From the 12th to 23rd June 2023, the largest NATO exercise since its foundation took place in Germany after five years of preparation, according to Generalleutnant Ingo Gerhartz.
Over the years of preparation leading up to this exercise, the geopolitical landscape has changed significantly, with Russian aggression towards Ukraine high on the list of significant events happening close to Europe. One of the most important messages of this exercise was not to show any aggression towards the Kremlin, but to show operational readiness to rapidly deploy aircraft anywhere in the world.
The German-led exercise consisted of 250+ airplanes from 25 countries. The United States of America provided the biggest share of participating aircraft with over 100 jets and tankers, most of them being from US Air National Guard (ANG) forces. For example, the Louisiana ANG provided 8 F-15C Eagles and the Idaho ANG showed up with 6 A-10C Warthogs. Furthermore, the US ANG provided tanker support with the KC-46A Pegasus and KC-135 Stratotankers.
The US Navy also deployed several EA-18G Growlers from the Electronic Attack Squadron 142 (VAQ-142) “The Gray Wolves” at NAS Whidbey Island.
The most popular airframe was the General Dynamics F-16C with a total of 23 airframes from the US, Turkey and Greece. From the nearby airbases, Dutch, Danish and Belgian F-16s also took part in the sorties.
Many European countries supported the exercise with a great variety of jets. Finland took part with four F/A-18s, Greece with three F-16Cs and Hungary with five JAS-39 Gripens. Germany also participated with Tornados and Eurofighters.
How to deploy over 100 aircraft
The USAF was the main actor in the German airspace throughout this deployment. Deploying these planes was a logistical masterpiece. The arrivals happened about one week before the exercise started. Most jets got dragged over the Atlantic Ocean by KC-135 and KC-46A tankers. Throughout this whole operation, Prestwick was an important logistics hub, providing a convenient fuel stop for transport aircraft, tankers and their receivers.
With over 1800 sorties in 9 days, the exercise was intense. Most of the flying action took part in northern Germany around the two bases Hohn and Schleswig-Jagel. The training flights consisted of refuelling, air to air combat missions above the sea and close air support missions. Another flying area was located in southern Germany where the jets based at Lechfeld performed sorties. They used the Polygone area for electronic warfare training with simulated air defence systems and flew missions into the Baumholder training area.
Air Defender 2023 kicks off a busy summer for military exercises and airshows in the northern hemisphere, amidst a bleak geopolitical outlook.