WASHINGTON — Gen. Tod Wolters took command of US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa [USAFE and AFAFRICA] this August, coming in during a time of increased challenges, namely the military resurgence of Russia that has prompted the US military to boost its European presence. Wolter's first priority will be to continue to beef up training, especially in the Baltic nations. Later on, the US may have an ace up its sleeve with the arrival of the F-35 at Air Force bases in Europe starting in the early 2020s. But in both cases, integrating with allies and partner nations to maximize aircraft and training ranges will likely prove to be the biggest obstacle, he said.
Wolters caught up with Defense News on Sept. 19 at the annual Air Force Association conference for his first-ever interview in his new role.
What do you think your top priorities will be as commander of USAFE and AFAFRICA?
When we talk about the European environment, the number one thing that comes to mind is to make sure that we have a heavy, heavy focus on well-trained and ready forces. The next consideration from a priority standpoint is to make sure we have the appropriate access to locations so that we can force-multiply with the resources that we have. And then the next priority is to work on the interoperability aspect and make sure that the resources that we do take forward have the ability to talk to each other. And then our final concern, from a priority standpoint with the European theater, is to make sure that we're always in the business of partner-building, day in and day out. And as long as we have those four priorities on the cross check, we're going to find ourselves in a position — with the training that has currently been available and what we forecast to be available—we'll be in very good shape.
The priorities are actually reversed with my AFAFRICA hat. We talk about partner building first, then we talk about interoperability, then we talk about access, and then finally we talk about well, well trained and ready forces.
How does what is happening with Russia factor into how you're thinking about those priorities?
It takes me straight to the first priority of trained forces that are ready 24/7/365, and then it immediately puts me in a position where I scrutinize on a second-by-second basis the number of exercises that we partake in and the number of training events that we partake in. And our goal is the pursuit of relentless training to ensure that our forces are as ready as they could possibly be, and if Russia takes a look at what they're doing, they'll have to say to themselves, "Oh my goodness. That force that happens to be set to the West is really working very, very hard to ensure that they're ready."
So I would just tell you that the activities that have occurred with the actors off to the East recently have put me in a position where I continue to go back to my number one priority and increase the focus on training and ready forces.
Are you getting enough resources to do that training mission?
We are, and you have to ask yourself what exactly is it that you're training for, and we know what that is. And the resources that we currently have are sufficient. I will tell you that most of us are in the business of finding ways to get more resources. And if in fact I were able to get more resources, I would ensure that before I take on those resources, I had the appropriate training program in place so that once I had my hands on those resources I could get the most juice for the squeeze.
Why is that important, and do you have any ideas on how you can do that better?
If we bring a theater security package over to the region, a six ship of F-16s from the Indiana Air National Guard, and we bring those six aircraft and land them at Spangdahlem [Air Force Base in Germany], and we subsequently make the decision that we would like to forward-deploy two or four of those aircraft to Estonia. I would need to make sure — given the fact that I've got additional resources, those six F-16s — that the conditions at Estonia are compatible with the capability of the resource that I would put forward and the environment is mature enough to where the activities that I use those F-16s for will allow the participants to improve their skill sets. If I haven't matured the environment, for example in Estonia, as an installation to receive F-16s to the point where they could train, I could get all the resources I want to, but if I can't take advantage of the environment, I can't improve training.
And with the European Reassurance Initiative, we've been able to improve the conditions at several of our airfields up in the Baltics. And we've had the luxury of bringing theater security packages into the region, forward-deploying them to the Baltics and maximizing their training because the conditions that have been set at those forward bases as a result of the contributions from the European Reassurance Initiative have allowed us the opportunity to have quality training.
So when you talk about maturing the battlespace, are you talking about making sure that the bases have what they need for different systems to operate? A couple of years ago, the conversation was centered on taking assets out of Europe rather than deploying more. So is that the problem you're dealing with?
