U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa announced on July 20 that air force personnel from the U.S. and Bulgaria are participating in the Falcon Defender 21 exercise at the Graf Ignatievo Air Base in the latter country. The base is one of almost a dozen that the Pentagon and NATO have acquired in former Warsaw Pact nations since NATO expanded into Eastern Europe in 1999. The military bloc has incorporated 14 nations in the region altogether, almost doubling its membership from 16 to 30.
The U.S. deployed airmen from the Tennessee Air National Guard, which has a bilateral agreement with the Bulgarian armed forces under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, and the 435th Contingency Response Group based at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Ramstein Air Base, which hosts the headquarters for both United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa and NATO’s Allied Air Command (which share a commander), is part of the Kaiserslautern Military Community, the largest American military community outside the U.S.
The U.S. Air Force press release on the event described its purpose as to provide the opportunity for “U.S. and Bulgarian forces [to] conduct force protection and security forces…[to train] to build mutual capability and enhance our ability to rapidly deploy to remote locations,” and to enhance “overall coordination with allies and partner militaries during times of crisis.”
Falcon Defender 21 is occurring simultaneously with or shortly following a series of U.S. and NATO war games in the Black Sea region including:
- The 14-nation Breeze 21 naval maneuvers
- The Thracian Star 21 air combat exercise, also held at the Graf Ignatievo Air Base
- The 32-nation, two-week two-week Sea Breeze war games in the Black Sea
- The Swift Response airborne exercise in Bulgaria and Romania (as well as Estonia) in May with over 7,000 troops from 11 nations as part of the large-scale DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercises
- The Trojan Footprint special operations forces exercise in Black Sea nations Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania as well as in Montenegro and North Macedonia.
So far this year the U.S. has deployed six warships to the Black Sea, five of those Aegis-class guided-missile destroyers and cruisers capable of launching anti-ballistic missiles.
The continuous and escalating presence of American and NATO military forces in the Black Sea where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based is a provocative policy that may, as it almost did on June 23 with Britain’s HMS Defender destroyer, trigger a military confrontation – and a catastrophe.