NATO partners 'remain critically important for stability and peace, not just in Europe,' said Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa. (Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Wilson/Air Force)
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The last decade for the U.S. was dominated by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the next decade looks to be focused on the Pacific. But the Pentagon’s strongest alliances still rest in Europe.
Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, has a unique, dual-hatted role, one that has him working with advanced air powers and fledgling services at the same time. This interview was conducted on Feb. 20, before the crisis in Ukraine erupted. In response to a March 6 follow-on question, Gorenc said the situation in the Crimea underscores the value of the U.S. Air Force’s forward presence in Europe.
“For 10 years, we have cultivated partnerships and enhanced interoperability through Baltic Air Policing. Our close interaction with partners and allies enables us to sustain ready air forces capable of maintaining regional security,” Gorenc said.
Q. We hear a lot about the “pivot” to Asia, and we’re still focused on the Arabian Gulf region. So why should Europe remain a priority?
A. There’s a lot of good answers to that question. First of all, it’s in a great location, even with the fact that we’re engaged still in the Middle East and we’re doing the rebalance to the Pacific. The capabilities that are resident in Europe are ideally located to basically go in every direction where we may have security interests. You can support operations in Africa, certainly support operations in the Middle East like we have, [and also] in the High North. We’re forward, we’re ready and we’re ready now. This location allows us to execute any decision made if it involves airpower in a very quick way. This decision, for a very small part of the budget, gives us the ability to use force without having to do it rotationally.
The second reason is we are part of the world’s greatest alliance [in NATO], and so all of our partners inside of the alliance continue to remain critically important for stability and peace, not just in Europe. So we need to continue to develop those relationships inside of Europe.
Q. Do you communicate with NATO allies on what capabilities are the most important?
A. The fact that resources are shrinking makes it even more important. Clearly, there’s a standard for NATO with respect to budgets, [although] quite honestly, not everybody is there for obvious reasons or because of national reasons.
Some countries are punching way above their weight even though they’re small countries, and they’re providing needed capabilities in Afghanistan. There’s lots of good examples of that, but in the end, the fact that those budgets are going down and the fact that everybody is affected by fiscal austerity provides even more of an impetus to leverage the interoperability of what NATO provides. It’s more important now than ever, and NATO enables that.
It’s obviously much easier when you’re operating the same equipment. An example would be those partners that are buying the F-35. It will be much easier. For those that aren’t buying the F-35, we’re going to have to do exactly what we’re doing with our fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft inside of our Air Force and inside of the joint force. We’re going to have to work really hard to make sure that we do very important modernization.
Q. Are there certain countries that have carved out their own skill sets? And how do you encourage this?
A. Obviously in Europe, we have 28 partners. We started with a core group of people. We have air forces that are close to near-peer capability to us, certainly on a smaller scale globally. And then we have some countries that are fledgling in their air forces.
An example of a capability that we needed, and that some of these countries responded to, was the joint terminal air control. These are countries that have joint terminal air controllers that have been contributing to the fight in Afghanistan; they don’t even have airplanes, and they stepped up to the plate. If they weren’t there, that would have to be done by the U.S. or one of the more high-end coalition partners. We encourage them and identify areas where they could help.
Q. Obviously, that’s a more advanced situation than in Africa. Are there lessons learned from Europe that can be transferred?
A. I’ll give you a good example. We started a program called state partnership programs, where [Air National] Guard units develop a relationship with some of the partners in Europe, and that program works really well. So that model got basically transposed to Africa. There are eight state partnership programs that are active in Africa, and they’re developing a relationship. Those little steps go a long way, and quite honestly, those little steps in a country that has a fledgling air force allows them to make enormous gains. In Africa, there are some air forces that have some capability, but they’re in the early stages, they need to develop the human capital.
Q. Is the end goal a NATO in Africa?
A. No. Well, not specifically. NATO was formed at a time where there was a very, very large threat. There was a focus. It had a specific purpose. Maybe later on in the future, there will be countries inside of Africa that want to address a regional issue and they’ll get together, and we can help them there. As far as a vision for an African NATO, I don’t see one. But there are organizations [in] Africa that kind of provide that. The classic example would be the African Union, [which] along with the French, responded in the Central African Republic.
Q. Looking at the next 10 to 15 years of airpower in Africa, what are the key components to develop?
A. I think mobility is certainly going to be a key requirement in Africa. The scale of Africa is just unbelievably enormous, and the infrastructure in Africa to move things is not as developed as we would like it. So often, you have to [fly] over, not on the road, so I think that’s going to be critical for a long time.
Q. Given the growing importance of Africa, should your role be split at some point to allow greater focus in both regions?
A. No, I think it’s working out. We’re able to accommodate the differences because of the flexibility of airpower and the ability to do command and control.
I don’t foresee a requirement to split that out in the near future, if ever, because I think we have the capacity to do it.
I’m happy that we’re in the configuration that we are. It is true that the tasks in Africa are different, but in the end, in a weird way, they’re the same. It requires mobility, it requires command and control.
Q. Are you concerned you could lose the capability to do both missions given the federal budget situation?
A. No, I’m not. I think it depends on what you’re talking about with respect to budgets. ... We did suffer in the sequester. It affected our ability to do the building partnership capacity [mission] that is a firm element of our strategy — those kinds of interactions we’re trying to leverage because they promote interoperability, common thought on tactics, techniques and procedures. I’m not worried about executing the core missions that need to be done because we always do those. The question becomes, can we do the building partnership that is necessary to sustain the benefits of coalitions of the willing, and certainly the benefits of a more expanded aspiration for NATO?