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NATO's airborne message delivered to allies, adversaries

Teri Schultz (at Schleswig-Jagel Air Base, Germany)
June 23, 2023

Air Defender 2023 has succeeded in putting Germany on the map as a competent, well-prepared ally. Teri Schultz has some snapshots from the ground as the exercise wound down.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius inspect a jet during NATO's Air Defender Exercise
Some 250 military aircraft took part in the biggest air defense exercise of its kind in NATO's historyImage: Christian Charisius/dpa/picture alliance

I'd guess most people would share my expectation, however involuntary, that American F-16 pilots would resemble characters from Top Gun. And maybe at first glance Lt. Col. Joshua Boudreaux of the Louisiana Air National Guard — one of roughly 10,000 personnel who participated in the NATO Air Defender 23 exercise from June 12 to 23 — fit that bill, but initially I got hung up on his nickname.

A man in sunglasses standing next to an airstrip
Lt. Col. Joshua Boudreaux, also known as 'Tater,' served in the Air Force and NORAD before he participated in the NATO Air Defender exerciseImage: Teri Schultz/DW

"But what's your real first name?" I demanded, reading "Tater Boudreaux" on his name tag and thinking isn't "Maverick" or "Iceman" enough. "Really, you can call me Tater," he insisted, explaining that he's from New Orleans. "He's Titto," he pointed out, gesturing to his fellow pilot. But I couldn't. I finally got a "Josh" out of him and we moved on with our interview. That was only the first stereotype broken in my brief interview with this pilot.

Boudreaux is no regular flyer. An Air Force Academy graduate, he's described as a "hometown hero" who went on to serve in the Air Force, then in its demonstration unit, the Thunderbirds, then to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), before sidestepping into the reserves, the Air National Guard, and taking up a second career as a commercial airline pilot.

NATO Air Defender drill wraps up in Germany

But what was most surprising about speaking with Boudreaux, who served as a fighter pilot in both Afghanistan and Libya, was how much he emphasized avoiding war — and even thought that view would be shared in Russia.

"I do believe that the Russian people want peace — I do," he said. "We're just here to help show them that there are definitely ways to get to peace that don't necessarily involve any type of military action."

'A strong offense is your best defense'

By that, Boudreaux explained, he meant NATO's deterrent role. "A strong offense is your best defense," Boudreaux said, offering a military axiom. "We're hoping to demonstrate that it is best for everyone to come to a peaceful resolution."

I asked Boudreaux what impressed him most about Air Defender, and his answer was not about a specific operation or capability; he said it was getting to spend time with colleagues from the two dozen other countries participating.

"Sharing the stories with each and every member that I get to have the honor of coming in contact with and actually work with is great," he said. "And we all want the same thing, right? We want to provide a great life for our family and support them, and we all love our country and want to support the objectives that we believe to be honest and true, and and best for the world."


A soldier inspects a US Air Force plan during NATO's Air Defender exercise in Germany
The goal of the Air Defender exercise was to practice air operations with NATO air forces, with a focus on expanding cooperation among participating nationsImage: Teri Schultz/DW

The airman had very kind words for his German hosts, pointing out that although Hohn Air Base had not been operational for years, it was reactivated just for Air Defender 23. Boudreaux said within a few weeks, housing was arranged from more than a thousand Americans as well as German troops coming from across the country.

"[We] have been billeted, fed — and trust me, they have fed us very well," he laughed. "All of our needs are essentially taken care of, from the basic needs with electricity and water to bedding, communications."

That was one of the tests Germany set for itself in leading Air Defender: Could a country often ridiculed for being unprepared and ill-equipped pull off the biggest air  exercise in NATO's history? The impression seems to be good.

A soldier stands in preparation for an aircraft refuelling mission over the North Sea as part of NATO's Air Defender exercise in Germany
The Air Defender exercise has been hailed as a success by the German air forceImage: Teri Schultz/DW

In fact, another compliment came from Boudreaux that caught the ear of this Germany- and NATO-watching reporter more than he would even suspect in delivering it: An American F-16 fighter pilot quoted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in describing just how impenetrable NATO's defense of its territory would be.

"As the German chancellor said last week," Boudreaux shared, "if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. So probably not a good idea to come knocking at our door."

Edited by: Carla Bleiker