‘You can’t surge trust’: Partnerships are among Harrigian’s priorities for Air Force in Europe, Africa
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — While directing the air campaigns in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan for two years, Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian learned a lesson he thinks will serve him well as the new commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa.
Taking the time to get to know his coalition counterparts makes a huge difference, he said.
“I’m a firm believer that you can’t surge trust,” he said. “It’s built over time, and those partnerships, whether that’s building capacity or just the ability to have the access basing and overflight we need, it’s fundamental to our ability to execute the mission.”
Harrigian will now apply that experience in building partnerships as he leads USAFE-AFAFRICA, a command that comprises 32,000 airmen and supports two combatant commands across three continents. He is also responsible for the air defense of 29 NATO alliance nations as the boss of NATO Air Command.
Prior to Wednesday’s change of command, Harrigian was the USAFE-AFAFRICA deputy commander for about eight months.
Since Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea, the Air Force and NATO mission in Europe has focused on deterring an increasingly assertive Russia. The Air Force has invested heavily in aviation rotations to the theater, training exercises with allies and partners, and improvements to air bases along NATO’s eastern flank.
Harrigian said he’s still formulating his mission priorities, but among them will be to “ensure we’re in a proper stance for any situation and are able to react with the speed that would be required.”
To that end, Harrigian said the command will continue to host rotations of units from the U.S., such as the deployment this spring of B-52 Stratofortress bombers from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
“The feedback I got from airmen was very positive, and so looking for ways to do that at a pace that builds readiness will be the target for us,” he said.
Some of the B-52 airmen had never flown in Europe before, Harrigian said. “Getting them comfortable with operating in this environment here is very helpful to them,” he said. If they needed to deploy here for a conflict, “they’d be ready, they know how it would work,” he said.
While similar rotations are expected to continue at the current pace, Harrigian for the moment doesn’t foresee the Air Force setting up permanent basing in Eastern Europe, even as the Pentagon considers Poland’s controversial offer for a U.S. military facility in its country.
“My assessment right now is we’ve been very effective with the rotational force that we’ve had here,” deployments that have promoted deterrence and furthered training with partners, he said.
Looking ahead in Africa, the command is preparing for the opening of a new air base in Agadez, Niger. The facility is expected to reach initial operating capability sometime this summer, though Harrigian doesn’t expect it will mean more airmen deploying there.
The base allows operations to the west, east, or north, he said. “It’s a tremendous capability for AFRICOM in terms of providing the commander the flexibility he’s going to need, given the size of the continent.”
Further ahead in Europe, Harrigian said the first two U.S. F-35A Lightning II stealth jet squadrons to be based overseas are still slated to arrive at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom in 2021. In the interim, the command may host more F-35 rotations, the general said.
The 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath currently hosts three squadrons of F-15s. No decisions on the planes’ future have been made, Harrigian said.
A combat pilot himself with more than 4,000 flight hours, Harrigian said he may take a turn or two in the F-15 during his current assignment, since there are fewer opportunities in Europe to fly the F-22. Harrigian flew the F-15 before switching to the F-22 Raptor, in which he has recent combat experience.
Before coming to Europe, he flew the Raptor while leading Air Forces Central Command, an experience that gave him an important perspective as a commander.
“I flew over Iraq, Syria,” he said. “The beauty of that is you get the unfiltered truth of what’s going on in the field.
“It helped me come back to the staff and go OK, why are we doing this again? Those kinds of opportunities, I think, are healthy for the organization because often times, everybody’s trying to do the right thing, but we don’t connect the dots to what the intent was to what actually happened.”