged the incident, initially portraying it as accidental, although subsequent revelations suggested it was intentional. As an attack on a NATO aircraft, it could be interpreted as an act of war against the Alliance.
The most recent major NATO air defense training event in the Black Sea region occurred in late July and involved the participation of air forces from Romania, France, Germany, and the US Navy.
It has been reported that Fetesti air base will be selected by NATO member states for the training of Ukrainian pilots on United States-made F-16 fighter jets. This training, according to official announcements, was scheduled to commence in August. Ukrainian officials have stated that the pilots undergoing training in Romania would not participate in any NATO actions against Russian violations of Romanian airspace while in Ukraine.