This interview was originally published March 1 at 4 a.m. ET; it was updated March 3 at 8:45 p.m.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Two years after forces under Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Gen. Frank Gorenc, head of US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), still believes that Russia is the No. 1 threat to his area of responsibility. Gorenc has watched with rising concern as Moscow intervened in Syria with little regard for civilian casualties, repeatedly invaded our allies' air space, and demonstrated a troubling long-range strike capability.
In the face of the growing threat, Gorenc is working tirelessly to reassure our allies in the region. This year he will have more resources to work with: President Obama's latest budget request more than quadrupled the amount of overseas contingency operations money funneled into what is being called the European Reassurance Initiative. But there is always more that could be done.
Gorenc spoke with Defense News on Feb. 26 about what Russia's resurgence means for the Air Force.
Top Pentagon commanders have labeled Russia the number one threat to America. Would you agree with that statement and how does that impact you from a force and training perspective?
You view the world from where you sit. I’m at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, I look east and I see a pretty powerful Russia. I see a Russia that has changed borders. I see a Russia that continues to operate outside of the international world order, all of the rules. I see a Russia whose strategy is “admit nothing, deny everything,” launch counter accusations and in essence say whatever you want to say without fear of any kind of scrutiny. And I see a Russia that has demonstrated a logistical capability, long-range strike capability. Obviously they have their integrated air defense system (IADS). When they deploy Russians they deploy IADS. And then we have watched them operate. I see them talk about precision but I don’t see any precision. That bothers me a little bit.
When you look at the totality of Russia and what they have done, I have very little faith in what they say. I’m more interested in how they act and up to this point it hasn’t been good. I think we are doing a lot to reassure our allies in Europe, but I think it is safe to say that they want us to do more. So it is what it is and we will keep working that. But for now whether or not they are number one is irrelevant. They are number one for me and growing. I take them seriously.
Are you concerned that the Pentagon’s cumbersome foreign military sales (FMS) process is driving our potential customers and our allies to buy equipment from Russia?
Yes. I think it’s a problem. I think if they can’t get it from us and they want it then they go somewhere else. That is the risk that we take. Am I worried about it? I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it except to say that I realize that if that happens, operating together is going to be that much harder to do. I can’t do any machine-to-machine interface with them because of the cyber work. Now I have to develop the tactics, techniques, procedures or concept of operations that allows us to work together and we are going to have to overcome the limitation of not being able to communicate.
The fact of the matter is there are allies who operate Soviet-era equipment and Soviet-era surface-to-air missile systems. In the end that is not something you hook together. You have to just deconflict it by geography or some other method. There are lots of barriers to entry on interoperability when you are not operating the same equipment.
Does Russian aggression highlight the need for a fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35 in Europe?
I think it makes it inevitable. The proliferation of the anti-access, aerial-denied (A2AD) environment makes it necessary. Russia has gone into the 21st century. They are fielding some pretty capable equipment. They are layering them in such a way that allows for a redundancy, they have demonstrated a willingness to continue to spend on defense because they believe that those A2AD environments are a direct counter to what we are doing with the NATO reforms. I don’t think that is coincidental. I think that potentially Putin is taking away the very readiness and responsiveness gains that we are trying to do through reorganization and positioning.
Last year, F-22 fighters were flying in Europe. Were they part of the European Reassurance Initiative?
Right now we do have a theater security package of A-10s and F-15s on the books, funded by the ERI. Up to this point F-22s have not been part of that. So the only way that I would ever get an F-22 is for a shorter duration. During the deployment, we trained against them. We tested our infrastructure to make sure that they fit in the shelter and obviously you can do measurements with that, but it sure is nice having the machine there for any kind of unattended consequences. It introduces to our European allies another aircraft. And then of course we gain the benefits of the reassurance effect.
Will you consider a permanent base of F-22s in Europe?
I don’t think I’m there yet. It might come to that. I think the F-22s have been heavily involved in Syria. They have been heavily tasked to do missions worldwide and my view of it as a responsible combatant commander if I don’t specifically need the F-22. Although it would certainly be beneficial if it was an F-22, these tasks can be done with another aircraft. I am just trying to make good use of that asset. We only have 186 of them, and 30 of them I think are in training. I try to be a good steward of the asset and the money.
When are you going to get the first squadrons of F-35s in Europe? What unique capabilities will the F-35 bring?
It looks like we will get our first F-35 squadron in 2021. It is going to bring the ability to strike. It is going to be able to deliver air superiority. The beauty of the F-35 is for the first time ever we have an airplane that literally can do four out of five core competencies. It can do air and space superiority, it can do strike, it can do intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and it can do command and control. I personally can’t wait. I wish it was higher in the priority to come here, but I am accepting of that. It is soon that we begin the process of laying down the infrastructure needed to work that airplane. I think we are in good shape.
I would love to have both the F-22 and the F-35 in Europe. They are that complementary. But we don’t have no plans nor have we discussed anything about forward basing any F-22s because we do it via a rotational basis.
What would you like to see from the new B-21 bomber in terms of capability when you eventually get that asset?
I think in the end it will be what the B-2 delivers, only better. More reliable. And the capability of that aircraft obviously with its stealth characteristics opens up a lot of targeting capability. To the extent that they can, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the improvements in whatever you can do to contribute to the ISR mission. There are not a lot of details on it to be perfectly honest. But that is what I am expecting for it. I need it to be more persistent. I need it to be more long range. I need it to be mission capable at a very high rate.
How do you balance your mission in Europe and Africa, two very different regions?
I think there is almost a blending of the national or the security challenges between Europe and Africa and it has only been exacerbated because of the migration, the refugees. Clearly, what you have seen, the Mediterranean Sea is not big enough to stem that flow particularly from Libya. And so to that extent the challenges for Europe are challenges for Africa, particularly Northern Africa and Central and Southern Africa. And it turns out I don’t have to really balance it. Whenever there is something that needs to be done relatively quickly, I am able to leverage the assigned forces in Europe.
How important is interoperability with our allies in Europe and Africa?
It is the bedrock of the alliance. We spend a lot of time making sure that we are able to fight tonight, fight tomorrow, fight on short notice. That activity goes all the way from the way that you manage a data base to the way that you train your helicopters to the way that you fly your helicopters.
Africa is a little bit different though. There are very few countries in Africa that are remotely close to the capability that we have. In the end we are able to have great effect on some of those air forces because they are at the level of just developing personnel to be able to do the basic air force 101: the running of an air field, how to do medical stuff, all of those support functions. We see great improvements in their ability to do the things that would support air. But it is much harder to be completely interoperable in Africa just because the difference in capability is so large. We have to go down there and meet them and then drag them up the hill. Not in a pejorative way, but encourage them up that hill as they try to create something that can be useful in a partnership.
The Navy is in talks with Iceland to use the air base at Keflavik for maritime patrol aircraft. How will the Air Force benefit from such a scenario?
I love Keflavik. It has got great capacity. It has got great infrastructure. We also do Icelandic air surveillance mission. Under the NATO flag we do three rotations a year of three weeks where we send fighters up there and they operate and they do air surveillance mission. I also love it because what I’ve learned in my travels, particularly to Norway and to Sweden and to Finland, is they’re concerned about Russian activity in the Arctic. We go back to the projection of power -- in order to do that you have to have bases. In the end I think we are going to benefit from the Navy’s commitment there. And then of course it preserves a very, very key strategically located base with respect to things that could happen from the north.