Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of USAFE, is President Donald Trump’s nominee to head US European Command. Photo: Mike Tsukamoto/staff
Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, sat down for an interview with Air Force Magazine Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele and Pentagon Editor Brian W. Everstine at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Two weeks later, President Donald J. Trump nominated Wolters to be the next commander of US European Command. Wolters discussed his priorities for the region, how US forces need to exercise, and where the US needs to improve its posture.
Q: You’ve got a full list of exercises and deployments lined up this year. What are your priorities?
A: No. 1, we want to make sure that we continue to improve our posture from a readiness perspective. We want to make sure that we look at all of our activities and ensure that they’re aligned with improving indications and warnings, improving command and control [and] feedback, and improving our mission command. Those are the items that make us a more ready force, so our lethality is better, our resiliency is better, our responsiveness is better. If we continue to make gains in all of those areas, we’ll be in a position where we will get better.
What’s a little bit different about the exercises that are coming up is the setting of most of our exercises—from an air component perspective, and from a joint perspective, and from a coalition perspective. Instead of all the exercises we’ve embraced in the past, focusing on about Day 150 to Day 180 of a confrontation where you’re at Phase Three [of a] mass-on-mass confrontation, we’re trying to take some of these exercises and change the setting to about Day 10, where you’re actually starting a conflict and you’re melding in all of those components in all the domains to achieve the appropriate effect and build early momentum in the campaign to breed success. When you have exercises that focus on the start of a confrontation, what you also test is your ability to bring logistics to bear quicker and faster. As you know, that’s a challenge for all of us. I’ve yet to meet a commander that will look you in the eye and tell you that, “I’m really happy with how fast everything shows up.” If it gets here in one hour, you look at somebody and say, “Tomorrow I want to get here in 55 minutes.” And the next day you’ll say, “I want it here in 30 minutes.” So that’s the focus, that’s what we’re thinking about from an air component perspective as we step into the summer of ’19.
Q: You have said your posture is not perfect in Europe, but you’ll be effective with what you have. How can you go about meeting those shortfalls?
A: Without getting into current ops, or specificities on systems that are coming into the theater, you always want to shoot faster, you always want to shoot more accurately, and you always want to shoot longer. So, you want to be able to put more targets at risk across the potential battle space, wherever that battle space may be. With the current posture, we’re probably not as fast or as deep as any commander would prefer, and to be more effective you would like to be able, for example, to deliver fires from all domains. Not just from the air, but from the maritime, from SOF, from space, from cyber, and certainly from land. As we look into the future about the potential of each one of those domains possessing the capability to deliver fires, we want to make sure that from an alignment perspective, and a deconfliction perspective, and a coordination perspective, the effect that we want to get in the battle space is exactly the one that we will get as a result of meshing all of those domains together … on a potential target. If you do that … you create tremendous challenges with a potential foe, because they have to defend, not just against what may come at [them] from the air, but also what may come at [them] from the land and from the maritime. In those areas, we want to make sure that we take a good look at what each one of the components are doing. What I’m doing in the air domain, what [US Army Europe Command Commander Lt. Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli] is doing in the ground domain, for example, and ensure that we have fine-tuned the effect that both of us can deliver for a given problem set and a potential battle space location, to make sure that we’ve got the right fire at the right time coming from the right domain. Those are areas … none of us are satisfied with at this time. [US European Commander Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti] has worked very, very hard to improve our posture, to make sure that we can improve in that area. Over the course of the last two years, we’ve improved significantly in delivering multi-domain effects to include the fact that at his US EUCOM headquarters, he has a Joint Effects Group that actually focuses on that very challenge.
Q: So that’s at the four-star level. How do you push that authority down? How do you achieve that kind of coordinated multi-domain effect further down the chain
A: This goes back to the campaign design. You have the best indications and warnings possible, you have the best command and control/feedback possible, and you have the best mission command possible. Mission command is a strategic term that applies to mission-type orders the tactical-level warrior at the tip of the spear is making about what effect that he or she wants to deliver to the battle space.
