The JAPCC Interview with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe

Interview with General Breedlove, SACEUR, U.S. Air Force

By General

By Gen

 Philip M.


, US


Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)

 November 2013

Prior to becoming SACEUR, you were the Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command at Ramstein. How do you see your time at AIRCOM being of benefit in your new position as SACEUR?

I have spent almost a third of my military career in Europe, but primarily in national positions. Commanding AIRCOM was my first real tour in NATO. Discussing and working together with my counterparts from the land and maritime components and the joint commands sharpened my understanding regarding the value of NATO in safeguarding the freedom and security of its members through military means.

NATO is relying on its integrated military command structure and on the forces provided by the nations in order to be able to plan and execute military operations. At AIRCOM, I learned more about the nations, who are the foundation for the alliance, and about their national identities and their challenges. I experienced the difficulties of transitioning into a new NATO Command Structure. And I learned from the multinational individuals within the organisation, who are the vital elements in order to be able to fulfil any given mission. In the end, it is all based on the individuals, the brave men and women from the nations, who I had the honour to serve and to lead as Commander of AIRCOM and who I also rely on in my new position as SACEUR.

As the JAPCC’s Director, you helped select the JAPCC 2013 annual conference theme of ‘Air Power Post-Afghanistan’. What do you think are the most significant challenges for NATO Air Power in the Post-Afghan period?

At present and from a political perspective, placing ‘boots on the ground’, may not be the preferred option for managing armed conflicts. Public opinion is less willing to accept operations that require the deployment of thousands of troops for long durations of time. In that respect, Air Power may be seen as an effective means to respond to future challenges but, nevertheless, in an effort to cut military budgets, many NATO nations are significantly reducing their Air Power capabilities. Such decisions need to be made in full consideration of the consequences and with a clear understanding of the potential future threats. A full range of capabilities need to be maintained.

Secondly, we need to preserve the high-level of interoperability that we have forged among Allies and partners after over a decade of joint operations in Afghanistan. We are operating at peak performance right now, and we will have to leverage exercises and training opportunities down the road in order to maintain our ability to work effectively together jointly as a team. This includes air interoperability as well as the capacity to work with land, maritime, and special forces.

We also need to continue to improve our ability to use lethal air power with a high degree of precision and due diligence. When you consider the speed and confusion of modern combat operations, NATO does a remarkable job in keeping collateral damage and civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. But we must continually strive to improve our abilities in this area to maintain the trust of the people we are trying to protect.

Finally, we need to do a better job of showing our citizens exactly what air power can do on their behalf, and why such capabilities are necessary. During Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, one of the problems we had was declassifying imagery in a timely manner that would have clearly helped us counter the information campaigns of opposing forces. Our future operating environments, even in the poorest of countries, will be ‘wired’ and interconnected by social media networks that move and shift at a tremendous pace. Misinformation and propaganda will inevitably be used against us virtually every time we decide to engage a target. Therefore we need to take a hard look at how we use imagery and information during air campaigns to our best advantage. We need to be faster, more deliberate, and smarter in how we go about telling our story in today’s lightning fast information environment.

How do you view the recently completed restructuring of the NATO Command Structure and the reductions among the nations’ armed forces with regard to NATO’s effectiveness and efficiency to execute military operations in the future?

There is a temptation during times of austerity for nations to become introspective and focus exclusively on national priorities at the expense of multi-national co-operation. This could potentially lead to losing some of the alliance capabilities. It’s a matter of awareness; we should all make an effort to inform our leadership regarding the associated risks that accompany any loss of capability in dealing with potential future threats.

We need, however, to be fiscally responsible and NATO has reduced its overhead in many innovative ways over the past few years, including by reforming and reducing its command structure. This was done to make the structure more affordable, while protecting operational capability and our level of ambition. The reforms have reduced the overall number of staff from 13,000 to 8,800 posts NATO-wide.

The reform has also created a more deployable and streamlined command configuration. ACO’s two Joint Force Headquarters are now able to deploy into theatre to exercise command and control up to the level of a major joint operation. The component commands are able to bring a high degree of focus and excellence to their respective land, maritime, and air domains.

