Q: How has CENTCOM changed?
A: The big difference … is the complexity of what we see out in the airspace. When I was here years ago, it was certainly a challenging environment. Certainly conflict is always challenging, and we faced some significant threats.
But the complexity in the air today, for example over [and near] Syria, is much greater than it was back then because there are so many different actors flying in the same airspace at the same time. There are, I’d say, seven different countries all flying up there, and one of the countries is AFCENT—the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and all our joint partners being counted as one air force. There are six other air forces that fly in that airspace, and they all have different rules to follow, and the rules of engagement … it puts a lot of pressure on our Airmen to … be able to react and fly in that environment.
Q: Who are the other air forces flying in and around Syria?
A: You’ll see Russia. You’ll see Israel, Turkey, Syria, of course, Iraq, Iran or their proxies, and AFCENT.
Q: Of the 21 nations in the AOR, how many are friendly?
A: Eighteen of the 21, we have friendly relations with. One, Yemen, of course, is in a civil war. … Then Syria and Iran are the 20 and 21.
Q: AFCENT’s transition to joint distributed operations was prompted by Iran getting more weapons. What else factored into that?
A: The nature of Iran’s increasing capability was a primary driver in the decision to distribute our command and control operations, but there are a number of other benefits.
Distributing keeps us from having a single point of failure, and not just due to enemy attacks but due to power outages, storms that can come through … or maybe limited access diplomatically to the region.
By distributing our capability, we make sure that we don’t have any one single point of failure in our command and control operations. … It allows other regions and their AOCs to use our equipment and vice versa, if needed. … We’re finding that operational C2, which is … the mission we conduct at a CAOC, is becoming more and more location-agnostic, and it’s more the capabilities and how we can spread them. … In our new distributed manner, it’s easier to get to a distributed location, … so you can tap into that expertise on a short-term basis and have them participate in a planning session, and then they can go back to doing their job, … in the past we just wouldn’t have access to them. …
Here locally, on a daily basis, the ops and intel [O&I] brief … used to be attended by 25 people or so in a conference room. Since we started distributing, we adjusted the timing of our battle rhythm. That meeting is now in the afternoon here at Al Udeid. So everybody at Shaw can participate, and then we can have out stations, all the wings, dial in. The wings didn’t use to participate in that because they couldn’t be in the building. And we even have some international partners that can dial in. So instead of 25 to 30 people attending the O&I in a day, now we have over 400 participants dialing in … and sharing the information and getting guidance and direction on a daily basis.
Q: Where are you now in the distribution process?
A: There are two levels of command and control that we were directed to distribute. The first level was the tactical command and control, and that’s the air battle managers who talk to the aircraft and give them direction and threat warning, etc. … They were operational in May 2021 out of the Army Central Command headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base, [S.C]. …
On the … CAOC level, we had probably 40 people at Shaw when the direction was given, and now we’re probably over 200.
More than the people, it’s the functions. We’ve taken significant functions of the AOC—the strategy function, the air mobility function, the ATO or air tasking order production … all of those functions are now at Shaw.
Here at Al Udeid, we still run the combat operations 24/7… but we have the ability to do that for some period of time out of Shaw if we need to. We regularly exercise where we will move some people back and run from two different locations simultaneously to ensure that we could do that in a crisis.
Q: How is AFCENT implementing Agile Combat Employment?
A: We use [ACE] here in AFCENT on a daily basis, and we share notes with PACAF and USAFE all the time on how we can take the way they do ACE in their theaters, which is driven by their geography, and use it in ours. And we try to share our lessons learned with them.
I think the big benefit we have here in AFCENT is when we conduct ACE: One, we do it every day as part of our operations. And two, we do it in combat every day. So we don’t do ACE as an exercise or as a demonstration, we actually do it every day in combat.
What we’ve found is it gives us a lot of resiliency. By moving our forces around, it helps us avoid if we have a runway outage somewhere or bad weather in a location. Or, in a hypothetical situation, if we weren’t able to have airspace access due to a diplomatic disagreement, it allows us to still generate combat air power and not be locked out of any one location.
Also it shortens, many times, the transit time—so our time airborne is more effectively spent in the target area instead of transiting to and from the target area.
We have some great innovations that we’ve been able to employ in combat that we’ve brought back to the Air Force, and now those are being implemented Air Force-wide.
Probably the most significant example is the hot-pit refueling of the KC-135 tankers. … What hot-pit refueling is, that means you don’t shut the airplane down when it’s on the ground, and you refuel it while it’s still running. And the reason is, airplanes generally, once they’re running, stay running really well.
