It was only two years ago that Europe seemed an island of relative calm in an increasingly dangerous world. The US military’s presence on the continent was smaller than at any point since the early Cold War, as the Pentagon shifted resources toward more pressing needs in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East.
That all changed beginning in February 2014, when Russian military forces in disguise swept into Crimea, and a “hybrid war” waged by both irregular troops and Russian military units erupted in eastern Ukraine. European fears of a newly aggressive Russia prompted the US to move quickly in support of its NATO allies, training and exercising with them from the Baltic to Romania. USAF units in Europe have played a central role in the reinforcement and reassurance mission.
President Barack Obama, visiting Warsaw in June 2014, declared the US “commitment to Poland’s security, as well as the security of our allies in Central and Eastern Europe,” to be “sacrosanct” and “the cornerstone of our own security.” He announced a new, billion-dollar, multiyear European Reassurance Initiative. The ERI—a special fund for exercises and cooperative activities with NATO allies—has supercharged Operation Atlantic Resolve, the umbrella program for the US response to the Crimea crisis. The measure provided some US war funding—known inside the Washington Beltway as the overseas contingency operations account—to pay for these noncombat assurance and deterrence operations and military construction and infrastructure projects across the continent.
These funds have enabled US-based military units to rotate more rapidly to Europe—and for longer stays. In January 2015, the Pentagon green-lighted Air Force theater security package (TSP) deployments to Europe to support and expand these activities. They range from combined arms training to air policing to new heavy bomber rotations in theater, for the first time in years.
Then, in late August, top Air Force officials said the F-22 would soon make its first deployment to Europe, to support combatant commander requirements.
Gen. Frank Gorenc, head of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, said TSP rotations are one of the critical elements of America’s reassurance plans. Speaking in June at the Paris Air Show, Gorenc said the TSP units have been “out and about in Europe—training and exercising, creating opportunities for airmen and for our allies.”
Since NATO waged its 1994 and 1999 air campaigns in the Balkans—Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force, respectively—US forces in Europe have dwindled. Even as Operation Atlantic Resolve ramped up in January, the Defense Department unveiled its European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) plan. The ERI will return 15 US military sites across Europe to their host nations. These include RAF Mildenhall in the UK, where KC-135s and the 352nd Special Operations Wing will shift to Germany by 2020.
The Pentagon claims the EIC moves will save about $500 million a year—savings needed to stand up new theater capabilities such as an F-35 unit at RAF Lakenheath, UK, set to arrive in 2020. While some of these reductions will come from efficiencies, better technology, and organizational tweaks, a smaller footprint means USAF must be more creative in how it deploys its available forces.
From airfields in Bulgaria to training exercises in Morocco, USAFE-AFAFRICA is finding new ways to project power as it faces potential threats ranging from resurgent Russia to terror groups in North Africa.
The US and its allies “don’t want to get caught flat-footed” after the events in Crimea, USAFE-AFAFRICA plans, programs, and analyses chief Brig. Gen. Mark D. Camerer said, and so are amping up readiness and interoperability training.
While TSPs have been sent to the Asia-Pacific for years, Camerer observed, the ERI allows them to return to Europe in force, reanimating an exercise concept from the last years of the Cold War. “The [TSP] concept sort of goes back to Checkered Flag,” Camerer said, in reference to an old, regular rotational exercise in Europe. More routine rotations through the TSP and concepts like Air National Guard partnerships will have a “significant” effect on readiness “over time,” he said.
Expanded Theater Training
The command’s responsibilities are different from what they were during the Cold War, though, he noted. The Ramstein AB, Germany-based organization now oversees engagement and operations in 104 countries, stretching from the Arctic Circle to sub-Saharan Africa. It must grapple with challenges as diverse as European ballistic missile defense to meeting surveillance needs for a pop-up crisis in Africa. USAFE-AFAFRICA supported the July 2014 evacuation of the US Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, for example.
With no permanent forces based in Africa, managing the geography of response is a never-ending planning challenge, Camerer said. Ramstein is 1,000 miles closer to West Africa than forces assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti, he said.
During the 1990s, then-USAFE comprised four separate staffs to manage operations in just Europe: USAFE headquarters, 3rd Air Force, 16th Air Force, and 17th Air Force. Its forces were dispersed to 25 main operating bases, with some 72,000 permanently stationed airmen and 800 aircraft assigned to 34 squadrons. Today, after years of overseas basing cutbacks and reorganization, USAFE-AFAFRICA supports two combatant commands directly (17th Expeditionary Air Force serves as the air component for US Africa Command tasks; 17th Air Force was inactivated in 2012) and has just 23,000 permanently assigned Active Duty airmen.
Only seven main operating bases and nine aircraft squadrons remain, comprising about 200 aircraft. Six are fighter squadrons that US Central Command can also tap to meet its force structure needs and must also rotate home for training.
