Gen. Tod “Magoo” Wolters, USAF, the commander of the US AIr Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, discusses NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, strategy in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, monitoring the Russia threat, countering hypersonic weapons, summer surge exercises, alliance defense spending and military construction funding with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando where our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Orlando, Florida for the Air Force Association’s Annual Air Warfare Symposium, once upon a time known as AFA Winter, one of the most important gatherings for U.S. Air Force leaders as well as industry executives, analysts and the media who cover this great event. Our coverage here is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
And it wouldn’t be an AFA meeting if I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to General Tod Wolters, Magu Wolters, fighter pilot, but also the Commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa. Sir, thanks very much always for making so much time for us.
General Tod Wolters: Vago, good to see you again. We’re excited about what’s going to happen in the future, and we’re certainly pleased with what’s happened over the course of the last six months since we last had a chance to talk.
Mr. Muradian: Absolutely. An amazing time.
I want to start with the Trident Juncture exercise. That was the biggest NATO military exercise in decades. Almost early in your career you would have to go to get an exercise that big. You entered the Air Force in 1982. Talk to us a little bit about, now that there’s been time to digest some of the results, there were a whole set of challenges. There were folks arriving at bare bases. Logistics were one of the early lessons learned. From your standpoint as the nation’s top airman in the region and one of the most important air commanders in the region, what were some of the key take-aways, lessons learned, in order to map a more productive future?
General Wolters: You hit on one, which was logistics. How quickly can we get bullets, beans and butter into the fight and forward as required. We made some improvements. We certainly saw we had some challenges and it afforded us the opportunity in after-action review to get better at some of those tough areas.
The other thing we were able to do, Vago, is take over 50,000 military participants in all domains, all services, across the alliance and get them aligned and work on the issues that we’ve had a tough time with in previous exercises from a transparency standpoint. We think we made some gains in all domain operations and the overall alignment with what we were attempting to do to deliver an effect on the battlespace.
We still have a ways to go. We’re certainly not perfect in any of those areas. But Trident Juncture afforded us the opportunity to take probably the largest number of manpower and capability that we’ve seen in a long time and put it together and put it forward to deliver an effect on the battlespace from all domains. We’ve seen some definite improvement.
Mr. Muradian: One of the challenges is, that exercise was four years in the planning at the highest levels of the alliance. It was meticulously put together from penny packet force to larger muscle movements as we saw, whether it included an aircraft carrier coming back into the region and operating the way it did, certainly cold weather operations was a challenge in that region. The scenario for our audience was the defense of a Northern European alliance member.
Let’s talk a little bit more about surge exercises. We talked about this a little bit in September, that early in your career there were staff exercises where a fighter wing had to get to a far distant part of the world in 24 hours. Everybody was on short standby, at any moment when something like that could be called. The Russians have prided themselves on staff exercises. You have a whole series of surge exercises this summer. It’s going to include bombers, it’s going to include a lot of fighters as well as other assets. Talk to us a little bit about these named exercises we’re going to see and how you’re going to accelerate, how you’re going to speed the process of alert deployment.
General Wolters: It’s a great question, Vago, and it’s a special interest item for me. When you say surge exercises, what that translates to me is in a campaign, if you have conflict the one thing that we are guaranteed of, that conflict has to start. And in every single one of the starts of the conflicts that we’ve been embraced in since my time as I started in the Air Force all the way back to the Cold War, starts have always been challenging. So you have to exercise and you have to train for the start.
When the bullets start flying tomorrow morning, what’s your first phone call? What’s your first step? Where’s your first piece of equipment going? And through these exercises we’re going to get better at starting in the first millisecond of a conflict, and being prepared to immediately deter and defeat as required.
And we changed the setting of these exercises. In the past we typically focused on day 150 of a large mass on mass confrontation that involves the Army and all domains to scenarios that start on second one of a conflict that occurs someplace on the European continent, and how well all of our components will respond from an all domain perspective to ensure that we make that first phone call a correct call. We make that first step the correct step. We apply the first effect in the battlespace as a correct effect. And if not, we’ll after-action review it and we’ll get better next time. But that’s the focus for this summer in the air domain for those exercises.
Mr. Muradian: Given the fact that the Russians are a wily adversary, I mean the whole point of this is to be that deterrent, to give a pause, and so far the importance and the power of the NATO alliance has succeeded as a deterrent factor. Do you feel that you have enough mechanisms in place to know when something is actually started? I want to get to the issue of hypersonics. Vladimir Putin recently said my weapons will be able to reach Washington in five minutes. If it can reach Washington in five minutes, it will be able to hit Berlin in one minute or less. Time scales are compressed. Do we have all the mechanisms we need in place to actually know when something is actually started, if it can move as quickly as you think it might?
