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Four U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron return from routine training during Astral Knight 24, at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base, Germany, May 14, 2024. When adversaries know the U.S. Air Force can employ airpower in a contested environment, side-by-side with capable Ally and partner forces, they are more likely to respect national sovereignty and make decisions that improve global safety and security. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Albert Morel)

Câmpia Turzii, Romania. (June 10, 2024): If the Russians follow through on threats to invade Europe, will America be ready to move air and equipment assets across the seas in time? That is the question that Exercise Astral Knight 24 is attempting to answer. In this photo by Airman 1st Class Albert Morel, a flight of F-16s joust in the skies above Romania as part of a NATO air and missile defense exercise.

Exercise Astral Knight has gained urgency with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and warnings by Vladimir Putin that he will use missiles and even nuclear weapons against the West. NATO has stepped up the pace of realistic exercises to counter these arial threats.

Some fifty U.S. aircraft participated in simulated combat operations in the skies over Poland and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. The British Air Force also participated and personnel from Denmark and Greece were sent as observers.

This year’s Astral Knight focused on how to counter attacks from relatively cheap Iranian-made drones like the ones launched against Ukraine’s air defenses. According to the U.S. Air Force Europe (USAFE), at least one hundred and seventy drone, rocket, and missile attacks have been launched against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan since October. The goal is to create an effective, multi-layered missile defense system like those employed by Israel. When Iran recently launched hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones, Israel, U.S., and coalition partners shot them down before they could cause any damage. NATO hopes to establish a protective umbrella like this for Europe as well.

These exercises are part of the recent NATO Steadfast Defender maneuvers that included forces from recent member Sweden for the first time. The airborne phase of the exercise began with coordinated drops by paratroopers from the U.S., Spain, Hungary, and Italy. With tensions rising between NATO and Russia, the U.S. will make sure our forces will arrive in time.