U.S. and other NATO forces are practicing how to fend off an attack in central Europe, bringing together B-52 bombers, fighters and missile defenses for a drill simulating a large-scale battle.
“It’s about putting the right force to defend against the right threat, in the right place at the right time,” France said in Wednesday in a call with reporters. “If we do that, our operators will hit home runs all day long.”
The exercise, slated to end Friday, also features the U.S.’ Patriot air defense system, which U.S. Army Europe brought to a military base in Szymany, Poland. The Patriots, along with Polish ground systems and allied airpower, are focused on defending and protecting urban centers and other priorities from attack, Polish Air Force Maj. Gen. Ireneusz Starzynski said.
U.S. Air Force aircraft involved include F-16s, F-15s, the KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender and the B-52 Stratofortress. Polish F-16 fighters, SU-22 ground attack jets and Mi-17 helicopters also are part of the exercise.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by U.S. Air Forces Maj. Gen. Derek France, U.S. Army Europe Brig. Gen. Gregory Brady, Polish Air Force Maj. Gen. Ireneusz Starzynski, And Polish Air Force Maj. Gen. Dariusz Malinowski.
Maj. Gen. France: I would like to start off just by thanking our Polish partners sitting here with me for being such gracious hosts today, for a tour of their facilities, and for the contributions they have made to ensure the success of this exercise. Bringing together multiple nations for an exercise of this size, scope, and complexity contributes to the strength of our partnership of our two great countries and all of the countries involved. And it is these partnerships that allow us to seamlessly execute Astral Knight and be ready and ready in combat.
This year we’re building on the lessons learned from Astral Knight ’19, enhancing our ability to build a resilient, integrated air and missile defense enterprise. We will be putting our combined airmen and soldiers through a demanding set of scenarios over the course of this week using both live fly and computer-based scenarios. Our goal at the end of this week is to enhance command and control integration, improve coordination interoperability, land and air capabilities, and successfully overlap operations into an integrated air and missile defense architecture.
Astral Knight incorporates a variety of U.S. Air Force and Polish Air Force aircraft, including elements of our current bomber task force in theater as well as Army Patriot missile systems and Polish ground-based missile systems. Additionally, most importantly will be integrating our air operations centers, on the U.S. side at Ramstein, and the Polish air operations center in Warsaw to give us a greater combined awareness of the air defense picture.
So bringing these assets together allows us to demonstrate, to test, to refine, and to learn our ability to execute integrated air and missile defense that incorporates both offensive and predominately defensive measures. This creates a comprehensive joint and combined force capable of preventing any enemy from effectively employing offensive air and missile weapons on this soil.
This exercise is also an avenue to enhance our partnerships across the Baltic region between U.S. joint partners and other nations such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, as mentioned, and Sweden as we share common interests in maintaining a Europe that is safe and secure and prosperous. By training together in the region, we’re able to enhance our flexibility, our interoperability in the interests of strengthening combined response capabilities and demonstrating international resolve. Our partners fly a variety of different weapons systems, and it’s important and crucial that we expand those capabilities by integrating with one another.
The ever-evolving security situation in this theater requires precise focus and dedication, and Astral Knight is one of the key measures that ensures our nations are able to respond to any situation with speed and agility. Enhancing our readiness through demanding and challenging exercises such as Astral Knight ’20 allows our joint and multinational team to be ready for any challenge we may face in the future.
And the bottom line is this: that no nation can confront today’s challenges alone. But because of the relationships we have built in these AOCs and through this exercise, they become the bedrock for us to undertake Astral Knight and present a ready and capable defense that is able to defend this area.
I look forward to your questions, and I would like to turn it over to my good friend, Gen. Starzynski, who has some opening comments as well.
Maj. Gen. Starzynski: Thank you. So from Polish side, from my point of view and my colleagues’, my commanders and subordinates, it’s a great time. It’s great time for all of us to make exercise and practice with U.S. ally. It allows us to build capability and interoperability, and ensure our strong bonds.
So it is five days in the air, as well as on the ground. Things, magic things, happens, I am sure. So I would say one other point, very good point, that we can do it even if we are in the pandemic time. So to ensure us to good cooperate, to do a great, great thing for U.S. and Polish air forces.
