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Leadership training and empowered, well-prepared decision-makers at the edge of combat is a highly-emphasized, yet somewhat lesser known element of US and NATO deterrence efforts along the Russian border.
Forces need to be ready, forward positioned and able to demonstrate an ability to quickly counter or destroy any Russian advance, all while being sure to avoid miscalculation or unwanted exchanges of lethal fire.
Gen Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, makes this kind of balanced, yet strong approach fundamental to his leadership style. He seeks to empower small unit leaders and airmen at the edge to make critical decisions under pressure and independently take training initiatives, conduct training operations and solidify war preparations.
All of this, Harrigian emphasizes, needs to be done intelligently to strike the optimal balance between demonstrating a strong deterrence posture while ensuring there is no unwanted escalation.
“Let’s drive down the possibility of miscalculation. This has to do with communicating with force. We have to make sure that is clear in everyone’s head. We want to make sure the military does not take away decision space and be sure everyone has their head in the game so we understand how decisions may fit into a broader strategy,” Harrigian told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Achieving the desired blending of these nuances and strategic approaches is accomplished through mentoring, training and empowering officers, airmen and warriors in position to demonstrate power while preventing or avoiding actual conflict.
The Paradox of Deterrence
Harrigan's conceptual emphasis seems critical to what could be called the paradox of deterrence, meaning the importance of demonstrating massive amounts of destructive military force for the specific purpose of not having to use it. Essentially, peace through deterrence and strength is the goal.
Encouraging small unit commanders to independently make certain assessments in a manner consistent with clear leadership strategies is intended to support initiative and help advance the strength and resolve of a deterrence posture, Harrigian explains.
For example, Harrigian praised one subordinate unit for deciding to bring eight jets and a tanker aircraft to Estonia for joint deterrence training and readiness exercises with allied forces near the Russian border.
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Having a growing fleet of interoperable F-35s strategically positioned throughout the European continent is a fast-emerging strategic reality which the US and its allied partners and NATO members are making sure to leverage to their advantage.
This means not only practicing and refining key interoperability among allied F-35 nations but also advancing an expeditionary posture to ensure assets and lethal combat teams can quickly deploy where they need to go.
Attack operations will need to leverage forward positioning, proximity to the enemy and readiness in order to ensure a sought after advantage. Air Force senior leaders explain that new operational paradigms are needed to respond to a new and fast-changing threat environment.
“We need to generate dilemmas for the adversary. Given the capabilities developed by our adversaries, the way we were operating was not going to be survivable. How can we be more agile in terms of how we move stuff around?” Gen Jeffrey L. Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Air Forces Africa and Allied Air Command and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interview.
Harrigian pointed out an interesting strategic juxtaposition between the Pacific and European theaters when it comes to tactics and potential operations.
“Instead of tyranny of distance, we are tyranny of proximity. We are close,” he said, referring to the relative small country size and short travel distances in Europe.
Agile Combat Employment
Basing, access, interoperability and rapid deployment all inform the conceptual thrust of the Agile Combat Employment effort, which seeks to ensure that lethal, ready and well-prepared units can mobilize and attack quickly when and where they are needed.
Preparing for this means finding ways to empower decision-makers at the edge to eliminate bureaucracy and streamline operations. Harrigian’s command philosophy is based upon extending certain decision-making latitude to some of his trusted subordinates in position to know what their units might most need to prepare for combat.
“Senior officers should lead by providing guidance and giving and empowering the people in positions that are on the front lines to translate that guidance into what is most relevant for their units,” he said.
In one instance, Harrigian explained, he allowed a small unit of aircraft to travel to Estonia for interoperability and deterrence operations along the Russian border.
“They went to Estonia with eight jets and operated for four to five days. Let’s empower our units to get out there and execute and build confidence by generating combat power to the next level,” Harrigian explained.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.