ID=24701441When Gen. Frank Gorenc, head of US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), arrived at the 2014 Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida, he carried with him a message that Europe was still relevant for the US Air Force. Weeks later, Russia invaded Ukrainian territory, setting off a new round of NATO air policing efforts and operations. One year later, no one is asking Gorenc why Europe is relevant. He spoke with Defense News on Feb. 12 about how his world has changed in the last 12 months.

Q. A year ago, we discussed the argument for keeping USAFE strong. How has that situation changed since?

A. Well, it has fundamentally shifted in a couple of ways, because clearly the Ukraine situation has reinvigorated the collective security part of NATO. As a result of those issues, the readiness and the responsiveness of NATO was once again re-evaluated, and many people didn't like what they saw. So, the Wales Summit directed the Readiness Action Plan implementation, which is an across-the-board push for more readiness, more responsiveness. It comes in two areas: assurance and adaptation. Assurance is things that reassure our allies, particularly on the eastern side — the Baltics, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria.

What came out of that was a program called the European Reassurance Initiative. In the end, that's about a billion dollars, of which we got $300 million. It allows us to do some extra exercises this year and it allows us to do some infrastructure improvements at [allied] air fields. We're very grateful for that. It was great to see that.

Look, last year, the biggest thing on the plate was how are we going to transition in Afghanistan? This year, we deal with Russia, we're dealing with ISIS [the Islamic State group], and we're dealing with ebola. So, it reinforces the fact that despite all of our efforts, we cannot predict the future. However, what we can predict is when there are challenges in the world, air power will be part of that solution. Oftentimes, air power is the first to respond. When [the crisis in] Crimea broke out, from the word go to the time that the F-15 showed [up] in Lithuania was 14 hours. You can't replicate that without forward-based combat power. I still get thank- you's from the Baltic countries with respect to that. They were completely assured and very, very happy that we did that. So it was really a thrilling moment for the Air Force.

Q. Do other European countries need to step up their commitment?

A. In the Wales summit communiqué there was also a commitment by some countries to get up to the NATO requirement [of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense]. In some places that's going well and in some places that's going bad. It's never a bad thing to have countries commit to that, but in the end, they have to actually meet their goal. On the air side, they're stepping up to the plate. NATO AWACS [advanced warning and control system aircraft] are flying routinely. There's air refueling requirements for NATO AWACS. To the extent they can, particularly in the air domain, our partners are stepping up to the plate. Is it perfect? No, but the fact of the matter is they're sufficiently interested in NATO cohesion to contribute. So we've got a long-term plan to keep all of that up in the form of assurance met.

Q. How important is driving towards interoperability for the NATO allies?

A. The thing that makes NATO such an effective alliance is the fact that the day-to-day routine in NATO is all designed to create an interoperability that will allow for very quick transition from peace time into war. There is technological interoperability, cultural interoperability, tactics, techniques and procedures interoperability. All of those things all come together to allow an alliance — a consensus-driven, defensive-minded alliance — to come together. One of the big things about NATO that's really a fantastic trait about it is once you get consensus then you are moving in the right direction. That's 28 countries. That's unbelievably powerful.

The holy grail of interoperability is operating the same equipment, but clearly countries have sovereign decisions to make with respect to that. We recognize that when we can't get that holy grail, then we have to find procedural ways through standards and data and all of that to get that interoperability that helps us out on the battlefield.

Q. Are there gaps you would like to see NATO countries invest to fill?

A. We ask countries to look at what's already available in the tool kit and not to duplicate. The reality is that some countries in NATO want to have the whole spectrum of air capability, while others have a little bit more niche forces. In the aggregate, partly because the United States and some of the other countries, we have all of that capability. The question, is will it be available, because [the US is] a global power. We have requirements all over the world.

If I had a wish list, it would be more ISR capability, more airlift or more rapid global mobility, particularly with respect to air-to-air refueling. I encourage things that will give us better interoperability among equipment that we have. There's a lot of countries that have air-to-air refueling, but it's drogue refueling. I need booms, you know what I mean?

Q. Some in industry are seeing increased interest from Eastern Europe since the Ukrainian invasion. Are you hearing the same?

A. What they're interested in is having a vehicle that has logistics behind it in the long term, which has tactics, techniques and procedures development behind it. Those kinds of things that a country that doesn't have a lot of budget, they're not going to be able to concentrate on that stuff. They have neither the people, the organizations, nor quite honestly, the money to do it. It's all about sustainability; it's all about having a system parked on your ramp that has viability not just for five years but for 20 years.

Q. Do you think there's also some concern that a lot of these countries are using Russian technology and being reliant on a nation they may be in conflict with?

A. There certainly was concern expressed about that, as you would expect. If your supplier is the very country that's threatening you, you would have to worry about that. So that is an issue, the supply chain. But with respect to some of our NATO allies that have Russian equipment, in the end we have to integrate the best we can. Is technological integration possible? Probably not, but the tactics, techniques, procedures, organizations, airspace control measures — other things like that would enable us to incorporate them into our air campaign to meet the intent of the commander if that time came.

Q. How will the infrastructure changes in Europe impact you?

A. Even last year [before the Ukrainian situation], we were supporting the European infrastructure consolidation. We made full input into that European infrastructure consolidation. We did have excess infrastructure. In the end, we acted on that. For the first time in a long time, I would say that we are balanced in infrastructure and balanced with force structure. That was a good thing.

Q. Are there any concerns about burnout among your forces from the rapid tempo of operations?

A. We're running pretty hard. I think that our people are satisfied with the mission that they're doing. We're getting some good training out of it. They recognize their role as being the forward, ready-now element of the force. So if it's there, I haven't seen it yet. If we keep on going like this we may have some of that. The good news about it is when Ukraine broke out and we were preparing the expeditionary air force for the task, for the first time ever, Europe actually met the priority to get a theater security package [TSP] in there. That package is firmly in place in Spangdahlem in the form of 12 A-10s. We get the luxury of having them for six months. We plan on using them all over Europe to help with Operation Atlantic Resolve to assure our allies.

Q. Why the A-10 versus other planes for that TSP?

A. The A-10 in particular is a good platform for a theater security package right now, because many of those countries that provided JTACs [joint terminal attack controllers] to the war in Afghanistan are no longer getting the training, and now they're going to actually be able to use the A-10 for that purpose. There's a lot of exercising going out there and we intend to support the Army to the maximum extent possible in this endeavor. All of those people that used to routinely go to Afghanistan and fly their craft now don't have that opportunity anymore because they're out, and yet they need the training. So, that's why this TSP, particularly in the form of the A-10, is going to be very, very useful. And because of that presence, it's going to reassure our allies because many of the six countries on the eastern side of NATO, they provided JTACs [in Afghanistan or Iraq.]

Q. Do you plan to re-up that package in six months?

A. We're certainly making the input for it. Like I said, the good news is the priority for rotational presence in Europe in the US Air Force has gone way up. I'm thril­led that first TSP is in place. Obvi­ously, our TSP is competing with requirements for ISIS. You know when you get a TSP in the form of an A-10 while the campaign against ISIS is going on, that's a clear statement of how important Europe is in the prioritization — to achieve the aspiration of both the alliance and our country.

By Aaron Mehta in Orlando, Florida.

Twitter: @AaronMehta