Question: What have been the U.S. Air Force’s biggest lessons learned from the operation thus far?
Maj. Gen. France: I would say our biggest lessons learned has been just the challenges of networks. When we look at networking individual aircraft, individual systems, with controls and reporting centers, and air operations centers, that’s not easy to do. And so we rely on a small subset of experts that understand how those networks work so that we can communicate timely and effectively and accurately.
We have found that even over the course of this week we’ve learned a tremendous amount of lessons, and the hope is and the plan is that as we capture those lessons at the end of the week, that translates into long-range plans both for future exercises and for some of the equipment and capabilities that we need to maintain in the theater moving forward.
Maj. Gen. Starzynski: Maj. Gen. Starzynski. So it’s the first point is the same as for our allies, as Maj. Gen. France said, that the network established a good network to cooperate is the first point to achieve, and it is achieved so far.
But so there are some other benefits for the Polish side. As you know, we are in time of waiting for the fifth generation in the Patriot system. So we can train, we can learn some – a lot from American colleagues how to integrate the system into one system.
Question: What kind of threats will be included in the exercise? UAVs, stealth cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons?
Maj. Gen. France: The scenarios we’ve developed over the course of the week involve a variety of threats. We have forces that are capable of engaging each of those, and when we talk about command and control, which is one of the focus areas of this, it’s about putting the right force to defend against the right threat and the right place at the right time. If we do that, our operators will hit homeruns all day long. But it’s the understanding of how to posture those correctly. And so it is a variety of threats, everything from ballistic missiles to aircraft to cruise missiles to unmanned aerial things. And some of them are live fly, some of them are simulated, and some of them are injects that go into the planning system so that we plan against them.
Question: Could you comment on the capabilities that they bring to this exercise?
Brig. Gen. Brady: This is Brig. Gen. Greg Brady. As the Commander for the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, we focus exclusively on ground based air defense for this. And we have a strong relationship with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. One of the exercises we just executed previous and it gives you an understanding of the relationships we have built. This was in Latvia. We conducted a live-fire exercise with all of our capabilities. And it was primarily our short-range air defense capabilities. But what is important, in every country, while they do have different capabilities, it provides a multi-layered approach. There isn’t one interceptor that can defeat all threats. And so being able to synchronize the capabilities, understand what our allies have, and then building this architecture really leads to readiness matters.
Question: How is Sweden contributing to this exercise? That’s my first question. Can someone please answer that? how is communications doing? How will that be arranged, for example, so that Sweden could get early warning, for example, for a missile threat? Do you have any ideas or plans for that?
Brig. Gen. Brady: Mikael, this is Brig. Gen. Greg Brady from the 10th AAMDC. For the first part of your question, we actually have a very strong relationship for ground-based air defense forces. As you know, Sweden will be receiving Patriots soon. You have the RBS-98. And they are actually here from a ground-based air defense as observers. And it was yesterday I was able to sit down – or not I was. My commander for the Patriot force was able to meet with them. As you know, they will be receiving Patriots next year. For the early warning for missile defense, I would have to defer to the Swedish defense ministry on how that is going to work.
Question: How concerned are you about Russia’s A2/AD efforts in the Nordic-Baltic region? And have you seen any recent buildup of Russian forces in Kaliningrad or elsewhere to strengthen its position on NATO’s northeastern flank?
Maj. Gen. France: I would say for the A2/AD scenario, because of the scenario of this exercise, this is largely defensive in nature there. So for this particular force scenario that we looked at, the A2/AD was not as big a player as maybe other plans and other scenarios might focus on. So it is a concern, broadly speaking. It is not one of the tactical problems that we are putting out our forces for this one. And, again, I won’t comment to specific force buildup we have seen, again because it was not part of this scenario. So, broadly speaking, it is a concern, but for AK-20, again, we were much more integrated, much more focused on and integrated and capable, robust defense and the cooperation that needs to happen to make that happen across our nations.
