The alliance’s “Air Defender” exercises, the largest in its history, have focused on communications, particularly on synchronizing multiple encryption systems.
Flying a 50,000-pound attack jet while 10,000 feet above Earth may not be the best time for a language lesson. But it was part of the drills that Maj. Greg Kirk of the Idaho Air National Guard had to decipher last week as he sought clarity on his mission from a heavily accented German military air traffic controller issuing the orders.
English is the lingua franca for most military air forces, and the German joint terminal attack controller was fluent, but with his accent he was hard to understand over the headset feedback in Major Kirk’s A-10 jet.
“I know what he’s trying to say now,” Major Kirk said three days into the exercises in an interview at Lechfeld Air Base in southern Germany. “Training together with all of our NATO partners over the week — things are moving now, things are happening a lot more efficiently.”
The joint air power exercises, which will end on Friday after a 12-day run, have been the largest in NATO’s history, involving 250 aircraft and around 10,000 personnel from 25 nations. Conducted in several places in Germany, they were planned well before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago.
But the implications in the face of the current conflict, the largest in Europe since World War II, could not be more obvious. “As we face the biggest security crisis in a generation,” said the NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, “we stand united to keep our countries and our people safe.”
But language barriers are not the only problem the air defense teams have been working on. Even the most fearsome warplanes and other weapons depend upon effective communications, a particular problem when they can be drawn from any of 31 alliance members who may use different encryption systems or instruments tailored differently even on the same aircraft. And flight instructions can vary from country to country.
Officials have long raised concerns about so-called interoperable capability to ensure these disjointed systems, practices and technologies can link up for smooth communications and coordination.
“You can’t take the Greek pilots and put them in an American F-16,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Ovanek of the Idaho Air National Guard.
Barriers have also arisen in the past between warplanes flown by the same country, such as interoperability problems between the American F-35 and F-22 fighter planes, said Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Even the NATO tactical network known as Link 16 — which syncs communication about military operations among aircraft, surface ships, ground vehicles, missile defense systems, networked weapons and command and control networks — is stymied at times by the range of required encryption.
But analysts say that most of the kinks get ironed out during the exercises. “It’s not perfect — none of these things ever are,” Mr. Barrie said. “All of these things kind of get flushed out in exercises like this.”
On the first day of the drills at Wunstorf Air Base in northern Germany, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz was already predicting problems with Link 16. He was not, however, overly concerned.
“Today, it probably hardly worked; tomorrow, partially; the day after, it’s already OK,” General Gerhartz, chief of the German Air Force, said in an interview. “It is so difficult. They have different crypto-nets, it is unbelievably complex. If you simulate it, it will always work. You have to do it in life, to see, ‘OK, that was the mistake, we took care of it.’”
Sometimes the communication breakdown is even more basic than that, as Major Kirk discovered.
This is far from the Idaho unit’s first overseas stint; it was also based in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2020 and has more recently been involved in joint exercises with Asian-Pacific air forces. But sometimes the language barrier is a primary problem, and Major Kirk said he has had to ask air controllers to spell out the names of targets or to speak more slowly.
That can be difficult in the stress of a high-paced exercise, not to mention a military operation. “Usually everyone wants to go fast,” he said. “But to go fast, you’ve got to start out slow.”
Given that American and European forces have spent much of the last 20 years coordinating combat flights in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colonel Ovanek said that many of the drills this week in Germany felt strikingly familiar. “It’s the same job, it’s just a different location,” she said, noting the “same targets, the same type of interoperability problems, the same NATO forces.”
But advances in aircraft, technology upgrades, new flocks of air forces rotating through and, as is the case with Russia, increasingly emboldened adversaries have required constant testing of communication systems among the allies. The drills will also gauge how the allies manage to shift ever-evolving battle plans while spread across a large theater.
“Normally, we have mass briefings, where everybody sits together, and right now we are in different places and trying to coordinate this all,” said Lt. Col. Jürgen Schönhöfer, who pilots a Eurofighter jet as commander of Germany’s 74th Tactical Air Force Wing. “When there will be a real mission, it will be similar.”
He, too, noticed the communication glitches in the first few days of the exercise. “This is normal with different nations, different capabilities, different speed in talking,” Colonel Schönhöfer said. “This is normal — this is NATO.”