U.S. fighter jets make rare highway landing

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(CNN) — Four U.S. Air Force A-10 “Warthogs” jets landed Monday on the remote Jägala highway in Estonia near the Russian border, the first such practice road landing in over 30 years.

The maneuver in Estonia, a NATO member that shares a 183-mile long border with Russia and sits about 100 miles from St. Petersburg, comes amid heightened tensions with Russia.

These so-called “austere” highway landings were relatively common during the Cold War as military planners sought contingencies in case air bases were destroyed in a large-scale conflict.

But the Air Force has not seen the need to practice this type of landing in the last three decades.

Retired Air Force Col. John “JV” Venable told CNN that these landings would be critical if Russia were to ever mount an attack on NATO’s Baltic members.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are definitely “targets of interest for (Russian President Vladimir Putin) and Russia,” he said.

He added that in the event of an attack, one of the first things the Russian military would do would be to strike the region’s limited number of airfields, thereby making alternative landing areas critical to defending the alliance’s eastern flank.

“This was the first time in a long time that we had the opportunity to conduct a highway landing,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Alex Griffin, a U.S. Air Force-Europe public affairs officer. “It was important because it’s necessary our aircrew are familiar with this skill.”

The landing was part of a U.S. Army-Europe-led military training exercise, Saber Strike 16, which involves 13 countries training throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. According to U.S. Air Force Europe, the goal of the exercise is to ensure that NATO and its partners “are ready for and capable of dealing with any contingency.”

Last week, NATO announced that the alliance would deploy four multinational battalions, consisting of about 1,000 troops each, to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. NATO jets also help secure Estonian airspace through the Baltic Air Policing operation.

NATO’s easternmost members, including Poland and the Baltic states, have long sought an increased presence of NATO troops in their respective countries, a request driven in part by Russia’s 2014 military intervention and annexation of Crimea and continued backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia is also planning on deploying advanced nuclear-capable missiles in its European enclave of Kaliningrad by 2019, according to Reuters.

And the commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, was quoted teling the German news weekly Die Zeit Wednesday that “Russia could take over the Baltic states faster than we would be able to defend them.”

In February, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it was spending $3.4 billion for thed European Reassurance Initiative in an effort to deter Russian aggression against NATO allies.

The A-10s’ role in reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank comes as questions linger over the future of the close air support attack jet. The ones that arrived in Estonia on Monday came from the Michigan Air National Guard.

The Air Force had originally planned for its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace the A-10. But Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in February that the A-10 had “been devastating” ISIS and that the next budget would extend its operational life by deferring the plane’s retirement until 2022, at which point it would be replaced by the F-35.

But in recent months, Air Force leaders have openly discussed replacing the A-10 with a new jet dedicated to the close air support mission.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Thursday that he did not care which plane was chosen as long as it did the job adequately.

“As a soldier and a guy who’s been in my share of firefights, the only thing I care about is the effect on the target. I don’t give a rat’s ass what platform brings it in. I could care less if it’s a B-52, if it’s a B-1 bomber, if it’s an F-16, an F-15, an A-10. I don’t care if the thing is delivered by carrier pigeon. I want the enemy taken care of,” Milley told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Unlike the multi-role F-35, the A-10 is the only airplane in the Air Force specifically designed for close air support.

The A-10 has seen combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently in Syria, where it was able to target enemy forces up close without risking friendly fire casualties because the pilots are flying slow enough to visually distinguish between enemy and friendly forces.

The A-10 can carry up to 16,000 pounds of bombs and missiles and is armed with a powerful 30 mm, seven-barrel Gatling gun, which can fire depleted uranium bullets at 3,900 rounds per minute.