Question: I was wondering if it’s the first time Sweden is involved in an exercise like this, with an air defense exercise like this, with NATO countries ? I guess it has been touched upon, but Poland and Sweden are both going to buy Patriots. So, I mean, is it being envisaged in the future that you would have, like, an integrated Patriot – well, let’s say the U.S. deploying Patriots and the Swedes and the Poles and maybe, for that matter, even going further south to Romania, where you would have this, like, integrated Patriot network stretching along the eastern flank. How are the Lithuanians already learning things from this exercise? And I guess there have been past exercises in the Baltics for their acquisition of NASAMS. And then, finally, is there any new equipment which has never been deployed involved in this exercise?
Brig. Gen. Brady: Greg Brady for the 10th AAMDC. I would add for – with Sweden, for Astral Knight ’20, they are here in an observer status. But to your point about Patriot and with them receiving I believe in the next year, so we are working with them and sharing our tactics and procedures.
And for the network question, that is one of the objectives for this exercise. And it’s focused on interoperability. And it’s important, even as observers here, because when you look at the three aspects of interoperability, you have the human piece. So we do have a bilateral relationship with Sweden, but in the technical aspects, that’s what the focus of Astral Knight ’20 is. It’s about building the readiness through our networks and ensuring that we’re able to share data, whether it’s ground-based air defense systems or all the way to the air operations center. So, really, it’s a combined and joint environment.
Simultaneously right now, we have the Tobruq Legacy exercise happening in Lithuania. I do not know if – I do not think Sweden is there with equipment. Actually, I know they’re not there with equipment. And I would have to return back to you if there’s observers there as well. But that exercise, similar in the aspects of establishing datalink architecture of utilizing different systems to understand the capacity and capability. But when you build these different systems together, you can have four or five different physical languages, different mission command elements, different interceptors, but your goal is to establish one single integrated air picture to understand early warning and building that situational awareness from a command and control perspective.
To your last point, I think you asked about if there was any new equipment in this exercise. And so while there is no specific new hardware, there are all kinds of new ways of connecting that hardware. So this is very much a learning environment as we move along. And that’s really the goal that is happening here, is new ways to connect, both technically and on the human element. And so that part is certainly a learning piece of this exercise.
Question: Let me understand this scenario because, as far as I understand it, it was in the pre-Article 5 situation. And is it that the first salvo of the missiles from the east triggered the active air defense? how did you actually achieve this integrated air picture? And what was the main platform for data sharing?
Maj. Gen. Starzynski: Okay. Maj. Gen. Starzynski speaking. So this is actually a pre-Article 5 situation scenario, as you said. So we are in some exercise, some middle of the scenario. So things are happening right now and we’re actually – it’s doing by the U.S. and Polish forces. So the aircraft – fighters, tankers, E-3, GBAD forces that are involved in the mostly defense posture. So we are trying to defend our key terrain objects, like – maybe like towns, cities, and so on, and try to respond with fighters in the air. So, basically, it’s the basic scenario, so for the first question.
Maj. Gen. Starzynski: I can’t say what is the platform because we use U.S. systems and Polish systems, and we integrate them together. So it is the main point to achieve. And we achieved that point that we can communicate, share information, send data from U.S., from Polish for all players in U.S., Europe, and Poland. So it is the main point of this exercise. And we achieved this goal.
Maj. Gen. France: I just want to thank the media team for being here and for asking these questions. I just will close by saying that, you know, at the end of this exercise compared to five days ago, when we started it, we are a stronger and more combat-ready combined force. And so going out the doors as that happens, that is part of it. And it is part based on the lessons we learned on the technical side of how to link these networks together and do command and control. But the bedrock of that and the most important thing of that is the relationships and professional understanding we have between the nations involved and that really becomes the basis of that capability.
And so, again, thanks for your time, and thanks for our Polish hosts. And that’s all we have from here.
Maj. Gen. Starzynski: I agree with Gen. France 100 percent. So what I can to add, when we started one year, one and a half years ago to plan this exercise, it is U.S. partners to look to us, it’s almost impossible to do that thing, just to make the systems connected – that model, what we did, actually, during the last two days. So I – but from my perspective, from the Polish and U.S., I’m sure, side, it is successful and very beneficial. We are stronger. We learn of each other, even personally. It is very beneficial for us. That’s it.