NATO Air Power

The Last Word

By General (ret.)

By Gen



, US


Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2013-2016)

 January 2017
Warfare Domains: Air Operations

‘If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly.’

General Bernard Law Montgomery, SHAPE Deputy SACEUR 1951–1958


My three-year tour as the commander of NATO Allied Air Command, US Air Forces in Europe, US Air Forces in Africa and Director of the Joint Air Power Competence Centre has come to a close and I wanted to share a few thoughts about the role of airpower, alliances, and coalitions in the future. From August, 2013 through August, 2016, I had the opportunity to lead and help organize, train, equip, deploy, and employ the US and NATO air component. Hopefully, my thoughts will inspire and promote the air power dialogue necessary to achieve future NATO and national aspirations.

During my tour, unforeseen challenges unfolded across Europe, Africa and the Levant at a speed and intensity that no one could have predicted. When I took command, final planning for the Afghanistan mission transition was in full swing. The shift from NATO’s full combat operations to a train, advise and assist role dominated the conversation for the Afghan mission partners. Most were optimistic that the long awaited transition would allow all services in all countries the opportunity to rest, reconstitute, re-equip and shift focus to regaining full spectrum combat readiness. Unfortunately, that opportunity did not materialize as we hoped. Just a few months later, by April 2014, we were all witness to a resurgent Russia using ‘Hybrid’ warfare to annex Crimea, a rising ISIS attempting to establish a caliphate across Syria and Iraq, and a deadly Ebola epidemic ravaging multiple countries in Africa. As usual, Air Force capabilities were called upon to meet these challenges.

World events in 2014 inspired the NATO alliance and partner nations to address the endemic erosion of full spectrum military capability and readiness brought on by years of Counter Insurgency/Counter Terrorism operations. As Russia expanded its unique form of aggression into the Donboss region in Ukraine, ‘Collective Defence’ replaced ‘Crisis Response’ as the priority focus in NATO’s Strategic Concept. NATO’s 2014 Wales Summit put in place a set of adaptation and assurance measures to increase alliance readiness and responsiveness. This ‘Readiness Action Plan (RAP)’, combined with the establishment of a 2% funding goal, 20% of which would be used for modernization, was designed to assure allies and partners.

Wales Summit organizational adaptations brought NATO Response Force (NRF) improvements, including the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). Additionally, NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) were established. Wales Summit assurance brought increased NATO Air Policing capacity both in number of locations and aircraft. Assurance in the form of more frequent and comprehensive ‘heel-to-toe’ joint exercises expanded in both scope and intensity. The need for prudent thinking led to a Graduated Response Plans (GRPs) initiative designed to address security concerns throughout NATO territory. NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit added enhanced Forward Presence in the north and tailored Forward Presence in the south. While the Wales Summit focused on assurance, the Warsaw Summit expanded the scope of NATO’s aspirations, by focusing on deterrence and defence. Partly as a result of these NATO initiatives, the United States significantly invested in infrastructure improvements and more robust training thanks to European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) funding.

All the while, President Putin focused on reaffirming Russia as a ‘great power’. Russia’s response to NATO included increasing activity in the air, land, sea, and cyberspace domains. Snap exercises, long-range aviation, more frequent intercepts, unprofessional intercepts, and dangerous over-flights became more common. Furthermore, a new ‘Iron Curtain’ emerged, a string of Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2/AD) environments connecting north to south: from the Barents Sea to the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas. These constellations of layered, modern long-range surface-to-air missile systems (MLRSAMS) are significant and many spill over into the sovereign airspace of NATO and partner nations. European A2/AD environments are a direct counter to Wales Summit adaptations and undermine NATO deterrence, both conventional and nuclear.

In Syria, Russia demonstrated significant air power improvements, proving they learned the lesson of poor performance from the air during their 2008 intervention in Georgia. Additionally, Russian leaders openly discussed nuclear weapon use through their ‘Escalate to De-escalate’ nuclear strategy. In combination, Russia’s increased conventional capabilities combined with a seemingly lower nuclear threshold fuelled concerns worldwide while simultaneously increasing Russian influence in Eastern Europe. In the end, we can argue about ‘great power’ status, but the Russian military build-up in Crimea and Kaliningrad, the half-dozen or so ‘frozen conflicts’ [South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, Crimea, Lohansk/Donetsk] littering Europe, and an A2/AD expansion combine to challenge the established world order and make Europe less secure and more unstable.

