Air Defender 2023, NATO's largest air drills in its history, kicked off this week in Germany. The drills, which have been 4 years in the planning, started Monday and will go until June 23. The exercises include up to 250 aircraft participating in operations that are to be launched from 6 military bases. A total of 25 countries are participating in the drills including the U.S., which has deployed 100 of its aircraft overseas as part of the drills.
Large portions of German airspace will be intermittently closed to civilian aviation to accommodate the drills. Specifically, areas in northern Germany above the North Sea, along with areas in the east, and a small section above southern Germany.
According to a NATO official, the purpose of the drills is a huge show of force that sends a message of deterrence. "Of course, this sends a clear signal, saying that even though this airspace is extremely busy, they are prepared to say, 'we will defend every centimeter of NATO territory,'" the official said.
The exercises also include missions that are flown to and from Romania and Estonia along with ground drills as well.
The drills are set to include more than 10,000 NATO soldiers who will be participating in a variety of exercises. One of the ground-based drills to be performed is an "evacuation from an airfield" which was added to the scheduled drills after the August 2021 disaster at Kabul airport where the airfield became overrun with chaos and local Afghans when the U.S. abruptly ended its mission in Afghanistan.
Other expected drills include intercepting medium-range missiles by NATO bombers, providing air support to ground forces, and airborne combat against enemy fighter jets.
The alliance's most modern fighter jet, the F-35 stealth combat aircraft is being sent by the U.S. to participate in the drills. The North Sea portion of the exercises will include defensive drills against enemy ships and submarines.
While this month's NATO drills have been in the works for years and were being planned long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russia-Ukraine war has made the exercises of greater importance for the alliance as the frontlines of the war are just beyond NATO's 'eastern flank' of countries. The drills also come as tensions continue to rise between China and Taiwan, as North Korea attempts to launch its first spy satellite, and as Iran recently unveiled its first hypersonic missile.