French fighter jets taxied alongside the Romanian Air Force after thundering through the sky above the Fetesti air base, as NATO bolsters its military presence in member country Romania, bordering Ukraine. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO has stepped up its efforts to boost the alliance’s southeastern flank defences by sending additional battlegroups to the region. NATO has also intensified its joint drills along the defence bloc’s wider eastern flank — which encompasses eight member countries — spanning from Estonia and Latvia bordering Russia in the east to Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea. The most recent joint exercise in the region — held between October 16 to 20 — for the first time brought together French and Romanian airmen and their planes. Despite flying different combat jets, “we work like the French, we understand each other perfectly,” said Romanian Lieutenant Colonel and pilot Lucian Tatulea. About 30 French pilots together with three Rafale jets travelled to Romania in a bid to improve “interoperability” — the ability to work together — and train less predictable “agile” deployments. As lead nation for the alliance’s “Mission Aigle” deployed to Romania, France acts as the point of contact between Bucharest and other allies, who seek to send troops to Ukraine’s neighbouring country. Romania currently hosts more than 5,000 foreign troops, the largest contingent anywhere in NATO’s southeastern region. About 1,350 troops are from France and mostly belong to the French ground forces, who are part of a multinational batallion that includes 300 soldiers from Belgium and Luxembourg. Stationed at the Cincu military base in central Romania, the French-led battalion also boasts 13 Leclerc tanks and several CAESAR howitzers. A detachment of 100 French pilots are also stationed at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base to protect the nearby strategic Black Sea port of Constanta against potential Russian attacks. – Air defence – A NATO member since 2004, Romania has vowed to increase its defence spending to 2.5 percent of its 2023 gross domestic product, up from two percent earlier. In recent months, Fetesti air base has seen several renovations and the construction of new facilities, including hangars housing Romania’s fleet of second-hand US-made F-16 fighter jets acquired from Portugal. About 100 kilometres away on the Capu Midia training grounds, a French medium-range anti-aircraft system known as MAMBA has been installed to help local troops with monitoring Russian activities. The missile battery — which is the only active system deployed by France abroad — is there to safeguard the vital port of Constanta, through which the majority of Ukrainian grain exports passes. Around 400 kilometres (250 miles) as the crow flies from the Crimean Peninsula, the MAMBA system has signalled “several alert levels” since it was set up in May 2022, said Major Gilles, head of the French detachment, who did not provide his full name due to security concerns. Comprising a 360-degree radar and two launchers armed with 16 missiles, the MAMBA system covers a 100-kilometre radius against various airborne threats and “operates 24/7”, he said. In addition, French-made Ground Master 200 (GM200) radar systems are capable of surveilling a radius of up to 250 kilometres. Since exiting a deal allowing safe grain shipments via the Black Sea, Moscow has ramped up strikes on Ukraine’s southern regions near the Romanian border. Following the discoveries of several drone debris, NATO and Romanian officials have condemned the attacks, but said the country had not been intentionally targeted. Yet the discoveries have led to the construction of air-raid shelters in the eastern Romanian village of Plauru.