A KC-135 from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, UK, tops off an F-15 from nearby RAF Lakenheath, UK. Photo: Amy McCullough/staff
America is ramping up defense investments in Europe, quadrupling spending on the European Deterrence Initiative from about $1 billion in 2014 to $4.8 billion in 2018. Another major boost is coming in 2019.
For the Air Force, the initiative means “a little more of a permanent posture in some of the forward locations,” Melvin Harris, US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) chief, told Air Force Magazine in July. Originally called the “European Reassurance Initiative” and intended to bolster allies on NATO’s Eastern flank after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the effort has since expanded.
Theater Security Packages (TSPs) and training deployments are increasing. In 2018, the Air Force alone will invest about $1 billion—$800 million of it for prepositioning materiel throughout theater.
The European Contingency Air Operations Set (ECAOS) is essentially a “base in a box,” and it includes everything necessary to rapidly generate sorties and establish air superiority in a crisis. It includes the heavy equipment needed to build ramps and runways. It also includes war reserve materiel, which was largely depleted after US forces drew down following the Cold War due to ongoing operations in US Central Command and in Africa.
The objective is to ensure USAF can quickly respond if a “near-peer adversary, like Russia, throws a lot of forces into theater,” Harris said. “There is a capacity constraint to strategic airlift. You can only get so much on a C-17, and if we can preposition that equipment in theater, it postures us right for [a] contingency.”
Of the $800 million set aside for ECAOS, roughly 40 percent will fund deployable air base systems (DABS) facilities, equipment, and vehicles. These are very large kits that include everything from riot-control gear for security forces to fuel trucks to mess tents. Alternatively, they have specialized hospital tents in which expeditionary medical personnel can conduct surgery, if necessary.
Harris said “multiple DABS sets” will be prepositioned at “regionalized locations” throughout the theater, noting that transporting a single kit would take about 100 C-17s.
Maj. Benjamin Murfin, USAFE-AFAFRICA’s EDI international logistics planner, said the kits not only allow the Air Force to establish an airfield, but also provides all the supplies needed to generate sorties for the first 30 days of an operation. Beyond that, he said, the service would have to call for backup.
“When you look at EDI, the main purpose of it is to back our allies and strengthen our posture in response to enemy aggression,” Murfin said. “We’ve come up with requirements to form each DABS kit based on what different functional areas we need to set up an airfield.”
The kits do not include weapons, but do include munitions handling equipment. Most also include Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, fire trucks, crash and rescue vehicles, forklifts, fuel support equipment, fuel trucks, and fuel pumps, as well as runway repair gear and medical equipment.
“We want to save as many lives as we can,” said Maj. Matthew Kesti, USAFE chief of medical plans and operations for Europe. “It becomes very difficult for commanders to prioritize medical ahead of bombs, beans, and bullets. You have to fight the war before you figure out how to deal with the consequences.” The kits should help mitigate those risks.
Sites for the equipment were selected based on how accessible they were by rail, road, or air.
“We’ve learned there could be overloading issues in the system,” said Murfin.
“If a single semitrailer turned over on a highway, the whole Baltic region” could be affected for days. So “multimodal” access is critical.
The Air Force started planning for the prepositioning in 2014 and has already started procuring the kits, Murfin said. “By 2024, the goal is to have all the kits in place.”
The service declined to detail the exact number or location of kits, citing operational security concerns, but EDI funds are being used to expand the Air Force’s War Readiness Materiel storage facility in Luxembourg. Lt. Col. Gregory Orbino, USAFE-AFAFRICA deputy branch chief for Europe, said the facility will serve as the “collection point” for DABS kits as they move through theater and as the “first test case” for prepositioned assets.
Orbino, who oversees the construction portfolio for Europe, said design work is slated to begin this year on the site, to be followed shortly by construction.
Airmen deploy a “base in a box” in Poland during an exercise in late July. The Deployable Air Base System is a new concept for USAF. Photo: Andy Morataya/USAF
EXPANDING THE SCOPE
USAFE also is using EDI funds to strengthen its presence in other locations. “EDI funding has allowed us to complete projects such as munition storage facilities in Lithuania; a hangar and extended parking aprons in Romania; and airfield upgrades in Hungary, Iceland, and Slovakia,” said Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA. “These projects help us enhance the infrastructure in forward operating locations that we utilize with our partner nations. Ultimately, they let us achieve our goal of developing more resiliency, and thus, enhancing our readiness.”
