With an eye to Russia, US sends 100 aircraft for NATO’s biggest air exercise ever

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A-10C Thunderbolts in Germany during Air Defender 2023
U.S. Air Force A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft are parked on the flight line at Jagel Airfield, Germany, during exercise Air Defender 2023 (AD23), June 16, 2023. There are 24 varying types of aircraft among the approximately 250 participating aircraft, with nearly 100 of these aircraft assigned to more than 40 Air National Guard units—marking AD23 as the largest air forces deployment exercise since NATO was founded. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarah M. McClanahan)

On Monday, more than 250 aircraft and 10,000 personnel from 25 countries kicked off NATO’s largest air exercise in the alliance’s history. The Air Defender exercise, which is hosted and headed by Germany, simulates NATO’s response following an attack on one of its members by a third country.

“Air Defender sends a clear message that NATO is ready to defend every inch of Allied territory,” Oana Lungescu the alliance’s spokesperson said.

Finland, the alliance’s newest member, is also participating in the exercise, as is Sweden, which has applied to join the alliance, and NATO partner Japan.

Collective defense on a large scale

NATO is underpinned by its famous Article 5, according to which an attack against one of the alliance’s 31 members is considered an attack against all. Article 5 has only been invoked once in the alliance’s history, following the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

NATO conducts frequent multilateral exercises across all domains, but exercises on the scale of Air Defender are very rare.

“Air Defender is necessary because we live in a more dangerous world. As we face the biggest security crisis in a generation, we stand united to keep our countries and our people safe,” Lungescu said.

More than 20 different types of aircraft are participating in the exercise, including JAS 39 Gripens, Eurofighter Typhoons, F-18 Hornets, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and fifth-generation F-35 Lighting II stealth aircraft.

Related: A Russian soldier’s newly translated account of the war in Ukraine reveals the poor state of Russia’s military

German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz attends a briefing on Air Defender
German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz attends a briefing on Air Defender at Germany’s Schleswig-Jagel Air Base, one of the bases from where the exercise is being conducted. (Photo by Jane Schmidt/Bundeswehr)

The U.S. is participating in the exercise with approximately 100 aircraft from various National Guard squadrons. The size of the American contribution demonstrates “the strong bond between Europe and North America, working together in NATO,” Lungescu added.

Among the platforms that the U.S. has sent to Air Defender are A-10 Warthogs, which specialize in close-air support and were designed to take out Soviet tanks, and F-35s. The multirole F-35 is the most technologically advanced combat aircraft in the world and by far the most ubiquitous stealth aircraft in service.

“Training like this is important, because in the next conflict, when we may be called upon to defend NATO, [we’re] not going to get a practice round,” Major Adam Broadway Casey, an A-10 pilot with the 107th Fighter Squadron, 127th Fighter Wing, Michigan National Guard said.

“As an A-10 pilot, I don’t want the first time I check in on station with a German JTAC, to be when enemy tanks are crossing the border into NATO,” Major Casey added referring to the ground troops that specialize in calling in air support, which is a very sensitive task that requires close coordination with pilots.

Related: America’s massive military advantage nobody talks about: 500+ Refueling Aircraft

Wings over Europe

US F-16s in NATO's Air Defender 2023 exercise
Three U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, assigned to the 140th Wing, Colorado National Guard, make their initial approach to Schleswig-Jagel Air Base before landing to participate in exercise Air Defender 2023 (AD23) at Schleswig-Jagel Air Base, Germany, June 3, 2023. Exercise AD23 integrates both U.S. and allied airpower to defend shared values, while leveraging and strengthening vital partnerships to deter aggression around the world. (Photo by U.S. Air National Guard Capt. Benjamin Yokley)

Aircraft will take off from a number of airbases across Germany, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. Although Air Defender will primarily take place in three areas over Germany, missions will also be held over Romania and the Baltic region.

The Baltic is particularly important to NATO. The three small Baltic states —Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia —border Russia and used to be part of the Soviet Union until its collapse. To deter Russia, NATO already has three battlegroups in the region, illustrating its importance.

During the exercise, NATO will be flying dozens of different aircraft at the same time. This contrasts with the capabilities of the Russian military, which has been unable to conduct large-scale air operations in Ukraine and has failed to achieve air dominance there, despite its numerical advantage over Ukraine’s air force.

Air Defender pointing to Russia

Air Defender 2023 aircraft maintainers attach a bomb on an A-10
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Brent Hawley, left, and Tech. Sgt. Cory Jones, aircraft maintainers, 127th Wing, Michigan National Guard, attach a BDU-50 inert bomb to a U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft at Lielvārdi Air Base, Latvia, June 13, 2023 as part of agile combat employment training. With one of the longest-running partnerships, Michigan National Guard and Latvia have benefitted from more than 30 years of military-to-military engagements, helping both countries support shared defense-security goals and facilitate joint, international interactions. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrew Schumann)

The exercise was being planned since 2018, and although NATO didn’t mention Russia as the reason for holding it, in a press release circulated some months before the exercise, the German military said that Air Defender “reflects the Russian war of aggression: The war in Ukraine determines our present and shapes our future.”

“Despite the years of advance preparation, this show of force sends a clear message to Putin and Russian troops that NATO is capable of responding if the fighting spills into NATO territory,” Jason Moyer, an associate at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., told Sandboxx News.

Air Defender is happening at the same time as Ukraine’s long-anticipated counterattack against Russia. Yet, the two may not be related.

“The timing [of the exercise] certainly seems auspicious, given the current course of the war in Ukraine,” Moyer said.

However, “the number of moving parts and complex nature of organizing these types of large-scale, multinational drills cannot easily be moved up or adjusted” to account for Ukraine’s current progress, he explained. Air Defender will run until June 23.

Although the exercise demonstrates NATO’s capability, unity, and resolve and its members’ ability to operate alongside each other, it is hard to imagine that the alliance will top Air Defender in terms of scale, especially given that such exercises take “years of advanced preparation,” Moyer told Sandboxx News. However, “I expect to see more NATO drills” that demonstrate these qualities, he said.

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Constantine Atlamazoglou