Tomorrow's challenges met by building partnerships today

  • Published
  • By Brig.Gen. Mark O. Schissler
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe director of Plans, Programs and Analyses
While it's tough to predict the future, sometimes we can get close. One prediction we can be sure of is this: international partnerships will continue to be critical to U.S. national security. In fact, we are so sure of this that in early 2009 the U.S. Air Force added "Building Partnerships" (BP) to its 12 core functions, alongside traditional roles such as "rapid global mobility" and "air dominance." The doctrine that formalizes BP is in the works right now, but it is apparent that the Air Force recognizes the centrality of international relationships to national security and the importance of helping our partners develop their capabilities before we get into the next conflict.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to avoid history repeating itself is to study the past. However, careful study of history also tells us that some stories are unlikely to repeat themselves, like unilateral operations. Coalition-based operations such as ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan and IRAQI FREEDOM in Iraq will be the military approach of the future. Although the majority of forces in these operations have come from the U.S., the crucial contributions of the other coalition members has legitimized the international response to terrorism.

What these conflicts have shown is we overestimated the importance of U.S. capabilities and underestimated the criticality of coalition partners. We also did not appreciate how the protracted and complicated nature of insurgencies would demonstrate the limits of U.S. military might. An old axiom in military operations is: "the enemy gets a vote in what we do." While terribly overmatched in conventional terms, the adversaries in our current conflicts have proven very adept at adjusting their tactics to exploit "chinks in our armor." In Iraq that "vote" has meant an effort to provoke traumatic sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis (dividing the population against itself). In Afghanistan, that "vote" has meant a resurgent Taliban who attempts at every turn to discredit Western forces with the population. In both cases, insurgents have targeted the legitimacy of our operations--an element that is much more difficult to affect when operations are truly and broadly international.

We've seen how building partnerships prior to conflicts yields tremendous benefits. In addition to simply providing more resources, an international approach offers decided political benefits as well. Building partnerships allows nations to have open dialogue and detailed discussions on working together to develop and implement plans and resources to advance critical U.S. and international priorities on emergent issues.

Operations in Afghanistan serve as a barometer of success. Coalition partners from more than 40 nations are contributing nearly 31,000 troops and equipment to Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force based on their national wills and individual capabilities. The close political cooperation with partner nations prior to the conflict has resulted in a cohesive strategy and sharing of resources across a spectrum of operations for success in Afghanistan.

As with Afghanistan operations, an international approach depends on the capabilities and the political will of our partners, and to what level these capabilities are compatible, or interoperable, with U.S. and NATO forces. For example, when a team of Polish airmen arrives at Aviano Air Base in Italy and spends time with American maintainers and support troops, the visit represents more than just foreign military visiting the base. It represents U.S. and USAFE engagement in building partnerships, it represents an exchange of skills and experiences, and it represents a joint move forward in Airman culture. That simple visit has both tactical and strategic importance, and is an example of what Air Force Airmen are doing around the globe.

As NATO has grown fairly rapidly in the past few years, and the newer member nations are striving to join the fight, we acknowledge that there are varying degrees to which we can operate together in a combat environment. This makes our focus on interoperability with our allies a significant priority for our Building Partner Capacity concept.

As the Commander of United States Air Forces in Europe, Gen. Roger Brady has made building partnerships and partner capabilities one of his top efforts. However, with two major combat missions ongoing, coupled with national budget pressures, it is no surprise that the most significant BP challenge we face is a growing lack of resources. Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago, the United States has drawn down its forces in Europe across the board. For example, in 1990 USAFE included 25 squadrons and more than 700 combat aircraft. Today, we have eight squadrons and 174 combat aircraft. Also in 1990, we had more than 65,000 Airmen assigned in Europe. Today that number is just over 36,000 military, civilians and contractors.

Since there are no forces specifically set aside for the building partnership mission, USAFE relies on the same general purpose forces it uses to conduct its other lines of operation, including feeding the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, ensuring access to Europe, deterring aggression and assuring our NATO allies. Given this gap between resources and missions, the best way forward is to adjust the nature of doing the business. In this difficult environment, making BP more than just words requires involving every Airman who understands how his or her work contributes.

While declining resources are a difficult challenge, making the BP effort even more complex is the necessity of relating to each country at an appropriate and individual level. For example, the British Royal Air Force is one of our most highly advanced and capable allies. Therefore, our engagement with them is aimed at expanding high-end cooperation and maintaining a mutually productive relationship. Countries like Poland-- flying their new F-16s and acquiring C-130Es --receive more direct, hands-on engagement as they strive to modernize their force and support NATO out-of-area operations. Others are establishing nascent air power capabilities from the ground up, which calls for a completely different set of skills aimed at foundational air power growth. Similar situations are faced by other geographic Air Component Commanders.

