The two-week NATO military exercise “Air Defender 2023” held from June 12-23, 2023, over mainly Germany has been all the rage. It’s been the largest deployment of air forces in NATO’s history, demonstrating transatlantic solidarity.
Initially set up as a joint exercise by the German Air Force (GAF) and United States Air Force (USAF) Air National Guard (ANG) it grew out to many other NATO nations also joining in. Up to 10.000 participants from 25 nations with some 250 aircraft trained air operations under the command of the GAF. Many airbases in and around Germany were used to conduct operations out of. Most interesting, though, were Fliegerhorst Wunstorf near Hanover as a main transport base and two bases way up north Fliegerhorst Hohn and Fliegerhorst Schleswig-Jagel.
Good friend and fellow Aviation Photographer Remco Donselaar and I got the idea to head out to the aforementioned three airbases for a three-day road trip during the second week of the exercise. The weather forecast looked overall sunny though hot. We followed through, got familiar with any intel necessary, booked an Airbnb and packed our bags!
The German Air Force has been planning the exercise Air Defender 2023 for three years along with the USAF ANG for three years before it’s execution. So despite many voices claiming it being a show-of-force to Russia (because of their war against Ukraine at the time) this might only have fanned the flames. This may have also lead to many other NATO units to join in as well at a later stage.
Nevertheless, Air Defender 2023 has been the largest NATO exercise of its kind which makes it all the more unique looking back into the history of Western military exercises during the height of the Cold War.
The GAF and many USAF ANG units would form the main contingent, though, with a lot of military hardware operating from active bases throughout Germany. Other neighbouring countries operated from their own bases as well, like the RNLAF with their F-35A Lightling ll’s from Volkel Airbase, the Netherlands.
HAF F-16C’s operated from Fliegerhorst Lechfeld in Bavaria, but the two main airbases where guest fighters operated from where Fliegerhorst Hohn and Fliegerhorst Schleswig-Jagel in Schleswig Holstein (in the north of Germany). Transport hub has been Fliegerhorst Wunstorf, close to Hanover in roughly the geographical centre of the country, which os home to LTG 61 operating the Airbus A-400M ‘Atlas’. It hosted many USAF ANG C-130H Hercules and C-130J Super Herculues aircraft as well as their own A-400’s and also even a Japanese Self Defence Air Force P-8 Posaidon seconnaicance aircraft.
During the first week of the exercise the RAF contended with a few EF-2000 Typhoons and the Finnish Air Force in both weeks with F/A-18C’s operating from Hohn. Aerial refuelling was conducted intensively with GAF A-400M’s and RNLAF Airbus A-330 MRTT’s.
To cover the exercise Remco and I focussed on going out for three days to Wunstorf, Hohn and Sleschwig-Jagel, to eventually exclude visiting the first due to strategy concerning the weather and intel. We set out to at least go to Hohn and Jagel first to catch the action there and have that in the bag, doing something similar the next day with the option for Wunstorf on our last day.
We’ve booked an AirBNB in the small, lakeside town of Borgwedel, close to Schleswig were we spent two nights in good comfort (except for the very warm nights).
On those two nights we met up with some fellow ‘av-geaks’ after the action to head out at local restaurants for dinner and the usual in-depth chatting. Great vibes all around!
On most of the exercise days the first birds to go up wasn’t before 10 AM but the last landings went on to way past 7 PM. This meant, because of the geographical layout of the runways in use at both Hohn and Jagel that the sunlight would start out great at Hohn and eventually be much better at Jagel, turning around at about 4 PM. We tried out several spots along the low fences at both bases and got wonderful results, even though some cloudy skies hampered others. So this made for us to pretty much do the same on our second day.
On the third day we’ve received word that the US NAVY super Hornets and Growlers would leave Hohn and it might give us a support aircraft in the form of a C-2 Groundhog. A carrier based troop and transport aircraft that will soon be phased out of service. This made us again go for starting at Hohn again with the fading possibility of also going to Wunstorf. This because the wind direction had changed, meaning ops from the other end of the runway (also at Jagel). We opted to move sooner to Jagel this time, no Groundhog would come, instead a land-based C-26 came as support.
