In Exercise Air Defender 23, the largest air force deployment exercise in NATO’s history, the Allies rehearsed interoperability in defensive air operations and sent the clear message that NATO is serious in its renewed focus on collective defence.
Hosted by the Bundeswehr from 12-23 June, exercise Air Defender 23 was the largest multinational air force deployment exercise in NATO’s history, involving almost 10 000 personnel and more than 250 aircraft from 25 nations. Participating air forces trained for the collective defence of Alliance territory against aircraft, drones and missile attacks on cities and infrastructure in an Article 5 situation, relaying a concrete message of solidarity and emphasising NATO’s adaptation to the changing threat environment.
US participants (including US Air Force F-35A, F-15C, and F-16, US Navy F/A-18 Hornets, and Air National Guard aircraft) and other Allies assembled at three bases in Germany: Jagel/Hohn in Schleswig-Holstein, Wunstorf in Lower Saxony, and Lechfeld in Bavaria. Bases in Spangdahlem (Rhineland-Palatinate), Volkel (the Netherlands), and Čáslav (the Czech Republic) were also used.
The participating air forces flew a number of different training exercises to enhance multinational interoperability and preparedness and to test their joint responsiveness in a crisis. These included airfield evacuation, peer-to-peer airborne battles, and medium-range missile interception. Allied aircraft also took part in North Sea drills practising operations against submarines and ships. Composite Air Operations took place over Germany aimed at improving air interoperability with many different air assets and rehearsing the difficult task of integrating different assets under different commands on the same battlespace. In addition, aircraft flew out-and-back missions to the Baltic states and Romania.
Although AD23 has been in the planning for over four years, NATO is eager to emphasise, against the background of Russia’s war in Ukraine and a deteriorated security situation in Europe, its readiness to defend every inch of Allied territory. The exercising of the airpower component thus not only ensures that Allied nations possess the necessary tactical and operational capabilities, but also strengthens deterrence—a message reinforced by the parallel conduct of exercise DEFENDER 23, a 24 000-strong US European Command-led multi-national exercise to demonstrate US Army Europe’s ability to build combat power in eastern Europe.
Several aspects of AD23 were important in the context of the defence of the Nordic-Baltic region. First, given Russia’s large-scale air presence in its Western Military District, was the Alliance’s ability to assemble a substantial number of combat aircraft and personnel within striking distance of the region. Most Allies took part, as did Japan and Ally-in-waiting Sweden. Finland, which became NATO’s 31st member on 4 April this year deployed four F/A-18 Hornets to participate in air-to-air missions over Germany. The Finnish Air Force also recently hosted Allies and Sweden for Arctic Challenge Exercise 23.
A second important aspect was the size of US involvement—more than 100 aircraft, including highly sophisticated F-35s, and ‘tank-busting’ A-10s, sending an impressive signal of transatlantic solidarity.
A third aspect was the exercise’s clear focus on collective defence on the eastern flank. While coincidental, the concurrence of the exercise and the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, armed with large quantities of western-donated equipment, cannot have gone unnoticed in Russia. The Kremlin’s response to AD23 included the usual accusations of provocation and vague threatening of consequences. In practical terms, there does appear to have been a small uptick in the number of Russian air force flights that have required NATO attention in the Baltic region.
Another key aspect of the exercise was the emphasis on multinational interoperability and cooperation. On a similar theme, in March the leadership of the Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Danish air forces agreed a flexible Nordic air domain initiative encompassing joint management, planning and execution of flight activities, more flexible cooperation of support systems and logistics, joint awareness of what is happening in the air, and joint training and exercise activities.
This type of cooperative initiative, Finland’s accession and Sweden’s presumed accession to NATO, and large-scale exercising of NATO air forces as seen in AD23, are all much-needed boosts to air power in NATO’s north-east and to deterrence for the Nordic-Baltic region.