ÄMARI AIR BASE, Estonia — On a crisp October morning, nearly 30 miles from Tallinn Bay, two German Eurofighter Typhoon fighters taxied down the runway here, as an A400M transport aircraft carrying the nation’s top Air Force and Navy officers touched down after a dawn flight from Berlin.
Over the next eight hours, the service chiefs would observe their respective contingents run various force protection maneuvers together during the month-long “Baltic Tiger” exercise alongside Estonian forces.
Planned just two months before deployment, the drills saw over 200 German armed forces personnel and 40 vehicles train with over 80 Estonian troops to provide airfield and harbor security amid the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukrainian, ongoing now for eight months and counting.
It was the first time the German Air Force and Navy had trained together on such missions, and outside of their own nation, officials noted. “One of our main aims we achieved here is to work together with the Navy forces in a joint environment, to basically enhance our common understanding from force protection and also in a combined environment.” said German Air Force Maj. Dirk P. — last name redacted, as requested by the service — who served as squadron commander for Baltic Tiger.
On the Navy side, forces involved included marine infantrymen specializing in harbor protection, including divers performing mine and improvised explosive ordnance countermeasures. Personnel specializing in the defense against attacks with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as well as cyber-defense experts also took part, the major told reporters Oct. 24 at Ämari.
Members of the Air Force’s “Friesland” airfield protection unit were deployed, providing snipers, fire support, air mobility protection and close target reconnaissance. Maj. Dirk highlighted the difference between working with a host nation like Estonia – a fellow NATO and European Union member – as opposed to the air force protection unit’s prior work in other regions.
“We’re not in Afghanistan. We’re not in Mali. We have a NATO ally in a generally very safe environment where we arrive, and the thing we do is make it even more safe for our own troops” to come in, he said.
The unit is now “refocused” on finding its new role as Western nations pivot from 20 years of battling counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Africa to countering peer adversaries like Russia and China. Baltic Tiger also served as a “proof of concept” for the specialized unit to develop new air power protection procedures in the new threat environment, he added.
Speed is of the essence
Baltic Tiger took place at various military sites around Estonia, including Ämari Air Base, Tallinn Naval Base, Muuga Harbor, Klooga Training Area, Tapa Army Base, and Paldiski Barracks, per the German Air Force. A handful of U.K. Royal Air Force, Belgian Air Force, and Danish Army personnel also participated.
The training missions conducted during the month-long exercise included counter-intruder confrontations on the airfield, close-air support procedures, and harbor opening strategies to include mine-hunting and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) decontamination.
Several real-world events melded into the exercise: When the German frigate Sachsen sailed into the harbor at the start of Baltic Tiger, German navy forces provided specialized maritime force protection, even though it was not expected to take part in the drills.
The Oct. 24 flight from Berlin to Ämari that transported senior German military staff and a handful of reporters also got in on the action – aboard were nearly a dozen Air Force protection unit members, in position to ward off an attack as the A400M touched down on the tarmac and opened its rear cargo ramp door, and two Eurofighters escorted the aircraft during its sunrise flight.
The forces also drilled in civilian areas, such as close-quarter combat in the nearby town of Klooga, a CBRN decontamination demo in Rummu, and a harbor opening in Muuga “where local workers were actually in the port area,” Maj. Dirk said.
“Speed is of the essence,” he added. Close coordination with multinational partners “has been a main focus of this exercise, to work together with our major partners within the alliance, and that went very, very, successfully.” It was essential for German forces to practice command-and-control (C2) procedures and develop common terminology with the Estonian troops, and also for the air force and navy forces to do the same, he noted.
During the distinguished visitors day in late October, Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gerhartz and Navy Chief Vice Adm. Jan Christian Kaack observed demonstrations of counter-intruder operations in the woods on base, along with close-quarter battle tactics. Two U.K. RAF Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) operators directed kinetic effects and provided on-the-ground reconnaissance to German Eurofighter pilots targeting a ground location for attack. In Tallinn harbor, Navy minehunters kayaked out from the bay to dive and perform explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), and then were subjected to intensive CBRN cleansing.
Although it was not demonstrated that day, forces at Tapa Army Base performed a CBRN decontamination demo for the NATO-allied Enhanced Forward Presence contingent based there, where a Danish Leopard 2A7 tank was decontaminated, Maj. Dirk said.