General Wolters: Vago, we do. Do we have enough? Probably no. And the answer for most commanders for the duration of their career is they’ll never, ever be postured to the point to where they sleep comfortably at night from an indications and warning standpoint. What we’ve done over the course of the last 2.5 years under General Scaparrotti’s command is improve our posture in the areas of indications and warning and command and control, so that we can see the battlespace quicker, we can see it deeper, with more detail, so we can make the first step from a proactive standpoint instead of a reactive standpoint. And we’re doing better. Am I completely and totally satisfied? No, but I’m confident that we’re surveying the battlespace to a point where from an indications and warning standpoint we’ll do the right thing.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to the INF Treaty. The United States found Russia was in violation. Our NATO allies agree with that. Russia has now said that they’re going to deploy the weapon they developed and have already deployed — I don’t even understand what that really, what sort of a denial that is ultimately. How does the departure of the INF Treaty change the way the U.S. and its allies need to think about this space? And then also how the addition of hypersonic weapons to this mix, because the Russians also claim to have developed and are going to field a hypersonic weapon.
General Wolters: That’s a great question. The first issue is from an INF perspective this is nation on nation. So this is a U.S.-Russia discussion. The great news about all this, NATO is completely and totally behind the decision that the United States made. So we have NATO solidarity, we have alliance unity, and that’s obviously critically important to make sure that you can appropriately deter.
The second area, with respect to hypersonics from a Russia perspective, our nations, the United States, developing the same. This goes back to the integrity of your overall campaign design. Are your indications and warnings sound? Is your command and control sound? And can you view deep into the battlespace and communicate it to commanders so that you can make a decision quicker than an adversary can?
We’re getting better. I will tell you that it is a concern and it forces us to wake up every single day and improve our indications and warnings, and that’s exactly what we’re doing from a EUCOM perspective and from a NATO AIRCOM perspective under General Scaparrotti’s command.
Mr. Muradian: Oftentimes when folks think about integrated air and missile defenses, the tendency is to think about that from an air defense missile, right? From an air defender standpoint which in some countries is part of the air force, for example in France; but in other countries just like the United States, it’s a purview of the army or the ground forces.
What’s the role of the Air Force? How are you, General Scaparrotti and Army commanders and other commanders in the region thinking about what this integrated air and missile defense looks like? Especially when — and the role of Air Forces in it, when you’re looking at a hypersonic battlespace?
General Wolters: It takes all components to improve their indications and warnings to have a sound picture of what a potential foe is doing. So if somebody’s going to field a hypersonic capability, odds are there will be some activity from a whole of nation perspective, from a maritime perspective, from a land perspective, from an air perspective, and from a space perspective and from a SOF perspective as to what they have to do to get a hypersonic round out of the barn, if you will.
So all of the components have to be aligned in improving their indications and warnings to ensure that we can see what takes place quicker than the enemy can actually field it or fire it. That’s been the exact approach that General Scaparrotti has applied.
So for integrated air and missile defense, all of the components are heavily involved in indications and warnings, and it’s a function of taking each one of the bits of data that we all receive, painting an appropriate picture about what takes place, and responding or reacting accordingly. And we’re making improvements every single day with that in all domains and in all components.
Mr. Muradian: Obviously you watch Russia very closely. You watch a number of threats obviously very closely and your forces are integral in U.S. operations and allied operations in Africa as well. But let me take you to Russian behavior. It’s always good to sort of update people on where the Russians are and how they’re behaving. How is Russian behavior? Are you seeing more or less provocations? There were some incidents that happened during Trident Juncture. How would you categorize Russian behavior at the moment?
General Wolters: I was not surprised from the Russian response to Trident Juncture. So I would characterize their responses and their behavior over the course of the last 18 months as plateaued. Obviously there’s maligned influence. We all know what took place at Kerch Strait in the Sea of Azov. We all know what took place in Crimea. So those are activities that we remain very, very concerned about and we put Russia in a certain category as a result of those activities. But I would answer that with not surprise, plateaued response.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to capabilities. The F-35 is now in theater. It’s operating. It’s an IOC asset in the United States Air Force. How is that changing from your standpoint the air power game, the deterrence equation, and the capabilities it’s demonstrating now that it’s deployed?
