WASHINGTON: Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich has said that I just want to say up front I really appreciate the Dubai Media Hub inviting me here today and certainly appreciate all of those of you who have joined us for a conversation about what United States Air Forces Central is doing in the region and where we think we’re headed in the future with our partners here.
So, as you mentioned, what I’d like to do is start by talking a little bit about U.S. Central Command Commander Erik Kurilla, Gen. Erik Kurilla, and his assessment that he delivered back to our Secretary of Defense of the United States after his first 90 days in the job. That 90-day assessment and the release of it coincided with about the time that I took commend here in late July, and so it has been something that I have anchored on as the new commander of 9th Air Force and AFCENT in order to develop my own vision for how we can work with our partners in the region and our objectives and my priorities.
So with that, Gen. Kurilla spent a fair amount of his first 90 days in command traveling the region so that he could hear regional perspectives from the regional chiefs of defense, from heads of state in the region he met with, from ministers of defense, and get an impression on the ground from the forces that he has here forward in the region and members of the global coalition that join us in our fight against ISIS to get their perspectives on exactly where they thought the Central Command ought to put its emphasis looking forward.
So his assessment is certainly informed not only by his opinions but by a lot of regional voices and a lot of the voices of those who have a stake in the region either because they live here or because they’ve been here for a while working on their part.
So at the end of that 90-day assessment, he came away with a couple of key points. The first was that this region really mattered from a – not just a regional security perspective, but from a global security perspective. And that’s because of the number of people that live in the AOR – 506 million, over half a billion, not insignificant whatsoever; the size of the AOR – a map covering 21 countries and 4.6 million square miles; but also the economic impact that the region has and has had for a couple of reasons. The most obvious one that many of us would gravitate to is energy resources that the world depends on still to this day to fuel much of the global economy, but also the rich cultures, the rich history that the region has, the tourism that comes to the region. Just it’s a critical part from a global transportation perspective. It’s the node that connects east and west. There’s a lot that this region does to really tie the world together.
And then there also are, unfortunately, some things that are – there’s challenges that exist in this region, and I’d just highlight a couple of those. The first is violent extremist organizations. They exist all over the world, of course, but some here have been sort of the ones that have been more aggressive in attacking our shared values and our shared systems of government, starting all the way back before September 11th with al-Qaida. And certainly we saw the scourge of ISIS as they grew and expanded across Iraq and Syria and Levant. And those are something that all of us collectively, whether we live here in the region, whether we work here or whether we come from afar, have an interest in countering and keeping under wraps.
The second elephant in the room, if you will, when it comes to problematic actors in the region is, of course, Iran, with a network of partners and proxies that does threaten regional stability, and we can certainly talk more about that. But the provision of those partners and proxies with advanced conventional weapons, and then Iran’s ability to control those partners and proxies either for their own ends or their inability to control them and now you have armed groups that have advanced weapons they can use in destabilizing ways that no one really has control of. It’s something that is clearly a concern here. So Iranian behavior in the region, primarily driven by its designs for regional hegemony, are another issue that has – that is certainly challenging here for us.
So as we look at those problems that we see in the region and combine that with the importance that the whole area has to the rest of the world, Gen. Kurilla came up with a strategy for addressing the longer-term challenges that we collectively face. And I use the word “collectively” intentionally in that his main approach is all about regional partnership and it’s about partnerships over posture and thinking about how we strengthen our relationships in military-to-military space with those in the region that share our views of what regional stability ought to look like and how we can collectively work against common threats.
What that really boils down to from the United States perspective, we see ourselves as here in the region not because we have a transactional desire to sell military equipment or to exploit the resources of countries that are here, but we really do see that we have shared interests in the overall stability of the region with our partners. So it’s a deep partnership. It’s a particular partnership that we’re intent on maintaining and making even stronger with all the countries that we work with.
I compare this, by the way, with what we see other competitors on the global scale doing here in the region where they are more intent on being here because they have interest in selling particular weapons to folks, but they’re not really interested in a strategic partnership without a transactional relationship, or, in some cases, it’s about trying to get leverage over countries so that they can bend the rules of the international order toward their particular ends.
Again, we see ourselves and our goal is to be the partner of choice because of our shared interests, our shared values, and our shared view of the world. So it’s all about partnerships from where Gen. Kurilla sits. That also does mean – I said it’s partnerships over posture. Posture implies how much – how many U.S. service members are in the region, how many ships and airplanes and everything we have here. The real coin of the realm moving forward is probably not those ships and airplanes and soldiers, boots on the ground that we have living and working alongside our partners. Certainly there is a minimum amount of that that we aim to keep in the region that allow us to exercise, to experiment, innovate with our partners here. But the other big thing that we’re looking at is how do we share information, how do we share intelligence, how do we gain a common understanding with each other. That really is a huge, huge piece of our cooperation here regionally. And I can talk more about that, and I know that there’s all the questions on exactly how that translates either in the fight against terrorism or perhaps in terms of integrated air and missile defense, etc.
The last thing that Gen. Kurilla has challenged us to do is think about innovation, challenged us to think about if we have a smaller footprint in the region in terms of the normal military power that we have, how do we look at new tools and other new technology in order to get more bang for our buck from what we do have here. And there’s a number of really promising technologies that are out there, most of them related to the digitization of our capability, thinking about how we use the existing data that we have that comes in from a variety of sources that we would share with each other across our partnerships and alliances and now make sense of that data and use it to build shared situational awareness and shared understanding of whatever particular problem it is that we face. So innovation and thinking creatively with new approaches to technology as we look at the – again, the shared issues of concern here regionally is of great importance to us.
