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The German-led NATO air exercise ‘Air Defender 23’ (AD23) kicked off on 12 June 2023, billed by the alliance as the “the largest deployment exercise in NATO’s history”.

The exercise, which runs until 23 June, will see the armed forces of 25 nations taking part and involves around 10,000 personnel and 250 aircraft, 100 of which are flying in from the United States and are largely from the US Air National Guard.

Although the plans for ‘Air Defender 23’ were initiated by Germany in 2018, the exercise has inevitably been viewed in the context of a belligerent Russia and the war in Ukraine. The exercise involves the simulation of a NATO Article 5 scenario requiring the collective defence of alliance territory, with NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu quoted on 12 June as stating, “‘Air Defender’ sends a clear message that NATO is ready to defend every inch of Allied territory. ‘Air Defender’ is necessary because we live in a more dangerous world. As we face the biggest security crisis in a generation, we stand united to keep our countries and our people safe.”

A formation on the opening day of ‘Air Defender 23’ featuring a C-130 transport, B-1 bomber, two A-10 close air support aircraft and two F/A-18 fighters from the United States, along with a pair of Polish F-16 fighters and two Italian Eurofighters. (Photo: Bundeswehr)

The exercise, Lungescu added, “is a strong display of Germany’s commitment and capabilities and … also demonstrates the strong bond between Europe and North America, working together in NATO.”

The nations participating in AD23 are mainly conducting operations out of six air bases – Jagel/Hohn in Schleswig-Holstein, Wunstorf in Lower Saxony, Lechfeld in Bavaria, Spangdahlem in Rhineland-Palatinate, Volkel in the Netherlands, and Čáslav in the Czech Republic – and are using three exercise areas: one over southwest Germany, a larger one over northeast Germany, and an even larger one over northern Germany that also takes in a box of airspace over the North Sea above the Netherlands and a area over the Baltic Sea.

“The training areas in the east, south and north of Germany used during AD23 are based on areas that the [German] Air Force has used for routine training for decades,” NATO noted in a 20 April press release. “However, to accommodate comprehensive large-force flying activities they have been expanded and partly connected with each other by corridors.”

Such is the scale of AD23 that, prior to the exercise taking place, the Bundeswehr warned on its website that, while processes and procedures were being optimised “to minimise the impact on civil air traffic”, delays to scheduled airline departures were possible.

The 25 participating nations are Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Peter Felstead