Air commanders stress collaboration across sovereign skies in uncertain times
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 14, 2017
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Air chiefs from across Europe met for the first time on Thursday to discuss how to work better together to protect sovereign skies and foster deterrence.
Representatives from 21 nations and NATO attended the 2017 European Air Operations Center Commanders Summit, hosted by Gen. Tod Wolters, who heads U.S. Air Forces in Europe–Air Forces Africa. Non-NATO nations Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland were also there.
The event was planned well before last week’s U.S. cruise missile strikes against Syria, which have further strained tensions relations between Moscow and Washington. But the current political situation underscores the importance and need for the one-day meeting, said Col. Jill Long, the 603rd Air Operations Center commander.
The series of strikes last week “does add to the sense of urgency that everyone feels that together we’re much stronger than we are as any single nation,” Long said.
“I think the world has changed significantly,” she said in an interview. ““Everyone in the command and control business is ... making sure that perhaps a change in Syria doesn’t impact the European or the African” theaters.
Wolters stressed the importance of collaboration, mission planning and what’s at stake without these.
“If something terrible were to occur, we want the history books to show we took advantage of all the capabilities the alliance has to offer,” he said, referring to NATO.
“The only thing a bit more challenging than trying to get consensus from (all 28 NATO members) is trying to survive a conflict without them,” he said.
Each country in Europe has its own air operations center, and NATO oversees two combined air operations centers.
The 603rd, based at Ramstein, keeps daily tabs on all U.S. and coalition assets assigned to fly missions in 105 countries in Europe and Africa, Long said.
Command and control of air space “is a very challenging, complex business,” Long said. “There’s so much information out there, it’s hard to tell ... the things you need to worry about.” Long said she hoped the summit would help facilitate that information-sharing by opening lines of communication.
“I’m hoping that each nation takes away a feeling that ... if anything goes wrong, where they say, ‘Hey, I think maybe Sweden can help me or Denmark’ ... that they can pick up the phone and call.”
Long said the U.S. is proposing an informal exchange program in which nations’ air operations centers would swap officers or noncommissioned officers to expand learning and build teamwork and trust.
During discussions, participants talked about challenges, from lack of manpower to difficulties in sharing information quickly with other partner nations.
Maj. Gen. Gianni Candotti from Italy lamented the lack of standardization. Countries may train together one way, but when something real “pops up,” there’s a “new chain of command” or “the Italians bring some strange phones the Americans have never seen before,” he said. “If you train and validate in a certain way, you should fight that way.”
Lt. Gen. Joachim Wundrak, commander of the German air operations command, defended the need to plan 72 hours in advance. “If you have limited assets at your hand — in air domain, that’s normal — you never have enough time to deal with all the challenges,” he said. “You have to have proper planning: At what time and what condition you have your assets at your hand. That doesn’t mean we are not reactive to things that happen in between.”
Brig. Gen. Ismail Üner of Turkey, closer to the war in Syria and Iraq, said it was “too late” to discuss planning cycles and procedures because “we face a threat today.”
Gen. Tod Wolters, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa commander, gives opening remarks during the firstl European Air Operations Center Commander Summit at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Thursday, April 13, 2017. AOC commanders and personnel from 20 countries met at to discuss ways to increase operability and connectivity between the participating nations.
MICHAEL B. KELLER/STARS AND STRIPES