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A-10 Thunderbolt at Air Defender 2023 - Photography by
AirVenture 2023 Facts and Figures
Remembering the Pioneers: William 'Bill' Piper Sr.
‘Stronger together’ is more than just a motto.
Text and photography by Patrick Dirksen and Frank Mink of
June saw an unprecedented number of movements of military aircraft all over Germany and the surrounding region. The reason: Exercise Air Defender 2023. More than 250 aircraft, including some 190 fighter jets, and more than 10,000 soldiers from 25 countries were on the move for two weeks.
A fully packed platform at Wunstorf, with two German A400Ms all ten participating American C-130s and the Romanian C-27 in the back - Bundeswehr
Four years of preparations culminated in the largest air exercise since the foundation of NATO in 1949. Having said that, the exercise was not a NATO exercise, but a German one with input from many NATO partners, in addition to a few others. Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and the USA all sent assets, which in many, but not all cases, included aircraft. Most noteworthy was the large delegation from the USA, which sent no less than 100 aircraft across the ocean. Although sometimes called ‘weekend warriors’, the United States’ Air National Guard (ANG) showed it is more than capable to deploy overseas and fight a war if needed.
All deployed aircraft were distributed to seven airbases in Germany: Jagel and Hohn in the northern part of the country, Wunstorf, Geilenkirchen and Spangdahlem in the middle and Lechfeld and Neuburg in the south. Apart from those bases, the Dutch contingent operated from their homebase, Volkel, while the Czech did the same from Čáslav, both doing the pre-briefing and debriefing via video conference. The three main exercise areas reflected this division, being North (including the northern part of Dutch airspace and Denmark), East and South. Two additional exercise areas were in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moreover, participants conducted Composite Air Operations (COMAO) into Estonia and Romania on so-called out-and-back missions in support of the exercise scenario.
The German Tornado with a special tail design is seen taxiing in after a mission - Tristar Aviation
This scenario was a basic ‘Article 5’ scenario, where the attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all, and a collective defence by all other members follows. History has taught that when conflict begins, air forces act as ‘first responders’. Therefore, focus was on this theme, with fighter jets that are the first to go in and all other aircraft types that are necessary for support. The fighter contingent consisted of F-15s and F-16s from Denmark, the Netherlands, Greece, Poland, Turkey and the USA; Dutch, Norwegian and American F-35s; Eurofighter Typhoons from Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom; German Tornados, and JAS-39 Gripens from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Sweden. Last, but not least, the US Navy were present with six F/A-18 Super Hornets and two EA-18G Growlers, while Finland deployed the legacy F/A-18 Hornet. The support aircraft included transport aircraft such as the C-130, of which no less than ten different ANG units deployed one to Wunstorf, and also the German A400M and the Romanian C-27. During the exercise, these also practised MedEvac and regular evacuation of both military personnel and civilians, as recently had to be done in Kabul and Sudan. The odd ones out were the venerable American A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, with their specific role, providing close air support to friendly ground troops by attacking forces on the ground. During Air Defender, they supported German CH-53 helicopters in combined Personnel Rescue Missions. German H-145M light helicopters, which are mainly used by Special Forces, also participated. During Air Defender, they were integrated in combined special operations. E-3A airborne warning and control aircraft of NATO and France acted as eyes and ears in the air.
Returning from an evening mission in great light is this F-16C Fighting Falcon of the South Dakota ANG. The tail art illustrates the nickname Lobos or Wolves - Tristar Aviation
Because of its scale, logistics were a challenge before and during the exercise. For example, 1,600 tonnes of all different materials had to be flown in from the USA. And as the northern part of Germany was not attached to Cold War NATO fuel lines, some 17,000 tonnes of rocks had to be moved and used to build 2 km of fuel line to support the exercise. A very useful experience, Major Peter of the German Luftwaffe explained, “After doing this we can cut the five month construction time that was needed here in half.” Apart from fuel on the ground, fuel in the air is very important as well. Where Europe in the past mostly depended on the USA for aerial refuelling, there has been growing self-sufficiency in recent years. This was evident during Air Defender, with the participation of A330MRTTs from the Multinational MRTT Unit and the Royal Air Force and A400s from the Luftwaffe. The USAF added the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker and its successor, the KC-46, to these.