General Wolters: The biggest one, Vago, is in that first campaign area of indications and warnings. What we’re seeing from an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance standpoint, the F-35 as a system is dramatically improving our ability to better see the battlespace and respond quicker. So we’re very, very, pleased with all the contributions from the NATO nations that field the F-35 and certainly with what takes place with respect to U.S. F-35A activity.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to a question of a little bit on military construction. Not to bring you into that, but obviously the President has declared a national emergency. He’s directed that about $3.5 billion in military construction funding from the Pentagon go to that effort. We’ll see how it happens politically and in the judicial process, but the order’s been given and the department’s moving crisply on that. Military construction is something very important to you, whether it’s for runway extensions. You know, as we talk, how nations can absorb a large number of airplanes that come their way. There’s Poland, and construction obviously that’s important there. Do you have your prioritized list to make sure that any of these cuts are not going to be impacting readiness and the delivery of capability?
General Wolters: Absolutely, and we’re fortunate in Europe, for USEUCOM we have the European Deterrence Initiative, and those set of funds apply to the mission sets that USEUCOM performs. I can’t give you the specific numbers because I don’t think they’ve been blessed by the administration at this point, but there remains a very, very hearty set of funds to ensure that from a European deterrence initiative standpoint, that the infrastructure that we need to enhance and bolster and improve readiness remains. And it has, and that number is still good enough to make sure we can continue to improve from a readiness perspective.
Mr. Muradian: And are you satisfied with the readiness states of your forces? I know that Secretary Mattis passed that order, 80 percent readiness rate. USAFE has always prided itself on having a pretty high readiness rate. The pointy end of the spear. I see you smiling. But how do you characterize where you are on readiness rates, because I know Mobile Holmes, the Air Combat Command Commander has been working that issue exceptionally hard to make sure that units across the forces are ready.
General Wolters: General Holmes has done a fantastic job as our Air Combat Commander to make sure that the pump, if you will, the heart that exists in the continental United States is producing the appropriate quality of human being and resource that can come to the Pacific and come to Europe and be ready.
Vago, I’ll never, ever look anybody in the eye and tell you that I’m absolutely positively thrilled with the current position of our readiness posture, but what I am is very, very happy to see that we continue to improve and with the trajectory that we currently have, we’re on course, on glide slope to be exactly where we need to be to get the mission done.
Mr. Muradian: One last question. There is always a conversation in Washington, and recently I did a podcast and we were talking about the Munich Security Conference and some of the tensions that exist among countries and the United States at this point. You’re working across the piece with all of our NATO allies on a daily basis. There’s been a dramatic uptick in investment across the board. I was talking to a friend who said hey, it’s important for Americans to understand that it’s almost a British Defence budget a year where the amount of money has increased.
Talk to us a little bit on a working level on how those relationships are going and how the alliance really, at a working level, is actually reinvigorated and actually coming together in a remarkable fashion.
General Wolters: They are, Vago. From an expenditure standpoint, from 2016 to the present, we’ve actually had access to 41 billion additional dollars as a result of the cash contributions of all the NATO nations. We’re not all where we need to be from a two percent perspective. Our President and our Secretary General of NATO have been very, very demanding on that. Many of the nation’s leaders have been very, very demanding. It is a whole of nation. It is not a binding treaty. And I’m pleased to report that the overall dollar value continues to improve. And obviously the trajectory that we’re on is improving as a result of the nations’ willingness to commit to achieving two percent by 2024.
The number of nations that are willing to commit by 2024 continue to increase to achieve two percent. So we’re doing good.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you one last question. Africa, obviously a very important theater. Our French allies have really taken the lead across the theater in a whole series of operations, whether logistics, whether support, whether training, and as well as direct action. Talk to us a little bit about operations in that theater. Everybody has a tendency of thinking about what you’re doing to deter Russia and what’s happening in Europe and Europe’s support downrange as opposed to considering and thinking the actual direct role that USAFE and U.S. forces are playing every day in Africa.
General Wolters: Great question, Vago. It’s building partnership capacity. It is always by, with and through the nation. The nation’s military has to see it and touch it and smell it and taste it and use it and convince itself from a military perspective that what we are offering will improve their disposition from a security perspective. They’re seeing that. They’re very, very cooperative. We’re excited for them improving.
As you well know, every time we have a government that cedes deeper and it has more democratic values, we’re in a position to where security starts to prevail, and it is.
So we’re very, very excited about what is taking place in the region. It starts by, with and through the nations, and we’re very, very pleased with the participation of many of the nations on the African continent to improve their readiness and improve their infrastructure so that their militaries can be more productive to contribute to security.
Mr. Muradian: General Tod Wolters, Commander of the U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa. Sir, it’s always an honor and pleasure. Thanks very much. And I look forward to actually this year coming out and seeing you guys.
General Wolters: You bet. Thanks, Vago. Thanks very much for all you do.