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Hundreds of NATO fighter jets fly over Germany in the alliance’s biggest ever air exercises

(CNN) — As the first stages of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against the Russian invaders unfold on the battlefield, hundreds of fighter jets from some of Kiev’s biggest supporters are in the skies above the Germany as NATO wage war games largest airlines in history.

“Air Defender 2023” brings together 250 combat aircraft, including 190 fighter jets, and 10,000 soldiers in exercises designed to increase the alliance’s readiness and ability “to protect against aircraft attacks, drones and missiles against cities and critical infrastructure,” according to a NATO press release.

Although the German-led drills have been in the works for several years, their timing as Moscow launches punitive airstrikes against Ukrainian cities as part of its 16-month invasion of its neighbor sends a timely message, particularly to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. .

In the early hours of Tuesday alone, Russian missiles attacked the city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, killing at least 11 people and injuring 28, according to Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of the city of Kryvyi Rih.

Three more people were killed in the Black Sea port city of Odessa after Russia fired four “Kalibr” cruise missiles, according to Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command.

Rescue workers inspect a multi-storey building damaged by the latest Russian rocket attack in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, June 13, 2023. (Andriy Dubchak/AP)

Since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, NATO has feared that the destruction Moscow has inflicted on Ukrainian cities will spread beyond the country’s borders.

Military support from NATO members to Ukraine, including tanks, armored vehicles and other weapons used in the current Kiev offensive, has consistently led to threats of retaliation from Russia.

Alliance members are considering supplying Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets of the same type involved in today’s war games.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed after World War II to defend Western nations against the Soviet Union and the alliance contains a mutual defense clause where an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.

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An F-16 fighter jet takes off from Schleswig-Jagel Air Base in Jagel, Germany, June 12 during exercise Air Defender 2023. (Gregor Fischer/AP)

NATO countries say Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has made the defense clause even more vital.

“Air Defender is needed because we live in a more dangerous world. As we face the greatest security crisis in a generation, we are united to keep our countries and our people safe,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a statement.

“I would be quite surprised if a world leader doesn’t take note of what this shows in terms of the spirit of alliance, what the strength of this alliance means, and that includes Putin,” the US ambassador said. Germany, Amy Gutmann. , before the start of the exercises.

“NATO territory is the red line and we are ready to defend every square inch,” Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, head of the German Air Force, told CNN’s Nic Robertson.

Formidable “hodgepodge” of weapons

This NATO territory includes five members participating in the exercises that share a border with Russia: Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Two of them, Estonia and Latvia, will host small parts of the exercises.

Other participants are Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain , Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. to NATO candidates, Sweden and Japan, which have strengthened their ties with the alliance.

Fighter aircraft include the American F-35 and F-15 stealth aircraft; F-16s from the United States, Turkey and Greece; Eurofighters from Spain and the United Kingdom; German tornadoes; American and Finnish F/A-18; Hungarian flu; as well as American A-10 ground attack aircraft.

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Two US Air Force A10 fighter jets taxi on the Air Defender 2023 forward runway. (Karl-Josef Opim/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

It’s a wide variety of participants and aircraft that could present coordination difficulties in any real conflict. But analysts say that’s what makes Air Defender so important.

“It accurately captures the hodgepodge of weapon systems designed by different nations that should operate together in an air defense campaign,” said Brynn Tannehill, an analyst at think tank RAND Corp. and former US Navy pilot.

Airmen involved also noted the importance of the practice.

“Training like this is important because the next conflict where we are called upon to defend NATO, there will be no training rounds,” said Major Adam Casey, American A-10 pilot. .

Tannehill said exercise planners were able to incorporate real-time scenarios of the conflict in Ukraine into the training.

“This reflects some of the tactical issues seen in Ukraine, such as missile interception and tactical air support for troops,” he said.

Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and a former Royal Australian Air Force officer, said Air Defender 2023 should give Russian military planners food for thought.

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A US F-35 fighter jet flies over the Eifel Mountains near Spangdahlem, Germany, in February 2022. Similar aircraft are taking part in Air Defender 2023. (Harald Tittel/AP/File)

“The scale of the exercise and the complexity of the training go well beyond the capabilities the Russian Air Force demonstrated in Ukraine. The exercise is evidence of very sophisticated airpower capabilities that the Russians don’t seem able to match,” he said.

Overall, the United States has the largest contingent of aircraft involved in Air Defender 2023: 100 aircraft from 42 different states, with the majority coming from Air National Guard units.

Analysts say using the Air National Guard, rather than regular Air Force aircraft, allows planners to be more confident that exercises can go ahead as planned.

Air National Guard units “can be committed for the long term with reasonable confidence that they will not be diverted to an emergency operation at the last minute,” Layton said.

“If you have active duty units participating, that means they’re not doing their normal job,” Tannehill said.

The two-week NATO exercise ends June 23.