RIGA, Latvia - Praising the relationship between his nation and the United States, the prime minister of Latvia observed an aerial refueling operation aboard a U.S. KC-135 Stratotanker over the noontime skies of his nation, June 17.
For the Michigan Air National Guard, which operated the aircraft, it was the second time that a Baltic nation head of state had been aboard one of their aircraft in three days.
"It is quite important to have a visible U.S. operation in our region," said Valdis Dombrovskis, who has been prime minister of Latvia since 2009.
Latvia and Michigan have been partners in the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership for Peace program for 20 years. Over the years, Michigan and Latvia have hosted a number of exchange programs and participated in several training exercises together. Latvian combat controllers routinely work closely with Michigan Air National Guard joint terminal attack controllers, known as JTACS, at the Grayling Air Gunnery Ranger in northern Michigan. Latvia has also contributed ground forces to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
This month, the Michigan Air National Guard was partnering with Latvia on two specific projects, working closely together during Saber Strike 2012, a multinational, tactical field training exercise based in Estonia and neighboring Latvia that involved more than 2,000 personnel from a total of eight nations; and working together on conducting a survey and development plan for a military air field in Latvia, using an air field that has had little use since Latvia won its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
"Meetings like this, partnerships, are an important part of the development of Latvia," Dombrovskis said while in the cargo section of a KC-135, moments after watching a Michigan Air National Guard A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft received fuel in a mid-air operation.
Two days earlier, the prime minister of Estonia, Andrus Ansip, visited the Michigan Airmen who were operating from Amari Air Base in Estonia. Andrus did not fly, but spoke with the Airmen and was given a briefing on the capabilities of the two types of aircraft.
U.S. Lt. Col. Andrew Roberts, bilateral affairs officer for Latvia, said the Michigan Air National Guard’s operations in the Baltics was nothing short of spectacular.
According to Andrews, the operations in Latvia and Estonia had three primary goals:
- To utilize the U.S. Air Force’s largest airlift aircraft, namely C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III, to demonstrate the Air Force’s ability to transport heavy firepower. The Tennessee Air National Guard airlifted in 4 Pennsylvania Army National Guard Stryker vehicles to Latvia to demonstrate that capacity.
- To showcase the close air support of the A-10 aircraft, which operated from Estonia and dropped ordnance on the Adzai range in Latvia – while being directed in by Latvian Joint Terminal Attack Controller personnel. "That is exactly the partnership we want to highlight, how we can combine the capabilities and the professional skills of the Air National Guard with the Latvian forces," Roberts said.
- To demonstrate the global reach of U.S. air power by having aerial refueling tankers bring the A-10s to the Baltics and then be available to extend the flying time of the A-10s in an operational situation.
"The entire operation clearly demonstrated that the partnership that began between Latvia and Michigan 20 years ago has proven to be a strong one and a beneficial one for both sides," Roberts said.
In addition to the Saber Strike operations, a team of about 20 Michigan Airmen were working with the Latvian Air Force on the base site survey plan at Lielvārde Air Base. The air base is operational, but the Latvian prime minister said his countries goal is to work with NATO to best determine what specialty services or operations may be best suited for the base and to develop the base accordingly.