WASHINGTON — When Gen. Frank Gorenc was named the head of US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) in 2013, no one could have predicted that just a year later Russia would invade Ukrainian territory, sparking a sense of urgency among NATO countries to strengthen their alliance. Weeks from his retirement later this summer, Gorenc spoke to Defense News during the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 9 about US operations and training in Eastern Europe — an effort called the European Reassurance Initiative by the Obama administration — and the promise the F-35 joint strike fighter holds for US forces in the region.

Could I get your thoughts about how Europe has changed, from a military standpoint, over your tenure as USAFE commander?

I was here in 1984, my first time, and of course the Cold War was raging at that time. We still had substantial infrastructure. So I guess I'll answer that question both politically, and I guess I'll answer it militarily.

Obviously the biggest change I think for Europe, strategically, was we went from a Europe that was focused pretty much on collective defense. The Cold War ended and then there was that period where all of a sudden — not all of a sudden, but over time — NATO became focused on their second mission, crisis management, which the Balkans and Afghanistan kind of fit into. And then of course, President [Vladimir] Putin and [his invasion of] Crimea pulled the whole alliance back into a mindset of collective defense again. So politically, that's what I see as a commander, and I'm watching the alliance wrestle with that.

Militarily, I see a US presence that's 75 percent smaller than it was during the Cold War. I see the transition of NATO, particularly with training in NATO airspace, become restricted because of noise concerns and those kinds of things. And the other thing I see is much like us, with respect to a 75 percent smaller presence, the focus of European countries [has] become much less on defense and more on domestic policies and social programs and those kinds of things.

Do you think the US and its allies are well-positioned right now to deal with the Russian threat?

I guess the answer is, to do what? I'd have to know exactly what that means, but the bottom line is I do think we're positioned properly. One of the other changes in our military is, even though I'm 75 percent smaller with permanently assigned force, I have complete access to the entire United States Air Force through the organizational change of going from an in-garrison force to an expeditionary force, one that's able to shift resources based on the prioritization of our country and our treaty alliances in order to provide assurance and deterrence worldwide.

So with respect to my particular access to air capability, I'm comfortable. With respect to the alliance, as you know the [NATO] Wales summit [in 2014] was an affirmation that most of the allies believe that NATO was not responsive or ready enough, so they set up on a readiness action plan that we're working on even today with respect to how we gain a force that can assure our allies and deter any potential adversary. That's an ongoing process.

Do you think NATO countries are doing enough to meet their military commitment to the alliance?

A: With respect to the Wales summit, yes. There was a commitment to 2 percent, and they're all on the track to get to 2 percent, with maybe the exception of a couple. So it's a reinforcement of the idea that countries do what's in their national interest. And they also prioritize, but I feel that there's a commitment to it. There's a clear path to it. Whether or not we get there is another thing, but I think there's a recognition of the potential threat and the rising threat, particularly in the East and the South, that have to be accommodated, and I think now more than ever, most of the allies are acknowledging that.

In terms of the US budget, it seems like it's going to be another year where we might have a continuing resolution and there's a bit of instability, even though everyone was hoping that wouldn't be the case. If there is another CR, where does that put the Air Force in terms of the European Reassurance Initiative?

I don't know the answer to where it puts us with ERI specifically. Inherent to your question is exactly the concerns that we have. When you're trying to organize, train and equip a military to meet the aspiration of our country, stability in budgeting is very important. So we hope that sequestration, somehow that's mitigated. We hope that there are no extended continuing resolutions in order to keep our program of work going to where we want to go.

And obviously we respect the decision of Congress with respect to Overseas Contingency [Operations] money. That's not baseline budget, but it certainly is reflective of the nation's representatives' concerns for the problems in the world. So as a European guy, I'm very grateful to our Congress for ERI. It's allowed me to do some things that I haven't been able to do within the baseline budget with a specific focus, and we have taken full advantage of that.

So I hope the ERI, as an overseas contingency-funded event, does continue regardless of what happens to the baseline budget and continuing resolutions and all of that other stuff. This is a tough question for me, because I'm not an expert in budgeting, but I do know that stability in budget and sequestration and the continuing threat of sequestration hinders the way that we think to make the best use of the money.

Would you want to see more money for ERI than the $3.4 billion requested in the 2017 budget?

That's a loaded question. I would always want to get more money, and I have a whole bunch of projects I could do if I had more money. If we make that decision, I'm going to make my bid as the air component to be able to get some of that in a way that allows us to actually execute it properly. The money you're talking about, it's $3.4 billion, the majority of that went to the Army, the ground components. And that was a prioritization decision made by our EUCOM [US European Command] commander that reflects his desires. We were very, very grateful to get what we got out of it, and we're off to the races doing our business.

These past couple of days at RIAT, there's been a ton of focus on the F-35. What are your thoughts about how that aircraft can best be utilized in Europe?

It has tremendous multi-role capability. I always remind everybody that a full-spectrum Air Force provides air and space superiority, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], global mobility, strike and command and control. This airplane does four out of five of them. And so it's very flexible. It can do some of those roles simultaneously, and so I think that the interoperability that it affords in execution will elevate the quality of the game from the air. Bottom line is, we'll be able to deliver even more combat power from the air probably in more volume.

