Germany will lead more than two dozen nations in Nato’s largest ever air exercise as the alliance aims to prove how fast it can respond to potential Russian aggression against one of its members.
Starting next week, the Air Defender exercise will last 10 days and involve up to 10,000 troops and 250 aircraft from 23 Nato member states. Sweden, which has applied to join the western military alliance, will also take part, along with Japan.
The operation will be conducted from three hubs across Germany, placing the country centre stage as it strives to take a more prominent role in European security. It will feature aircraft including F-35, Eurofighter, Tornado and Gripen jets as well as Reaper drones, helicopters, cargo aircraft and tankers.
The idea for the exercise was first conceived in 2018, long before Russian president Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — although four years after his annexation of the Crimean peninsula and backing of separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Ingo Gerhartz, head of the German air force, told reporters on Wednesday that the operation was “not targeted at anyone” and was “purely” aimed at showing “that our alliance is capable of defending itself”.
But the US ambassador to Berlin, Amy Gutmann, said during the same event that she would be “pretty surprised if any world leader was not taking note of what this [exercise] shows in terms of the . . . strength of this alliance”. She added: “And that includes Mr Putin.”
Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian defence ministry has publicly reacted to the planned exercise.
Thomas Wiegold, a prominent German military blogger, said it was significant that Berlin, which has long relied on Washington to guarantee its security, had taken the lead in organising and commanding the exercise. He said Germany wanted to show that it could “organise, host [and] secure all the foreign troops coming and moving through” its territory.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz promised a Zeitenwende, or turning point, in his nation’s approach to defence in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, vowing to overhaul Germany’s under-equipped armed forces and take a more assertive role in protecting the security of Europe.
Nonetheless, Scholz has been more cautious than some other western leaders in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a stance his allies say is reflective of uncertainty and anxiety among the German public about the risks of the Ukraine war escalating into a wider conflict with Moscow.
Wiegold said the most striking aspects of the operation were the scale and speed of the deployment. “It’s a demonstration that Nato, and especially the US, can send its aircraft very fast if need be,” he said. “That’s the point.”
Around 100 of the participating aircraft will be from the US.
Responding to concerns about the impact of the exercise on civilian air traffic, Gerhartz insisted that disruption would be “minimal”, as most of the roughly 2,000 planned military flights will be over the North and Baltic seas.
He argued that any inconvenience during the exercise, which will run from June 12 to June 23, would be justified. “If we want to demonstrate that we are capable of defending this country and this alliance, then we just have to accept that for this short period of time,” Gerhartz said.
Still, German aviation authorities have warned that passenger jets will at times be forced to avoid parts of German air space and take unconventional routes. Delays may occur if the planned number of flights exceeds capacity limits.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga