As Gen. Philip M. Breedlove prepares to take command of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, he acknowledged U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Airmen and their importance to the United States’ national defense strategy.
More than 54,000 American Airmen and their families currently live in Europe or are deployed to Africa serving in USAFE-AFAFRICA. The major command’s area of operations covers 105 countries on two continents and is instrumental in promoting regional security, said Breedlove, a 35-year veteran.
The general has spent more than 15 years of his career overseas – 11 years in USAFE – and he said he understands the challenges faced by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who live outside the United States.
“We have such wonderful hosts, but our young men and women are away from their homes and away from the things they feel most comfortable with,” Breedlove said. “It is tough to be forward deployed or forward located, even if it’s in Europe. It’s different.”
Breedlove took command of USAFE-AFAFRICA July 31, 2012. Among its mission sets, the command extends the United States’ reach, develops relationships with allied and partner nations and helps promote regional security.
America’s response to the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is a prime example of why the U.S. needs forward-based military forces, according to Breedlove. He said following the attacks, forces based in Europe provided senior leaders a number of response options.
“Forward-deployed forces are absolutely critical,” Breedlove said. “There is no substitute for them — you don’t get the responsiveness you need from stateside forces.”
And that responsiveness wouldn’t be possible without the relationships the men and women in Europe and Africa have developed over the years, he said.
The success USAFE-AFAFRICA enjoys is “from actually being present, not virtually being present,” Breedlove said.
“Our forward-stationed forces establish those relationships. Those relationships equal the access we need, so we can do the things we need to do in Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa,” he said. “Without that access, without that trust, we can’t accomplish the mission.”
First assigned to USAFE in 1983, Breedlove has held nine positions in Spain, Italy and Germany. As the years have progressed, he said, USAFE’s footprint in Europe has decreased.
“Our forces are down by nearly 85 percent from when I first came here at the height of the Cold War,” Breedlove said. He added that U.S. installations in Europe have been reduced by 75 percent.
Despite the reductions, Breedlove said higher demands have been placed on the USAFE-AFAFRICA airmen.
“We’re doing far more with far less, and that is a point of great pride I have for our Airmen, and also for the soldiers, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who serve here as well,” he said.
Breedlove said he is concerned about the lasting impacts sequestration-related cuts will have on USAFE-AFAFRICA’s ability to fulfill its mission obligations in the region.
Sequestration-related budget authorizations forced the command to stand down flying operations for nearly three of its six fighter squadrons. In addition, he said, the cuts have significantly impacted the training of USAFE’s airlift and tanker fleet.
Reductions are “diminishing their training so much that their high-end combat capabilities will fall back to a basic mission capability,” Breedlove said.
The cumulative effect could be significant if the restrictions remain in place, he added.
“All of these things add up to our air forces here in Europe not being able to meet the mission the way they could have before,” Breedlove said. “We still have hopes of recovering some of that training. I think it’s absolutely critical that we do.”
He said in a region as dynamic as the one USAFE-AFAFRICA covers, having forces ready and available to respond to any crisis is crucial.
“We need to be ready for events in northern Africa that happen quick, like Benghazi,” he said. “We need to be ready for the unfolding events in the eastern Mediterranean, and this is not the time for our skills and capabilities to be atrophied.”
The longer the combat air forces are inactive, “the tougher it will be to bring our fighting force back to where they need to be,” Breedlove said. “This is clearly a concern of mine.”
The stand down of flying operations is scheduled to continue until the end of September.
As the United States continues to reduce its footprint in Europe, Breedlove said engaging with NATO, its allies and partners, and encouraging them to work together to maintain stability is even more important – an initiative he’ll reinforce as EUCOM’s commander.
He said among his priorities will be encouraging European nations to continue employing a smart defense strategy, a cooperative effort where NATO, and in some cases non-NATO nations, share their defensive capabilities and offer protection for one another in the interest of regional stability and growth.
Baltic air policing is a shining example of smart defense and how nations can come together as partners and find ways to contribute to each other’s capability, he said.
Another important focus area, Breedlove said, is the European phased adaptive approach to missile defense.
“We’ve reached our interim capability now, as we march toward [initial operational capacity] in our phased adaptive approach, and this ballistic missile defense of the European land mass is going to be a tough mission that we’ll have to remain focused on,” he said. “I think we’re up to the task and it’s off to a great start.”
Along with encouraging partnerships and smart defense-related efforts, Breedlove said, as SHAPE commander, he will rely on a teamwork approach as the NATO-led coalition partners remove forces from Afghanistan.
“We absolutely have to get this right,” he said. “It is critical to leave the correct number of forces with the right capabilities in Afghanistan for the right duration.”
Employing the appropriate exit strategy is a key to ensuring “the Afghan National Security Forces can continue to grow their capability so that as we leave, we don’t create the same problem we went there to correct,” Breedlove said.
Through experience in Afghanistan, the NATO coalition has significantly developed its cooperative capability, he added.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our coalition and allied partners,” Breedlove said. “We have spent 12 years in Afghanistan getting to the level of standard tactics, techniques and procedures that we’re at now. What we don’t want to do now is relax and lose that level of interaction and capability.”
Focusing on building and improving partnerships within and among NATO, its allies and partners, Breedlove said, will be one of his highest priorities as NATO’s supreme allied commander.
“We have a lot of NATO allies and partners to NATO that we need to continue to embrace and bring along to the standards that the older members of NATO have accomplished over the years,” he said.
While Breedlove looks forward to embracing his new role in Eucom and SHAPE, he remains committed to the Airmen at USAFE-AFAFRICA.
“I don’t even want to say I am leaving USAFE-AFAFRICA,” Breedlove said. “I will just move to a new level of interaction of USAFE and AFAFRICA.”
Breedlove is scheduled to take command of EUCOM and SHAPE in a May 10 ceremony at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. A separate ceremony will be held for the NATO post.
Breedlove was confirmed by the U.S. Senate April 19 and will assume command from the current EUCOM commander and SACEUR, Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis.