“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,” Amy Gutmann, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, told reporters last week. “That includes Mr. Putin.”
The exercise, known as Air Defender, is led by the German government and brings together the largest number of aircraft from outside Germany for a training mission since NATO was founded in 1949. The United States flew about 100 National Guard and Navy aircraft to Germany for the exercises.
The 12-day event began with an air show in Wunstorf, in northern Germany, that features cargo and refueling planes — workhorse aircraft that have been crucial to getting weapons and supplies to Ukraine. Pilots will conduct other missions with fighter jets, the show horses of the sky, at five other bases across Germany.
The exercise comes a few weeks after the United States reluctantly agreed to allow Ukrainian troops to train on, and eventually obtain, American-made F-16 fighter jets — not just for the current conflict against Russia but also as part of a longer-term deterrence strategy.
Air Force Gen. Ingo Gerhartz of Germany, who is overseeing Air Defender, said it was not “directed at anyone,” and emphasized that no offensive scenarios would be practiced. “We are a defense alliance, and so this exercise will be of a defensive nature,” General Gerhartz told reporters in Berlin.
But General Gerhartz said that when he proposed the exercise, in 2018, “the trigger for me back then was the capture, the annexation of Crimea,” the Ukrainian peninsula, by Mr. Putin four years earlier. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, General Gerhartz said, allies on NATO’s eastern flank, closest to Russia, “are asking for reinsurance” that the alliance will defend them in case of aggression by Moscow.
Besides 24 NATO nations — including Finland, the alliance’s newest member — Japan is also participating in the drills. Last month, officials in Japan said that NATO was considering opening a liaison office in the country amid growing concerns among Western nations over China’s support of Russia. Such an office would be NATO’s first in Asia.
One goal of Air Defender is to test how aircraft from so many states communicate with each other, said Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research institute based in London.
Mr. Barrie said cargo and fuel flight crews will be closely watched during the exercises because of the important role they play in conflicts, including in Ukraine. But mostly, he said, the exercises are part of a “signaling” campaign — letting Mr. Putin know just what NATO is capable of launching against Russia, if needed.
Even if the exercises were planned years ago, Mr. Barrie said, “I’d be very surprised, shall we say, if the alliance wasn’t kind of looking at this as part of its overall messaging strategy.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.
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