Hungarian Gripens and Greek F-16s join up with a French E-3A AWACS for a photo opportunity - Bundeswehr
Germany used to be reluctant to use or show military power after World War II, and investments in the military were minimal, but this has changed. Large orders for multiple weapon systems have been placed and a considerable effort is put into improvement. Illustrative of the huge improvement of the status of the military is the serviceability of the Typhoon fleet, that went up from 35% in 2018 to 80% today. Organising Air Defender is another clear sign of this changed attitude. “Our goals for this largest deployment exercise since the foundation of NATO are comprehensive,” said Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, chief of the German Air Force. “We want to demonstrate the agility and swiftness of air forces as a first responder and showcase NATO air power. In addition, we as the Luftwaffe show that we can plan, organize and execute such a large exercise. We take responsibility. With AD23 we underscore Germany’s capability to ensure command and control of multinational Air Forces… Another important aspect is to facilitate continuation training for Air Force units and reinforcing our cooperative bond with the eastern flank of NATO by conducting Air Defence missions in the Czech Republic airspace. The transatlantic dimension, with 100 US Air National Guard aircraft flying in Europe, is a rock-solid proof of NATO cohesion and solidarity,” Gerhartz concluded, underlining the importance of Germany as a hub for Allied defensive operations within Europe.
The Hungarian Air Force deployed 5 JAS-39 Gripens to Jagel, one two-seater and four single seaters. They are part of the 59th Fighter Wing at Kecskemét Airbase, as can be seen on the tail - Tristar Aviation
So, with a real war only a few borders away, NATO simulated one. As mentioned, planning started four years ago, well before Russia invaded the Ukraine. But now the scenario is more realistic and less hypothetical than it has been for decades. With NATO beefing up its defences as a result, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said he saw the exercise as a clear sign of deterrence. “Moscow is sure to see and hear a lot of what is going on here,” Pistorius said at Jagel Airbase, which he visited towards the end of the exercise with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
The Wyoming Air National Guard was one of no less than 10 ANG units that deployed a C-130 Hercules to Europe - Tristar Aviation
The aim of this kind of exercise is twofold. One obvious target is training to operate together with allies so procedures can be finetuned. Apart from this, there is a signal to possible adversaries. And although the exercise was already planned before the invasion of Ukraine, the events there were on everybody’s mind during the exercise. During a visit to one of the participating units, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, “There is a turning point in history associated with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, because that is the statement that a powerful country is ready if it has the power to invade its neighbours to take part or all of its territory. In the recent past we all agreed that this no longer should happen within Europe, borders should be inviolable and should not be moved with force. With this exercise we train together with our allies so that the statement is taken seriously by everyone that we are ready and willing to defend every inch of our territory, and that is important.”
The A400 is coming in at its homebase Wunstorf after a mission, with the ‘American side’ clearly visible - Tristar Aviation
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recalled the importance of air defence. He explained, “This exercise sends a very clear message, that NATO is ready to defend every inch of Allied territory and every inch of Allied airspace… It is also a strong display of Germany’s commitment and abilities, and it demonstrates the strong bond between Europe and North America, working together in NATO.” He as well mentioned the war in the Ukraine, looking ahead to the NATO summit that is to be held in August in Vilnius. “Russia’s war against Ukraine has fundamentally changed our security environment. So, it is vital that we continue to invest in our defence. In Vilnius we will agree on a more ambitious investment pledge, with 2% of the national GDP as the floor, not the ceiling.”
A German CH-53 heavy transport helicopter is getting ready for take off at its temporary homebase Lechfeld - Bundeswehr
When asked about the possible reaction of Russia, he said, “The aim of this kind of exercise is not to provoke a conflict, but to prevent one. As long as every possible adversary knows that the whole of NATO is there, and that we can quickly reinforce, there will be no attack. So the purpose of NATO is not to fight a war, but to prevent a war!”
Rarely seen in Europe is the EA-18G Growler, an F-18 variant specifically adapted to electronic warfare. Electromagnetic Attack Squadron VAQ-142 of the US Navy brought two of them - Tristar Aviation
During the two weeks Air Defender lasted, 24 COMAOs were flown with an average of 52 aircraft per COMAO. In total 1,808 sorties were flown out of a planned 2,034, so around 90%, a very impressive rate during an exercise of this scale. Now it’s time to evaluate the lessons learned. General Gerhartz already mentioned one, “In today’s modern world of air power, we all have to have the different capabilities in one network. We do that by datalink, which is really, really complex. During the exercise we found out it didn’t work for all assets on the first day. We improved to 80 to 90% on day two and got it fully fixed on day three. This proves you cannot simulate it, you have to do it.” There will be a full report on the lessons learned, but unsurprisingly, that will be classified.
In addition to the Massachusetts ANG, the Louisiana ANG also sent half a dozen F-15 Eagles to Europe. They proudly carry their nickname Bayou Militia on the tail. The JZ tail code is an abbreviation of jazz, which is a reference to New Orleans, the largest city of Louisiana and cradle of jazz music - Tristar Aviation
What’s clear though, as F-15 Eagle pilot Col. Joshua of the USAF explained, “A strong offence is your best defence. It is best for everyone to come to a peaceful resolution, but if called to active, we’re ready”. And illustrating the exercise motto ‘Stronger Together’, he concluded, “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us”.
Where the first week of the exercise was blessed with great weather, during the second week there was also a lot of rain. But that obviously couldn’t stop the security forces from doing their job - Bundeswehr