“Enhancing regional security”.
Astral Knight 2020 is a multinational exercise focused on air defense capabilities.
Between Sep. 17 and 25, 2020, it is going to involve relevant air assets in Poland (airbases and aircraft), Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Interestingly, the Tobruq Legacy 20 exercise focused on air defense, is taking place almost simultaneously in Lithuania. Last year the Tobruq Legacy took place in Poland.
Astral Knight 2020 will see the participations of U.S., Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden forces.
The air assets involved in the drills include the USAF F-16s, KC-135s, KC-10s, E-3s, and B-52s, alongside the Polish F-16s, Su-22s, and the Mi-17 helicopters. Furthermore, U.S. Army Europe plans to provide soldiers and equipment to operate the Patriot surface-to-air missile system out of Szymany Air Base, Poland.
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Public Affairs release states that the exercise is aimed to “develop and exercise an enduring regional integrated air and missile defense architecture, command and control integration, coordination, and interoperability of air and land capabilities with overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise.”
Interestingly, the Polish MoD also outlined the threats that will be simulated or addressed during the exercise. These are going to include missile and air threats, UAVs, stealth cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, and advanced ballistic missiles, because, as the Polish Ministry highlights, “close competitors are rapidly developing the military domain”.
Finally, the Astral Knight 20 will also allow the participants to test the command capabilities. This remains relevant, as it will involve cooperation between the allied nations and U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
The official press release also specifies the deployment location for the US Army Europe Patriot SAM system. The Patriot battery in question is to be operated out of the Szymany Air Base in Poland. The release may be misleading – Szymany is not an airbase; it is a civil airport located near Olsztyn. The airport issued a note that it would be hosting the US and Polish forces between Aug. 18 and Sep. 30. Thus, the civil airport would undergo a militarization. This is yet another important (and overlooked by most of the media outlets) aspect of the training. The Olsztyn-Mazury (Szymany) airport’s release places a major emphasis on the fact that the General Aviation and passenger flight ops would not be interrupted by the training undertaken by the military operations there.
This would not be a major issue also due to the limited amount of traffic that flies out of Szymany. The airport offers connections to Krakow, Dortmund (Germany), London Luton, and London Stansted. During July 2020 the airport has been a point of departure by 8,368 passengers, msn.com reports. The above translates into a 45.7% drop when compared to last year (15,408 passengers checking in). This renders the aforesaid airport a perfect spot for militarization. Not to mention its strategic location near the so-called Suwałki Gap. NATO views the region as a pain-point in the conflict with the potential adversary.
Another interesting notion is that the USAF Europe strongly emphasizes the fact that the exercise has been long-planned and is not associated with any current events. The statement above seems to be a preemptive measure, refuting the potential reaction of the Kremlin – Moscow could potentially create a narrative here, suggesting that Astral Knight could be a part of a military buildup in response to the crisis events currently unfolding in Belarus.
Astral Knight 2019
Last year, Astral Knight was a 4-day exercise held in the Adriatic region: more than 30 USAF aircraft took part in the exercise, including the F-35A Lightning IIs deployed to Aviano as part of TSP (Theater Security Package) on May 23, 2019, (and moved to Spangdahlem, Germany, on Jun. 11, 2019), F-16 Fighting Falcons, KC-135 Stratotankers and E-3 Sentry aircraft. The Italian Air Force took part in the exercise with the F-35A Lightning IIs and Eurofighter Typhoons deployed to Istrana as well as a G550 CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) aircraft from Pratica di Mare airbase. The Croatian Air Force took part in the drills with its MiG-21s.
The focus of the multi-national exercise, was to defend several key areas of terrain from cruise-missile and aircraft strikes. Integration was one of the key themes of Astral Knight because it will be essential in any future war, and for the first time, U.S. Air Force F-35As (belonging to Hill AFB’s 421st Fighter Squadron) integrated operationally with Italian Air Force F-35As and communicated with each other over the MADL.