On Monday, fighter aircraft, bombers, and cargo planes from 25 countries launched the greatest military air drills in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The war drills were originally scheduled for 2018, but following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which terrified NATO countries living under Russia’s shadow, the military alliance was startled into reimagining itself after years of complacency.
Germany is hosting the exercises, and all but two of the countries taking part are NATO members. Sweden, which is trying to join NATO, is also taking part as an observer, along with Japan.
Although the Air Defender 2023 drills had been planned before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, its origins may be traced back to the unlawful annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, thus the name. That, according to General Gerhartz, who orchestrated the war scenarios, was a “wake-up call.”
Air power had been a weakness for NATO after thirty years of reduced military funding; but, following the Russian invasion, things started to change, with politicians in Kyiv portraying their nation as Europe’s first line of defence against Moscow. As part of a larger push by certain NATO governments to equip Ukraine with aeroplanes, the United governments consented to allow Ukrainian pilots train on American-made F-16 fighter jets. This is not only for the present battle, but to deter Russia for years to come.
NATO’s strategy has changed since the invasion of Ukraine. Previously, it relied on what the military called deterrence by retribution, which is the commitment to come to the defence of any member and drive back any invading army. This calls for an increase in the number of soldiers and the quantity of equipment stationed permanently along the Russian border, as well as in the coordination and funding of war efforts by allies.
Fighter planes can be summoned within minutes, but it may take weeks for battleships to sail from the United States or days to mobilise ground forces in Europe.
On Monday, German aeroplanes demonstrated their speed by stopping at an air base in Lithuania, a former Soviet Republic where dread of Russia hangs large. The same kind of stops will be made in Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, all of which were once under Moscow’s yoke.
The air show was held at Wunstorf Air Base on Monday, which is home to one of the biggest military transport units in Germany. The majority of its fleet consists of cargo and refuelling aircraft. The sky’s show horses, the fighter planes, are stationed elsewhere.
Military aerospace specialist Douglas Barrie from London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies suggested that such drills should check for interoperability between aircraft from different countries.
While acknowledging that this is still a significant obstacle, General Gerhartz described a recent incident in which German and NATO commanders demonstrated their ability to work together effectively.
Over the course of a week, NATO aeroplanes were called into action 15 times to intercept Russian jets that had wandered near to the airspace of the Baltic nations. This was likely Moscow’s retaliation to the drills in Germany, according to Lithuania’s Defence Ministry on Monday.
Then, over the weekend, German soldiers relinquished control of their plane-tracking operation in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, to NATO authorities, who promptly sent fighter fighters. A commercial aeroplane above Germany lost radio contact with air traffic controllers a few hours later, giving General Gerhartz’s troops control of what was classified as a domestic alert once again.
The military drills come at a pivotal time for Germany, which has for years failed to meet the NATO requirement of devoting 2 percent of its GDP on defence. Late last year, the Berlin administration expressed confidence that it will achieve the 2% goal by 2025.
Despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s grandiose rhetoric of a new era in the wake of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, several of Ukraine’s allies remain sceptical, noting Germany’s delayed military supply to the nation. Despite repeated warnings about the condition and readiness of Germany’s military equipment and weapon systems, Mr. Scholz has pledged 100 billion euros, or $113 billion, to strengthen the country’s armed forces.
Respected German military blogger Thomas Wiegold has suggested that the current international training exercises would demonstrate Germany’s willingness to assume a leading role in NATO if they are effective.
Col. Rusty Ballard, commander of the Air National Guard’s 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria, Illinois, said that many of the abilities that will be tested in the coming days in Germany have been perfected by Western pilots and air support workers during the previous 20 years, notably in battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Monday, however, a three-tiered formation of fighter aircraft, bombers, and cargo planes was flying at altitudes more than 10,000 feet above the earth, and even the most experienced pilots found the task of coordinating the formation to be a touch scary at times. British Royal Air Force Flt. Lt. Mark Jenkins called it “mental gymnastics.”
U.S. and German fighter fighters and a U.S. bomber followed a large A400-M Atlas freight plane flown by Lieutenant Jenkins in the centre of the wedge-shaped formation. Over the course of an hour of manoeuvres, air-to-air refuelling exercises, and in-flight photo ops, two more formations passed over him at altitudes of 15,000 and 20,000 feet, respectively. His freight aeroplane was photographed by other planes because he had painted the tail in the colours of the German and American flags for the occasion.