KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Those who know Philip Breedlove, the Air Force general nominated to lead NATO and U.S. forces in Europe, say he’s maintained the same humble, down-to-earth style no matter how many stars he wore.
He’s been described as “a gentle giant,” a big man with a big heart, a sharp intellect and the requisite experience to be a combatant commander.
While Breedlove, currently commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces in Africa, comes across as unassuming and plain-spoken, he is an astute commander, well-informed about military and international affairs, particularly in Europe, and a proven, effective leader, say colleagues and friends.
“He’s the real deal,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Newton, executive vice president of the Air Force Association. Newton has known Breedlove for more than a decade and most recently worked with him at the Pentagon, when Breedlove was the Air Force vice chief of staff before taking over as USAFE commander in July last year.
President Barack Obama on Thursday nominated Breedlove to be the next NATO supreme allied commander and the head of U.S. European Command to replace Adm. James Stravridis, who has held that post since summer 2009.
If confirmed by the Senate, Breedlove would be the first Air Force general to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Europe since Gen. Joseph Ralston held the position more than a decade ago.
Breedlove emerged as the leading candidate to assume the job after Obama’s first pick, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, last month declined to go through the nomination process and chose to retire.
He bowed out after getting tangled in the scandal that led to the resignation of David Petraeus as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In a statement Thursday, Breedlove said he was “honored” by the nomination.
“If confirmed, I’ll do everything in my power to live up to the example set by Admiral Jim Stavridis and the other great officers who have led the men and women of this command so well throughout its remarkable history.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey praised Breedlove’s nomination, calling him “an extraordinary leader with the moral character to match.
“He is worthy of the confidence he has already earned among our allies in Europe,” Dempsey said.
Unlike Allen, who commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Breedlove’s career has taken him just about every place but those war zones and most often to Europe. A third of his 35 years in the service have been spent in Europe, starting with his early military days as an F-16 fighter pilot in Spain to his current post as USAFE and AFAFRICA commander, where he leads about 36,000 active-duty, Reserve and civilian employees.
His deep ties to the continent will serve Breedlove and the U.S. military well at NATO and EUCOM, Newton said.
“The relationships he’s built in the international arena … with other allies and partners will be huge,” Newton said.
But Breedlove will have his work cut out for him, given the task of overseeing a vast, diverse geographic region while equipped with diminishing dollars and personnel. Pentagon leaders are reassessing the current defense strategy, particularly in Europe, amid deepening budget cuts. And, even as the United States draws down its forces on the continent, some lawmakers are clamoring for more reductions in the U.S. military’s footprint in post-Cold War Europe.
In addition, European allies within NATO also are struggling with dwinding defense budgets and are resistant to U.S. pressure to spend more on shared defense and take a greater share of responsibility.
Given EUCOM’s huge area of responsibility, which encompasses 51 countries, including the Caucasus and Israel, “there is the possibility of really great unrest, and the EUCOM commander is going to be in the middle of it,” said Michael Auslin, a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the conservative Washington think tank American Enterprise Institute.
As the federal budget wrangling continues, it’s uncertain what effect the financial squeeze will have six months to a year from now on operations affecting combat readiness, from aircraft maintenance to flying hours, Auslin said.
“It’s almost unprecedented to have a combatant commander face all of these different constraints,” he said.
Auslin, who got to know Breedlove when the general was the Air Force vice chief of staff, believes Breedlove is up to the challenge.
Early on as vice chief, Breedlove reached out to Auslin and other experts in the policy community outside the Pentagon, he said. “He wanted to start this discussion with people like me who deal with lots of different strategic and political issues, because suddenly he had to think globally about the Air Force, every role that the Air Force played, within the joint force and within itself.
“I found him to have an extraordinarily well-rounded view,” Auslin said. “I would talk a lot with him about the Pacific; we would talk about Europe and other areas, as well.”
Breedlove earned his officer commission in 1977 as a distinguished graduate of Georgia Tech’s ROTC program. He grew up in a working class suburb of Atlanta, where at Forest Park High School, he was known for his sense of humor and for being a serious student — but one who didn’t stand out from the pack.
“He was just one of the guys,” said John Carbo, a Georgia state court judge, who attended school with Breedlove from about second grade. “He’s very humble. That’s the thing about him. He still is extremely humble. When he comes back [to visit], he’s just Philip.”
His former classmates don’t get to see the side of Breedlove that Col. John Shapland did when he worked for the then 3rd Air Force commander more than three years ago and briefed him daily during a joint Israeli-American military exercise in 2009.
“I found him to be very methodical,” said Shapland, the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing commander. “He wanted to know the air plan, the ground plan, the sea plan; he wanted to bring everything together before making a decision. His ability to very quickly assimilate a complex situation was incredible.”
Breedlove seems equally comfortable discussing strategy and tactics, Shapland said. “He’s a fighter pilot at heart,” he said, noting he recently saw in the backseat of Breedlove’s car his pilot bag, one that used to carry a checklist and other flight-planning essentials.
It’s the diplomat in Breedlove that Auslin believes will be one of his greatest attributes as the leader of American and allied forces in Europe.
That will be key in assuaging allied concerns that the U.S. drawdown in Europe and pivot toward the Pacific means less engagment on the continent.
“Here’s a guy who would just sit and talk with you; he’d also respond to emails,” Auslin said. He wasn’t like “look at all this shiny stuff on my shoulder and sort of react appropriately. For a four-star whose every minute is filled, he was surprisingly and continuously accessible.”