It's not a problem. We've been able—through cooperation—to ensure the airfield itself is compatible. Taxiways, barriers on both ends, appropriate air traffic-control facilities. And once the air assets get airborne, are the ranges large enough, and do they have few enough restrictions to where we could get the appropriate training? And we've had fantastic cooperation from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in those very areas as far as improving the conditions for better training.
On the technical side, if you were to have more resources to buy new technologies or have more training capacity, what would want to spend that money on? What do you think are the most important priorities?
Integration. Taking air assets in the air domain and accomplishing missions and ensuring while you were improving the capability of the air assets and the air domain, the tactics, techniques and procedures that are applied and the lessons learned from those activities are integrated into the joint fight. So what we do in the air needs to be compatible with what takes place in the maritime [domain] and it needs be compatible with what takes place at the ground domain. And technological solutions that facilitate information flow through those three domains is very important. And those are areas that are in work, and we'll continue to improve upon.
You talked about fourth- and fifth-generation integration during your speech, and you're going to be the first overseas commander to get the F-35. Once that enters into the battlespace, what do you want to do with it? What sort of opportunities do you see?
Enormous opportunities. It will serve as a fantastic force multiplier. The vignette that I would pass, that we all have to understand, is if you take a fifth-generation asset and you throw it into a battlespace, and it goes against fourth-generation adversaries, it truly forces those fourth-generation adversaries to have to jump inside of a boxing ring and do battle with an invisible Mohammed Ali. That's not fun for an adversary of a fifth-generation asset.
What you also have to consider is, in that same equation, if I attempted to put Mohammed Ali into a boxing ring and he was invisible and he was going to box two adversaries, if in the middle of that engagement I force Mohammed Ali to take on a partner that is visible, imagine the challenges that Mohammed Ali would have to prosecute against those two other boxers and protect his fourth-generation partner.
There's a lot of dialogue that has to take place. There are a lot of considerations from a command-and-control aspect that need to be taken account, and we are working all of those issues as we speak, from a US perspective and from a national perspective with the nations we expect to fly with. And they have embraced this opportunity to bring those assets into theater, and we're making incredible gains on the integration of a fourth-generation asset with a fifth-generation asset with the nations that we anticipate to fly with.
What are some of the specific challenges, and what is the Air Force doing with the joint force and its partners to help solve them?
The first and foremost step is the acquisition of the F-35 by our NATO partners, and the information exchange that will occur from us to them as they embrace the F-35, which is a fifth-generation asset. So that in itself is a monumental leap in capability, and we feel that we have to maximize the information exchange with our allied partners who will eventually fly the F-35, so that they are as well prepared as possible once they get that asset.
And through an exhaustive exercise and training program as we fly today, any situation to where we work fourth- and fifth-generation integration when we fly as the US with any partners, all of the lessons learned from those exercises and training events — to the max extent practical — we are exchanging with the nations that will ultimately embrace the F-35, fly the F-35, and be a position where they will employ fourth- and fifth-generation assets together.
Are there any particular solutions that you're looking for in this arena? Sure, a lot of NATO partners will get the F-35, but the Air Force and many of its allies will rely on fourth-generation fighters.
One of the "technological solutions" is to improve your command and control of those assets to where you can ensure that those assets have a medium with which to communicate, whether that's with data link or whether that's with voice. And you have an outside agency who serves as a command-and-control node that can help assist and monitor that communication flow. Those are the technological areas that we've worked very, very hard on. And what we hope to have accomplished by the time our allied partners acquire and begin to fly the F-35 is those information exchanges and the technological gaps that exist, in certain areas, are bridged to where we have that comfortable communication from either a voice or data link, from flight-to-flight and to an outside command-and-control agency.
Are there specific data links that you're looking at that would be used?
There are some, and it's beyond the scope and classification of this discussion. But I can assure you that the enterprise is working very, very hard to ensure that in the area of communication between assets, we're maximized for success.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/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.