NATO Will Hold Its Biggest Air Exercise In History This Summer

The exercise is known as Air Defender 2023 and will be a massive training opportunity and show of force as war rages in Ukraine.

byEmma Helfrich|
Air Defender 23 will be NATO's largest air exercise in history
U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarah M. McClanahan


The largest NATO air exercise since the alliance’s founding in 1949 will be taking place this summer, and the U.S. Air National Guard (ANG) will be providing nearly half of the airpower slated to participate. As for how that show of force may be perceived by global threats like Russia as war rages on in Ukraine, senior ANG officials have said they can “take away whatever message they want.”

The expansive exercise has been dubbed Air Defender 2023 (AD23), and it’s scheduled to occur later this year between June 12-23. AD23, which has been brewing since 2018, will be led by Germany and take place primarily in that country but with additional forward operating locations in the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Latvia, according to the ANG

German and U.S. media and service members walk on the flight line during an Air Defender 2023 media event at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, April 5, 2023. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarah M. McClanahan

The exercise will give participants the opportunity to conduct operational and tactical-level field training in the region as well as bolster interoperability between the allied forces. One such ally that will be present during AD23 is Finland, which officially joined the NATO alliance on April 4 of this year.

“Air Defender 23 strategically unites the United States and Germany,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, director of the ANG, during a press conference at the German Embassy in Washington. “[The exercise] tests not only our interoperability to work together, but it also tests our ability to rapidly deploy and rapidly employ [coalition air power].”

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Loh briefs U.S. and German Airmen and media during Air Defender 2023 Media Day, Joint Base Andrews, MD, April 4, 2023. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. David Eichaker

Air & Space Forces Magazine, citing an unnamed German military spokesperson, stated that while AD23 certainly has support from NATO, Germany was largely responsible for organizing the event. Of the 24 countries that will be participating including Germany and the U.S., 22 are NATO-member nations, with Sweden being one of the two not affiliated with the alliance. 

“NATO is a purely defensive alliance,” said German Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, chief of the German Air Force, at the German Embassy press conference alongside Loh. “But if somebody attacks one country, they attack us all.”

German Air Chief Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, left, and U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director, Air National Guard, pose for a photo after speaking with German media during Air Defender 2023 Media Day, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, April 4, 2023. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. David Eichaker

Among the 10,000 personnel slated to attend and the 220 aircraft that will be employed throughout AD23, the ANG alone will be providing roughly 100 aircraft contributed by 46 wings from 35 states. At another press event held recently at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Loh highlighted that AD23 will mark the ANG’s largest deployment across the Atlantic since the Gulf War

Specific assets that will participate in AD23 are said to include a wide range of U.S. types, including the F-35A, F-15C, and F-16; the A-10C; the KC-135 and KC-46A tankers for refueling operations; and the C-17A and C-130J aircraft as the ANG’s primary modes of transportation. An MQ-9 Reaper drone from the Texas Air Guard’s 147th Attack Wing will be employed, as well, and Defense News noted that U.S. Navy F/A-18 fighters, NATO E-3 airborne early warning and control jets, and German A400 tankers will also be present among many other types.

A German A400 can be seen behind Loh and Gerhartz during the Air Defender 2023 Media Day. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. David Eichaker

A variety of simulated exercises will be carried out during AD23, including those that will require forces to respond to mock attacks in the form of surface-to-air missiles or electronic communication jammers. The participants will also practice their abilities to carry out both offensive and defensive counter-air operations using aggressor aircraft as well as close air support and ground attack capabilities. 

Exercising the U.S. Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept will also take place during AD23. ACE seeks to ensure that U.S. forces will have the ability to rapidly deploy to and from contested, degraded, or remote locales in the theater of operations. With that in mind, AD23 will explore the ways that allied forces can operate from austere airfields in Eastern Europe with limited time to spare. 

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This training opportunity extends beyond the pilots flying the planes, of course, as it would also give personnel at mobility bases and aircraft maintainers the chance to familiarize themselves with assets of different countries. Exploring alternative refueling methods, hashing out the logistics such a conflict would require, and gaining a realistic idea of how each ally could come together to fight a world war are also broad goals of AD23.

“Strategic and tactical interoperability with our allies and partners are key elements of credible deterrence, as is the demonstration of a combat-ready, assertive, and effective air force,” said Loh. “Participation in Air Defender ’23 is a demonstration of our continued commitment to collective security and dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region.”

AD23 will crossover with the annual U.S. Army Europe and Africa-led counterpart to the German-hosted exercise known as Defender 23, which will stretch across 10 different European countries. The event will take place from April 22 to June 23 with approximately 9,000 U.S. troops and about 17,000 additional soldiers from 26 allied and partner nations. The Pentagon has said that about 7,000 pieces of equipment have already been shipped to the European theater from the U.S., and about 13,000 pieces of equipment drawn from pre-positioned stock will be used throughout Defender 23. 

U.S. soldiers arrive on their assigned M2A3 Bradley fighting vehicles prior to live demolition training as part of Defender 22 at Oberlausitz Training Area, Germany, May 10, 2022. Credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Gabriel Rivera

Both AD23 and Defender 23 come as the conflict in Ukraine drags on, over a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February of 2022. The war has led many countries, namely those that share the same continent with Russia, to make notable efforts to overhaul their militaries, bolster training and readiness, reevaluate their national defense strategies, and increase their budgets to up weapons procurement and modernization.

While officials like Loh and Gerhartz have been clear that AD23 will not be exercising any set scenario targeting a specific power in the European theater, the partner nations still want to demonstrate their collective ability to mobilize and defend the contested region. “Readiness is absolutely important for our ability to deliver airpower anytime, anywhere around the globe, and our ability to take care of our homeland,” Loh said. 

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