The largest military air exercises in Europe since the end of the Cold War began Monday when more than 25 countries took to the skies in fighter jets, bombers and cargo planes in a targeted demonstration to Russia.
The war games have been planned since 2018, but were given added urgency following the invasion of Ukraine, which alarmed NATO members lying in Russia’s shadow and prompted the military alliance to reinvent itself after years of stupor.
All but two participating countries are NATO members, including Finland, the latest, and the exercises are hosted by Germany. Sweden, which is seeking to join NATO, is also participating, and Japan is an observer.
“Air power is the first response in a crisis,” Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, chief of the German air force, said in an interview at the end of Monday’s exercises — the first of 12 days that unfolded at six bases across the country. country. “We can respond really quickly, as first responders.”
The exercises, dubbed Air Defender 2023, took place well before Moscow invaded Ukraine on a large scale last year, but their roots lie in Russian aggression: the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. General Gerhartz, who organized the war games, described it as a “wake 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 Kiev branding their country as Europe’s first line of defense against Moscow. The United States finally agreed to allow Ukrainian pilots to train on American-made F-16 fighter jets as part of a wider campaign by some NATO states to supply Ukraine with fighter jets – not only for the current conflict, but also to deter Russia for years to come. .
Since the invasion of Ukraine, NATO has moved from what the military calls retaliatory deterrence – relying on a promise to defend every member and push back any occupying force – to denial deterrence, which seeks to prevent an occupation in Ukraine. first place. That means more troops and equipment permanently at the Russian border, more integration of Allied war plans and more military spending.
Where warships can take weeks to depart from the United States, or days to mobilize ground forces in Europe, fighter jets can be coded in minutes.
Monday’s flights include a pit stop at an air base in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic where fears of Russia are high, particularly to show how soon warplanes taking off from Germany would arrive. Similar stops will be made in other countries once under Moscow’s thumb: Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic.
“Ultimately, it’s all about credible deterrence,” General Gerhartz said. “We don’t want to be too aggressive, but show that we are strong.”
In preparation for the war games, the United States has sent more than 110 planes and thousands of military personnel, mainly from National Guard units, in the past two weeks.
“It’s pretty much unprecedented, the amount of planes and people we’ve moved here in such a short time,” said Major Will Dyke, a pilot with the Kentucky Air National Guard.
He declined to describe how the exercises could ever be used against Russia, other than to say, “The way we train is to be ready in the blink of an eye.”
Wunstorf Air Base, where the air show took place on Monday, houses one of Germany’s largest military transport units. Cargo and refueling aircraft – two workhorses of aircraft – make up the bulk of the fleet. Fighter jets, the show horses of the skies, are stationed at other bases.
“If you think of a real war, this could be a place where German transport planes would start,” said Major Peter Poehlmann, a German officer who oversaw the construction of a new fuel station for jets that could burn up to one plane. million liters of fuel per day during the exercises.
Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said such exercises should test whether planes from so many countries can communicate directly with each other.
General Gerhartz agreed that this remains a major challenge, but recounted a real-life demonstration of coordination between Germany and NATO commanders that took place just days earlier.
Over the course of a week, NATO fighter jets had scrambled 15 times to intercept Russian fighter jets that had strayed close to Baltic airspace.
Over the weekend, German troops tracking a plane from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, quickly surrendered command to NATO officials, who deployed fighter jets. Hours later, a commercial airliner over Germany lost radio contact with air traffic controllers, returning General Gerhartz’s forces to control what was considered a domestic alert.
The military exercises come at a turning point for Germany, which has for years fallen short of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the threshold that NATO states should set. At the end of last year, the government in Berlin said it expected to meet the 2 percent target by 2025.
But some of Ukraine’s allies remain skeptical, citing Germany’s lagging arms shipments to the country despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s sweeping speech about a new era after the Russian invasion in February 2022. Mr. Scholz has 100 billion euros, or $ 113 billion, pledged to the armed forces, which have repeatedly been warned of serious deficiencies in the condition and readiness of its equipment and weapons systems.
If the multinational training exercises now taking place are successful, they will show Germany’s readiness to assume a leading role in NATO, said Thomas Wiegold, a respected German military blogger.
Stephan Weil, president of the Lower Saxony region of Germany – where Wunstorf airbase is located – called the exercise “necessary”.
“That is certainly much clearer today than when it was first planned,” Mr Weil said. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we know that the European security architecture, as we have adopted it for decades, is no longer functioning and that national defense must therefore take on a much greater significance.”
In essence, however, the Air Defender exercises seem designed to show Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin the risks of taking NATO too far.
“I would be very surprised, shall we say, if the alliance did not consider this part of its overall messaging strategy,” said Mr. Barrie, the analyst in London.
The US ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann, predicted that leaders around the world would most likely pay attention — and “including Mr. Putin”.
Many of the skills that will be tested in Germany in the coming days have been honed over the past 20 years by Western pilots and air support crews, especially in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Colonel Rusty Ballard, commander of the Air National Guard’s 182nd Airlift Wing, located in Peoria, Illinois.
But at some points on Monday, a three-tiered formation of fighter jets, bombers and cargo planes flew more than 10,000 feet above the ground, and even some seasoned pilots found the coordination a bit daunting. “Mental Gymnastics” was how Flt. Lieutenant Mark Jenkins of the British Royal Air Force said so.
Lieutenant Jenkins flew a massive A400-M Atlas cargo plane into the center of the wedge formation, followed by US 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 maneuvers, air-to-air refueling exercises, and mid-flight photo ops. Surrounding aircraft captured footage of his cargo plane, which sported a tail painted in the colors of the German and American flags for the occasion.
“I’ve never done anything like today,” Lieutenant Jenkins later said in an interview, sitting in the plane’s cockpit. “That so many other planes are working together is really unusual.”
He declined to discuss events in Ukraine, but said he was “naturally” following the conflict.
“We practice in a demanding environment,” Lieutenant Jenkins said. “The mantra is: train hard; fight easy.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin, Steven Erlanger from Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.