Russia casts a long shadow nowadays, especially if you’re a neighbor. Armed with heavy tanks, jet fighters, long-range missiles, and the world’s slickest state-sponsored cyber-criminals, Russia is a very different threat from the so-called Islamic State, the Taliban, or even China. So how must the US and its NATO allies change gears, mindset and tactics to cope?
Last week, I got to ask three 4-star generals just those questions: the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove; Breedlove’s senior air commander, Gen. Frank Gorenc; and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. The evolving answer, they said, is neither a “back to the future” revival of Cold War tactics nor a continuation of the last 13 years of counterinsurgency, but a hybrid that draws on both. In essence, we have to scale up the sophisticated command, control, and coordination we’ve learned over the last decade to handle the sheer size and intensity of a European war.
“It’s a combination,” Gen. Odierno told me. It’s not a matter of “unlearning” any lessons from the post-9/11 wars, he said, but rather “adapting.”
“It’s a good news story,” Gen. Breedlove said. “The good news is yes, there has been a different kind of mission, but what we have gained across the last 10 to 12 years is incredible interoperability.”
“We’ve worked through a lot of the kit problems” that kept different countries’ aircraft, command posts, and networks from sharing information, Breedlove explained, meeting me in civilian clothes after the Air Force Association conference had ended for the day. But it’s not just the technologies that work better together now, he said, it’s also the humans: The NATO allies have had “10 to 12 years of sharing, practicing, and employing tactics, techniques, and procedures that standardize us across the force.”
Working together didn’t mean dumbing it down, either, Lt. Gen. Gorenc had told me earlier at AFA. “In Afghanistan, we’re doing operations at a very high level in the air, at PhD level,” he told me and another reporter at the conference. “The command and control required to do what we do inside the Afghanistan theater is absolutely spectacular. [The question is,] how do we bring back all of those spectacular things that we’re doing as an alliance in this command structure and inculcate it to the exercises that we do, so that all of these countries that now have developed skills can maintain them in the out years?”