In the north, Russian Arctic territorial claims and infrastructure investment combined with climate change making previously impassable transit routes passable are concerning to all affected NATO allies and partners. In the south, ISIS operations and refugee flow create another significant challenge to security and stability. In the meantime, ISIS-inspired home-grown terror attacks on mainland Europe, and sovereign national issues such as BREXIT and the recent Turkish coup attempt have infused an uncertainly that furthers the anxiety of an already nervous Europe.

So, what does it all mean and what should NATO Airmen do to better posture and prepare for the challenge of a resurgent ‘great power’ adversary, a significant natural disaster or any other unforeseen event? I have several thoughts:

First: Airpower is Like Oxygen

When you have enough, you don’t think about it, when you don’t have enough it’s the only thing you think about.

NATO Air will always be low density/high demand. It is NATO’s asymmetric advantage, and the Alliance must always maintain full spectrum air component capabilities that can deliver the following:

1. Air & Space Superiority

  • Fighting with Air Dominance is the NATO/US way of war.
  • Achieving air superiority is job one! With air superiority, everything is possible. Without air superiority, nothing is possible.

2. Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR)

  • Joint Force Commanders demand persistent ISR, which is easily accomplished with Air Dominance, but very difficult or impossible in a contested A2/AD environment.
  • Amateurs concentrate only on ISR collection; professionals concentrate on Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (PED) and fusion to make sense of the data. With NATO AWACS and Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS), NATO is getting better at ISR collection; however, NATO PED requires more consistent national ISR contributions and improved fusion of all-source intelligence.
  • The ability to share data, machine-to-machine, will define the effectiveness of our alliance. Policy, not technology will hinder our ability to share that data.

3. Rapid Mobility

  • Speed matters. If you can’t get there on time, you can’t assure or deter.
  • After speed, sustainability matters, and air mobility will be a critical element of all sustainability efforts.

4. Strike

The ability to hold any target on the planet at risk, day or night, in good or bad weather always has been and always will be fundamental to deterrence.

5. Command & Control (C2)

  • There is a difference in the air C2 concept between NATO and the US. NATO uses a ‘Core’ Joint Force Air Component (JFAC) and Air Operations Centre (AOC). The US uses a ‘Standing’ Joint Force Air Component Command (JFACC) and AOC. I had one of each in Europe and found that both are effective.
    • A ‘Core’ JFAC stands up immediately after a North Atlantic Council (NAC) decision to meet a crisis. A small cadre of AIRCOM ‘Core’ personnel is in place and are augmented and supplemented in preparation for execution. However, JFAC stand-up takes time because you must install Information Technology (IT), establish communications, and assemble required personnel to achieve maximum effectiveness.
    • A ‘Standing’ JFACC is just that – up and running. The IT, communications, personnel, and processes are fully functional. They are already providing C2 to current operations and can C2 an additional crisis overnight.
  • Wales Summit adaptations will require an early NAC stand-up decision to meet all timelines and requirements.
  • Regardless of the C2 approach, we must prepare for multi-domain operations in air, space, and cyberspace.
  • We must develop the capacity to synchronize and integrate more precise kinetic and emerging non-kinetic effects now becoming available in all domains – particularly cyberspace.
    • More precise kinetic effects require more precise and sustained ISR.
    • Emerging non-kinetic effects must be completely understood by everyone and will challenge and stress current NATO policy, planning processes and manning requirements.

Second: We Need a Robust NATO

We need a robust NATO, we fight together.

1. Trust and Relationships

You cannot surge trust, you cannot surge relationships. NATO’s strength is underpinned by relationships developed day in and day out and the trust that comes with those relationships.

2. Shared Commitment

  • A robust NATO requires shared commitment. Nations must at least meet the Wales Summit 2%/20% goal soonest.
  • Modernize or become irrelevant.
  • Maintain adequate weapons stockpiles or become irrelevant.
  • Airfields are combat platforms – they are weapons systems.
    • A runway is not an airfield.
    • Airfield survival in crisis is critical. This survival will depend on robust integrated air and missile defence, cyber defence for IT and combat systems, and the ability to continue operations during and after attacks.

