This June, NATO will hold the largest air exercise in the alliance’s 74-year history. The exercise will involve 24 countries in total, including Finland, which only joined NATO in April and Sweden which is not yet a member of the organization.
The exercise is being interpreted by some as a symbol of NATO’s commitment to the containment of Russia. This didn’t happen with previous Russian aggression in Chechnya or Georgia, but it will happen now and may even coincide with Ukraine’s long-awaited 2023 counteroffensive.
Air Defender 2023
Air Defender 2023 will be the largest-ever aircraft deployment exercise held by NATO. The main host of the exercise is Germany in its role as a “collective defense hub” for Europe.
The countries participating, include Belgium, Bulgaria, Chechia, Germany, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Türkiye, the UK and the US. The latter will deploy as many as 84 US Air Force (USAF) aircraft, the majority from Air National Guard units in 30 US states.
What are the reasons for large-scale military exercises?
Large force deployment exercises involving air, ground and naval forces often serve to rattle sabers as a warning: ‘don’t tread on me,’ when international tensions are high.
Sometimes they are simple shows of force or are given as an excuse to conceal troop build-ups prior to military action - as was the case in the Russian pretense before full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
According to the Air Force Times, an independent US news agency, predominantly geared toward USAF readers:
"This annual, nearly two-month long exercise is focused on the strategic deployment of US -based forces, employment of [military] pre-positioned stocks and interoperability with European allies and partners," according to Sabrina Singh, DoD spokesperson, during a briefing at the Pentagon.
The Air Force Times says: “The exercise is designed to demonstrate the US military's ability to rapidly deploy combat-credible troops and equipment to assure allies, deter those who would threaten the peace of Europe and defend the continent from aggression. The exercise also demonstrates the commitment of European nations to increase the scale, capability and interoperability of their own militaries.”
"Approximately 9,000 U.S. troops and about 17,000 troops from 26 allied and partner nations will also participate and portions of the exercise will stretch across 10 different European countries," Singh said.
As the primary host of the exercise, Berlin says operational training “will take place mostly in German territory,” but the Bundeswehr released a map showing that Estonia, which borders Russia, and Romania, which borders Ukraine, may be involved.
German military representatives said the missions will be "challenging for air operations training" for the participating troops, saying it "is modelled on an Article 5 Assistance scenario." The purpose of the exercise is to "optimize" international cooperation and highlight the "strength" of the military alliance.
US Air National Guard – the USAF’s part-time branch – will provide most US warplanes
The US Air National Guard is preparing for the largest movement of forces across the Atlantic Ocean in its history. The service will send almost 100 aircraft from the United States to take part in Air Defender 2023.
Around half of the air assets will be USAF Air National Guard jets, deploying aircraft and personnel from 46 air wing units across the country in 30 states – a significantly large deployment for its part-time citizen soldiers and military pilots.
This element of the upcoming exercise will take place from June 12 to 23. It is intended to demonstrate the ability of the US Air National Guard to quickly deploy its forces to Europe should the war in Ukraine spread to NATO countries.
Lieutenant General Michael Loh, Director of the US Air National Guard, said: "Strategic and tactical interoperability with our allies and partners are key elements of credible deterrence, as is the demonstration of a combat-ready, assertive and effective air force.
“This is now putting the alliance together quickly, with a credible force, to make sure that if Russia ever lines up on the NATO border, that we’re ready to go,” Loh said on Wednesday. “We’re going to defend every inch.”
Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, Chief of the German Air Force, voiced a similar stance, declaring: "We won't write the Russians a letter," adding that he believed "they [will] get the message."
A whole range of aircraft will deploy, including F-16s, which Ukraine is seeking, will be heavily involved as it is currently the most widely used NATO fighter. In addition to F-15 and F-35 fighters the A-10 “Warthog” anti-tank attack aircraft, which was specifically designed during the Cold War to kill enemy tanks.
NATO with its new member Finland is sending a clear message
New member Finland, who joined following the Russian invasion after decades of neutrality, while clearly being a pro-Western democracy, will deploy US F-18s as its premier fighter aircraft.
According to the BBC: “In 1992, Helsinki bought 64 US combat planes. Three years later, it joined the European Union, alongside Sweden, and every Finnish government since then has reviewed the so-called NATO option.”
Finland officially became a NATO member on April 4, 2023.
With Air Defender 2023, Russia will be reminded of the renewed NATO resolve, which is a direct result of their actions. With its invasion of its neighbor, Russia pushed Finland and Sweden to turn towards the transatlantic alliance as a means of ensuring their own security from Putin; Moldova may be next. Russia’s behavior has only served to show that Ukraine has become basically the de facto bulwark for NATO and Europe, in general, against Russian dreams of rebuilding its defunct empire.
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