Finland joins NATO as members deploy aircraft to Europe to test readiness

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Finland, NATO’s newest member, will join the U.S. and about two dozen other NATO members for Air Defender 2023, which organizers are calling the largest air transatlantic deployment exercise since the alliance was founded after World War II.

Germany developed and will lead Air Defender 2023, which is scheduled to run for 10 days starting June 12. The U.S. will send about 100 military aircraft to Europe, with almost all of the planes coming from Air National Guard units throughout the country.

“The last time we moved this many assets over the Atlantic was during the Gulf War,” Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, director of the Air National Guard told reporters on Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base. “We need to have a credible deterrence in NATO and we plan on exercising that deterrence.”

Air Defender 2023 is the brainchild of Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, chief of the German Air Force. He began putting the pieces together as far back as 2014, following Russia’s capture of Crimea. Gen. Gerhartz said the forced annexation was a wake-up call for Europe.

“We have to be more capable of defending the alliance. It’s not just about talking or showing slides, we have to prove it,” Gen. Gerhartz said. 

About 10,000 personnel from at least 22 countries will take part in the exercises. The Air National Guard will deploy fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 Lightning II and more seasoned aircraft like the F-15 and F-16, among several others.

Also taking part in Air Defender 2023 is Sweden, whose NATO membership has so far been blocked by Turkey and Hungary but which the Biden administration hopes soon will formally join the alliance. 

The genesis of Air Defender 2023 technically predates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war against Ukraine, now in its second year, but officials acknowledge that it will likely be closely followed by the Kremlin.

“If there’s any signal, it’s a deterrence signal,” Lt. Gen. Loh said, noting the mutual self-defense pledge all members take. In case of an attack on any member, he said, “We’ll be there.”

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