If your command and control/feedback mechanism is what it should be, once that decision is made, and once that tactical-level warrior has made the decision to deliver that effect in the battle space, there has to be enough sensitivity and fidelity in that command and control/feedback architecture to get that information back to the commander as quickly as you can get it, so the commander can determine the effect in the battle space and determine right versus wrong, and make corrections on the spot. …
Militaries are great when you, as a commander, are able to gauge how far you can let a tactical-level warrior go and be in a position to where he or she can execute the clear guidance given by the commander. … If the commander’s guidance and intent is fuzzy, the tactical-level operator will be confused and concerned at the tip of the spear and you start to get into problem areas. Luckily, in our 21st century US Department of Defense military, I believe our commanders are doing as [well] as we ever have—certainly during the time that I’ve been in the United States Air Force—at giving crystal clear direction and guidance about commander’s intent and what the objective is in the battle space. From that, we produce numerous documents that give the tactical-level warrior clear guidance on what he or she can and can’t do. We’re pleased to report that with the training that we have and the capability of our floor-level operators, they’re making good decisions. They’re executing the commander’s direction and guidance and the commander’s intent.
Q: And they feel confident that they can do that without being second-guessed?
A: They do. And it starts with this incredible word called trust, and how you train, and how you build trust, and how you build confidence. We’re seeing that the 21st century commanders—in all of our services—get it when it comes to trust and really get it when it comes to empowerment. Part of that trust is, when you’re training and when you’re exercising, and a tactical-level warrior does something and you don’t think it’s right, you have an after action review section and there’s candid feedback on what took place, so we can make the corrections—get it fixed so if you have to do it in real-world conflict, you’ll be in a position to execute better.
Q: The Air Force recently stood up an MQ-9 detachment in Poland. The MQ-9s to date have mostly operated in a more permissive environment. What is the importance of having those assets in this region? What is the mission going to be?
A: Obviously, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance as it builds upon better indications and warnings. So, with an MQ-9 asset in that region, as you can well imagine, given the distances that it flies and the locale that it happens to be in, we should be able to improve our understanding of the battle space in the vicinity of Poland, plus the Baltics. That’s the whole purpose: Improve our indications and warnings so that, if tasked, we can respond quicker than we ever have in the past. The MQ-9 addition will do exactly that.
Q: When you talk to your allies in the region, what sort of help or assistance do they want from the U.S. Air Force?
A: Generally, things that we can do to contribute to indications and warnings, command and control, and feedback, as well as the ability to neutralize a potential enemy. That’s something that the nations ask from the United States; it’s something that the nations ask from all of the other countries. I would tell you that, of the 29 nations that exist in NATO, they’re always interested in anything that the US can contribute to improve indications and warnings and command and control and feedback. And they’re certainly not opposed to anything that any other nation can contribute to improve their ability to neutralize a potential foe.
Q: There has been increased funding for the European Deterrence Initiative in recent years. What is the focus of the EDI in the near future
A: There’s infrastructure improvements for the sake of improving readiness. There are contributions in the European Deterrence Initiative for the sake of improving our ability to exercise and train. The pot of money that was doled out last year—we believe that this year it’ll be about the same size—which is very good for all the services. So if you could imagine yourself in General Scaparrotti’s shoes, he’s got to make gains in infrastructure to improve posture so that we can close on the potential foe quicker. Obviously, we have to make gains with respect to the readiness of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. That typically occurs through a really robust training and exercise plan that focuses on the right area of a conflict and has the right balance with respect to the contributions from all the domains, and the EDI is providing just that. So we’re very pleased.
Q: Can you talk about any specific ongoing projects
A: I’ll just give you one that’s a great example: Amari in Estonia. With each passing day, we see improvements on the ramp, so there’s better ability to store fire aircraft if they want to come pay a visit. There’s better ability to receive a C-130 and offload pallets, and we’re also seeing improvement in the ATC, the air-traffic control area. The tower is new, and with each passing day, the air traffic controllers are figuring out how to use the radios, figuring out where to surveil, who is coming in and out of the airspace. With each passing day, when you have an operator who visits Amari, Estonia, they walk away better trained because the environment that they’re working in is more ready with its ability to receive goods, and with its ability to receive forces to promote indications and warnings, and command and control.
Q: What are your challenges, especially as you push East
A: The biggest challenge is having the posture that you feel comfortable with, with respect to closing in on a potential foe. We want to get the posture to the point to where we’re in [a] position … where nobody will ever consider violating the sovereign skies, lands, or seas of the NATO nations that are in that region.
Q: You talk about improving posture. Estonia is a good example in improving the facilities on the ground so you can receive aircraft and control aircraft and see what’s going on. Can you describe others
A: For example, we just talked about an MQ-9 that’s located in Poland that improves indications and warnings. That MQ-9 is going to be in a position to where the area that it will most likely start flying in is in the vicinity of the Baltics. That’s an improvement in readiness right there, because we have better indications and warnings, [and] because we’ll have more eyes on the battle space … or potential battle space.