3. Interoperability

  • Interoperability in all things must be pursued and achieved.
  • NATO Interoperability will only be achieved with unwavering commitment and consensus to common standards, common Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs), and Concepts of Operations (CONOPS).
  • Operating common equipment will enhance NATO interoperability and expand NATO effectiveness exponentially. NATO AWACS, NATO AGS, and the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) in Papa, Hungary, are examples of operating common equipment with great success. Additional pooling and sharing of emerging capabilities that address documented NATO capability shortfalls must be pursued.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice!

The current NATO exercise schedule must be enhanced to gain the maximum training benefit for primary and secondary training audiences and to practice full-spectrum combat.

5. Integrating Alliance Capabilities

  • We must work harder to better integrate alliance capabilities, including making necessary adjustments for emerging capabilities.
  • 5th and 4th generation aircraft integration must be achieved at first opportunity. The significant advantages of 5th generation stealth and sensor fusion will revolutionize NATO Air combat power.
  • Emerging threats will require NATO TTP and CONOPS adjustments to accommodate faster decision-making timelines. Our work to achieve NATO Ballistic Missile Defence Initial Operational Capability (IOC) brought to light some anxieties associated with the agreed-upon defence design and TTPs and CONOPS must continue to be improved.

Third: We Need a Clear Strategy

Effective air power employment demands a clear strategy with clear ends, ways and means.

  • The strategy must accommodate the recognized difference between the speed of NATO political versus military decision-making.
  • The strategy should commit to winning 100–0, not 51–49 because winning 51–49 will cost lives, delay victory, or both.
  • NATO political consensus depends on timely strategic warning. Future adversaries and threats will only work to shorten that strategic warning. We must adjust to this reality or accept the fact that a NATO response may be too late. To compensate for reduced strategic warning, a full set of operationally driven Indications & Warnings (I&W) informed by focused ISR and PED must be developed.
    • I&W criteria should reflect NATO political aspiration, military commander intent, and drive execution.
    • There must be political consensus on all I&W, pre-crisis.
    • I&W should inspire action or in the absence of action, acknowledge acceptance of risk. I&W do not necessarily tie NATO leaders to predetermined or automatic courses of action (COAs). If they subsequently choose not to act based on I&W, they have determined that the risk of action is simply unacceptable – politically or militarily or both.
  • Targeting is not strategy (it is part of the Air Tasking Process). Isolated strikes or ‘doing something/anything’ is not strategy.
  • We must better understand deterrence and the relationship between Conventional and Nuclear Deterrence.
  • Deterrence is a three-legged stool of capability, capacity, and willingness. With any of these three legs missing, NATO cannot deter.
  • Air Defence is a mind-set. Air Policing is not Air Defence
    • The transition from Air Policing to Air Defence (AP to AD) must be established, formalized, and exercised routinely.
    • Air Policing integrates aircraft, radars, sensors, and C2 nodes.
    • Air Defence integrates the above but also includes ground based air defence assets, airspace control measures, and rules of engagement.
  • NATO COAs must be joint from the very start. Full integration of air, space, cyberspace, maritime, and ground capabilities (US and multinational) must occur from the very start to exploit NATO’s overwhelming military power.

Fourth: The Enemy Has a Vote

The Enemy has always had and always will have a vote.

  • Potential adversaries can only overcome the power of NATO by attacking the alliance where it is most vulnerable: the solidarity and consensus needed to declare Article 5 in a timely manner.
  • President Putin’s ‘Hybrid’ approach in the Ukraine is an approach representative of a weak nation using ambiguity and uncertainty to drive wedges into NATO solidarity.
    • Assessing Russia’s power against the traditional elements of national power (location, resources and population) reveals a nation in decline. To reverse this continuing decline, President Putin manipulates as needed the other elements of national power (diplomacy, information, military and economic (the ‘DIME’)) in non-traditional ways. We have come to know this non-traditional approach as ‘Hybrid Warfare’, which is an approach that maximizes Russian strength and minimizes Russian weaknesses.
    • On the other hand, the US and NATO approach to the DIME is traditional. The traditional approach exhausts most ‘D’, ‘I’ and ‘E’ elements before using the ‘M’. This traditional approach reflects US and NATO values, the desire to avoid escalation or miscalculation, promotes NATO consensus and inspires partners to join coalitions of the willing. Unfortunately, the traditional approach is predictable and allows weak nations to exert an inordinate amount of regional influence. The transparency and predictability of the traditional approach gives relatively weak adversaries power and advantage, particularly in the area of strategic communication and ability to manipulate the media.
    • Russian leaders manipulate and brazenly lie to the media in pursuit of their aspirations. The media appears to accept this as a normal condition and reports it with little challenge or accountability.
    • The Russian ‘Escalate to De-escalate’ nuclear strategy will bolster and underpin Russian world-wide and regional influence despite their conventional shortfalls and NATO’s overwhelming power.
  • NATO is a defensive alliance and prefers to deter but the enemy always has a vote! What if diplomacy fails? What if economic sanctions fail? What if deterrence fails? If in the end deterrence fails, NATO must possess the capacity, capability and willingness to use all the elements of national power to defend and WIN.

