NEUBURG AIR BASE, Germany in October 2021 — Two Eurofighter aircraft belonging to the German Air Force sped down the runway on a perfectly autumnal October morning at Neuburg Air Base, about 60 miles north of Munich. One was flown by the service’s top military officer, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, while the other carried U.S. Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Michael Loh.
The aircraft spent about an hour above the clouds in German airspace, as Gerhartz wanted to demonstrate some of the capabilities of the “fourth-generation-plus” Eurofighter to his U.S. colleague. But the visit also served as the kickoff event for the two air chiefs to begin planning a new major air-to-air exercise, to take place in Europe within two years.
The event, dubbed Air Defender 2023, will be a “trans-Atlantic reinforcement” of NATO allies and partners, Gerhartz and Loh said in an interview with Defense News after their flight at Neuburg, home to the Luftwaffe’s 74th Tactical Air Force Wing.
Dubbed Gerhartz’s “brainchild” by Loh, Air Defender 2023 will consist of a two-week exercise based in the European theater. The German air force wants to use all available national military airfields in the exercise, to exercise its role as a “strategic hub for collective defense,” Gerhartz said. Some partner-nations’ airspaces and airfields will also be used.
While it is still early in the planning process, the idea is for Germany to be the exercise “hub,” then participants will engage in snap exercises in areas such as the Baltic Sea or Europe’s southern region, he added.
The exercise, which he likened to the U.S. Army-led Defender Europe drill, will help allies hone interoperability between their assets, test their command-and control (C2) structures, and interact with various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), space, and cyber capabilities.
A myriad of platforms will be incorporated into Air Defender. Loh said he expects the United States to contribute “everything from airlift, tanker support, fighters, including fifth-gen fighters … [plus] everything from space and cyber capabilities on down.”
As it stands, remotely piloted aircraft are not expected to be used, though. The Luftwaffe does not currently have the airspace structure to integrate RPAs into the exercise, a spokesperson told Defense News in an email.
The two nations’ air officials are currently in talks with their allied counterparts to flesh out who else will join the exercise, and what capabilities they can bring to the theater. The focus will be on the United States, as well as NATO allied air command partners, along with other countries in Europe, the German air force confirmed.
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Two German Eurofighters cruise above Bavaria in October 2021, one piloted by German Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, left, the other carrying U.S. Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Michael Loh. (German Air Force)