A raptor is the only thing moving in the sky above Sliac Airfield on this November day. And he is probably more interested in the mice in the neighboring beet field than in the discarded MiG fighter planes that the Slovakian army has deployed here – recognizable more as decoration than as a deterrent for a real enemy.
The Bundeswehr takes on this job in this tranquil valley on the Gran River in central Slovakia: to the left and right of the concrete runway are three heavy trucks on their extended supports, with rectangular boxes stretching diagonally upwards on the loading areas. They contain anti-aircraft missiles, ready at any time to take down an enemy object from the sky.
The fact that the German Patriot batteries are deployed here has to do with the Russian war of aggression against the Ukraine in two respects. On the one hand, this strengthened NATO’s eastern flank, but it also closed a gap: Slovakia had handed over its own missile defense system to its eastern neighbor in the first days of the war.
Germany and the Netherlands initially jumped into the breach with three Patriot squadrons, meanwhile only the two Germans are on site. The Netherlands is currently only represented by a few liaison officers at the airbase – but it cannot be ruled out that they will increase their staff here again in the future.
“Over there we see the so-called triumvirate,” says Oberfeldwebel Patrick – soldiers usually only give interviews on operations by their first names – referring to the truck-sized containers painted in camouflage colors. It’s the fire control center, powerful radar, and power generator unit – “the patriot’s brain, eye, and heart,” as Patrick puts it.
In a mission like this, journalists are not allowed to get any closer, especially not with a civilian smartphone in their pocket – but there are photos on the Internet of what the air-conditioned “brain” protected from ABC contamination looks like from the inside: There are side by side two identical workstations with screens that display the radar image and various information about the status of the launchers several hundred meters away. “The officer sits on the right, and I sit on the left as the fire control sergeant,” says Patrick.
The second Patriot squadron, which is within sight, has the same equipment, the two fire control stations are manned around the clock. The servicewomen and men are in constant contact with higher authorities such as the Slovakian air control center in the nearby town of Zvolen. “Ultimately, the decision to fight is not up to us, it is higher, we are only guests in this country,” explains the senior sergeant. Since the start of the mission in April 2022, there has not been an incident that would have made such a decision necessary.
The rocket impact in the Polish village of Przewodow on November 15, 2022 showed how quickly this could change: Not far from the border with Ukraine, a projectile fell out of the blue and killed two civilians. According to Poland and the United States, the S-300 missile was shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. The government in Kyiv has repeatedly rejected this account.
Oberfeldwebel Patrick was on duty at the time. It was clear that in such a situation you should first keep calm and process the situation instead of escalating. “Events like this make you realize how tight the whole thing is. That’s not far from home.”
In response to Przewodow, the government in Bratislava has called on NATO to step up protection of Slovakia’s airspace. In addition to the German Patriot squadrons, jets from the Czech Republic and Poland, for example, are used in the small EU country for so-called “air policing”, military control flights. The Bundeswehr is already preparing for at least another year in Slovakia. In addition, Federal Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) has also offered Poland a Patriot mission.
Colonel Volker Pötzsch, the contingent leader of the Bundeswehr in Slovakia, told DW that the Patriots are a small piece of the puzzle in a larger NATO structure: “We can be fitted into the most diverse variants of the picture. And which is currently chosen – do you only use aircraft, do you use an anti-aircraft missile system or something else – that is determined by NATO in an overall view. The central question is: What are our strengths? What is available? And what needs to be protected urgently and in what form?”
The Bundeswehr conducts the so-called “eVA” – “enhanced vigilance activities” – of NATO in Slovakia. Around 300 soldiers are stationed in Sliac for this purpose. Another base is Lest, about an hour’s drive south, where the Czech Republic leads the Battlegroup, which includes Germany, Slovenia and the USA.
For Colonel Pötzsch, the German contribution to NATO alliance solidarity is also an opportunity to give something back: “It’s something we know very well from our own history of the Cold War. Allied forces, who basically did the same thing in our country, namely who came to us to be able to defend us in an emergency.”
For the soldiers of the Patriot squadron, this also means that during their eight or twelve hour shifts they stand by near the triumvirate – at the other end of the Sliac airfield and thus around two kilometers away from the container settlement, where they sleep Sergeant Patrick shows DW the “chill-out area,” as he calls the garage-sized room where members of the Bundeswehr take their breaks while on duty.
A dartboard hangs on the wall, which is hung with camouflage nets, and sofas made from pallets and foam mats stand around a projector screen. Official Powerpoints are also shown here, says Patrick. The walls also sport a fan flag and a World Cup fixture list – so some of the Patriot crew will be eagerly watching football for the next few weeks while their comrades keep an eye on the skies over Slovakia.
Autor: David Ehl
The original of this post “How the Bundeswehr is helping to secure the skies over Slovakia” comes from Deutsche Welle.