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NATO: Air Defender 23 is its biggest exercise ever

June 11, 2023

The NATO military alliance has begun war games in the skies over Germany. Three flight zones will be temporarily closed to civilian air traffic, and delays to civilian flights are expected.

US plane painted with US flag, Statue of Liberty and Air Defender 23 logo
Air Defender 23 is the biggest drill of its type since the NATO military alliance was formed in 1949Image: Falk Bärwald/Bundeswehr

The German Air Force is facing its biggest challenge in decades: After four years of preparation, the NATO military exercise Air Defender 23 has begun on Monday, June 12.

It's the biggest drill of its type since the military alliance was formed in 1949, and Germany will serve as the host and logistical hub.

From June 12 to 23, up to 250 aircraft will be stationed across six military bases, with 25 countries taking part. The US alone is sending 100 aircraft across the Atlantic. In the air, participants will train in crisis situations over three flight zones: over northern Germany in the North Sea, in the east, and in a small strip of southern Germany. These zones will be alternately closed to civilian aircraft each day for several hours.

NATO set to launch military exercises over Germany

Delays to civilian air traffic expected

Regular air traffic is part of the challenge, as the skies above Europe are among the busiest flight paths in the world. Aviation experts are watching to see whether civilian air traffic can continue to run mostly unaffected, in parallel with Air Defender 23.

During the military maneuvers, German airports have extended their operating hours into the night. "I hope that, if all these measures are effective, there will be no flight cancellations," said Ingo Gerhartz, a lieutenant general in the German Air Force. However, he did not want to rule out delays to departures or arrivals.

For the past 30 years, the work of German civilian and military control tower operators has been integrated, according to German aviation expert Clemens Bollinger. He told DW that flight controllers are in constant communication with their colleagues in the air force.

This is a special feature of German air traffic control, compared with other countries in Europe, and was introduced because German airspace is so heavily used. While the French air force repeatedly closes entire flight zones for scheduled flights even during normal operations, civilian and military flights in Germany coordinate with each other every day.

NATO sending a message of deterrence

NATO wants to send a political message of deterrence with its Air Defender exercise, said Torben Arnold of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Of course, this sends a clear signal, saying that even though this airspace is extremely busy, they are prepared to say, 'we will defend every centimeter of NATO territory," he told DW.

More than 10,000 soldiers from NATO countries are participating in numerous drills. Some of these are ground-based, including an "evacuation from an airfield," said Gerhartz of the German Air Force. This exercise was apparently added to the schedule after the chaos at Kabul airport in 2021 when the US and its allies hastily ended their mission in Afghanistan.

Other scenarios include supporting ground troops from the air, airborne battles against enemy jets, and the interception of medium-range missiles by NATO fighter bombers.

US forces are sending the F-35 stealth combat aircraft, the alliance's most modern fighter jet, to take part in the exercises. The North Sea will see defensive drills against enemy submarines or ships, Arnold pointed out, adding that an enemy "can also attack from areas other than on the continent."

'Germany is standing up and taking responsibility'

NATO maneuvers during the Ukrainian counteroffensive

It's no secret that when it comes to this "enemy," many in Europe think first of Russia and the full-scale offensive it has been fighting against Ukraine since February 24, 2022.

However, when presenting the plans for Air Defender 23 to the media in Berlin on June 7, Lt. Gen. Gerhartz did not once mention Russia.

Amy Gutmann, the US ambassador to Germany, said the drills will constitute an "impressive" show of force toward other countries in the world.

"I would be pretty surprised if any world leader was not taking note of what this shows in terms of the spirit of this alliance, which means the strength of this alliance," the US official told reporters in Berlin. "And that includes Mr. Putin," she said, referring to the Russian president.

The US and its NATO allies are playing the deterrence card, and this might also have a desirable side effect for them. The Russian armed forces will also be studying these NATO maneuvers, while in Ukraine, Kyiv's army is increasing pressure on the Russian attackers, with counterattacks like pinpricks along the front in the east and south of the country.

This article was originally written in German.

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