The European Reassurance Initiative has fueled an expanded theater training and engagement schedule for USAFE-AFAFRICA’s combat forces and “enabled us to fund a lot of these [new] excursions,” said Col. David C. Trucksa, chief of the command’s training, readiness, and exercise division. It has “really opened up our aperture.”
With ERI dollars, KC-135s supported training events in Germany and Romania during the summer and paid for TSP rotations in-theater to supplement USAFE unit training. A-10s visiting Europe, for example, helped train the 56th Rescue Squadron in full-up combat search and rescue at RAF Lakenheath, prior to the squadron’s CENTCOM deployment. The HH-60 crews would ordinarily have had to wait to go to a Red Flag or similiar stateside event to get this training.
By late June, the first TSP rotation—12 A-10s of the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron—had flown some 1,138 sorties. They participated in 12 different events, ranging from joint terminal attack controller training and certification in Germany and Romania to shorter events, such as Exercise Purple Windmill, a Dutch close air support exercise.
The second six-month TSP rotation saw F-15Cs dispatched from the Florida and Oregon Air National Guard. As the 159th EFS, it went in April to Leeuwarden AB, Netherlands, for Exercise Frisian Flag. They then went to Bulgaria for six weeks of training with the Bulgarian air force, additional ANG F-15s from Louisiana, and NATO E-3 AWACS aircraft.
These units experience diverse conditions on these deployments. From Bulgaria to Poland, many of the forward locations where TSPs operate “are not full bases,” said Lt. Col. Bradley Brandt, chief of USAFE-AFAFRICA’s operations and training branch. These facilities have a much smaller support infrastructure for combat air forces than Ramstein Air Base or Aviano AB, Italy. As these events continue, “we are trying to figure out” what capacities these installations have, “so if we want to do training or exercising in the future, we know what we need to bring or to put there,” Brandt said.
The new operating environment demands more flexible thinking about operations support, according to Brig. Gen. Bradley D. Spacy, USAFE-AFAFRICA’s director of logistics, installations, and mission support.
“We are smaller and in a lot of ways more efficient” than the USAFE of old, he said. “We support operations on a smaller scale, too,” with a smaller logistics footprint. “One way we do that is by helping with infrastructure,” Spacy said, using ERI funding as a “speedy mechanism” to bolster “projects we have been wanting to get to for years.” Such projects are notably helpful in countries where USAF has limited operational experience, such as in the Baltic states.
ERI funds contributed to 46 operations and maintenance projects and 23 military construction projects across Europe in Fiscal 2015-16, he pointed out. Much of the infrastructure improved is owned and operated by allies. In Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, for example, several projects are improving airfields for all-weather conditions. Hangars, runways, and barrier systems for aircraft have been upgraded, and facilities have been built to store indoors equipment that had been out in the elements. Bulk fuel locations are another priority, Spacy said, because “fuel is difficult to move; the more we can store forward the better.”
Bulk storage facilities are also strategic assets in some countries, he added, as several nations remain highly dependent on Russian oil and gas.
An essential element of engagement is building organic capabilities, such as firefighting, to support USAF and NATO air operations. After USAF logisticians, firemen, and security forces visit a location to build a project, then train the allied airmen in their skills, it lessens the size of the needed USAF logistics tail in the event of a crisis.
“If we can teach [crash fire and rescue] like we do, … we don’t need to occupy those facilities,” Spacy said. The allies can then perform it to NATO standards, “and that’s a real skill.”
All these efforts allow NATO forces to be dispersed at more bases, permitting a more swift and comprehensive response to aggression. NATO aircraft “could land, be serviced by a host nation, take off, and do their mission” in more places than before, he said. “All this gets us closer to that.”
Though airmen in Europe have trained with NATO allies for decades, the post-Crimea engagement surge in Eastern Europe fosters two-way learning as well. Many of the countries where USAF is sending assets and dispatching TSPs are former Warsaw Pact states. Their militaries are not only equipped with far different technology, they train and organize much differently than do US airmen, noted Brandt, who said, “That’s why it’s important for us to go there.”
The Bulgarian air force flies the MiG-29 Fulcrum, he said, and still uses Soviet-era navigation aids. “We get to see each other’s capabilities,” he said, noting that USAF F-15C aircrews recently demonstrated how they debrief training exercises with the P5 training pod. It records flight data, simulated weapons shots, and “kills” during live air-to-air training.
At the same time, “we get to fly against them” in training, seeing firsthand how MiG-29s in Bulgaria or MiG-21s in Romania stack up in simulated combat.
“A lot of this is honing skills and predictability,” Brandt explained, such as knowing what to do if an F-15C pilot gets a radar spike, which might be a friendly MiG rather than a bad guy. “That’s why we want to do these [events], to build foundations, and limit those type of issues.” Understanding each other’s tactics and procedures is the foundation for joint coalition operations.
As part of the Air Force’s cost-cutting, force-shaping actions to reduce its footprint in Europe two years ago, it pulled the A-10s of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, back to Moody AFB, Ga.
Col. Joseph D. McFall, commander of the 52nd, was its vice commander in June 2013, when the A-10s were withdrawn from Spangdahlem.
“There was a limbo, and people wondered what was going to happen to the future of the base,” he recalled. Things were different when he returned in February. “I roll back in and the [EIC] changes are announced, … and now we are the belly button for any TSP expedition.”
The surge has required new thinking about how deployments work in Europe, said Lt. Col. Matthew Higgins, the deputy operations group commander of the 52nd Operations Group at Spangdahlem. “We will own [some] jets that will never land here,” he said. But crews will deploy and work with allies in new scenarios and challenge themselves. “From a tactical perspective, [if] we’re going to fight together, we have to figure it out together,” Higgins said. The things to practice range from checklists to conducting “lessons learned” assessments.
Teams of civil engineers, logisticians, and security forces have fanned out across Europe since the ERI was initiated. They support operations with allied militaries, improving semipermanent sites, and ensuring that when USAF jets land at a foreign base, “they had the capacity to operate,” said Capt. Tanner Smith, the director of operations for Spangdahlem’s 52nd Civil Engineering Squadron. As a result of these deployments through the first half of 2015, the USAFE-AFAFRICA staff is “already leaning on our experiences, on what we want to do with these bases … to get the best bang for the buck” in the future,” said Lt. Col. Chris Meeker, the 52nd CES commander.
Even as it conducts these engagements, USAFE-AFAFRICA is adjusting its own structure, a big chunk of which will bed down at Spangdahlem. As part of the EIC process, Spangdahlem will give up its 606th Air Control Squadron to Aviano Air Base and take on the 352nd Special Operations Wing. This was surprising to some outside observers, but Spangdahlem officials said the move was partly influenced by the heavy investments made at the base over the last decade. These include new clinics, schools, and base infrastructure—some $373 million worth of improvements between 2004 and 2015, known as the “northwest expansion.” USAF officials have said one of the main reasons for divesting Mildenhall is the cost of necessary updates to the base’s facilities.
The buildup came as the base steadily lost iron to fleet reorganizations. After losing the A-10s in 2013, only one fighter squadron remains at Spangdahlem, the F-16s of the 480th FS. From airfield space to hardened shelters, “now, we have significant capacity,” Meeker stated. “We brought in an entire unit [from Mildenhall] for an exercise, and we had zero impact on F-16 operations,” he said. It was the available room—plus the close relationship with the local German community—that prompted DOD to choose the base for the SOW’s new home. The move will allow the unit to better support operations across Europe and Africa alike.
The era of “one trick pony” bases is coming to an end, USAFE-AFAFRICA planning officials observed. Mildenhall’s tankers will be parsed out to Spangdahlem and Aviano by 2020, preserving USAF units’ ability to reach the European and African theater quickly.
If You Build It
Utilities and groundwork get put in at Spangdahlem in 2017, followed by new buildings a year later. By 2020, Meeker said, the plan is to have a new aircraft apron, a refurbished runway, support and maintenance hangars, a wing headquarters, and a special tactics squadron facility complete, all built on or near places that used to host A-10s or were underused. This new infrastructure will eventually support 10 CV-22 Ospreys and 10 MC-130J Commando IIs.
No one expects USAFE-AFAFRICA’s operating tempo to let up anytime soon. The theater security packages are just the first phase of a deep engagement plan with European allies, Camerer asserted. Now that the first round of upgrades is winding down, the command is looking at locations warranting further investments, such as hardened facilities and defensive capabilities.
Partner nations are investing in new systems to increase interoperability with US forces in the next few years, as well. Romania, for example, purchased 12 surplus F-16s from the Portuguese, Brandt noted. This fall, Alabama ANG F-16s will deploy to Campia Turzii Air Base to conduct training and help familiarize Romanian airmen with F-16 operations.
There are more new opportunities than there are logistical and operational challenges, McFall observed.
“For the last 14, 15 years, we’ve deployed to these massive bases [in US Central Command], where we’ve built up with manning and support,” he said. Today, across Europe, a lean expeditionary mindset is being tested in response to threats few predicted just two years ago.
“We are telling lieutenant colonels, ‘Here’re your 250 folks for maintenance, operations, and supplies, go make it happen,’?” McFall said. “It’s a fantastic leadership opportunity, and it gets back a bit to the nature of what we were trying to do” in the Partnership for Peace era immediately after the Cold War—“small deployments, small footprints, and the ability to get some really major things done with that, and that’s really cool.”