Fighter planes from Britain, France, Germany, and other countries took part in mock interceptions of ‘enemy’ planes in Western Europe this week as part of NATO-wide exercises aimed at deterring Russian military aircraft from entering allied airspace.
The exercises were also meant to highlight European moves to integrate air defenses.
Fighter jets carrying air-to-air missiles from 10 NATO countries took turns simulating the interception of a Belgian air force transport plane flying to Spain. Pilots performed visual inspections of the Belgian aircraft and assessed its status while flying off the plane’s wings at speeds in excess of 560 miles per hour, according to Reuters.
In all, about 60 fighter jets — mostly from European allies — are constantly on high alert to be scrambled at a moment’s notice in case of an incursion into NATO-aligned airspace. The heightened readiness comes as Russian air force activity has become much more aggressive in recent years testing the alliance’s air defenses and readiness.
There have been a record 870 interceptions throughout NATO airspace since 2016, about two years after Moscow sent forces to annex the Crimea.
NATO’s air exercise came as Russia launched what Moscow says is its largest military drills since the Soviet Union collapsed. About 1,000 aircraft are said to be involved, though that likely includes transports and helicopters.
“NATO is relevant. This is not theoretical,” said Spanish Air Force Lieutenant General Ruben Garcia Servert, who was aboard the Belgian military transport plane as Italian Eurofighters flew near to the cockpit. Later, British Typhoons and French Mirages joined in, Reuters noted.
“We have not always been successful in showing the taxpayer that we have the means and the capabilities to protect the population,” he added.
Analysis: The alliance is scheduled to hold its biggest military exercises since 2002 in Norway, drills that will involve about 40,000 troops along with planes, warships, and armor. Like that one, this exercise, which is rare for the alliance, is meant to send a direct signal to Moscow that despite media reports about readiness, NATO remains ready to defend itself.
As part of a renewed effort to bolster readiness in the face of Russian aggression, NATO countries are also working on a new agreement that would see member nations defending each others’ airspace; right now, individual NATO countries are responsible for defending their own airspace (with the exception of the Baltics which do not have fighter planes). There are political considerations to be worked out, but the fact that NATO member nations that have often had tense relationships with one another are even discussing such an agreement is a sign that member states understand clearly the threat that Russia could pose.
These air exercises will complement the deployment of multinational brigades in the Baltics and Poland, forward-deployed units meant to demonstrate to Moscow that the alliance won’t cede one foot of ground to Russian troops.
What is seldom discussed, however, is the effect the Trump administration likely has had on all of this. Before President Trump came into office, there wasn’t much public pressure put on NATO to comply with their agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP going to military spending, and readiness suffered because of it. Even after the Russians took Crimea and became heavily involved in the Ukrainian civil war, NATO countries dithered until they were pressured by the U.S. to drop their denialism and get back in the business of defending the continent against an obvious and rising threat.
President Putin has designs on various regions of eastern Europe, and while he isn’t pining for all-out war (because he has neither the conventional strength nor the economy for it), there is a real danger he could simply “annex” another region (a Baltic state, for instance) and essentially dare NATO to intervene — which it would have to do in order to maintain any future credibility as a deterrent force.
These exercises, therefore, are important not just for the sake of improving interoperability and overall readiness, but to send a strong message to the Kremlin that any moves against Europe will be met with stiff resistance.