Q: How is U.S. Air Forces in Europe operationalizing the Agile Combat Employment concept?
A: Through 2021, we had several wing-level activities … for us to work through the command and control at the operational level that would facilitate the necessary situational understanding—and then decision making—for anything that would require Agile Combat Employment. We have made tremendous progress. I’m very proud of our Airmen. And I will tell you, probably the best part about Agile Combat Employment is the empowerment piece for our Airmen. They are fired up to do this, and to me, that has been really the largest benefit that I’m seeing out of this. We’re going to get the operational, the strategic capabilities built over time, but getting back to our roots of distributing decentralized execution, and then empowering our Airmen at the forward edge is the foundation of ACE, and that’s what we’re seeing happening.
Q: Have you declared initial operational capability for ACE yet? What would that mean, and how will that compare to full operational capability?
A: We have not yet declared IOC. With everything that’s going on in the world right now, we’ve kind of been focused on those other activities. But I think from a commander’s perspective, I’m very comfortable with where we’re at. We’re looking at what the right timing would be to declare IOC, and I have no doubt we’ll do it in 22.
But it is, as you highlight just a point on the journey, so as we look at the full operational capability, we’re still working through the specifics of what that definition actually is. The key challenge, really, will be the logistics piece of this. And for us, in Europe, that means working closely with our partners to make sure they understand what the concept is. Through the wings’ activities, they’ve brought our partners, our allies into those discussions, and that’s been really helpful. Now they’re quite interested in [ACE], and trying to expand their understanding and work with us on that.
As we sort through the logistics, which is everything from weapons, to fuel, to access, spacing, we’ve now had those conversations [with our allies]. But we need to think our way through what FOC really would be before we can throw down what those specifics are and what that criteria is, and sort out how long it will take us to get there.
Q: You mentioned things going on in the world right now. Can you describe USAFE’S ability to quickly protect its forces and to defend NATO allies in the event of Russian aggression?
A: The work that’s been occurring over the past couple of months to draw USAFE and AIRCOM [Allied Air Command] close together from the headquarters perspective has been tremendous. We have made huge progress. Because as you can imagine, right now, we’ve been doing a fair amount of planning. As USAFE staff works through options along the U.S. line and then the AIRCOM does it in the NATO sphere, we want to make sure there’s a clear understanding of, not only what the scheme of maneuver would be, but importantly, we’ve got the right people talking to each other so as the U.S. makes decisions it’s aligned with where we’re going in NATO. That’s been really important.
As we think about our posture, you’ve seen we’ve been moving airplanes in support of NATO activities. That’s been done internally, but we’ve been able to work that between USAFE and AIRCOM because the planners are talking to each other. And I’ll take that a step further, it’s not only the people, but we’ve sorted out a lot of the interoperability challenges we’ve had of sharing info from our classified systems to the NATO systems. I think some think it just happens, right, but that takes an awful lot of work. How do we come together to produce a single air tasking order? We figured that out. So there’s some really specific activities that we’ve made progress on that ensure alignment between U.S. activities and NATO activities, because, as the Secretary General’s talked about, as [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd J.] Austin has talked about, this is about making sure that we keep the Alliance strong and cohesive. And the U.S. being a member of NATO needs to play a very important role in fostering that attitude as we work together to manage any potential activity that could happen here in the near future.
Q: Do you have the air and space assets, and the people that you need? And if not, what shortages are you experiencing?
A: We’ve done our analysis of [what we will need] should the activities accelerate. We find ourselves with the requirement for more assets. We have worked through that. I don’t really want to get into the details, but you can imagine if we find ourselves in a situation where there could be some increased activities, there probably will be some specific capabilities we’d want to get to.
