As 100,000 Russian troops conduct the quadrennial Zapad war games in Belarus, Sept. 14-20, seven F-15Cs and 140 airmen with the 493rd Air Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force Lakenheath are rotationally deployed to Siauliai air base in neighboring Lithuania to conduct the Baltic Air Policing mission.
Meanwhile, six F-15Cs from the Louisiana and Florida Air National Guard and 280 support airmen are deployed as the 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron to Keflavik, Iceland, where they are conducting an air surveillance mission in support of NATO commitments.
A C-130J Super Hercules and about 40 airmen from the California Air National Guard are taking part in Rapid Trident 2017, a joint, multinational exercise in Ukraine with airmen from 15 other countries.
And earlier in September, two B-52s from the 307th Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and two B-1s from Dyess AFB, Texas took part in Ample Strike, an annual Czech Republic-led exercise.
The pace of rotational deployments and training exercises in Europe is high in 2017, and it won’t be slowing down in the year to come, said Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa and commander of Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
“We can anticipate that the thickness of the training events and exercises that occurred in 2017 will be equally as thick in 2018, and we think those numbers of events are just about right,” Wolters told reporters during a Sept. 8 telephonic roundtable.
In 2016, the command supported more than 50 deployments and exercises throughout Europe and Africa. USAFE-AFAfrica aircraft flew 25.000 sorties totaling more than 90,000 flight hours, and refueling aircraft flew 1,173 tanker sorties, delivering 30 million pounds of fuel to U.S., NATO and partner aircraft.
Asked if he needed more airmen – there are more than 30,000 airmen based in Europe now – Wolters said the rotational presence is getting the job done, despite worries about pilot shortages and a too-high deploy-to-dwell ratio.
“The deploy to dwell is always a concern, and it is a foundational element of the discussions that we entertain with U.S. Air Force Headquarters in Washington,” he said. “We certainly have the right number of airmen in theater at this time, when you take into account the ones we rotate in on an episodic, periodic basis.
“Given the rotation scheme as it has existed in 2017, we have been able to balance the deploy to dwell with the forces that have rotated to us from the continental U.S. to where it is achievable and sustainable for the long haul.”
Many of these deployments and exercises, as well as infrastructure improvements at smaller bases across the continent, are made possible by U.S. funding for the European Defense Initiative, which Wolters described as “very generous” in 2017.
“ERI enables us to increase our deterrence posture, and that’s critical,” Wolters said. “It allows us to increase our readiness support, and that’s critical. It allows us to improve the collective defense with our NATO allies, and that’s critical. And it increases the capacity of all the partners to the U.S. and certainly all the partners in the NATO region.”
The Air Force hopes to get $1 billion in ERI funds in the 2018 budget, which will support not only the ongoing rotational deployments but also increased ISR processing and dissemination to allies, more improvements to airfield infrastructure, and prepositioning of air operations equipment and enablers in NATO countries.
Wolters’ priorities for the coming year are the same as when he assumed command in August 2016: training and readiness.
“Our primary focus at USAFE/AFAfrica is training, training, training,” Wolters said. “It’s the critical enabler of interoperability, and the defining distinction between success and failure in any operational environment. “Routine exercises with our allies and partners keep our airmen and our forces razor sharp and ready. And this includes the total force, our reservists, our Guard airmen and our active-duty members.”