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Why is NATO's historic air defence drill so important for Germany?

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Why is NATO's historic air defence drill so important for Germany?
An American C-130 Hercules takes off as part of the Air Defender 2023 air force exercise. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr | Francis Hildemann

NATO will begin the largest air force deployment exercise in Europe in the alliance's history on Monday in a display of unity toward partners and potential threats such as Russia.

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What’s going on?

The German-led air force deployment exercise - called "Air Defender 23" - will run until June 23rd and include some 250 military aircraft from 25 NATO and partner countries including Japan and Sweden, which is bidding to join the alliance.

Up to 10,000 people will participate in the drills intended to boost interoperability and preparedness to protect against drones and cruise missiles in the case of an attack on cities, airports or seaports within NATO Territory.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about NATO's record German-led air force drill

Why is the exercise taking place?

Presenting the plans last week, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz of the German Luftwaffe said "Air Defender" was conceived in 2018 in part as a response to the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine four years before, though he said it was "not targeted at anyone".

He said that while NATO would defend "every centimetre" of its territory, the exercise would not "send any flights, for example, in the direction of Kaliningrad," the Russian enclave bordering alliance member states Poland and Lithuania.

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

US Ambassador to Germany Amy Gutmann said the drill would show "beyond a shadow of a doubt the agility and the swiftness of our allied force" and was intended to send a message to countries including Russia.

"I would be pretty surprised if any world leader was not taking note of what this shows in terms of the spirit of this alliance, which means the strength of this alliance, and that includes Mr Putin," she told reporters, referring to the Russian president.

"By synchronising together, we multiply our force."

Russia's war on Ukraine has galvanised the Western military alliance set up almost 75 years ago to face off against the Soviet Union.

Finland and Sweden, which long kept an official veneer of neutrality to avoid conflict with Moscow, both sought membership in NATO after Russia's February 2022 invasion.

Under NATO's Article Five, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.

What will happen during the drill?

The exercise will include operational and tactical-level training, primarily in Germany, but also in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will visit pilots based at the Schleswig-Jagel airfield in northern Germany on Friday.

General Michael Loh, director of the US Air National Guard, said NATO's duties were at an "inflection point".

"A great deal has changed on the strategic landscape throughout the world, especially here in Europe," he said.

The exercise will focus on "supplementing the permanent United States presence in Europe" as well as providing training "on a larger scale than what was usually accomplished on the continent", Loh added.

He said many of the alliance pilots would be working together for the first time.

F16 fighter jets demonstrate the interception of a Belgian air force transport plane as they fly over Denmark, January 14th, 2020

F16 fighter jets. Photo: Johanna Geron/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

"It's about fostering the old relationships that we have but also building new ones with this younger generation of airmen," he said.

"And so this is about now establishing what it means to go against a great power in a great power competition."

Gutmann said that while there were no plans to make "Air Defender" a recurring exercise, she added: "We have no desire for this to be the last."

Will the drill affect plane travel in Germany?

Asked about potential disruption to civilian air transport during the exercise, Gerhartz said the planners would do "everything in our power" to limit flight delays or cancellations.

German authorities had warned that flight schedules could be impacted by the drills.

German authorities and industry groups have warned that flight schedules could be impacted, particularly at major hubs such as Frankfurt and Berlin-Brandenburg due to their proximity to drill zones.

The military, however, has the right of way - and this applies to large parts of German airspace for almost two weeks. Three air spaces in Germany will be temporarily closed for the exercise, and the zones will then be off-limits to civil aviation. 

READ ALSO: Could a NATO air defence drill in Germany spell chaos for travellers this summer?

Some flight cancellations and postponements are therefore on the horizon, though the full extent is not yet clear, as simulations and talks between the air force and airlines are ongoing.

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One thing is certain: The manoeuvres are to take place from 11 am to 7 pm, at night and on weekends the aircraft are to remain on the ground.

A spokeswoman for German air traffic control said that the impact on passenger planes would be "considerable".

"Our civilian customers must therefore expect extended flight paths and probably considerable delays," he told t-online.

Eurowings chief Jens Bischof said he was "somewhat concerned" about the NATO manoeuvre, according to FOCUS online. "We know that it will be much tighter than usual in the air during these two weeks in June."

A spokesperson for the air force, however, emphasised that the air traffic control simulations are still in progress and it is not possible to determine how big the impact on air traffic will actually be.

It is hoped that they will be as small as possible - but larger airports around Germany could see delayed flights.

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Which regions and air spaces in Germany are particularly affected?

In Germany, the fighter jets and troop planes will mainly take off from Jagel/Hohn in Schleswig-Holstein, Laage in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Wunstorf in Lower Saxony, Lechfeld in Bavaria and Spangdahlem in Rhineland-Palatinate. 

In the north, the fighter jets will fly along the North Sea coast, in the east from the Baltic Sea to Saxony, and in the south, the corridor that stretches from Lechfeld to Spangdahlem across the states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland.

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