Europe's largest military air drills since the end of the Cold War began on Monday when more than 25 nations took to the skies with fighter jets, bombers and cargo planes in a sharp demonstration to Russia of how NATO would respond if the alliance was attacked. .
The war games had been planned since 2018, but grew urgent after the invasion of Ukraine, which alarmed NATO members under the shadow of Russia and jolted the military alliance into reinventing itself after years of suspended animation.
All but two of the participating countries are NATO members, including Finland, most recently, and the exercises were hosted by Germany. Sweden, which wants to join NATO, is also taking part, and Japan is an observer.
“Air power is the first response in a crisis,” Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, head of the German Air Force, said in an interview at the close of Monday's drills – the first of 12 days that took place at six bases across the country. “We can really react quickly, as first responders.”
The exercise, called Air Defender 2023, was long before Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year, but its roots lie in Russian aggression: the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. General Gerhartz, who organized the war games, explained that as a “wake-up” up call.”
After 30 years of shrinking military budgets, air power had become a vulnerability for NATO, but that began to change after the Russian invasion, with leaders in Kyiv calling their country Europe's first line of defense against Moscow. The United States has finally agreed to let Ukrainian pilots train on American-made F-16 fighter jets as part of a broader campaign among several NATO countries to supply Ukraine with warplanes – not only for the current conflict, but to deter Russia for years. next year. .
Since the invasion of Ukraine, NATO has shifted from what the military calls deterrence by reprisal — relying on promises to defend any member and pushing back an occupying power — to deterrence by denial, which seeks to prevent occupation of the region. first place. That means more troops and equipment stationed permanently on Russia's borders, more integration of allied war plans and more military spending.
Where warships might take weeks to sail from the United States, or days to mobilize ground forces in Europe, fighter jets can be scrambled within minutes.
Monday's flight included a stop at an airbase in Lithuania, the former Soviet Republic where fear of Russia was great, specifically to show how quickly warplanes taking off from Germany would arrive. Similar stops will be made in other countries that were once under Moscow's control – Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic.
“In the end, it's all about credible deterrence,” said General Gerhartz. “We don't want to be too aggressive, but to show that we are strong.”
In preparation for the war games, the United States has deployed more than 110 aircraft and thousands of troops, mostly from National Guard units, over the last two weeks.
“It's unprecedented the number of planes and people we've moved here in such a short period of time,” said Major Will Dyke, a pilot in Kentucky's Air National Guard.
He declined to elaborate on how the exercise could be deployed against Russia except to say: “The way we train is to be ready at a moment's notice.”
Wunstorf Air Base, where the air show takes place on Monday, houses one of Germany's largest military transport units. Cargo and refueling planes — two worker planes — make up the bulk of its fleet. Fighter jets, show horses in the sky, stationed at other bases.
“If you think about a real war, this could be where German transport planes would have started,” said Major Peter Poehlmann, a German officer who oversaw construction of a new refueling station for jets that could burn as many as one person. million liters of fuel each day during exercise.
Douglas Barrie, military aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said such an exercise should test whether planes from so many countries can communicate directly with one another.
General Gerhartz agreed that this remained a formidable challenge, but recounted the apparent demonstration of coordination between German and NATO commanders that had taken place a few days earlier.
During the week, NATO warplanes scrambled 15 times to intercept Russian jets that had strayed near the airspace of the Baltic states. Ministry of Defense of Lithuania on Monday said Moscow's possible response to the drills in Germany.
Then last weekend, German forces tracked the plane from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, swiftly handing command over to NATO officials, who deployed the fighter jets. Hours later, a commercial plane over Germany lost radio contact with air traffic controllers, putting General Gerhartz's troops back in control of what was assumed to be a domestic alert.
The military drills come at a turning point for Germany, which for years failed to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the threshold that NATO nations should be spending. Late last year, the government in Berlin said it hoped to meet its 2 percent target by 2025.
But some of Ukraine's allies remain skeptical, citing German arms shipments lagging to the country despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz's talk of a new era after Russia's invasion in February 2022. Scholz has already committed 100 billion euros, or $113 billion, to upgrading Germany's arsenal. troops, which have been repeatedly warned about the country's major deficiencies and the readiness of its equipment and weapons systems.
If the multinational training exercise taking place now is successful, it will show that Germany is willing to take a leadership role in NATO, said Thomas Wiegold, a respected German military blogger.
Stephan Weil, president of Germany's Lower Saxony region – where Wunstorf Air Base is located – called the drills “necessary”.
“That's obviously a lot clearer today than when it was first planned,” said Mr. Weil. “Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we know that the European security architecture, as we have assumed for decades, is no longer functional, and therefore national defense must take on much greater significance.”
At its core, though, the Air Defenders exercise appears intended to show Russian President Vladimir V. Putin the risks of pushing NATO too far.
“I would be very surprised, let's say, if the alliance didn't see this as part of its overall messaging strategy,” said Mr. Barrie, analyst in London.
The American ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann, predicted that leaders around the world would likely take notice—and “including Mr Putin.”
Many of the skills that will be tested over the coming days over Germany have been honed by Western pilots and air support crews over the last 20 years, especially in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Colonel Rusty Ballard, commander of the Air National Guard's. 182nd Airlift Wing, based in Peoria, Ill.
But at some points Monday, a triple layer formation of fighters, bombers, and cargo planes flew more than 10,000 feet off the ground, and even some experienced pilots found the coordination a little daunting. “mental gymnastics” is how Flt. Lieutenant Mark Jenkins of the British Royal Air Force said so.
Lt. Jenkins flew a large A400-M Atlas cargo plane in the center of a wedge-shaped formation, followed by American and German fighter jets and a US bomber. Two other formations flew overhead, at 15,000 feet and 20,000 feet, for more than an hour of manoeuvring, air-to-air refueling exercises, and mid-flight photo ops. Planes in the vicinity captured images of its cargo jet, which on that occasion sported a tail painted in the colors of the German and US flags.
“I've never done anything like today,” Lt. Jenkins said in a later interview, sitting in the cockpit of the plane. “Having so many other aircraft working together is really unusual.”
He declined to discuss events in Ukraine, but said he was “of course” following the conflict.
“We're training in a demanding environment,” said Lt. Jenkins. “The mantra is, train hard; fight easily.”
Christopher F. Schuetze reporting contribution from Berlin, Steven Erlanger from Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.