Baltic Air Policing
Norwegian Lt. Col. Ivar Magne Sten (left) and Italian detachment leader Col. Marco Bertoli hand over a symbolic key in front of a Norwegian F-16 and a Italian Eurofighter Typhoon at Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, April 30, 2015. Norwegian Air Force/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Norway has taken over from Italy in leading NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission over Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. The mission, which has been expanded because of increasing hostility from Russia over the last year, will involve the deployment of four Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets. Other NATO nations on the mission include Britain, as well as Italy and Belgium, which were part of the previous rotation and are continuing their involvement.

The formal handover from Italy to Norway happened Thursday at Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania, with the first mission flying out of the base Friday. Norway is joined by four Italian Eurofighter Typhoons. Britain offers four of its own Typhoons flying out of Estonia, while Belgium will fly four F-16s out of Poland.

The mission started in 2004 when Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia joined the alliance, but because they don’t have their own air forces, NATO takes on the responsibility for looking after their airspace.

The Baltic mission was expanded in May 2014 because of Russia’s repeated flights in international airspace near to the Baltic countries. It forms part of a wider effort to counter Russia, after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and became involved in the eastern Ukraine war since it began in April 2014.

In 2014, NATO scrambled aircraft 150 times while responding to Russian activity near the Baltics -- four times as many flights as in 2013. The Norwegians will hand over command in four months to another NATO air force.