Air Force Leaders Warn Russia Closing Gap With U.S.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Russia is modernizing its air force, deploying advanced air defenses and training its pilots specifically to thwart U.S. operations in Europe. The Russian air force has become “more professional” and has better equipment than it did a decade ago, said Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander.
“The advantage that we have from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking,” Gorenc said Sept. 14 at a news conference at the Air Force Association’s annual symposium. Russia’s advances are not just in the form of new aircraft but also in pilot tactics and their ability to “deny” access to enemy aircraft.
Following a disappointing military incursion in Georgia in 2008, Russian leaders have made it a priority to revamp air forces and improve their capabilities to attack enemy aircraft. “Apparently the Russians didn’t like what they saw” in the conflict with Georgia, he said. As a result, Russia launched a “large modernization effort and capacity effort that is manifesting itself at this point.”
Gorenc has been on the front lines of the U.S. Air Force campaign to help NATO protect its airspace in Eastern Europe from Russian incursions since last year’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States notably deployed the Air Force’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-22, for multinational exercises with allies in the Baltic region and continues to deploy other combat aircraft and drones for aerial surveillance missions.
The Russian are mastering what the Pentagon calls “anti-access, area denial,” or A2AD, he said. “Their ability to create A2AD is a challenge that we’re all going to face.” Gorenc said there has been a “general elevation of the capabilities of the Russian air force. They have done it with modernization, and with people.”
The Air Force has stepped up its training to be able to operate in well-defended airspace and to counter forces like Russia, Gorenc added. That means dusting off some of the old Cold War playbooks. “It’s clear we are going to start exercising some of the same stuff we used to do in the Cold War.”
Over the past 14 years, the Air Force has specialized in dropping bombs from undefended airspace in support of ground troops fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he said, “We haven’t abandoned our requirements for high-end warfare. We look at the entire spectrum of conflict at all times.
“The proliferation of the A2AD environment in Europe is as heavy as anywhere in the world,” he said. The Pentagon has discussed the A2AD challenge as one that U.S. forces will have to confront in the Asia-Pacific region as China modernizes its arsenal of smart missiles and fighter aircraft. Gorenc suggested the threat from Russia might be more pressing.
“A2AD is not just in the Pacific. It’s significant in Europe,” he said. Russia is going to make sure that the U.S. Air Force is kept in check, he added. “Clearly, surface-to-air systems are being layered in a way that makes access more difficult. We are going to have to continue to develop tactics” to deal with these sophisticated air defenses.
With funds approved by the Obama administration under a program called “European Reassurance Initiative,” the Air Force has worked with countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Italy and the United Kingdom to improve airfields, said Gorenc. The tensions with Russia have highlighted the importance of airfields, he said. “It’s one of the consequences of Putin’s actions: a focus on airfields. Especially in Eastern European countries, there is a desire to provide places for us.”
For the first time, the Air Force is flying MQ1 Predator drones inside European airspace, “which is not an insignificant task,” said Gorenc. “There are all kinds of frequency management that has to be done.” The Ukraine crisis has compelled governments to allow more drone flights, he added. “Persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is a requirement that is doing up. not down.”
The United States has dramatically downsized its permanent bases in Europe over the past 20 years, so the Air Force has supplemented its assets there with rotational aircraft and is conducting more exercises in Europe. More of that work is being assigned to the National Air Guard. The next-generation F-35 fighter will be deployed in the United Kingdom by 2020.
The centerpiece of the Air Force’s plan to prevail in future wars is not hardware, however. A desire for innovative leaders who can adapt to evolving threats is driving new Air Force educational programs, said Lt. Gen. Steven L. Kwast, commander and president of the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
“There is a recognition that we live in the information age… and we need strategic agility,” Kwast told reporters at the symposium.
Russia might be an old enemy but the tactics required to fight in the information age are a new challenge for the Air Force. “We need a force of thinkers with intellectual flexibility to adapt,” said Kwast. “We live in an information age. But everything we’ve built is an industrial age model, with Napoleonic structures,” he said. “The way we communicate, the way we promote, retain, train, equip. Everything we do is based on an industrial age model.”
The Air Force this month is introducing a new operating concept for how it will fight in the information age, he said. “It is a lifeline into the future. … Training will adapt as concepts and technology adapt,” he added. The Air Force is updating its tactics and equipment, Kwast noted. “We always can do better. This is why the thinking is so important. The real magic is the minds of our airmen, not the tools or the missions.”