The fact that USAFE is the only Air Force major command that is fully forward based gives it certain advantages over CONUS-based forces in pursuing the BP mission. With our headquarters in Germany and partnership building at the core of what we do, USAFE leadership has recognized that the essence of BP lies in the daily, repeated interactions of our Airmen with partner airmen. USAFE forces provide a three-for-one presence that yields trained, combat-ready forces for deterrence, forces deployed forward in support of OIF and OEF, and a large number of forces that build partnerships on a daily basis. In other words, whenever our forward-based forces are not deployed or preparing to deploy, they build partnerships in almost everything they do. A good case in point is the 178 air refueling missions with partner nation aircraft conducted in one month by the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, U.K. This would be much more difficult and expensive to replicate solely from CONUS. Nevertheless, active-duty, Guard and Reserve units from CONUS regularly expand USAFE's BP "reach" as part of the total force effort to build partnerships.

To better posture the command to handle this vital mission, USAFE renamed and re-tooled its International Relations Division to focus directly on partnership building. The new Building Partnership Division and its BP Strategy Branch builds and operates 10 cross-cutting programs to focus the command on developing goals, milestones and measureable outcomes to develop capabilities across the continent. Among the ways and means figuring heavily into the planning for these programs are interactions with Air National Guard and Reserve units and "sister" squadron initiatives, in addition to the traditional "mil-to-mil" activities. As these programs cross many borders, the BP strategists complement the expertise of the traditional division's Country Desk Officers, who are regional experts possessing language and cultural training and are focused on specific groups of countries.

Together, the BP strategists and Country Desk Officers will advance the art of building partnerships. We are also placing special emphasis on close coordination with the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve Command, who participate in and are key stakeholders in BP programs. To that end, we will have both ANG and AFRC representation in the division.

Unlike other staff functions, the BP Operations Branch will form the nucleus of a planning team, or "white cell," and deploy under 3rd Air Force with operational units conducting BP activities with partner nations. The "white cell" concept has two parts. First, the cell will be able to do advance work with the partner country ahead of the event to secure the contacts, permissions and cooperation needed in country to make the event happen. During event execution, the cell will transition to a facilitator role to make sure the objectives of the event are achieved.

One of the BP Strategists will be charged with managing USAFE's effort to develop fourth generation fighter capabilities in nations moving into that realm, like Poland that recently acquired F-16s, and Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, which are considering alternatives for modernizing their air forces. Another strategist will be charged with fostering coordination and interoperability of northern partner air forces with NATO, like Sweden and Finland who also fly fourth-generation fighters. In each case, the BP Strategist's programs and the Country Desk Officer's country contacts will reinforce each other and synchronize the efforts within the command staff to improve USAFE's engagements.

Key to the success of this effort will be establishing measurable goals and supporting milestones. To use the Polish example again, a measurable goal might be something like "deploy four F-16s to support operations in Afghanistan in 20XX." Another goal may be to develop organic maintenance capabilities that can pass a NATO inspection or evaluation. In all cases, these goals will be developed in close cooperation with our partners based on their objectives, interests and needs. These goals will also be pursued with an eye on improving NATO's capability as a whole.

Perhaps the main benefit and outcome of this new approach will be the ability to maintain a holistic perspective on both bilateral engagement as well as capability development across our area of responsibility. As is so often the case in large organizations, synchronizing the efforts of every staff agency can be difficult and in the past no single office had responsibility for ensuring many of our BP priorities were accomplished. All too often, we simply conducted events and hoped we were making progress. In the new methodology, a synchronized and coordinated headquarters will yield benefits across the entire command and make us much more effective at BP by effectively measuring progress and effectively allocating resources.

U.S. Air Forces Europe, by virtue of being located entirely overseas, has been a leader in developing and conducting BP since long before the term was in vogue. Now that the Air Force has adopted BP as a core function, USAFE is developing a cutting-edge methodology, grown from its long tradition of building relationships. Establishing a headquarters organization with members from a wide range of career specialties devoted to developing capabilities across Europe and Eurasia is a very positive step, both for our command and our region.

As the recent past has shown, future security challenges could range from serious regional conflicts to natural disasters--and both could happen simultaneously. While we cannot predict what crisis will erupt, we know for certain that USAFE is working today to build the partnerships and capabilities to meet tomorrow's challenges.