NATO shows its air military muscle in the face of the Russian threat | International

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The Eastern military alliance “Occasus” and the special forces of the “Brückner organization” try to enter German soil. Having increased their presence around the eastern flank, they prepare to move north and capture the Baltic port of "Rostock". In response, NATO activates its Article 5: an attack on one ally is an attack on all. Occasion does not exist. Neither has Brückner, described as a fictitious threat by the German Air Force. It is a simulated crisis that has served as the basis for the largest air maneuvers in the history of the Atlantic Alliance, led by Germany, and which have shown the organization's response and air military muscle with Russia in focus.

The drone of fighters is deafening at the Jagel base in northern Germany. Wavy F-16. A-10 Thunderbolt fighters. JAS-39 Hungarians. Spiky German tornadoes. Everyone in line to start the daily maneuvers. The military teams surround them and check that everything is in order. Then they get ready. When they receive the call to action, they roll down the runway and take off. All in a few seconds. The Air Defender 23 maneuvers, which ended at the end of June and which EL PAÍS visited, have brought together 10,000 soldiers from 25 allied countries —and Sweden— for two weeks and have involved the training of 250 aircraft —among them, three Spanish Eurofighters— at six German bases and some installations in Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic.

They have been historic exercises at a particularly sensitive moment, when the war in Ukraine risks becoming entrenched and NATO is preparing to approve at the Vilnius summit, which begins on Tuesday, its biggest reorganization since the Cold War with a new strategy secret division divided by regions —with Moscow and terrorism as the main threats— and which also seeks to reinforce the allied air defense; especially on the eastern flank.

Two pilots during Air Defender 23 maneuvers.INA FASSBENDER (AFP)

US Lieutenant Colonel Tater Boudreaux and his partner Tito brought F-16 fighters to Jagel in seven hours. “We took the long route, the one with the landscapes,” jokes Boudreaux, a native of New Orleans. That time is not representative. If they had an alert it would be much less. The maneuvers are based on a semi-permanent deployment and it took about a week to move some 400 tons of material to the heart of Europe, including equipment, elements of the fighters and cargo planes, explains a German officer in one of the large tents set up inside the Jagel base and which serves as one of the operations centers.

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In addition, the engineers and military operators have completed the installation —which had already been advanced— of a gigantic fuel tank with two kilometers of pipes at the Wunstorf air base, the logistics center for the training, explains German Lieutenant Huber during a visit to the installation organized by the Atlantic Alliance to which this newspaper was invited. Wunstorf is not reached by the NATO-controlled oil pipeline built during the Cold War to give the organization autonomy in the area in case of attack.

They have trained synchronization, flights, the exchange of coded information between allies. Also, refueling operations that, until very recently, European armies could not carry out without the help of US aircraft.

A German Tornado receives fuel from a German Air Force aircraft in the air during Air Defender 23 maneuvers.
A German Tornado receives fuel from a German Air Force aircraft in the air during Air Defender 23 maneuvers.NATO

The Alliance has been planning the Air Defender 2023 exercises since 2018, because mobilizing 25 allies and planning a schedule is complex. However, Russia's war in Ukraine, which has shaken the global security architecture, has given new impetus to the enormous training that has traveled the European skies and to other exercises such as the ground-based Griffin Storm, in the Lithuanian Pabrade, which ended on Friday.

Summit 200 kilometers from Russia

They are a show of force on the eve of the decisive NATO summit in Vilnius, a particularly symbolic location some 200 kilometers from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and 35 from Belarus. This country, an ally of Moscow, has served as a shuttle for Vladimir Putin's troops for the large-scale invasion of Ukraine and in recent days has offered to host the Wagner mercenary company and its boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, after the failed riot of June 24 that has exposed the cracks in the Kremlin.

“We are exercising the defense of our country and our Alliance so that everyone takes seriously our commitment to protect every inch of our territory,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz remarked during a visit to the air exercises. NATO insists that the exercises have no enemy as a model. But the similarities are there.

Two Airbus A400M military aircraft of the German Armed Forces Bundeswehr approach during the Air Defender 2023 exercise at the Wunstorf military airbase in northern Germany on June 12, 2023.
Two Airbus A400M military aircraft of the German Armed Forces Bundeswehr approach during the Air Defender 2023 exercise at the Wunstorf military airbase in northern Germany on June 12, 2023. RONNY HARTMANN (AFP)

Russia has charged the Alliance for the maneuvers. “This type of exercise sheds light on the fact that the NATO military machine has nothing to do with defense and that all its efforts are aimed exclusively at comprehensive containment of our country and even testing ways to attack Russia," launched a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. Also China —which was defined as the “biggest challenge” for the Alliance at the Madrid summit a year ago— has stated, through its official media, that the training “exacerbates the geopolitical confrontation in Europe”.

Although they began to be designed a long time ago, the maneuvers have been another point of significance for Berlin in its process of affirming itself as a global security actor and advancing at the momentous turning point —Zeitenwende, Scholz definedemerged after Russia's war in Ukraine. However, the training has also made it clear that NATO's air defense depends to a large extent on the United States. It is the most powerful member of the 31 that make up the organization – which Finland joined in April and which Sweden hopes to have soon – which has mobilized 100 aircraft for the Air Defender 23 from various military bases across the country.

US Air Force C-130 aircraft at the German Wunstorf base.
US Air Force C-130 aircraft at the German Wunstorf base.


protect the skies

The strategy of protecting Europe's skies and its shortcomings has been a very hot debate in Europe since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine 500 days ago. At the Vilnius summit, it is expected to consecrate a new framework for the eastern flank, within the so-called regional plans, which changes the air police model to monitor Russian military aircraft for the more active air patrol model.

Meanwhile, with Washington watching in the background, the Franco-German axis has also collided in the role model to protect the sky. Berlin has promoted an initiative to create an anti-missile shield (the Sky Shield) to which 16 European countries have already joined and which plans to jointly purchase an anti-aircraft defense system —which would be integrated with that of NATO— through American and Israeli technology, in addition to German technology. Germany argues that it is more pragmatic and quicker to invest in proven solutions. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron last month urged the allies to bet on a more local air strategy and therefore think about reliable long-term systems.

The French president, who claims that the EU needs strategic autonomy so as not to depend on the US through NATO and who is also putting pressure on Brussels to give priority to European industry in joint purchases, assured that at least four countries —Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia and Hungary — have signed a letter of intent to jointly purchase French Mistral air defense systems. “What Ukraine shows is that we can only give kyiv what we have and produce. What comes from non-European countries is less manageable. It is subject to calendars, priorities and sometimes even authorizations from third countries”, he stated during a visit to the Paris air show.

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