One example: the runway upgrade at Lask AB, Poland. The base is home to the 52nd Operation Group’s Det. 1—a group of just 10 USAF airmen with a wide range of specialties who are tasked with hosting four aviation detachments per year—two F-16 and two C-130 rotations.
“They are reconstructing the runway so it’s more compatible” with USAF F-16s, said Lt. Col. Beau Diers, 555th Fighter Squadron commander, in an interview at his unit at Aviano AB, Italy. USAF F-16s had difficulty stopping when the old runway was wet, so sorties often were cancelled under such conditions. Polish F-16s, by contrast, are outfitted with parachutes to help them stop, added Diers, whose squadron last conducted an aviation rotation to Poland in June 2017. At the time, “about a quarter of the sorties had to be scrapped for wet weather,” he said.
EDI foots the bill for “about 20 percent of the rotations we see,” said Det. 1 commander Lt. Col. James Busch. Sequestration had been a “huge limiting factor for getting people and stuff” to Poland for “training and interoperability,” but EDI was a big “boost to the baseline budget,” and that translates into increased presence.
The 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, was able to deploy 300 airmen and 18 F-16s to Poland in June—significantly more than the 110 personnel and six Fighting Falcons the wing deployed to the country in September 2017.
While there, the F-16s flew with their Polish counterparts and supported both the Navy-led BALTOPS and the US European Command-led Saber Strike exercises.
The two exercises included “40-plus ships, 18,000 troops, and a host of airmen of varying nationalities. It was really a demonstration of what NATO can do in the largest concentration of forces since the Cold War. It was a pretty impressive display,” Col. Jason E. Bailey, commander of the 52nd FW, told Air Force Magazine during a visit to Spangdahlem.
But, the increased presence does more than just send a strategic message to potential adversaries.
Bailey said he recently took his wife and kids on vacation in Poland, where they stopped to visit with the USAF detachments there. “Communities are an integral part of what we do. When you think of it from a NATO perspective, that’s part of that presence that allows us to really connect and be an important partner. It’s really tough to put into words when you get a good bear hug from the mayor of the base,” he said, noting the same mayor also “came over to our house for Thanksgiving last year.”
That trust, he said, and the understanding of how the two countries’ militaries operate, already exists thanks to the regular rotations through Poland, so if a contingency erupted the two forces could work together seamlessly on Day 1.
A-10s on the line weathering a deluge at Lask AB, Poland, before a Theater Security Package deployment. Photo: SSgt. Christopher Ruano
Perhaps the most high-profile EDI activity, however, are the Theater Security Packages that rotate through the theater for varying lengths of time several times a year.
“We’re looking for activities to be conducted within USAFE that meet US [European Command] objectives from … deterring any regional actors to assuring our allies that our presence here is supportive of their security and stability within various treaties and other agreements we have with partners,” said Lt. Col. Robert Risko, the A3 EDI program manager for USAFE.
Although the Air Force has been conducting TSPs in the Pacific since 2004, it wasn’t until the then-European Reassurance Initiative funds became available that the service began rotating similar forces to the European continent.
Twelve A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and about 300 airmen from the 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., marked the first European TSP when they deployed to Spangdahlem in February 2015. Since then, the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem has regularly hosted TSPs of both fourth and fifth generation aircraft, including F-15C Eagles from the Florida Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing, which arrived at Campia Turzii, Romania, in late June.
“This gives us the opportunity to train together so in the future we will be better prepared to handle any security … or humanitarian challenges that may come up, particularly with the relationship that we establish over our time here,” said Lt. Col. George Downs, 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, in a USAF release. “It also gives us an opportunity to exercise going to a location we might not be familiar with.”
Shortly after Air Force Magazine’s visit, and around the same time the Guard Eagles were deployed to Romania, a squadron of F-22 Raptors from the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall AFB, Fla., deployed to Spangdahlem for a multi-week flying training deployment, which was funded in part by the EDI.
While in theater, the Raptors deployed to Orland AB, Norway, where they flew alongside Royal Norwegian air force F-35As, and to Albacete, Spain, where they flew with Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons.
