NATO allies practice dogfighting as Russia gains ground in Ukraine

NATO allies practice dogfighting as Russia gains ground in Ukraine

More than three dozen fighter pilots from nine NATO countries convened last week at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to face off against each other in a first-of-its-kind, U.S.-led exercise to sharpen air-to-air combat skills and coordination between allies.

“Ramstein 1v1″ pitted pilots from the U.S., United Kingdom, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France and Germany, against each other in a daylong competition of basic fighter maneuvers, or “dogfighting,” in which rapid decisions and sharp response to an adversary can mean life or death. It featured a mishmash of aircraft, including F-35A Lightning IIs, F-16 Fighting Falcons, Eurofighter Typhoons, French Rafales, F/A-18 Hornets and A-4 Skyhawks.

The exercise was a first for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and turned Ramstein, a military airlift hub, into a fighter base for a day.

“Basic fighter maneuvering … is a foundational skill set for fighter pilots,” Lt. Col. Michael Loringer, USAFE’s chief of weapons and tactics, said in a statement. “It tests a pilot’s reaction time, physical stamina and situational awareness. … There is no better way to build trust in a pilot’s aircraft or a pilot’s skills than to engage” one-on-one.

The event comes as Russia gains ground in Ukraine in the third year of the war on NATO’s doorstep. The U.S. military and its allies have turned their attention to bolstering aerial combat skills as they prepare for the possibility that tensions with Russia and China might spill into armed conflict, pitting advanced air forces against each other for the first time in decades.

As part of that prep work, the Air Force last September brought back its famed “William Tell” aerial shooter competition after sidelining it for nearly two decades because of high operations tempo in the Middle East. Air Combat Command told Air Force Times Tuesday that a 2025 William Tell competition is tentatively in the works, though a date has not yet been set.

USAFE Commander Gen. James Hecker said last year that NATO pilots will also put freshly honed offensive and defensive maneuvers to the test at a major new training exercise, Ramstein Flag, in Greece at the end of 2024.

“We don’t want to go to war with Russia, and I don’t think they want to go to war with us either,” he told Air Force Times last July. “But we need to make sure that we have the forces capable of deterring them, so that nothing bad will happen.”

During last week’s exercise, U.S. airmen from RAF Lakenheath, England, pitched in to service the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s F-35s. The 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein handled installation support and flight line operations.

The exercise focused on readiness and building trust, with some friendly competition built in. After a day of flying, a piano was burned in memory of fighter pilots killed in action — a World War II tradition that lives on.

“We are not just NATO allies, but a community bound by genuine friendship and respect,” Loringer said. “I emphasize this point because successful military operations require exceptional teamwork, often critical to survival. And as a pilot, it boils down to trust. It’s crucial to trust your wingman.”

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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