Further, the creation of the Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Centre (CCOMC) at SHAPE is allowing us to think, plan, and act strategically. The centre collaborates and cooperates in a fully-integrated manner, bringing together military and civilian expertise, and connecting SHAPE Headquarters to the networked world.

The new command structure provides an effective and accurate response to current and more importantly, future security threats and challenges. The new structure better allows NATO to identify emerging threats before they mature into full blown problems. I liken this to a pilot who continually scans the horizon while flying, always looking for the indicators of warning.

But when it comes to cutting capabilities themselves, we have to be much more careful. Right now we are at the height of our ability to operate together, our cohesiveness is high, and our tactics, techniques and procedures are as good as they have ever been. My concern is that we do not lose the edge … clearly we need budgets and capabilities to stay prepared. When I speak to officials during my visits to Allied nations, I continually emphasise that defence spending is important. At a certain point, there comes a time when there is no more ‘fat’ to trim and you begin cutting into ‘flesh and bone’. We’ve got to guard against that.

Looking at NATO’s current Level of Ambition (2 Major Joint Operations and 6 Smaller Joint Operations) and considering the recent changes in the NATO Command Structure as well as the cutbacks in the Force Structure of the Nations, will this not be very ambitious to fulfil?

Given the recent developments in the NATO Command Structure, I don’t think so. The newer and leaner command structure better capitalises on the use of more up-to-date technology, and is more operationally orientated. We now have two Joint Force Command Headquarters (Naples and Brunssum) as well as Land, Air, and Maritime Component commands in Turkey, Germany, and England respectively. This structure allows us to be more effective and efficient in the delivery of capabilities and services and maintain our level of ambition. Obviously running several operations at the same time is a challenge. But if you think about it, while we are still in a period of transition, we are managing a major operation in Afghanistan, while simultaneously coordinating KFOR, Op OCEAN SHIELD, Op ACTIVE ENDEAVOR, and PATRIOT missiles deployed in support of Turkey. Our capacity will only increase once we hit full operational capability across all the respective commands.

For the future of NATO Air Power: what should NATO and the Nations aim for to strengthen / enhance their common Air Power Capabilities?

A key pillar of NATO’s deterrence is the strength, flexibility and high quality of its air power across all services. The end of the Cold War brought not a decrease but an increase in NATO’s reliance on Air Power. Time and time again, NATO and the Alliance nations have turned to Air Power as their first, and in some cases only, military response option. The need for NATO to maintain its proven air assets has not diminished. Thus, for me, the need for responsive and flexible forces remains crystal clear. NATO must retain and improve its air power if it is to successfully meet future challenges.

Therefore, I believe NATO must adopt a bi-focal approach to pro-actively further the development of its Air Power. The short term perspective must focus on retaining the required capabilities and on meeting, where possible, priorities of shortfall areas to ensure NATO air power remains ready and capable despite the current period of economic uncertainty. The long term perspective must focus on preparing for the future by looking out beyond the current planning horizon. Within the context of the future security environment, NATO Air Power must adapt to the speed and unpredictability of strategic and technological developments that will emerge in the coming decades. To support such an approach, I believe a comprehensive air power study is required to chart the path forward to guarantee that air power continues to contribute to the security and success of NATO and its Allies. Therefore, I asked the JAPCC to conduct such a study within the concept of the Connected Forces Initiative, rather than a focus on force structure.

What do you see as ACO’s biggest challenges in the near term?

I believe the key issues threatening global security today are: failing states, restive populations, and ungoverned spaces.

In order to ensure the Alliance is positioned to meet these challenges, I have established the following priorities for Allied Command Operations:

  • Ensuring NATO forces are Prepared, Agile, Capable and Interoperable.
  • Successfully transitioning ISAF to Operation Resolute Support post-2014.
  • Maintaining our cohesion and professionalism in everything we do.
  • Countering the cyber threat by protecting our networks and collaborating to meet emerging threats.
  • Maintaining, and strengthening, our shared Trans-Atlantic bond.

