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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Colonel Colin Marks, before a briefing on wildfire fighting efforts from Canadian Forces personnel, in Bagotville, Que. on June 14.STRINGER/Reuters

The Royal Canadian Air Force says it is declining to participate in a show of military strength by 25 allied countries in Europe because it is focusing on trying to upgrade its aging fleet.

An 11-day exercise, known as Air Defender 23 and billed as “the largest deployment exercise of air forces in NATO’s history,” began this week in Germany.

The operation involves 250 aircraft and 10,000 personnel, mostly from the United States and Germany. Countries such as Slovenia, Romania and the Baltic states are also participating. So are Japan and Sweden, though they are not a NATO members.

German officials say they began planning for the military exercise five years ago, after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. The current military exercise is not intended as a show of strength at Moscow, or its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, they added.

The Canadian military was asked to take part, but it is not doing so. “They were invited but declined,” said Christin Furtwängler, head of communications at the German embassy in Ottawa.

Observers say that Ottawa’s declining to send over even a few fighter jets might indicate just how stretched Canada’s military air assets have become.

“Two weeks is not a big ask. It is kind of surprising that they’re not doing it,” said Stephen Saideman, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa.

“We have real problems right now with being able to do anything beyond continental defence,” he said. “It sounds like we don’t have enough planes – or maybe pilots.”

In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, the Department of National Defence said that Canadian Armed Forces commanders declined Germany’s request because Canada’s warplanes are in a period of transition.

“It was a planning decision given many of our aircraft and personnel are currently committed to modernization activities,” said Daniel Le Bouthillier, a DND spokesman. He said the air force is focusing on projects to extend the life of old CF-18 Hornet warplanes so that they bridge gaps. The military is also trying to figure out how to integrate new F-35 fighter jets that will start arriving in coming years.

The CF-18s were acquired last century. When the Liberal government came to power in 2015, it cancelled a contract for newer F-35 fighter jets that had been brokered by the previous Conservative government. Then, last year, the Liberals reversed course and announced they would be buying 88 F-35 fighter jets after all.

In Europe, warplanes from many countries are currently taking wing as part of the Air Defender 23 effort. The United States is contributing 104 aircraft. Germany is contributing 70 aircraft, and thousands of personnel, while using its air bases as staging grounds.

The other participating countries are supplying aircraft in the single digits, and some are just providing aviation expertise. “It is a multinational exercise initiated, planned and led by Germany in which NATO also participates. There are 23 NATO countries participating, plus Sweden and Japan,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Matthias Boehnke, a spokesman for the German Air Force.

Diplomats are anticipating that NATO’s rivals – including Russia and President Vladimir Putin – will be paying attention to the exercise. “I would be pretty surprised if any world leader was not taking note of what this shows, in terms of the spirit of this alliance,” Amy Gutmann, U.S. ambassador to Germany, told reporters last week.

“That includes Mr. Putin,” she said.

Planning for the event began prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The scenario is a liberation wargame. According to the Air Defender 23 website “air and ground forces of the enemy Occasus alliance occupy the fictional region of Klebius in eastern Germany.” As a result, a Western alliance “has declared the state of defence in accordance with Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.”

Fraser Holman, a retired RCAF major-general, said the Canadian military could see the exercise as a logistical challenge.

“I do know that they are claiming to be stretched and I have no reason to disbelieve that,” he said. The event, he added, is “a demonstration of force more than specific manoeuvre-related training. So it may well be that that the air force doesn’t think there’s enough in it for them training their crews.”

The DND spokesman Mr. Le Bouthillier said that joint U.S. military exercises are a more attractive option for Canada.

“Fighter training in North America alongside our U.S. allies is far more cost-effective, and provides a high operational return on investment,” he said. He added that the military is also “focusing on training new and existing fighter pilots and technicians.”

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