Throughout the demonstrations, it was clear that speed was at the top of everyone’s mind. While officials said the exercise was conducted against an “unnamed adversary,” they also pointed out Ämari was just a 10-minute flight from the Estonian-Russian border.
A crucial location
Earlier this year at the annual NATO summit, Estonian leaders called on allies to help the state better protect itself from a potential attack by Russian forces. The Baltic nation has already been targeted by Moscow’s cyber attacks and other hybrid and irregular warfare tactics. In early November, the United Kingdom announced a new agreement to provide short-range air defense weapons and multiple-launch rocket systems to its remaining troops based in Estonia.
The nation sits in a critical location atop the Baltic Sea, said Ben Hodges, a retired Army three-star and former commander of U.S. Army Europe. NATO members and allies are looking for ways to move forces and material across the sea from countries like Sweden – in line to become a NATO member alongside Finland – into Estonia, and protection of critical infrastructure will be key, he told Defense News.
“Control of the air over the Baltic Sea will be important, as well as sea control, in order to move cargo vehicles capability from up or across the Baltic Sea into Tallinn, or other ports in Estonia as well as Latvia and Lithuania,” he said.
Speaking at a press conference at the end of the distinguished visitors’ day, the two German military chiefs said they liked what they saw.
“Especially in the current times, it is very, very important that we show here in Estonia, but also in the Baltic States as a whole, that we stand by their side and, if necessary, if the crisis requires it, that we can reinforce our forces here within a very short period of time by deploying appropriate soldiers here,” said Gerhartz.
“The message is that we don’t need a lot of preparation time,” he continued. “Even if we deploy with ships or aircraft, we can be here within hours to reinforce in case we’re needed.”
Kaack, the Navy chief, added, “NATO stands for its promise of one for all and all for one.” He noted that he joined his sailors in celebrating Germany’s Day of Unity in early October aboard the Sachsen-class frigate in Tallinn’s harbor, “protected and secured by Baltic Tiger units.”
He emphasized that the services were “very careful” not to employ any assets or elements that could trigger a reaction from adversaries and “contribute to an escalation of the situation” in Europe.
A larger Luftwaffe exercise
Now that Baltic Tiger is complete, the Luftwaffe is turning its focus toward planning a significantly larger multinational exercise next year.
Air Defender 2023, a joint aerial drill between the U.S. Air National Guard and the German Air Force, is scheduled to take place next June. Final planning is underway, with the full details expected to be finalized in December, Gerhartz said.
The Luftwaffe chief and his U.S. National Guard counterpart, Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, first announced plans for Air Defender just over a year ago. The scheme is intended to test interoperability between a variety of NATO allies in the European theater, honing in on C2 missions and interactions between intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), cyber, and space assets, as well as aircraft.
The German Air Force wants to use all available air bases for this exercise, Gerhartz told reporters during Baltic Tiger. In particular, the service’s Hohn and Lechfeld air bases are planned to be utilized for extra mobility and support in Air Defender, as well as future international exercises and deployments.
There are no longer any aircraft permanently stationed at Hohn, located north of Hamburg in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein state near the Danish border, and Lechfeld, located west of Munich in Bavaria. But both airfields still host small units responsible for air base infrastructure, or rudimentary base operation functions, according to the service. Additionally, parts of the German Air Force Technical Training Center are stationed at Lechfeld, while Hohn hosts parts of the Navy’s Sea Battalion, an Air Force spokesperson told Defense News.
It’s possible that other services will play a role in Air Defender 2023, Gerhartz said, noting that the U.S. Navy had “knocked on the door.”
Hodges has long advocated for a multinational integrated air and missile defense exercise specifically focused on knocking down enemy aircraft alongside missiles and drones in the European theater. While Air Defender doesn’t quite go that far, he lauded Germany’s efforts to lead a large-scale air operations exercise. “Germany, because of its geography, is a logical framework nation to lead a lot of these types of exercises,” he said.
These exercises should be focused on training troops “to the point of failure” in order to maximize military readiness, Hodges noted.
“Any exercise that has no mistakes, where nobody fails [and] everything gets ticked off, that’s not an exercise. That’s a demonstration,” he said.
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.