Heading out to Jagel for the landing at the other end got us a very nice surprise as one of the USAF ANG A-10C pilots came to sell some merchandise and have a chat with us all. Below you can read my interview with him!
One of two USAF Air National Guard A-10C units came over to Fliegerhorst Schleswig-Jagel being the 107th MSN Gen FTR FE “Red Devils” of which pilot Major Brett Devries came outside the base to sell merchandise in the form of T-shirts and patches as memorabilia and collectables. He was also very enthusiastic with meeting me and many fellow ‘Av-Geaks’ to have a chat with. This turned into a spontaneous interview and portrait shoot!
“I enjoy being over here in Europe and seeing all you guys everywhere outside the base. In the US there are some spotters but not as much as you have here. We have more airshows to connect with the public as a thing. But it’s never like this!”
Yeah we’re quite pampered, I must say! We’ve got parking lots at either ends of the runway and great vantage point to shoot from, at Hohn it’s the same thing with even more spots along it’s runway, haha!
“Yeah it’s a great set-up for you guys, I’m impressed! Is this organised by the German Air Force then?”
Well usually during a popular military exercise in Europe there are special ‘Spottersdays’ organised on-base where we can write in but that was not the case during Air Defender 2023. I’ve heard the USAF security wasn’t very keen on that too. So the GAF knew there would be a big influx of us coming anyway so they’ve set this up together with local land owners.
“So do they fly very often out of here on normal days then?”
Well it’s definitely not as busy as it is now, usually just four to eight jets go up twice a day. Pretty much the same as is in the Netherlands. Though Volkel sees an uptick right now as Leeuwarden has runway renewals so everything operates from there what with the last remaining F-16’s and all of the F-35A’s.
“A buddy of mine is flying the F-15E out of RAF Lakenheath. I don’t know how long that with last though as they might get replaced with the F-35.”
Well US politics have tried to replace the A-10 with the F-35 a few times over now right?
“They’re almost there…”
But the F-35 can’t really replace the Close Air Support (CAS) role that well, or..?
“Well politics don’t really care about that to be honest. It’s the ‘Army boys’ that fight for us mostly. When there’s no war going on that’s the opportunity to strike at that. But who knows, when something goes sideways they can’t get rid of us…”
Yesterday I had dinner with a British fellow ‘Av-Geak’, among others, who mentioned about the same exact topic.
“Well we haven’t had a tank war on European soil since the 2nd World War… Or, no hold on..?”
“Haha! Well, concerning the Air Force the A-10 is becoming a bit of an outdated platform what with more of the ‘Fifth Gen’ coming online and ‘Sixth Gen’ is coming right behind that, so.
Why try and fight it, I’m just a guy on the ground, you know? ‘Fifth Gen’ is the new wave… They’ve already said they want to go to four jets anyway: Strike: F-35’s, F-22’s, F-16’s (with F-15E as a fourth for the time being -not mentioned-).”
So you’re thinking of retraining to more modern jets in the near future?
“Well, we’ll see how the body’s going. I’m getting older and it’s breaking down pretty fast, so… I also have got a little one making the first steps right now. Something I’m missing out on right now. Between that and pulling 9-G’s is going to be pretty tough compared to the A-10.
I’d like to though, but it’s down to whatever they offer us by the time and if I’m up for it.” Ah yeah, in the USAF that’s a pretty specific ranking game going on a to who gets to fly what, isn’t it?
“What will happen is you get ranked in your class and the class has so many of certain jets and then you make a ‘dream sheet’ like I want to fly this, this and this… and then they just go down the list: the no.1 guy gets what he wants with what we’ve got and so on.
But even then we apply for new spots. I’ve got a buddy of mine that flew the A-10 six months in, and transferred to the F-35. So you’re never stuck. There’s always movement
“The Guard” is a little different since the state owns it and whatever they operate you just fly it. So whatever “the Guard” has I’ll just fly it or if they offer me the opportunity to transition I’ll take it and fly that. And at that point you’re kind of on you’re on as you can fill a spot they’ll have availably. It’s a bit of a different dynamic regarding to active duty fashion.”
Well thank you very much for this spontaneous interview and also for posing for a photograph and I wish you a great ferry flight back to your home country!
“Thank you too, glad to have been of service. Have a great time!”
Maj. Brett “ZULU” Devries
My own experience