The other part that’s important is how we leverage our people internally to take a long view. In other words, you can sprint for a while, but at some point, we probably need to plus-up the number of people in our headquarters to make sure we can manage 24/7 ops for a period of time. And we’re looking at how we do that with our NATO partners and make sure we’ve got the right presence in the right locations. That’s really important to me, as the commander, to make sure that we’ve got the right liaison entities and the appropriate headquarters. We spend a lot of time talking about platforms, but the people part of it is also really important, particularly as it relates to the command and control requirements for something that would be a fairly challenging scenario.
Q: What is USAFE doing to make sure it can properly defend its bases in Europe?
A: We continue to refine the inner workings of the software capabilities and the sensors that are feeding those systems. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to get some cross-domain solutions. We’ve focused largely on the bottom- up approach of taking the sensors that are available to us and feeding them into a system that allows us to provide shared understanding of the situation, so that decisions can be made more quickly. I think, importantly, what we are trying to march to is how do we help build an architecture that takes the data and then doesn’t require a myriad of people to make the decision, but refines it in a way that says, ‘Hey, a specific target is here. Here’s what it recommends you do.’ And I’m oversimplifying it a little bit, but then as this hits another range, here’s the next step. That’s the kind of matrix we’re working through from a software perspective, to advance our capabilities, and we’re sharing this with big Air Force. I think there’ll be a broader discussion at the Air Force level on where we go.
Q: You’re referencing the Ramstein Air Defense Systems Integration Laboratory in Germany, but how do you expand that elsewhere in the theater?
A: In the near future, we’re going to have the RADSIL at a place where we’re going to start to take the brains of the system and move it. We’re working through whether we go to Spangdahlem [Air Base, Germany], or down to Aviano [Air Base, Italy] next. We haven’t decided for sure yet, but Aviano will be part of this. And again, as we think about the relationships with our allies, because we are relying on them as we think about the sensors that are available, the goal is to use that collective defense of all of us as we’re focused initially on the base. We see a lot of potential with this, the brain, if you will, to be able to leverage that. And we’ll see how big Air Force responds as we think about how we take this capability and grow it. We’re always constrained on resources, and if you think about some of the peer fight potentialities that could happen, defending our bases is going to be an important part of how we execute our mission.
Q: Is there sufficient airspace and air training opportunities in the European theater?
A: We have made a huge amount of progress as we prepared to bring our F-35s in. As you know, we’ve got the 495th [Fighter Squadron] up at [RAF] Lakenheath, U.K., with four jets now. And so in preparation for that, we did a whole bunch of work with the RAF in the U.K. to refine our airspace and work closely with them to ensure that the training airspace would be appropriate for both our F-35s and their F-35s. Then the Dutch, the Norwegians, and their F-35s, that airspace to the north has really got us in a good space. As you look to the south, I was just in Italy, and we’re working closely with them. The wintertime can be a little challenging here, but they afford us an opportunity to go back and look at how do you have the right distances to fly in altitudes. And then you’ve got to think your way through emitters and those kinds of things, which the Italians are doing, and I see some potential there.
We’ve got work to do, but we’re going to work closely with our allies and see how we do that so as to be able to ensure that we have those options here in Europe. And while we’ll still go back to the states for Red Flag and Green Flag, we really want to be able to incorporate our F-35s and fourth-gen capabilities with our partners here in theater, because that really drives home the interoperability requirements. And, frankly, the trust and confidence between the different squadrons to be able to work together. So, I think we’re in a good place.
It’s also important to recognize that as we bring on fifth-gen, we have to have the simulator capability, the virtual capability, to train at the very high-end. There’s some things you just can’t do out on the range with these fifth-gen airplanes, so we’re working very hard to ensure that we can connect in the simulators with our F 35s, with the U.K., and then with all our F-35 partners, so that we can train together in the virtual environment. Because to me that is fundamental to our long-term success, as we think about interoperability and recognizing that if something happens here, we’re going to be in it together. We don’t want to have to figure it out on Day One. Let’s go work through it, and if we can, do this virtually, where Norwegians are flying out of their simulators, and the Dutch, us, the Italians. It’s powerful, and that’s the path we’re on, and we’re going to figure that out.