U.S. airmen will see more training exercises with NATO counterparts this year as part of an effort to support allies amid increased Russian military activity in the region.
Units under U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa should expect a drill boost beginning this spring, according to the head of the command.
"[We are] working to maximize the number of training events we have this spring all the way through the summer, but we're also careful not to overload the troopers with training events that might not be fruitful for what we expect they might have to do," Gen. Tod Wolters said in a recent interview with Military.com.
"We anticipate in the areas of strike superiority, surveillance, rapid global mobility and command and control that we'll have a wide array of exercises here in the European region," he added.
That means the Air Force -- with help from National Guard and Reserve units -- will bring in a number of different aircraft to the region, from intelligence and surveillance planes to fighters and bombers and airlifters.
In addition, there might be even more personnel rotations into the region as part of a so-called theater security package, or TSP, of forward-deployed aircraft and units that conduct various missions across the continent over six months to reassure NATO and other allies amid Russian aggression from the east.
USAFE units will train with the joint services, "and train with allies like there's no tomorrow," Wolters said. "Our objectives are to make sure that the training is supreme and that our folks are as combat ready as they can possibly be to respond to any contingency."
USAFE went from "2014, a famine of funding, to a feast with the [European Reassurance Initiative] funding in 2015, and that's when training and exercises kicked off," added Lt. Col. Bradley Brandt, branch chief of operations and training for the command.
The funding -- rebranded the European Deterrence Initiative in the latest budget documentation and supported by both Congress and President Barack Obama -- is slated to increase from $789 million in 2016 to $3.4 billion in 2017.
Brandt said in prior years, airmen would do one to two exercises a year, but with the funding hike, the scheduling has picked up to two to three, "meaning a big one, a 2-to-3 weeks [long exercise] going to said country to train with them, test out the airspace, test out the infrastructure of the field," he said in a recent interview.
Some yearly exercises include Baltic Operations, or BALTOPS, in the Baltic Sea; U.S. Army Europe-led Saber Strike throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and Swift Response in Poland, all of which receive aerial reinforcements. Depending on the exercise, hundreds to thousands of U.S. and NATO partner troops participate.
The Air National Guard and Reserve have provided aircraft such as F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons, plus C-130 Hercules, air refueling tankers, and close-air-support A-10 Thunderbolt IIs to a number of training locations.
"The [Air Reserve component] has really jumped at the opportunity to come over and train in a new environment," Brandt said. "If I know I don't have enough USAFE assets, I look to my Guard and Reserve liaisons and they go out and canvass … prospective volunteers.
"And we have tankers tied to exercises that can refuel our aircraft, but can also refuel our allies at no cost to our allies except for the fuel. They don't have to pay any other cost," he said.
Bottom line, the European Reassurance Initiative has allowed for units to reacquaint themselves "to deploy quickly," Brandt said.
Additionally, the service is looking to do more exercises in different locations to "stretch the system," he continued.
"We want to go out and learn from operating in new locations, and it's not just good for the country we go to, but good for us, to set up a bare base with a minimal Air Force or [U.S Defense Department] footprint," Brandt said of additional eastern countries.
Now, officials and planners are "just fine-tuning it," he said.
It's remains to be seen how or whether Russia will respond to any increased training exercises. Also unclear is whether the incoming Trump administration may seek to change the effort, given his previous statements that NATO states must contribute more to their collective defense.
President-elect Donald Trump has criticized the U.S. for acting as the backbone to the NATO alliance and left the door open on whether the U.S. would automatically defend countries that don't spend enough on defense. For example, this summer he suggested the U.S. would provide aid only if they "have fulfilled their obligations to us."
For now, the Air Force's obligations to the Baltic countries -- which lack capable air forces -- will continue in 2017 in part under the European Deterrence Initiative, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently said, "to reflect that our presence … does more than reassure."
"Presence, joint training and political resolve are extremely important at this point in time," she said Dec. 19.
Meanwhile, in Africa -- which remains under the purview of the command -- the use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft helps in the effort to stamp out terrorist organizations such as Al-Shabab and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the countries plagued by such insurgents.
Wolters said, "That's probably the one area that we use the most [ISR]; we flex to support our number one objective, which is to develop partner-nation capabilities on the African continent, [and it] happens to be the utilization of ISR assets."
Brandt added that, aside from regular train and advise missions to the continent, "We don't have an 'ARI' like we have an ERI, so the money for Africa -- I have not seen an increase in budget for them, so the number of exercises we have done in Africa [has] stayed the same."
Wanted: Fifth-Gen Aircraft, More Pilots
Wolters said the Air Force's current inventory of combat platforms are "all eligible candidates" for upcoming training exercises and overwatch.
In August 2015, the Air Force deployed four F-22s to Europe for the first time ever as part of the ERI. Months later, a dozen F-22s from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, traveled across the continent, coming close to Russia's borders with a quick deployment to Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania.
Brandt said, "We've learned lessons from bringing the F-22 -- a fifth-gen capability -- over, so we are ready for the F-35 … and we would like to get [F-35s] here for training and exercises."
"Speed and information are 21st-century musts for conflict," Wolters added, which needs to be fused for a "fighter-friendly format" -- one the F-35 can deliver.
"Information at the speed of war is critical … so we can outperform anyone who wants to fight us," Wolters said, echoing other Air Force officials such as Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, and Pacific Air Forces leadership, among others.
Whether the F-22 will make another appearance in the region is unknown.
"[We're working with] something along those lines that will probably be approved next step, but right now we're working on all of those issues," Wolters said of a future Raptor deployment.
Other issues on the horizon include training partner nation aviators to bring foreign pilots up to speed with U.S. counterparts.
The Air Force has been challenged to train a rising number of foreign aviators while simultaneously facing a shortfall of several hundred fighter pilots itself, James bemoaned in September.
"Trying to fit in [an] ever-increasing number of pilots from overseas locations is a tough proposition," she said at the time. "We're doing the best we ... can do."
But the goal has not been side-stepped, Wolters said.
"We work very, very hard at this, all of our air forces, the U.S. and NATO … we are all joining together at the hip to ensure we are scouring the entire playing field to ensure that every training slot that could exist in all of the countries is closely monitored, and that we're maximizing the output," he said.
"All of the air forces are working together to combat this problem. We know that we're a lot better off if we work together."