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NATO's Air Defender 23 exercise ends with 'great success'

June 23, 2023

The Euro-Atlantic military alliance's largest ever air exercise has come to a close in Germany. Commanders said they are confident in their ability to provide 'collective defense.'

Journalists filming a US F-15 jet taking off from the German Air Force's Hohn Air Base
With the departure of a US F-15 jet from the German Air Force's Hohn Air Base, the NATO maneuver Air Defender 23 came to an endImage: Selim Sudheimer/picture alliance

As real war rages only a couple of land borders away, NATO has spent the better part of the last two weeks gaming one: 250 military aircraft, including 100 from the United States, took part in the biggest air defense exercise of its kind in the history of the Euro-Atlantic military alliance.

Multinational forces conducted the Air Defender 23 exercise in Germany, one of the most crowded air spaces in the world.

"We performed much better than we first feared," Ute Otterbein, a spokesperson for Germany's civilian air traffic controller, DFS, told DW.

NATO planes resulted, on average, in 22,000 "delay minutes" during the 12-day exercise. DFS and its European partner, Eurocontrol, were anticipating up to 95,000 such minutes, which could have caused significant trouble for regular flights.

NATO Air Defender drill wraps up in Germany

An exercise in deterrence

Air Defender was in the works for four years, long before anyone thought Russia would launch a full-scale war against its Ukrainian neighbor. With NATO beefing up its defenses as a result, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said he saw the exercise as a clear sign of deterrence.

Moscow "is sure to see and hear a lot of what is going on here," Pistorius said at an air base near Jagel, in northern Germany, which he visited towards the end of the exercise with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

What he and military officials are calling a success helps bolster Germany's flagging war-fighting image. The German military, the Bundeswehr, has long been under fire as under-equipped, underfunded, and under-prepared to defend Germany and its allies.

That started to change with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

IT issues

About 90% of around 2,000 planned sorties were carried out, according to German air force figures. A unified data network is required to seamlessly pull off operations that involve many aircraft from different countries at the same time.

That was not possible from the get-go, Germany's air force chief, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, told reporters on Friday. It took a couple of days to get it right.

"That shows you can't just simulate this, you have to actually practice it," the Luftwaffe's chief told reporters on Friday.

Nonetheless, for Gerhartz, Air Defender was mission accomplished.

"This exercise, Air Defender 2023, was a total success," he said. "Not just tactically, but what personally really impressed me was the human level."

Germany's armed forces face chronic problems

Gerhartz described pilots from different countries crying when the last planes landed and they had to say goodbye.

"The Americans were, in particular, utterly amazed at our hospitality," Gerhartz said.

In a statement to DW, US Air Force Brig. Gen. Allison Miller expressed her thanks to Germany "for planning, hosting and executing a terrific detailed large exercise."

"As with all exercises, we seek continuous improvement," Miller, who serves as the deputy of NATO's Joint Force Air Component, overseeing the alliance's air operations, said. "Air Defender 2023 has proven that we can integrate with our partner NATO countries for collective defense."

Edited by: Christoph Hasselbach

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