Exercise planning

Air Defender 23 - years of preparation to get 200 aircraft in the air

Air Defender 23 - years of preparation to get 200 aircraft in the air

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Air Defender 23 is the Bundeswehr's largest live flying exercise in more than 40 years. In June, more than 220 aircraft from around the world will train complex scenarios in airspaces over Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. The time frame: about two weeks. The preparation time for this air war exercise: four years. 

Two Tornados and two Eurofighters are on an airfield during the Baltic Hunter exercise.

The German Air Force Weapons School regularly uses the Baltic Hunter exercise to train its students. As with Air Defender, Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets take part in the exercise.

Bundeswehr/Michael Kötz

Large-scale exercise

In 2018, Germany agreed to serve as a framework nation for a Multinational Air Group (MAG), working with NATO partners to establish operationally ready large-scale flying units. One of the requirements was to demonstrate initial operational capability in 2023. This was to be achieved by means of a major exercise, the MAG Exercise (MAGEX). Thus, the first basic idea for a major airborne exercise for the year 2023 was born.

Several smaller exercises, the MAGDAYS, were to be implemented as milestones on the way to the major exercise. Starting in 2018, these were organized annually by the Air Force Troop Command in cooperation with the Center for Air Operations.

Initial planning

In 2019, initial deliberations and planning for the major exercise began at the German Air Force Troop Command. Planners there created an exercise concept for MAGEX with a deployment of up to 50 aircraft. Initial training air models were developed and tested during MAGDAYS. The flying units trained to interact with a command and control organization, the Joint Force Air Component Headquarters (JFACJoint Forces Air Component HQHeadquarters), which was provided by the Center for Air Operations in Kalkar. From the results, important ideas flowed into a more detailed concept. This concept, MAGEX 2023, was submitted to the German Air Force Chief, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, in 2020 and approved.

MAGEX becomes Air Defender

In addition, other new ideas for possible large-scale exercises developed over the years in the German Air Force Command. These were completely detached from the MAG specifications and were based on the large U.S. exercise Defender Europe 20, a major Army and Joint Forces exercise in cooperation with the United States. The American forces practiced deploying an entire division to Europe. 20,000 U.S. soldiers, including materiel and vehicles, were transported to Europe at that time. The German Air Force quickly called for a similar exercise. And so it came to pass: Within the German Air Force leadership, the competing approaches MAGEX and the newer approach, which was to be called Air Defender, were united. The U.S. agreed to the German Air Force's plan. MAGEX became Air Defender. Initial U.S. reactions promised participation with up to 100 aircraft. There was still the same time approach to preparing the exercise, but from now on it had a new name.

The MAGEX 2023 concept became the Air Defender 23 exercise specification in 2021. In December of the same year, the commanding general of the German Air Force Troop Command, Lieutenant General Günter Katz, assumed responsibility for conducting the Air Defender 23 exercise. Under the auspices of the German Air Force Troop Command, the exercise was now further planned and organized.

Ein A400M, ein Tornado und ein Eurofighter fliegen bei blauem Himmel gemeinsam in einer Formation.

The A400M, Tornado and Eurofighter have already flown in combination before. Air Defender 23 involves again all three aircraft types.

Bundeswehr/Stefan Petersen

Acquisition of participants

About two years before the actual exercise, the nations were invited to Air Defender by letting them know about possibilities and opportunities for them. Every nation exercise calendars for major military projects that are planned several years in advance. To get into this planning with the Air Defender 23 exercise required an early start.

When nations decide to participate, they notify the planning team about their intended number and types of aircraft. This gives the exercise planner an approximate idea of what equipment to expect and the different mission capabilities of each aircraft type. From this, he develops tactical-operational ideas and priorities, which can be enacted during the exercise.

The first international meeting

In July 2022, the first major planning conference was held with 220 participants. At this Initial Planning Conference (IPC) representatives from all nations, who had confirmed their participation up until that date, took part. Air Force planners explained how Air Defender would likely be conducted and outlined options for where participants could operate from within Germany during the exercise - in case  routes to exercise airspaces were too far to reach from home airfields.

