NATO has started the largest-ever air force deployment exercise in the Western military alliance’s history, a drill being presented as a display of unity among members and partners of the bloc as tensions with Russia have escalated following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The German Air Force-led “Air Defender 23” exercises, which began on Monday, involve approximately 250 military aircraft from 25 NATO and partner countries including Japan and NATO applicant Sweden, according to the German Air Force.
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Up to 10,000 service members are participating in the drills, which run until June 23 and are designed to boost interoperability and preparedness of NATO “air forces in a crisis situation”, including protecting against drones and cruise missiles in the case of an attack within NATO territory.
“The significant message we’re sending is that we can defend ourselves,” Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz of the German Luftwaffe told public television on Monday.
The following 2️⃣5️⃣ nations are participating in #AirDefender23 from 12 to 23 June: 🇧🇪, 🇧🇬, 🇭🇷, 🇨🇿, 🇩🇰, 🇪🇪, 🇫🇮, 🇫🇷, 🇩🇪, 🇬🇷, 🇭🇺, 🇮🇹, 🇯🇵, 🇱🇻, 🇱🇹, 🇳🇱, 🇳🇴, 🇵🇱, 🇷🇴, 🇸🇮, 🇪🇸, 🇸🇪, 🇹🇷, 🇬🇧, 🇺🇸
with 1️⃣0️⃣ 0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ Personnel and 2️⃣5️⃣0️⃣ aircraft!
— Germany at NATO (@GermanyNATO) June 12, 2023
The “Air Defender 23” exercise was conceived in 2018 in part as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine four years earlier, though Gerhartz insisted the drill was “not targeted at anyone” in particular.
He said the exercise would not “send any flights, for example, in the direction of Kaliningrad”, the Russian enclave bordering NATO member states Poland and Lithuania.
“We are a defensive alliance and that is how this exercise is planned,” he said.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has galvanised NATO, the Western military alliance set up almost 75 years ago to face off against threats from the then-Soviet Union.
Finland and Sweden, who had long kept an official veneer of neutrality to avoid conflict with Moscow, both sought membership in NATO following Moscow’s February 2022 invasion.
Finland has since become the 31st member of the world’s biggest military alliance, while Sweden’s membership bid is being stalled by objections from NATO members Turkey and Hungary.
Under NATO’s Article Five, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all and membership bids have to be agreed upon by all members.
Germany’s Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said on Monday that NATO’s air forces were “of central importance in the event of an attack because they are first responders to secure the population and also their own armed forces”.
The exercise has “the goal of making it clear that NATO and the German Air Force are ready to defend themselves”, Pistorius said.
This applied to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to anyone “who threatens our freedom and our security”, he added in comments aired on national television.
According to the German Air Force, of the 250 aircraft involved, 100 have been deployed to Europe from 42 US states.
General Michael Loh, director of the US Air National Guard, said NATO’s duties were at an “inflexion point”.
“A great deal has changed on the strategic landscape throughout the world, especially here in Europe,” he said.
The exercise will focus on “supplementing the permanent United States presence in Europe” as well as providing training “on a larger scale than what was usually accomplished on the continent”, Loh added.
He said many of the alliance pilots were working together for the first time.
“This is about now establishing what it means to go against a great power in a great power competition.”
The exercise comes as NATO officials said on Monday that alliance fighter jets scrambled on numerous missions last week to investigate unidentified Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea.
A total of 15 flights were launched to investigate possible threats last week – the largest number of aircraft to launch in one week so far this year.
Most of the Russian military aircraft were reportedly operating in international airspace without a pre-filed flight plan, transponder signal or radio contact, according to military officials in NATO member Lithuania.
The increased presence of Russian aircraft was attributed to the annual US-led naval military exercise, BALTOPS, which is taking place in the Baltic Sea and involves 50 ships and boats from 19 NATO states and Sweden. The Russian Baltic Fleet is also conducting military exercises, Lithuania’s defence ministry told the Baltic News Service.