April 9, 2015
|(AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)|
AMARI AIR BASE, Estonia (AP) — Russia is so close that the F-16 fighter pilots can see it on the horizon as they swoop down over a training range in Estonia in the biggest ever show of U.S. air power in the Baltic countries.
The simulated bombs release smoke on impact, but the M-61 cannon fires live ammunition, rattling the aircraft with a deafening tremor and shattering targets on the ground.
The four-week drill is part of a string of non-stop exercises by U.S. land, sea and air forces in Europe — from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south — scaled up since last year to reassure nervous NATO allies after Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. U.S. and Russian forces are now essentially back in a Cold War-style standoff, flexing their muscles along NATO's eastern flank.
The saber-rattling raises the specter that either side could misinterpret a move by the other, triggering a conflict between two powers with major nuclear arsenals despite a sharp reduction from the Cold War era.
"A dangerous game of military brinkmanship is now being played in Europe," said Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think-tank. "If one commander or one pilot makes a mistake or a bad decision in this situation, we may have casualties and a high-stakes cycle of escalation that is difficult to stop."