My first and enduring priority is ensuring NATO remains vigilant and prepared to meet the challenges and threats of the future with agile, capable and interoperable military forces. This fundamental priority, securing our future together, lies at the core of the military alliance and it will remain front-and-center while I am the commander.

The transition in Afghanistan also remains a top priority as the Afghan National Security Forces take responsibility for security across the country and NATO moves into a supporting role. SHAPE staff are currently developing operational plans that will specify how NATO, with the support of the international community, will fulfill our commitment to Afghanistan with a new train, advise and assist mission named RESOLUTE SUPPORT.

Concurrently, we are transitioning our NATO Force Structure while involved in operations around the world. We will continue building on the gains in cohesion and professionalism which we, the Alliance, contributing nations and our Afghan partners, have made over this past decade. We will continue getting better as we transition from being ‘deployed’ to being ‘ready’.

Of particular importance to staying ready for future challenges is the NATO Response Force. This force is comprised of three parts: a command and control element from the NATO Command Structure; the Immediate Response Force, a joint force of about 13,000 high-readiness troops provided by Allies; and a Response Forces Pool, which can supplement the Immediate Response Force when necessary.

The NRF will become even more important post-2014, after the NATO-led International Assistance Force (ISAF) has completed its mission and we have transitioned to a non-combat and advisory role in Afghanistan.

Another challenge we face today is the emerging cyber threat. NATO has the largest gap between our level of preparedness and the threat of damage from a severe cyber attack. We have a defensive effort to strengthen our ability to protect our networks, and we will continue developing this capability because we recognise these threats continue to evolve. Finally, I’m working with my European colleagues and other partners to emphasise the strength and the vibrancy of our trans-Atlantic linkages. Our security is deeply interwoven and supported by deep roots in both economic and cultural shared values with our neighbours in Europe. These relationships have endured for decades and will continue to thrive through all of our challenges, whether they are economic or military.

How do you plan to continue to develop the NATO missile defence initiative?

The NATO missile defence program will protect NATO European populations and territories from the threat posed by missile proliferation. Ballistic missiles pose an increasing threat to Allied populations, territory and deployed forces. Over 30 countries have, or are acquiring, ballistic missile technology that could eventually be used to carry not just conventional warheads, but also weapons of mass destruction.

As such, the Alliance has a responsibility to take this into account as part of its mission to protect its populations.

NATO currently has an interim capability, which is under the command of AIRCOM. The radar station in Turkey has also been placed under NATO command and a number of Allies – the United States, Germany and the Netherlands – have made clear that they would be ready to provide interceptors if needed.

The United States is providing the majority of the assets for the interim capability. But many European nations are already contributing too. And their contributions will increase in the coming years. So this is about NATO Allies working together to defend NATO Allies.

We are now working towards our next goal: initial operational capability, which I would expect in the second half of this decade. This will require work in many areas, such as technology development, additional national contributions, military planning, and staff training.

Once fully operational, the system will allow NATO to gather information from satellites and radars at sea and on land, put that information together and pass it on to our interceptors. This will give NATO commanders a fuller picture and an earlier warning, and allow them to maximise the effectiveness of our defences. The capability also includes rules and procedures agreed by all 28 Allies, so that NATO commanders can plan and position their assets, and have the legal authority and clear rules on how to react if necessary.

Much remains to be done in this regard, but I think we are on the right track to continue to move this important project forward.

Sir, thank you for your time and your comments.

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 Philip M.
Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)

General Philip M. Breedlove assumed duties as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command in May 2013. He was commissioned in 1977 as a distinguished graduate of Georgia Tech’s ROTC program and was raised in Forest Park, Ga. A Fighter Pilot by trade, General Breedlove is a Command Pilot with over 3,500 flying hours primarily in the F-16. He has flown combat missions in Operation JOINT FORGE supporting the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Operation JOINT GUARDIAN to implement the peace settlement in Kosovo. From 2012–2013, he was Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe; Commander, U.S. Air Forces Africa; Commander Headquarters Allied Air Command, Ramstein; and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, Kalkar Germany. In addition to General Breedlove’s command assignments he has served in a variety of senior leadership positions for the U.S. Air Force.

Information provided is current as of November 2013

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