That's in execution. But in the organizing, training and equipping area, I see tons of places where I can work with the other European F-35 partners to not only enhance the organization, training and equipping of the capability, but also to save money in the logistics and to save money in the training.

The Air Force is deploying its first F-35s in the early 2020s to RAF Lakenheath, but the current commander told us he'd like to see that happen sooner. Would you like to see USAFE get the F-35 earlier as well?

I would like to get it sooner, too, but the Air Force has a very robust process for the stationing of these aircraft. I've seen the whole plan. I think it's a completely rational plan. The European presence and the amount, the number of airplanes, is good. And by the way, we've already started preparing Lakenhealth for the arrival of the aircraft. So the time is now, and the aircraft will come in 2020. If I could move that up, I would, but the fact of the matter is the base has to be prepared to accept them anyways. So we need to make sure we execute in accordance to what I think is a very well organized plan that reflects the resources that we have and the airplanes available.

When would you want to see operational deployments?

As soon as possible, but that will be possible anyways because we have the first operational squadron undergoing work at Hill Air Force Base. They had a spectacularly successful test at Mountain Home [Air Force Base] already. Remember, the F-35 is a tool in the toolkit. It will be available once we declare IOC [initial operational capability] for deployment within the expeditionary force concept, and quite honestly, I'll probably ask for it.

Will it be prioritized high enough given the world situation, or is there another tool available that's better? I'll let my commander figure that out. But the good news is it will be available for worldwide deployment within the AEF [air expeditionary force] construct as soon as we declare IOC. It's fantastic.

The F-22s have conducted a couple of deployments to Europe, including a recent one this April. Did they play a role with ERI?

They were doing training. We like to bring them over to get the pilots and the aircraft on the ground to see if our current basing structure is enough to accommodate it or identify shortfalls that would hinder the generation of combat power.

Clearly it's a fifth-generation aircraft, and obviously having it on the ground particularly at this time in Europe is an important message. It was basically designed to reinforce the idea that we could get these aircraft within a rotational scheme if we needed it and prioritized high enough. We moved it forward to show the aircraft and to practice operating it in forward locations in the Baltics, in Romania.

So it was an important trip. It was a short trip, but it was one that demonstrated our commitment to the alliance and allowed us to flesh out some organize, train and equip issues that are always resident with introducing new airplanes to a new theater.

Would you want to have an F-22 squadron permanently based in Europe?

Would I want one? Of course I would. Will I get one? Probably not; not now. That's a decision that could always be revisited, but it's not any kind of current discussion right now. As you know, we only bought 187 of them [Ed Note: The Air Force has eight test and 187 operational F-22 aircraft], but the fact of the matter is they are deployable and, given the numbers that we have, they are a low-density asset. So to the extent that they would be forward-based would be wonderful. But if they're based in the States or even if they're based in the Pacific, prioritized high enough, they would be easy to get here.

What are the F-15Cs and A-10s doing to contribute to the European Reassurance Initiative?

We're training with our allies. We're training with our partners. We're doing lots of training requirements particularly with respect to the A-10, we're doing JTAC [joint terminal attack controller] training for all of our allies. Our JTAC forces in Europe are probably one of the best trained forces with live training events because of the A-10. And so we're getting it out there to support the Army exercises, and as you know, there's a whole slew of Army activity that's out there.

So in the end, it's elevating the quality of the joint training that's being done. It's allowing us to do this kind of relationship-building with squadrons of our allies, and so we're getting our folks used to flying in the European environment, and we're just getting them excited about coming to Europe.

Broadly speaking, are you seeing any technology gaps between the Air Force and its potential adversaries in Europe?

I'm not identifying any new technology gaps. What I'm seeing is a closing of the technology gap. It is a narrowing of what our capability is, [compared] to what the enemy can do through a lot of means: gaining technology in their own right, for their own organic platforms, and then using other domains to kind of whittle away at our capability or our effectiveness.

This is why I talk about A2/AD [anti-access, area denial] so often. It's a way that limits our freedom and lowers the effectiveness of our platforms for fear that we'll get shot from the ground. So that's what I see. It's not the development of a new gap, it's a shortening of the gap that we used to enjoy.

It matters. Technology matters. That technology combined with the training that we do in the way that we do it is what makes us the world's greatest air force in the world's greatest alliance. Whenever you see this kind of closing of that gap, as a commander, I worry about it. Because I'm either going to need a new approach or more volume to handle the same challenge.

What do you think is the best way to solve this problem?

I think there has to be a clear enunciation of requirements by the commanders. And I think there has to be a persistent continuation of training opportunities, high-end training opportunities, one that's reflective of what could happen and not just what's happening today. One that takes us beyond what we're doing today. This is the issue of full-spectrum training versus counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism training.

There will come a time where we will not enjoy air superiority. That's what we see. But I know that given the history of how we operate, the Western way of war is to have air superiority because we do not like to put those on the ground at risk from attack on the air.

Not only that, but the Western way of war requires winning 99 to nothing, and not 51 to 49. Because that' 49 is catastrophic. It's usually represented with significant loss of resource but more importantly, significant loss of people.

And I think the Chilcot report coming out this week was an example of, in reflection, the documented lack of equipage and training for the British air force when they were committed to conflict. I don't want to make that mistake. That's what the F-35 is about. I want to win 99 to nothing.

Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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