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Gen. James B. Hecker, the new U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, speaks during a change of command ceremony on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Hecker assumed command of both USAFE-AFAFRICA and NATO Allied Air Command, headquartered at Ramstein, while also taking on the role as director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center at Kalkar, Germany.

Gen. James B. Hecker, the new U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, speaks during a change of command ceremony on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Hecker assumed command of both USAFE-AFAFRICA and NATO Allied Air Command, headquartered at Ramstein, while also taking on the role as director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center at Kalkar, Germany. (Alexander Riedel/Stars and Stripes)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Gen. James Hecker became commander Monday of more than 30,000 airmen and an air operations network spread across three continents, taking the reins in a ceremony that saw five four-star leaders on one stage.

Hecker, the Air Force’s newest four-star general, received his promotion shortly before his elevation to command of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa.

Gen. David Allvin, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff; Gen. Tod Wolters, U.S. European Command and NATO supreme allied commander; and Gen. Stephen Townsend, U.S. Africa Command commander, were on hand to welcome Hecker to Europe and bid farewell to the outgoing Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who is retiring after a 37-year career.

A fighter pilot and 1989 Air Force Academy graduate, Hecker comes to Europe from Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., where he was the commander and president of Air University, part of Air Education and Training Command, for more than three years.

He has more than 3,500 hours in the cockpit flying the F-15C Eagle, F-22 Raptor and MQ-1B Predator, among other aircraft.

Airmen of the Third Air Force stand in formation led by their commander, Maj. Gen. Derek France, during a change of command ceremony June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. France took the reins of the only numbered air force in U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa on June 22.

Airmen of the Third Air Force stand in formation led by their commander, Maj. Gen. Derek France, during a change of command ceremony June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. France took the reins of the only numbered air force in U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa on June 22. (Alexander Riedel/Stars and Stripes)

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, left, and Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, right, applaud outgoing U.S. Air Forces in Europe Air Forces Africa Commander Gen. Jeffrey L Harrigian during a change of command ceremony June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Harrigian relinquished command of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command and is scheduled to retire after nearly 37 years of active duty service.

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, left, and Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, right, applaud outgoing U.S. Air Forces in Europe Air Forces Africa Commander Gen. Jeffrey L Harrigian during a change of command ceremony June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Harrigian relinquished command of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command and is scheduled to retire after nearly 37 years of active duty service. (Alexander Riedel/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, NATO supreme allied commander Europe, presents the Defense Distinguished Service Medal to Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Harrigian relinquished command of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command, headquartered at Ramstein, as well as his position as director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center at Kalkar, Germany, and is scheduled to retire after nearly 37 years of active duty service.

Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, NATO supreme allied commander Europe, presents the Defense Distinguished Service Medal to Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Harrigian relinquished command of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command, headquartered at Ramstein, as well as his position as director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center at Kalkar, Germany, and is scheduled to retire after nearly 37 years of active duty service. (Alexander Riedel/Stars and Stripes)

Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command commander, renders a final salute to service members before relinquishing his command on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command commander, renders a final salute to service members before relinquishing his command on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. (Alexander Riedel/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin passes the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa guidon to the units new commander, Gen. James B. Hecker, on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Hecker also assumed duties as the commander of Allied Air Command at Ramstein and director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center in Kalkar, Germany.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin passes the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa guidon to the units new commander, Gen. James B. Hecker, on June 27, 2022, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Hecker also assumed duties as the commander of Allied Air Command at Ramstein and director of the Joint Air Power Competence Center in Kalkar, Germany. (Alexander Riedel/Stars and Stripes)

In his new assignment at Ramstein, Hecker will also lead Allied Air Command, which coordinates air and space operations for the NATO alliance.

Hecker noted that the U.S. military is a lot smaller now than it was when he joined the Air Force more than 30 years ago. He underscored the importance of working with partners and allies in standing up to Russia and China, adding that the latter poses challenges for the U.S. in Africa.

“We can’t do this by ourselves. We must do it together,” he said, also alluding to the possibility that NATO may soon have two new members, Sweden and Finland.

Harrigian led USAFE-AFAFRICA through the pandemic, during which the command launched more than 177,000 training and contingency sorties, according to his citation for the Legion of Merit, which he received during the ceremony.

The command under Harrigian also supported the evacuation of more than 120,000 refugees from Afghanistan following the U.S.-backed government’s collapse and the Taliban takeover in August 2021. 

Most recently, Harrigian had the command ready to defend the alliance on “night one” of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Townsend said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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