All that being said, while Gen. Kurilla has that focus, my focus is very much aligned with his from an AFCENT perspective. The things that we are working are to ensure that we keep pressure on violent extremist groups so that they can’t attack here in the region or attack any of our homelands. We certainly are looking at ensuring that we maintain deterrence against Iran so that the partners and proxies that they have or Iran itself does not break out and that they know that we will defend ourselves and our forces, that we’re here working with our allies and partners.
And then we are certainly mindful that we are in a global strategic competition for influence and that the Russian and Chinese influence that’s here – thinking about, again, how we strengthen our partnerships with the air forces and air defense forces in the region. That’s a key place for AFCENT, again, I think, so we have comparative advantage based on the strategic relationship of our partnership versus the more transactional nature of the client-based relationships that you might see with Russia or China.
So with that, that leads me to kind of how I lined up my priorities. The first one is about valuing the contributions of our coalition partners, valuing the contributions of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, base force numbers that are in the air component, that assist us on a daily basis with getting our mission done. We value the contributions of everyone on the team, which includes a whole host of coalition officers from the region and from outside the region here at my headquarters. Then we’ll be able to innovate, capture all the ideas that they have, come up with some new ways of solving problems, and that then allows us to partner, and that’s the third point. So we value, we innovate, and then we partner for strength with other nations in the region. Again, our – the air forces in the region, the air defense forces of the region, and drive the partnership both bilaterally and multilaterally together to better defend ourselves – again, largely based on shared understanding and sharing information and intelligence.
And then, lastly, we want to prevail. We want to prevail in our fight against ISIS that many of us have been involved in, certainly since 2014, and we want to prevail, again, in becoming that partner of choice here for everyone that we have longstanding historic relationships with.
While answering to a question, he said that I really appreciate Mr. Mohammed asking that. So we work very closely with our maritime components, which is led by 5th Fleet down in Bahrain, to protect sea lines of communication, to look where there’s smuggling activity, piracy activity, or other we would call it malign activity that is occurring at sea. There’s a couple of ways that we do that. From the Air Force side, from AFCENT, we provide a fair amount of armed overwatch, if you will, with surveillance capabilities that help maintain broad situational awareness in the maritime domain that we share with our surface forces, with the fleet, if you will, and then we of course do from time to time provide overwatch for specific transits through strategic chokepoints so that we can maintain awareness if we have an asset that’s going through the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab, and protect it as it goes through against any potential attacks.
On the – from the maritime component, they have a lot of their initiatives in an innovative space where they are trying to build a network of surface capabilities using unmanned assets that can provide maritime domain awareness. So they have a new task force, Task Force 59, that has a network – a sea of things, an ocean of things that they are building to help build that maritime awareness. And frankly, they’ve done such a good job that I am looking for ways to replicate their success in the air component.
So we are looking at how do we fill some of our gaps in our awareness in the air domain by stitching together new sensors, new technologies that might make us much more aware of what’s out there. So we’re looking at the potential for enhanced use of drones, not the kind of drones that we usually have, but smaller, less expensive, that we can network in some way. We’re looking at the unique placement of sensors that we can put up at high altitude in order to build broad situational awareness. And again, that interlink between us and the maritime component is very strong and I think that together we’ll be able to maintain the security of the maritime domain.
It’s certainly not without its challenges. It’s very broad, very large. But we’re doing everything we can to ensure the safety and security of that domain.
So as the Pentagon has said previously, I’ll just repeat: We’re going to defend our forces no matter when they’re attacked or where they’re attacked. We do so at the time and place of our choosing, and there is – there is no connection to the Vienna talks with that timing whatsoever. So when we think about the defense of our forces, that’s an inviolable principle and we entirely compartmentalize that from other things that might be going on politically.
I’ll just add to that very briefly, we certainly would ask the Iranians the same thing in terms of were they attacking us or was that related to the Vienna talks, I think would be that that is a compartmented issue. Without – we compartment that issue as well. It’s entirely separate.
So the defense of our forces, again, inviolable, totally unrelated to the talks on JCPOA. Thanks.
I won’t go into details about the exact force laydown that we have in the region, as you’d appreciate as a former military man. We protect that for security purposes. But what I will say is that CENTCOM certainly has and AFCENT certainly has adequate forces in the region to continue the fight against ISIS. We have adequate forces in the region to defend ourselves as required. There’s been an intentional vision to maintain that sufficient level of forces here, and that’s because we know again that, if you go back to my opening comments, the threats from violent extremism, the destabilizing activity that we see from Iran, and the need to continue to work with our partners in the region doesn’t go away just because there’s something else going on, something very important going on in another area.
So my judgment is we have sufficient forces here for all the tasks we’ve been given, and the overall posture has generally not been affected by things that are going on elsewhere just because the entire United States Government recognizes the importance of the region as evidenced by President Biden’s visit here and all of the discussions that came from that. Thanks.
I will just say that from my perspective as the new commander here at 9th Air Force and Air Forces Central that I’m incredibly honored and humbled to be in this role. I know I’ve got a lot to learn from those who live in this region and who we’re working with on a daily basis. We are committed to this partnership. We’re committed to regional stability, whether that means deterring Iran, countering violent extremist organizations or ensuring that we can compete with our strategic competitors on the global scale. This area is absolutely critical to global security and I could not be more proud to be serving here alongside the other men and women from so many different nations and doing what small bit we can to contribute to that.
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