Bailey, the 52nd FW commander, said part of the wing’s ability to provide full-spectrum airpower to the European and African theaters comes from its ability to “receive, support, operate, and integrate forward deployed forces.”Spangdahlem—once home to three fighter squadrons—now has just one, the 480th, which flies F-16 Fighting Falcons. That means, “we now have the real estate” to support Theater Security Packages and other forward deployed forces, Bailey said. “We’ve done that in the past from F-22s to A-10s to F-15Cs, and we’re actually putting in specific infrastructure here that enables us to be postured for fifth generation integration.”
USAFE has allocated several million dollars of EDI funds to upgrade existing structures at Spangdahlem and to build some new ones specifically designed to accommodate the F-22 as it rotates through theater. That includes $18 million to build a new low-observables composite repair facility; a 25,000-square-foot hangar that will allow maintainers to fix the stealth surfaces and structures of F-22s. The facility will include one bay with room for a 14-person administrative staff, paint tools, and other specialized gear. Another $2.7 million of EDI funds will go toward the upgrade of seven existing third-generation shelters to accommodate the F-22.
“The ability to reassure our allies requires us to have a presence in Europe, and this will increase our ability to have a modern aircraft presence that can be supported in the theater,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Mayer, commander of the 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron at Spangdahlem, when asked why USAFE was dedicating funds to highly specialized facilities for rotational forces.
Also over the summer, more than a dozen F-15C/D Eagles and some 280 airmen from the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, UK, deployed to Keflavik AB, Iceland. Four of the aircraft, which are assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron, supported the Icelandic air policing mission while the remaining Eagles conducted training in the region.
During the nearly month-long deployment to Iceland, the F-15s “flew 238 sorties accumulating more than 400 flying hours,” 70 of which simulated an alert situation, according to an Air Force release.
None of these initiatives would have been possible without EDI funds.
Faced with the stiff budget cuts demanded by sequestration in 2013, the Air Force had decided to withdraw its RAF Lakenheath, UK-based Eagles; the only F-15C squadron in Europe. At the time, it was believed the eventual beddown of F-35As at Lakenheath would offset the risk of losing the air-to-air capability the Eagles brought to theater. Then, Russia invaded Ukraine and USAF decided to keep the F-15Cs at Lakenheath.
The Eagles are deployed frequently and regularly participate in air policing missions—both in Iceland and in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—where they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the deployment.
In the Baltics, Eagles on alert must be airborne within 15 minutes if the claxon sounds. They mostly intercept Russian fighters that cross Baltic airspace, but they have also intercepted a helicopter and some cargo aircraft, said Lt. Col. Cody Blake, commander of the 493rd Fighter Squadron. There is always that initial adrenaline rush when the horn sounds because the pilots never know exactly what they might face, Blake said. Most encounters are professional, though, and pilots quickly settle into their routine of identifying the type of aircraft and sending any other pertinent information—such as tail numbers, number of aircraft, and weapons load—to NATO controllers.
“We get close enough [that] we can see the pilots,” said Blake, who noted that “some guys are super friendly, waving back and taking selfies, while other guys were … just going to do their mission and wouldn’t look at you.”
Despite its demanding operational tempo, the squadron’s funding ran out in Fiscal 2017, so the Air Force decided to use EDI money to fully fund it and keep it operating at Lakenheath through Fiscal 2022, one year after the first F-35As are slated to arrive. What happens to the F-15Cs after that isn’t clear.
“Sure, guys here talk about the uncertainty of the squadron. ‘Are we staying at RAF Lakenheath, or will they move us?’?” said Blake. “If this [squadron] goes away, then you just have two Active Duty F-15C squadrons [in the Air Force] and that drastically reduces the options.”
Gen. Tod Wolters, head of USAFE. Photo: Andy Morataya/USAF
What EDI all boils down to, said General Wolters, is improving the readiness of USAFE forces.
“It’s matured the operating environment, so when crews conduct missions, exercises, and training events on the European continent, they leave those exercises with a higher state of readiness than when they started,” he told Air Force Magazine during an interview at the 2018 Royal International Air Tattoo in England, the world’s largest military air show. “Those EDI funds also have matured the infrastructure to a point where crews can operate in challenging environments effectively and efficiently.”