Largest NATO Exercise in History Is Underway

Largest NATO Exercise in History Is Underway

( – As the war in Ukraine reaches a new peak of violence, NATO is running its largest-ever air power exercise. The wargame has been planned for several years, but now as well as training crews, it’s sending a message to Russia that the West is armed and ready to defend itself if necessary.

NATO Tests Its Defenses

On June 12, NATO officially launched Exercise AIR DEFENDER 23. It involves more than 10,000 military personnel and 250 aircraft from 23 of NATO’s 31 member states, plus Sweden and Japan. The scenario is an invasion of Germany from the east; although planning for the exercise began long before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it is eerily close to the real-world dangers Europe is facing right now.

Germany — which has announced a huge increase in defense spending since the Ukraine war began — is the lead nation for AIR DEFENDER 23, and most of the exercise will take part there. Combat aircraft are also operating from bases in other countries, though. These include airfields in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands as well as two of the Baltic states (Latvia and Lithuania), which also have NATO battlegroups deployed as a deterrent to Russian aggression.

The US Air Force is the biggest contributor to the exercise; over 100 American aircraft are involved, including F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighters, A-10 attack aircraft and an array of tankers and transports. Other NATO members are contributing Typhoon and Gripen fighters and Tornado bombers. In a sign of growing defense links between Japan and the US, and the UK, a Japanese transport aircraft is also taking part.

Preparing for Future War

In coalition operations since the end of the Cold War, NATO members have used air power in huge, carefully choreographed campaigns against opponents that can’t challenge control of the skies. AIR DEFENDER 23 is different. The exercise is testing NATO’s ability to fight on the defensive; on the ground, the fictional enemy alliance is powerful enough to push NATO forces back, so the air fleet needs to help defeat invading ground forces as well as protect the civilian population against enemy air attacks and medium-range ballistic missile launchers.

To do that, the USAF plans to give its aircrews, who are almost all from Air National Guard units, more autonomy and less top-down command and control. Pilots will need to think on their feet and react to what the enemy’s doing — just like they would in a major war against a near-peer opponent.

NATO runs major exercises regularly, and AIR DEFENDER 23 isn’t a dramatic escalation of the alliance’s activities. With Europe in more danger than it’s faced since 1945, though, it’s well-timed and sends a strong message. Retired USAF general Phillip M Breedlove says the exercise is a great opportunity to practice operations on a large scale, but Generalleutnant Ingo Gerhartz, commander of the German Luftwaffe, had a blunter message: “How do you inform Russia? Well, we won’t write them a letter. I think they get the message when we deploy.”

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