THULE, Greenland–Familiar and well-honed goals fueled Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein’s recently completed 10-day trip across northern Europe and Greenland — underscoring the United States’ commitment to allies and friends, forging and reinforcing bonds that help ensure a safe and prosperous Europe, and finding ways to increase operational unity and reduce friction.
But there also was an unmistakable subtext connecting the stops in Estonia, Finland, Great Britain, Germany and Greenland. The thread was this: each country has valuable experience and insights for operating effectively in an age of great power competition. That reality can help the United States and its allies fine-tune strategies for deterring — and if necessary, defeating — Russia and China.
Goldfein did not disguise the purpose during the trip July 12-21. Moreover, his physical presence conveyed a message by itself since he was visiting Estonia, Finland and Greenland for the first time.
Estonia, he said, is on “the eastern flank of NATO and in some ways is an important part of NATO’s early warning.” Finland, which is not a member of NATO but is historically close to the U.S., has an even longer border with Russia.
“I wanted to get a good sense of what they’re thinking, how they’re dealing with living right there on the border. It’s always why I came into Finland because it’s right there with a large border with Russia; how are they thinking about this, what can we learn? How can we partner? All of that was part of the discussion.”
Specific discussions ranged from agile basing in Finland and Germany to cyber defense in Estonia to multi-domain operations at a major conference of air chiefs in London. In Greenland, Goldfein received an up-close view of one of the United States’ most important ballistic missile early-warning operations. Each is a critical plank of a broader strategy for identifying threats from Russia and China and calibrating proper responses.
In conversation with Maj. Gen. Pasi Jokinen, Finland’s air chief, Goldfein discussed how Finland’s proximity to Russia influenced the country’s approach to homeland defense. He asked about Finland’s prowess in disbursed basing, an ability that Goldfein has stressed in the last year as well. The two spoke about space, training, command and control and how Russia’s 2014 incursion into Crimea reshaped thinking about the regional threat posed by Russia.
Goldfein also took part in a Finnish Air Force training mission, sitting in the backseat of an F-18 Hornet that departed from a base less than 100 miles from the Russian border. Afterward Goldfein was impressed. “There is zero daylight from what I saw of the quality of their Air Force and what we do every day.”
“We talked about a lot of interesting topics. We talked about the operations environment and the Finnish Air Force and what we do here,” Jokinen said in an interview. He also took part in the training flight, sitting in the backseat of another F-18.
“We have been using the term ‘new normal’ after Crimea in 2014. Activity in the Baltic region and this region is at a little bit elevated level. … When their activity is high our activity is high,” he said, referring to Russia’s annexing the Ukrainian Peninsula.
During the trip’s first stop in Estonia, which is a former Soviet state and now a member of NATO, Goldfein discussed with Juri Luik, the country’s defense minister, and other senior officials a similar set of issues but also added an important additional topic – cyber defense.
“Estonia was (cyber) attacked in 2007 so they’ve got scar tissue,” Goldfein said in explaining why the U.S. is so interested in learning from Estonia. “Nothing gets you more serious about cyber defense than having been attacked. So I think they’re probably as far ahead anyone I’ve seen in their ability to defend themselves.”
That denial of service attack, which was linked to Russia, paralyzed much of the nation. Banks could not operate and ATMs were largely useless; media sites, including TV and newspapers went dark, government websites were snarled; internet service was essentially shut down for the entire nation.
In response, Estonia developed a reputation for taking steps to identify and stop attacks. It is a key member of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, which was formed in 2008.
All of those topics are central to “multi-domain operations” or MDO, a tightly connected but multi-layered approach that combines sensors, weapons, command and control from air, land, sea, space and cyber in a way that poses challenges that no adversary can answer.
That capability is a central tenet of the new strategy for deterring and if necessary, confronting threats.
MDO was also the prevailing topic of the Air and Space Power Conference 2019 in London, one of the largest annual gatherings of air chiefs from around the world. Goldfein delivered a keynote address outlining the importance of multi-domain prowess to U.S. security.
“Where we are going, I believe, will change the character of modern warfare,” he said to an audience that included air chiefs from 39 countries.
“Victory in combat will depend less on individual capabilities, and more on the integrated strengths of a connected network of weapons, sensors and analytic tools. This is important because as air component commanders of the world, we are uniquely positioned to integrate capabilities and we are often the ones who must pull it all together,” he said.
The final stop at Thule Air Base in Greenland flipped the script. At Thule AB, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is the Air Force’s northern-most ballistic missile early warning facility. The great power competition subtext was the dominant focus.
Thule AB is “critical terrain for homeland defense; it’s critical terrain for space,” Goldfein said. “I’ve been wanting to get to Thule my entire time as chief.”
Goldfein acknowledged Thule AB’s “critical mission … at the top of the world. It’s a classic example of Airmen just getting the job done defending America.”
The stop at Thule AB, along with an earlier visit in the week to Spangdahlem AB in Germany, differed from the other stops in that Goldfein held an all call with Airmen at each location.
He thanked them for their service and professionalism and underscored the importance of their work. He also answered questions from Airmen on topics ranging from prospects for a Space Force, standards for PT tests, approaches for bereavement leave and whether Thule AB’s notoriously slow internet service will be improved.
Goldfein also had a number of side meetings, including sessions with air chiefs from Norway, Japan and Australia as well as conversations with Robert Frank Pence, the U.S. Ambassador to Finland. He met as well with Lt. Gen. Jeffery L. Harrigian, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa.
And in perhaps the stealthiest maneuver of the trip, Goldfein surprised Sir Stephen Hillier, the Royal Air Force’s retiring Air Chief Marshal, with the Legion of Merit award. Goldfein presented the medal, which recognizes outstanding service to the United States by citizens of other countries, at a formal dinner associated with the Royal International Air Tattoo military air show in Britain.