When we do that, and keep the engines running, we can generate multiple sorties from the same aircraft and even swap out crews, in some cases, … the KC-135 had never done the hot-pit refueling. Our Airmen in this theater put in a proposal, got the approval through Air Mobility Command, and we’ve been doing it for coming up on two years. In fact, we had one mission where it had seven different sorties by the same KC-135. I think it had either three or four crews involved that swapped out, and it was over 24 hours, and the airplane never turned off. And under normal circumstances, that airplane would have either flown once or twice, and we got seven combat missions out of it.
What we’re putting a lot of emphasis on [now] is how do we logistically sustain ACE now that you’re operating at multiple locations, and then how do we command and control from the ground—so that a wing commander who’s used to only worrying about her or his base now probably has three or four cluster bases that they’re responsible for.
Q: Could you optimize ACE with artificial intelligence?
A: We have an initiative—it’s actually a U.S. [North American Aerospace Defense Command/Northern Command] initiative that we’re trying to partner with them on—that puts artificial intelligence into all of our radar sensors that can help us detect threats out there.
We’re trying to put AI into a lot of our CAOC functions where we can more seamlessly plan and replan changes to missions, for instance, if an aircraft—a tanker or a fighter aircraft—[falls out], using AI to help us reflow how we get our airplanes out there to make sure that we can still cover all of our responsibilities.
And there are a number of other areas where we’re trying to do that. Gen. [Michael “Erik”] Kurilla, our new commander in CENTCOM, is very interested in innovation and certainly in AI, and so we’re standing up an office in our headquarters to see what other potential uses of machine learning and AI that we could bring into our organization. And yes, those capabilities will definitely play a role in ACE.
Q: How do AFCENT’s layered counter-UAS systems work?
A: Our adversaries in the region are increasingly using UAVs to attack our partners and also U.S. and coalition locations. And it’s a threat that seems to be growing very rapidly.
The top part of the layer would be using airborne radar, whether on an AWACS or on a fighter aircraft, to try to detect these UAVs. We also can use our own unmanned vehicles to look out there and try to pick up the UAVs.
Once we do, we go into that layer to see which system—between the airborne layers, all the way to ground-based sensors, which can pick them up either with radars or even visually or optically—which one has the best capability to detect, identify, and then ultimately engage, if necessary, the UAVs that are threatening our ground locations.
So that’s the layer. It starts in the airborne with the detection capability, maybe by AWACS, into fighter aircraft, and then as you get closer to the base that you’re defending, using a variety of systems and sensors at those bases to take a layered approach to make sure that nothing can slip in between a seam and damage our base and hurt our military personnel.
Q: What sorts of sensors?
A: There are radars involved. There are electro-optical systems that are involved. … I’m responsible and my command is responsible for the air portion of it, but at a certain range, it transitions to being the base commander’s responsibility to defend the base as they get in closer.
So we have to, through data links and other measures, make sure that the ground commander can see the air picture and vice versa so we can seamlessly hand off that track, if necessary, to make sure that the best system engages it. … There’s both kinetic and nonkinetic ways that we can defeat them from the ground-based systems as well, and that’s part of the layer that I was describing—different overlapping ways to sense and different overlapping ways to defeat. … Sometimes we’ll shoot it down with a fighter, and other times, it’s best knocked out nonkinetically by the ground or kinetically by the ground.
Q: Are you doing that in multiple places?
We do it at all of the AFCENT bases, and then we also do it in support of all of the other bases that are in the region that are not run by AFCENT.
Q: What else has the cooperation with other countries brought about?
A: Hand in hand with the increasing complexity has been the increase in partnerships that we have with fellow air forces here in the region.
There’s three ways that we help General Kurilla meet his objectives. … The first one is to deter state-on-state action from Iran at the state level. By having strong partnerships and making sure that any potential adversary looks across the region and doesn’t just see the U.S. presence but sees the U.S. working together—fully integrated with multiple partners—I think is a very strong deterrence.
The second area … is by assuring partners of our commitment to the region, to peace, and to stability in the Middle East. We show that not only with the combat actions that you and I talked about already, but also by performing defensive exercises with our partners. Also when Gen. [Anthony J.] Cotton from Air Force Global Strike Command sends B-52s or B-1s over into the region on Bomber Task Force missions, that is an assurance to our partners not only that they’re there to help defend the region, but also how quickly they can get over here. … I think we had 10 different countries [that] flew on the wing of those B-52s as they crossed the region. That, I think, is a very important sign of both deterrence and assurance.
Then the third way is to respond if there is an attack on the U.S. or coalition, or on our partners, that we can show with air power how quickly, and with precision and lethality, we can respond to threats where and when needed. And those are often conducted with partners.