Fifth: Words Matter!

When describing air power capabilities, be precise with your words. Always manage expectations when political aspirations exceed the resources provided.

Avoid using the following terms:

  • Efficient: instead use ‘Effective’. Since air power is low-density and high-demand, Airmen strive to create effective results using resources as efficiently as possible. Often times, the war fighting pace requires operations that may not be as effective as they could be or resources not being used as efficiently as possible or both. Live with it, and continue to educate the leadership about the dichotomy between war fighting effectiveness and resource efficiency during planning and execution.
  • Massive Aerial Bombardment: instead use ‘Air Strikes’, because we don’t do massive aerial bombardments and have not in decades.
  • Air Campaign: instead use ‘Small Joint Operation – Air Heavy’ or ‘The Joint Force Commanders Selected COA’, because an air campaign alone won’t win any conflict any more than a pure ground or maritime campaign will.
  • Drone: instead use ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’, because ‘drone’ implies thoughtless machine driven operations by unguided, uncontrolled vehicles.
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicle: instead use ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’ (see above), because there is nothing unmanned about unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Autonomous: don’t know exactly what to use here but if you think Drone and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle draw criticism, wait till we unleash ‘Autonomous’ capabilities implying any sort of man-out-of-the-loop robotic operations.
  • Precision: instead use ‘Near Zero Miss’, because sometimes precise weapons don’t hit their intended target, which results in negative press coverage and enemy strategic communication advantage.
  • Zero casualty: instead use ‘Minimum Collateral Damage’. There is no such thing a zero casualty war. Somebody usually gets hurt, and we hope it is always the enemy.

If the resources provided during NATO Force Generation do not match the political aspirations desired, manage expectations with thorough planning and full transparency with respect to risk.


I started this discussion with General Montgomery’s view of the role of air power for a reason. He did not mince words. His message was clear and powerful. His words reflect the fact that the horror of WWII and the fight against a powerful existential threat required dominating air power. It only got worse as the Cold War placed air power into an even more prominent role as nuclear weapons took centre stage for deterrence.

Today, the return of great powers, the rise of non-state actors, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction put worldwide security and stability at risk. Enlightened leadership using all the elements of national power will be required to meet future threats. It will not be easy. No one can predict the future, but I do know one thing for sure. If NATO chooses to use military power, air power will be first in, last out, and the key to any victory. NATO Air is NATO’s asymmetric advantage and INDISPENSIBLE to any future combat operations.

It has been a pleasure to serve as the senior Airman in Europe for the past three years – it was the highlight of my 37 years of USAF service.

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General (ret.)
Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2013-2016)

General (ret.) Frank Gorenc retired from the United States Air Force after 37 years of active duty service. His career culminated as the Commander US Air Forces Europe, Commander US Air Forces Africa, Commander NATO Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base, ­Germany, and ­Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, Kalkar, Germany.

General Gorenc was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He was commissioned after graduating from the US AF Academy in 1979. During his career, he commanded units at every level and served in numerous staff positions on the Air Staff, Air Combat Command, the Joint Staff, and US European Command / Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. He is a command pilot with more than 4,800 flight hours in the F-15C, T-38A, MQ-1B, UH-1N, and C-21.

During his career, he participated in Operations DESERT STORM, PROVIDE COMFORT, SOUTHERN WATCH, NORTHERN WATCH, IRAQI FREEDOM, ­ENDURING FREEDOM, ODYSSEY DAWN, UNIFIED PROTECTOR and ­INHERANT RESOLVE. In addition, he commanded three standing NATO operations: Air Policing, BMD, and Augmentation to Turkey missions.

His education includes Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering, a Master of Aeronautical Science and a Master of Science degree in ­National Security Strategy from the National Defense University. He is a graduate of the Air Force Fighter Weapons Instructor Course and the NATO Tactical Leadership Programme.

Information provided is current as of October 2017

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