by Ambra Visentin 

More than 220 aircraft and 10,000 soldiers are taking part in the Air Defender 2023 exercise. Manoeuvres are taking place in the north of Germany, in the Schleswig-Holstein region, in the east on the border with Poland, in the south and in Romania and Estonia. Alessandro Politi, Director of the Nato Defense College Foundation, explains the reasons and implications of the exercise.

Alessandro Politi, Director of Nato Defense College Foundation

What types of aircraft are involved and what role does nuclear deterrence play?

“There are different types of aircraft, mostly multi-role aircraft, but also others specialised in ground attack, or electronic warfare or multi-role interceptors. Types like F-35, F-15, F-16, F-18, Typhoon and A-10 are in the list. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is specialised in attacking armoured formations. There are also transport aircraft, AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System flying radars) and aerial refuelling tanker aircraft. Most of the attack aircraft are nuclear strike capable, but this capability is not explicitly mentioned in the published information, meaning that nuclear deterrence issues are left outside the scope of this specific exercise”.

What is the objective of the exercise?

“Since Air Defender 2023 was already planned after the events in Ukraine and Donbass in 2014, the initial planning case revolves around the defence of a NATO country attacked by hostile forces. The aim is to train the pilots and at the same time demonstrate that this operation is effective, reinforcing conventional deterrence and showing credible armed services. The Russians, on the other hand, do not deploy their air force very often, partly because their pilots sometimes have less than half the flying hours of NATO pilots”.

Why was Germany chosen?

“Since 1955, when its rearmament was decided, Germany has been a country with many bases and important logistical facilities. Until now, NATO has been extremely reluctant to establish permanent bases in the former Warsaw Pact countries. In fact, it was only after the Crimea and Donbass crisis in 2014 that rotational deployments were introduced. What is permanently deployed, but on a modest scale, are the elements of an anti-missile defence ostensibly directed against Iranian ballistic missiles. The other reason is that the Berlin government needed to dispel remaining doubts on the international stage, after the previous Defence minister’s long reluctance to provide the weapons”.

What is the significance of Moscow’s planned deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus on 7-8 July?

“Fears that Russia might employ tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine are so far unfounded. Nuclear weapons are a deterrent. The bottom line is that Putin has said that if neutral countries join NATO, Russia will reconsider its deployment options. No one wants a direct war between Russia and NATO, starting with Russia, which is well aware of its own inferiority”.

Are there red lines that should not be crossed?

“One cannot speak of red lines, a term with little meaning. There are ‘steps’ in an escalation of nuclear deterrence, which must also be practised so that politicians understand what they are ‘dealing with’. One could speculate that Lukashenko may have conceded the transfer of nuclear weapons in order to avoid a more direct involvement in operations in Ukraine. The country is small, has an outdated military and has everything to lose in a war. This deployment is a reaction to the transformation of the Baltic Sea into a Nato closed sea. But it is also not easy for NATO to carry out a military deployment in the event of a war there or in Finland”.

How does nuclear deterrence work?

“Nuclear deterrence is carried out either by two contenders with similar nuclear arsenals in terms of quantity and quality (the United States and Russia), or by a country with a much smaller arsenal, such as the United Kingdom, France or China. These countries can practise what is known as ‘deterrence of the strong by the weak’, threatening to make the other side lose its 20 most important cities while risking its own annihilation, a solution that is not very convenient but not entirely lacking in credibility”.

Who is interested in this war?

“This is a shameful war that the Russians wanted. But many others have prepared the ground for this war and decided to use it to weaken the aggressor country. The origins go back a long way and perhaps it could have been avoided if the Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 agreements had been implemented more concretely. That said, the Ukrainians simply have the right to get everything back, because today it is Crimea and tomorrow it could be Königsberg”.

Should European citizens be made more aware of the risk of war?

“People normally think about everyday life. On a continent with a 5.000-year history of war and now 70 years of uninterrupted peace, a change in mentality was inevitable. However, in the case of the German citizens, who were concerned about the possible disruption of civil air traffic due to the manoeuvres, the necessity of the exercise certainly needs to be explained. On a global scale, we must realise that the war in Ukraine could be the first step in a world war that would break out in the Pacific, between the USA and China. This is also why Biden is cautious about sending arms to Ukraine. Almost 20 years before, this world war was a possibility, today it risks becoming a probability. We are not yet at war, but we cannot pretend that nothing is happening”.


Cover image: F-15 fighter jet by VanderWolf Images on Shutterstock