NATO air forces are turning to the alliance's new experts for help training to dodge Russian missiles

  • NATO air forces have been training with Finland, NATO's newest member, to operate from highways.

  • Operating from highways is seen as vital for dispersing aircraft in case their bases are attacked.

  • Rising tension with Russia and Moscow's long-range arsenal have made that capability more relevant.

NATO air forces have flocked to Finland to practice taking off from and landing on highways, a skill that Finnish forces have trained for since the Cold War.

The focus on highway operations reflects NATO's renewed interest in being able to distribute aircraft and personnel to avoid attacks that its main bases would face in a war. That threat has new relevance amid Ukraine and Russia's widespread use of long-range missiles and drones, including for attacks on air bases.

The British and Norwegian air forces are the latest to train with NATO's newest member, sending Typhoon and F-35A fighter jets to participate in Exercise Baana, the Finnish air force's annual exercise, this month.

British Royal Air Force Typhoon roadway landing Finland
A British Typhoon operates from a road in Finland on September 19.Royal Air Force/AS1 Tomas Barnard

It's the first time those air forces have joined the exercise, and when the British Typhoons and Norwegian F-35As landed and took off on a single-lane road in central Finland, it was a first for both jets.

"For 51 weeks of the year it's a road, but for a week or two each year they operate it as a very narrow aerodrome," a pilot from Britain's 41 Test and Evaluation Squadron, identified as "Jim," said in an interview published by the Ministry of Defence.

Even for skilled pilots, landing on a road surrounded by heavy forest can be challenging.

"Typhoon's got incredible navigation kit, so actually locating it from that point of view is pretty easy, but as you're flying around, it's still quite challenging to locate it initially," Jim said of the road, describing it as "a bit like an ordinary runway, just a very thin one."

F-35 road highway Finland
An F-35A on a road in Finland during Exercise Baana on September 20.Royal Auxiliary Air Force/AS1 Edyta Tomaszewicz

As the jet descends the final 100 feet, "you suddenly notice that there's trees on either side of you and they're pretty tall," Jim said.

During one landing, wind blowing across the road abruptly faded below the treeline, "so you get kind of a bit of a local change in the the air that you're flying through," Jim said. "Correcting for that and making sure that you're still landing the jet smack-bang in the middle of your very narrow runway, that's challenging but it's entirely doable."

After landing, the jets were refueled with their engines running, an operation known as "hot-pit refueling," before taking off again.

"You couldn't help but just sit and look around and go, 'Yep, I am sitting on a road in the middle of a forest in Finland in a jet.' So that was pretty crazy, definitely a first," the squadron commander, who was unnamed, said in a separate interview.

'Normal daily business'

Norway F-35A highway Finland
Norwegian F-35As are refueled on a Finnish highway while their engines run, an operation called "hot pit refueling," on September 21.Norwegian Armed Forces/Martin Mellquist

In announcements about the milestone, the British and Norwegian air forces cited similar reasons for pursuing it.

For the British, the training was part of its focus on Agile Combat Employment, a concept of operations in which jets and airmen relocate from their main bases on short notice to "outmanoeuvre an adversary — to survive an attack, disperse to remote locations and continue operating with minimal support," the service said in a release.

Maj. Gen. Rolf Folland, chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, said that being able to operate from small airfields and motorways "increases our survivability in war."

Using Finland's "straight and wide highways means that we can further develop our concept for dispersal," Folland said in a release. "The aim of the concept is to make it more challenging for an enemy to take out our aircraft when on ground. If such a concept is to work, we must map out all possibilities and practice them."

A-10 autobahn highway Germany
An A-10 lands on an autobahn in West Germany during a NATO exercise in March 1984.US Defense Department/SRA Glenda Pellum

Landing on highways is not new — NATO air forces practiced it during the Cold War — but it has gotten more attention from Western air forces seeking to counter threats from long-range weapons fielded by Russia and China.

The US Air Force, which is developing Agile Combat Employment with the Pacific in mind, has operated jets on highways in Eastern Europe and sent jets to Finland and Lithuania in August to practice "proactive and reactive asset movements" at unfamiliar bases.

Poland's air force said this month that it would practice highway operations for the first time in two decades. Britain's air force also plans to practice using its F-35Bs jets on highways, which the US has done with its F-35Bs.

Finland and its neighbor Sweden, whose NATO application is pending, remained focused on highway operations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and NATO officials say working with them now is key to building up the alliance's capabilities in response to a new threat from Russia.

Finland road highway F-18
A Finnish F-18 sits on a highway as another F-18 takes off during "touch and go" training during Exercise Baana on September 20.Norwegian Armed Forces/Ole Andreas Vekve

"Sweden has got Agile Combat Employment down better than any other air force in the world, and we are going to exploit that," Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and of NATO's Allied Air Command, said last year.

The 41 Squadron commander praised Finland for providing "extensive briefs" and "access to some of their training materials" to prepare British pilots for highway sorties. Jim, the 41 Squadron pilot, said the Finns were "the experts at doing this, like this is normal daily business for them" and that the exercise was "a great step forward" for the Typhoons.

"We often talk about capability a lot for being stuff that we fly with, so all the weapons and the sensors," Jim said. "What's cool about that is it's a really novel way of employing the jet, of improving our survivability against a bunch of modern threats by operating from dispersed locations and also doing that while operating really, really closely with our allies."

Read the original article on Business Insider