RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- The high operations tempo for airmen in Europe shows no sign of abating given the heightened uncertainty in the region and the world, says the Air Force's top commander in Europe.
In the future, U.S. Air Forces in Europe may need to rely on supplemental forces from elsewhere to maintain current operations in the long term in eastern Europe, said Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa.
"We can work it from here in the short term," he said in an interview Monday with Stars and Stripes. "It can't go on forever."
When Gorenc took charge of USAFE-AFAFRICA in August 2013, the command was recovering from the unprecedented stand-down of several Europe-based fighter squadrons due to sequestration budget cuts.
As the march to wind down the war in Afghanistan was underway and the United States was shifting its military focus to the Pacific region, Europe braced for yet more post-Cold War reductions.
Then, at the end of February, Russia invaded the Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Operations in Europe haven't eased up since.
Europe-based fighter jets and other aircraft have stepped up air policing in the Baltics, participated in training exercises in eastern Europe and maintained a near-continuous presence in Poland, a staunch U.S. ally that flanks Ukraine's western border.
The United States remains committed to more intensive, in-country cooperation with those allies. But Europe-based airmen will also likely be tapped for other requirements, such as fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as part of a joint force, Gorenc said, though USAFE-AFAFRICA is still awaiting details "of what and where and when."
U.S. President Barack Obama has said the Pentagon could deploy up to 3,000 military personnel to respond to the still-escalating epidemic, which has claimed an estimated 2,800 lives.
USAFE-AFAFRICA could provide logistical support, airlift, mobility and medical capabilities, Gorenc said. "All that is there, ready to go."
"We don't anticipate having any kind of direct interaction with people who are infected and have the disease," he said.
Any mission to support efforts in West Africa would need to be balanced with USAFE's robust training requirements in eastern Europe.
That "heel-to-toe presence is pretty much solidified for the rest of the year," Gorenc said.
However, those resources could be stretched thin if USAFE-AFAFRICA is called to contribute to other missions around the world.
"Even though we're forward-based, we have a full set of responsibilities in the expeditionary Air Force for worldwide use," Gorenc said. Although the U.S. has relied on assets in the Middle East under U.S. Central Command to launch airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and now Syria, that could change.
"In the expeditionary concept, it's certainly possible" that USAFE-AFAFRICA could be tasked with supporting CENTCOM-led efforts to combat the Islamic State, Gorenc said. "We're ready to support for sure."
For Gorenc, the political crisis in Ukraine underscores why the Air Force needs to maintain a forward presence in Europe.
"Certainly, corporate decisions are made. The only thing that I point out is the ability to do it with speed is definitely affected by the fact that we're here. If you try to do it in a rotational way, it consumes more resources."
That's why he suggests decisions to scale down U.S. military forces in Europe should be re-examined, something Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, has also called for.
"I think the situation has required it," Gorenc said. "I do think that the prudent thing to do is examine the strategy and see really what we want to do here."
These days, that pitch isn't as much of a hard sell as it once was, Gorenc said.
"Particularly, when there was a rebalance to the Pacific, that was the discussion of the day," he said. "It was unthinkable that [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin would take over the Crimea, and it happened."
He added, "This is kind of a revalidation of the idea that sometimes we don't know what's going to happen, but when it does, it's going to require forces to support the decision of the president, and that's what we did."
Adding to the strain on resources, USAFE-AFAFRICA will lose about 346 positions as part of the defense secretary's direction to cut 20 percent of Air Force headquarters budget and restructuring.
"I would describe uncertainty as the challenge of the day," Gorenc said. "There's a lot of movement of people and downsizing of billets."
Gorenc emphasized "these are positions," not all of which are filled.
The situation in Ukraine may spare additional force structure reductions in Europe, temporarily. But it's expected Europe will shed some military infrastructure as part of the European Infrastructure Consolidation review, a "BRAC-like" analysis launched long before Russia's intervention.
BRAC refers to Base Closure and Realignment.
"I can't get into the details because that will be announced soon enough," Gorenc said. "But I'm confident that, regardless, we will be able to continue our mission as is, with very little degradation."