Then the initial idea of tge exercise airspaces was presented and developed further. The ITInformationstechnik planners identified options for all participants to connect, and the medics collected data to develop an initial concept of medical care. The military security officers took care of security concepts. The German Air Force Press and Information Center presented an initial press strategy. In this way, an initial overall picture of the exercise emerged: Which nations is deploying where with how many personnel and material? Who will participate from their home base? In which airspaces will focal points be formed? How will everything be connected to form an ITInformationstechnik network? For all these questions, the first answers were now available.

In the meantime, the renewed invasion of Ukraine by Russia began. This changed the perspective on security policy in Europe: Air Defender now had an even more prominent role as a highly visible sign of the strength of NATO and especially of the transatlantic alliance under German leadership.

Plans are being implemented

In the operational phase, the Air Operations Center was called in to prepare Air Defender 2023. From now on, this center was responsible for the final execution phase of the exercise. From there, the operational orders for the missions, the so-called Air Task Orders, will come during the core exercise period. Starting at the IPC, planners at the Air Operations Center began creating the the master air operations plan. It specifies for each day of the exercise, which aircraft is assigned to a which specific air operation. From this, the flight operations are created. This plan continues to be planned out until the exercise begins. From this, the individual Air Task Orders are created during Air Defender, without which no aircraft would take off.

After the IPC, there were the first site surveys: the participating nations visited the main German Air Defender sites and checked the infrastructure. Parking spaces for their own aircraft, working facilities for the crews, ITInformationstechnik interfaces, offices, accommodation, kitchens, medical supplies - everything has to fit. This is because each nation participates with different types of aircraft, which accordingly have different maintenance, supply and commissioning requirements. The nations draw up lists of requirements based on local conditions. These must be met by Germany as the host nation. What was now missing had to either be procured or the deployment plan had to be adjusted accordinly.

GFD Learjets, Tornados and Eurofighters parked at an airfield in the Nevada desert.

Civil learjets, Tornados of the Tactical Air Force Squadron 51 "Immelmann" and Eurofighter fighter jets of the Tactical Air Force Squadron 74 stand ready for action on the airfield during the exercise Dynamic Duo

Bundeswehr/Jane Schmidt

Coordination of airspaces

In December 2022, the Main Planning Conference (MPC) followed, now already with 450 participants. There, the final participants were decided upon and the aircraft were allocated to different airspaces. The German Air Force had coordinated the exercise airspaces with German Air Traffic Control (DFS) over the past two years. In Germany, commercial flight operations take precedence over military training flight operations. Since more than 200 aircraft are expected to take part in Air Defender, it was necessary to determine in advance at what times which airspaces will be closed to civil aviation.

Now that all participants had been determined and scheduled, additional participating nations were added, that is Great Britain, Finland, Japan and Sweden first. This posed a challenge to the planners and conceptionists of the exercise, because at this point most things were already fixed. Additional participants had to be integrated into the existing plans. Only when this integration was accomplished the final Master Air Operation Plan could be created.

The final preparations

The Final Coordination Conference (FCC) will follow in April. As with the MPC, more than 400 participants are expected to attend. The participating nations will learn the exact procedures of the exercise and scenarios. After that, the core exercise period is not far away. But before it starts, there will be a communication exercise, testing all the key NATO secret level and communication channels that will be used during Air Defender 23.

In May, the first nations will begin moving their aircraft and units to Germany. The Air Operations Center will ramp up the JFACJoint Forces Air Component. Meanwhile, in Schleswig, the main command post will be set up and the infrastructure finalized for the exercise. A week before the exercise begins in June, there will be briefings to familiarize participants with local conditions.

And then the time has come: four years of planning and preparation culminate in two weeks of tough and intensive flight operations with a planned 1,800 individual tactical flight movements.

by Stephan Prietzel

Air Defender 23

Multinational air operation exercise in Europe