In a display of unity among NATO members and partners, the Western military alliance has commenced its largest-ever air force deployment exercise, known as “Air Defender 23.” The drill, led by the German Air Force, comes at a time when tensions with Russia have intensified following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The exercise involves the participation of approximately 250 military aircraft from 25 NATO and partner countries, including Japan and NATO applicant Sweden. Over 10,000 service members are taking part in the drills, which aim to enhance the interoperability and preparedness of NATO air forces in the face of a crisis situation. One of the primary objectives is to strengthen defenses against potential threats such as drones and cruise missiles targeting NATO territories.
Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz of the German Luftwaffe emphasized that the exercise conveys a significant message: “we can defend ourselves.” While “Air Defender 23” was conceived in 2018 partly as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Gerhartz stressed that the drill is not directed at any specific country or entity. He reassured that the exercise would not involve flights towards Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave bordering NATO member states Poland and Lithuania, emphasizing that NATO remains a defensive alliance.
Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine has spurred NATO into action, with Finland and Sweden seeking membership in the alliance. Finland has already become the 31st member, while Sweden’s bid is currently facing objections from NATO members Turkey and Hungary. Under NATO’s Article Five, an attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all, necessitating the consensus of all members for membership bids.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius underscored the vital role of NATO’s air forces in the event of an attack, as they serve as the first responders to secure the population and their own armed forces. Pistorius stated that the exercise aims to demonstrate NATO and the German Air Force’s readiness to defend themselves against anyone who threatens their freedom and security, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Of the 250 aircraft involved in the exercise, 100 have been deployed to Europe from 42 US states. General Michael Loh, director of the US Air National Guard, highlighted the changing strategic landscape and the need to establish how to confront a great power in a great power competition. The exercise will also supplement the permanent United States presence in Europe and provide training on a larger scale than what has typically been accomplished on the continent.
In parallel with the exercise, NATO fighter jets have been conducting numerous missions to investigate unidentified Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea. Last week alone, 15 flights were launched, marking the highest number of aircraft deployed in a single week this year. The presence of Russian aircraft in international airspace without pre-filed flight plans, transponder signals, or radio contact has raised concerns among NATO officials.
The Air Defender 2023 exercise serves as a powerful symbol of NATO’s determination to bolster its defense capabilities in the face of rising tensions. As Germany hosts this historic deployment, it sends a clear message that NATO and its members are prepared to defend themselves against potential threats, reinforcing the alliance’s commitment to collective security.
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