NEUBURG AIR BASE, Germany — Two Eurofighter aircraft belonging to the German Air Force sped down the runway on a perfectly autumnal October morning at Neuburg Air Base, about 60 miles north of Munich. One was flown by the service’s top military officer, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, while the other carried U.S. Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Michael Loh.
The aircraft spent about an hour above the clouds in German airspace, as Gerhartz wanted to demonstrate some of the capabilities of the “fourth-generation-plus” Eurofighter to his U.S. colleague. But the visit also served as the kickoff event for the two air chiefs to begin planning a new major air-to-air exercise, to take place in Europe within two years.
The event, dubbed Air Defender 2023, will be a “trans-Atlantic reinforcement” of NATO allies and partners, Gerhartz and Loh said in an interview with Defense News after their flight at Neuburg, home to the Luftwaffe’s 74th Tactical Air Force Wing.
Dubbed Gerhartz’s “brainchild” by Loh, Air Defender 2023 will consist of a two-week exercise based in the European theater. The German air force wants to use all available national military airfields in the exercise, to exercise its role as a “strategic hub for collective defense,” Gerhartz said. Some partner-nations’ airspaces and airfields will also be used.
While it is still early in the planning process, the idea is for Germany to be the exercise “hub,” then participants will engage in snap exercises in areas such as the Baltic Sea or Europe’s southern region, he added.
The exercise, which he likened to the U.S. Army-led Defender Europe drill, will help allies hone interoperability between their assets, test their command-and control (C2) structures, and interact with various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), space, and cyber capabilities.
A myriad of platforms will be incorporated into Air Defender. Loh said he expects the United States to contribute “everything from airlift, tanker support, fighters, including fifth-gen fighters … [plus] everything from space and cyber capabilities on down.”
As it stands, remotely piloted aircraft are not expected to be used, though. The Luftwaffe does not currently have the airspace structure to integrate RPAs into the exercise, a spokesperson told Defense News in an email.
The two nations’ air officials are currently in talks with their allied counterparts to flesh out who else will join the exercise, and what capabilities they can bring to the theater. The focus will be on the United States, as well as NATO allied air command partners, along with other countries in Europe, the German air force confirmed.
The U.S. Air National Guard can play a strong role in recruiting other nations through its State Partnership Program, Loh noted. The program links individual state national guard units with 89 nations around the globe, 23 of which are based in Europe.
The U.S. and its allies’ militaries are drawing away from decades-long wars in the Middle East, and the focus is now back on Europe amid intensifying tensions with Russia.
The war in Afghanistan had been “driving our minds for decades,” said Gerhartz. But since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, the relationship between Moscow and NATO’s member nations and allies has continued to sour, leading up to a severing of diplomatic ties between the alliance and Russia in October.
“Now, we are much more thinking of Article 5 operations,” Gerhartz said.
Loh added, “It’s about time to come back [to Europe] and exercise more over here.”
The deployment would allow the Guard’s strategic reserve forces to deploy to a new theater of operation after decades of being stationed mostly in the Middle East, he added. “I need them to start thinking more [about] our pacing threats — China, Russia — and try to bring them up to those standards. … What does it mean to be under the command-and-control structure of NATO, and how do we actually operate inside of NATO?”
As mission priorities are turning away from counter-terrorism operations and toward great power competition, allied militaries need to revisit a plethora of skills, operational concepts, and doctrines that were fostered during the Cold War, said Douglas Barrie, an air warfare specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
From the end of the Cold War into the 1990s, and up through the 2010s, Russia’s defense expenditure essentially collapsed, Barrie told Defense News. After 2010, however, “you see a renewed emphasis on modernization.”
“In terms of capability, the Russians now present a more credible air-to-air challenge than they did, certainly, in the 1990s and the early 2000s,” he said. “So you can see why we’re seeing renewed activity in the allied side of the house to meet this.”
Germany has an incentive to lead this effort to reinforce allied partnerships through a large exercise, as Berlin has “a ring-side seat looking at what the Russians have been doing,” Barrie noted.
“Traditionally in the past, since the end of the Cold War, Germans have been kind of conservative … in terms of the operations that they have gotten involved with,” he said. “This is perhaps a little more forward-leaning, but in that sense, it’s almost certainly to be welcomed.”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.