Two F-4 Phantom jet fighters under NATO control streaked off the runway at a former Soviet air base in Lithuania this week in response to a report that an aircraft had lost communications as it neared Finnish airspace.
It was all an exercise _ a simulation _ but one with a point beyond mere rehearsal: NATO officials hope that, at a summit in Chicago this May, member nations will put aside concerns over sovereignty and agree in principle to create joint defense capabilities.
The idea is that, in a time of dwindling defense budgets, it makes sense to have coordinated programs in which specific countries agree to buy certain weapons systems _ and forgo others _ to create a coherent whole.
The economic arguments are strong. Twenty of NATO's 28 member countries cut their defense budgets between 2008 and 2011. And greater military integration in Europe would be of a piece with the greater economic integration that is emerging as a response to the continent's financial crisis.
But defense is a closely guarded national prerogative, and the outcome is far from certain. A NATO official said earlier this week that no specifics would emerge from the summit in Chicago.
Instead, he said, NATO officials hope for a "public declaration of how far we're prepared to go as an alliance." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of NATO rules.
The exercise in Lithuania involved German F-4 Phantom fighter planes at a Lithuanian air base cooperating with F-18 Hornet fighters from Finland _ a country that cooperates with NATO but is not a member.
Since 2004, different NATO countries have been policing the airspace over the Baltic countries, all three of which _ Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia _ are small former Soviet republics that are now members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In microcosm, the security arrangements for the Baltics are similar to what NATO officials wish for the entire alliance. The three Baltic countries cannot do their own air policing. Lithuania, for example, used to have six L-39 training jets. But four have been grounded, one has crashed, and now the country's air force is down to just one jet.
The defense budget is shrinking, and fighter planes cost many millions of dollars each.
"Buying aircraft today is something out of my fantasy," Col. Antanas Jucius, chief of staff of the Lithuanian Air Force, told The Associated Press.
So other NATO countries, on four-month rotations, do the Baltics' air policing. And the Baltic countries do what they can. All three have sent troops to Afghanistan.
In the exercise Wednesday, a Lithuanian transport plane simulated losing communications. It was intercepted by the Finnish fighters, who assessed the problem, then turned control of the plane over to the two German Phantoms from NATO, who escorted it to Siauliai Air Base, where it was cleared to land by a Lithuanian air traffic controller.
The stress of shrinking budgets does not necessarily mean that national governments will agree to a coordinated way of deciding which country does what. During the Cold War, NATO tried to implement similar joint programs involving naval vessels, armored vehicles, munitions, and communications and other equipment, but achieved only limited success.
"We've been talking about this forever," said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, which studies such issues. He believes such sharing of capabilities is essential, but he is doubtful it will happen.
"Now, in the financial crisis, everybody's broke," Techau said. "It's ever more urgent, but it collides with the sovereignty, which is strongest in the defense sector, as we know. Nothing ever happens out of sheer necessity in politics."
Still, budgets are shrinking almost by the day. Earlier this year, Austria's defense minister has confirmed plans to sell two-thirds of the army's tanks. Last month, Italy's foreign minister announced that he had cut an order for F-35 fighter jets from 131 to 90, and that the number of warships and submarines would also be cut. Poland's prime minister said a plan to build a new Gawron class warship had been canceled.
A spokesman said last week the Czech Defense Ministry has 20 percent less funding this year than in 2009, and will dramatically cut its planned purchase of Belgian-made Minimi machine guns.
And just this week, Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes said he expects his slice of the pie to be cut by 12 to 14 percent when the country's new budget is unveiled Friday.
NATO's top military commander, Adm. James Stavridis, said this week there are obvious areas where sharing resources makes sense, including joint use of helicopters and strategic airlift assets; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refueling capability; and special operations.
There is no doubt that such cooperation would involve significant changes in the way decisions are made. Germany, for example, requires parliamentary approval before military assets can be used. But if other countries forgo certain military systems because they are relying instead on Germany, they would want assurance that those systems would be deployed quickly _ and with certainty _ in the event of an emergency in their home countries.
And NATO planners continue to hope for a strong declaration of political intent from the summit in Chicago.
"The ground has changed," the NATO official said.
Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Daniel Woolls in Madrid, George Jahn in Vienna, Victor Simpson in Rome and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report. Follow Don Melvin at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin