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NATO’s largest air force exercise prepares for ‘crisis situations’

NATO has launched the largest-ever air force deployment exercise in the history of the Western military alliance, an exercise being presented as a show of unity among the bloc’s members and partners as tensions with Russia escalated after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. 2022.

The German air force-led “Air Defender 23” exercise, which began Monday, involves about 250 military aircraft from 25 NATO and partner countries, including Japan and NATO applicant Sweden, according to the German air force.

Up to 10,000 service members are taking part in the exercise, which runs until June 23 and is designed to “enhance air force interoperability and readiness in a crisis situation”, including protection against drones and cruise missiles in the event of an attack inside NATO. area.

“The important message we are sending is that we can defend ourselves,” German Luftwaffe Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz told public television on Monday.

The “Air Defender 23” exercise was conceived in 2018 as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, although Gerhartz stressed that the exercise was “not targeting anyone” in particular.

He said the exercise “will not send any flights, for example, towards Kaliningrad”, the Russian enclave bordering NATO member states Poland and Lithuania.

“We are a defensive alliance and that is how this exercise is planned,” he said.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has strengthened NATO, the Western military alliance established nearly 75 years ago to counter the threat posed by the then-Soviet Union.

Finland and Sweden, which have long kept a formal veneer of neutrality to avoid conflict with Moscow, both sought NATO membership after Moscow’s February 2022 invasion.

Finland has since become the 31st member of the world’s largest military alliance, while Sweden’s membership bid was shelved due to objections from NATO members Turkey and Hungary.

Under NATO’s Article Five, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all, and membership bids must be agreed to by all members.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on Monday that Nato’s air force was “of central importance in the event of an attack because they are the first responders to protect the population and their own armed forces”.

The exercise aims to “make it clear that NATO and the German air force are ready to defend themselves”, Pistorius said.

This applies to Russian President Vladimir Putin and “those who threaten our freedom and our security,” he added in nationally televised remarks.

According to the German Air Force, 100 of the 250 aircraft involved are deployed to Europe from 42 US states.

US Air National Guard Director General Michael Loh said NATO’s role was at an “inflection point”.

“The strategic landscape around the world, especially here in Europe, has changed a lot,” he said.

The exercise will focus on “complementing the US permanent presence in Europe” as well as providing training “on a larger scale than what is typically accomplished on the continent,” Loh added.

He said many of the alliance’s pilots were working together for the first time.

“It’s now establishing what it means to go up against a great power in a great power competition.”

NATO officials said Monday that the alliance’s fighter jets had flown numerous missions over the past week to investigate unidentified Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea.

A total of 15 flights were launched last week to investigate potential threats – the highest number of aircraft launched in a single week so far this year.

According to military officials in NATO member Lithuania, most of the Russian military aircraft were operating in international airspace without pre-filed flight plans, transponder signals or radio communications.

The increased presence of Russian aircraft coincides with the annual US-led naval military exercise, BALTOPS, which is taking place in the Baltic Sea and involves 50 ships and boats from 19 NATO states and Sweden. The Russian Baltic Fleet is also conducting military exercises, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry told the Baltic News Service.

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