Moderator: Good afternoon. I’d like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s press briefing on exercise Astral Knight 21. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Major General Greg Semmel of the U.S. Air Force and Colonel Janez Gaube of the Slovenian Armed Forces.
With that, let’s get started. Major General Semmel and Colonel Gaube, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to Major General Semmel for his opening remarks. Please go ahead.
Major General Semmel: Thanks, Justin, and good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for your interest in exercise Astral Knight 21. It’s an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank our Slovenian hosts, Chief of the General Staff Major General Glavas, Armed Forces Commander Major General Skerbinc, and 15th Wing Commander Colonel Gaube, for their warm welcome and outstanding support during the past couple of months. Thank you also to our Italian, Croatian, Albanian, and Greek partners for their important roles in supporting this year’s Astral Knight and making it a huge success. Without crucial partnerships like this, this high level of trust and interoperability between our nations would not be possible.
The planning and execution of Astral Knight 21 was no small feat, and we are very proud of its existence as the only U.S. Air Forces Europe-led exercise focused specifically on integrated air and missile defense, and combined joint all-domain command and control. Over the past week, we have successfully put our airmen, soldiers, sailors, and partner nation servicemembers through a demanding set of scenarios designed to test the capabilities that will ensure our collective defense in any future scenario.
For the first time ever, we have accomplished a high level of integration with our allies and partners through new communications software called Air Component Battle Network. This network enabled us to seamlessly communicate over secure channels and provide a clear shared picture of simultaneous operations across the theater. From integrating fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft to employing a sophisticated shared missile defense architecture, we have demonstrated that our joint multinational force can quickly bring our assets and capabilities to bear.
We, as a NATO alliance, know that in an emerging conflict we may collectively face a full spectrum of air and missile threats, long-range rockets, artillery, and mortars, all utilizing a range of advanced capabilities such as stealth, electronic attack, maneuvering reentry vehicles, and hypersonic technologies, which we must be ready to defend against at any time. With the successful completion of this year’s Astral Knight and plans for future IAMD exercises, I am confident that we are poised and ready to respond to those threats as a multinational team.
I’d like to highlight that Astral Knight 21 was more than just an avenue for us to practice routine military tactics and operations, but a great opportunity to truly deepen our relationships with each of the partner nations participating and reinforced our collective commitment to the security of the Adriatic region. Trust cannot be surged; it’s built over time with the help of highly realistic scenarios like the ones Astral Knight provides. We are proud of the work we have accomplished should to shoulder with our partners and allies to improve our effectiveness and look forward to future opportunities to bring our air and space capabilities to the next level, together.
Thanks for your time and I look forward to questions that you may have.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. I’d like to go to Colonel Gaube for his opening remarks.
Colonel Gaube: Good afternoon and welcome on behalf of all Slovenian Armed Forces. By taking part in DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise, the Slovenian Armed Forces has an opportunity to build military capabilities and practice and connect to allies and partners. As an equal partner, we are consolidating our role in the alliance with a view to build more effective and responsive forces to ensure common peace and security.
The exercises included Slovenian air special operation forces and units providing special operations helicopter support. They help maintain the competence of the battalion battle group; achieve the operational capabilities of the company intended to operate in the EU battle group; prepare the CBRN battalion for operation in the NATO response force.
Slovenian Armed Forces practice host nation support, which includes reception, staging, and onward movement of allied forces across the territory of the Republic of Slovenia. The latter is necessary in the event that the alliance move across our territory to a possible crisis area or in the event that the Republic of Slovenia needs any assistance.
In the Republic of Slovenia, the exercise-related activities began on the 3rd of May and will end on 5 of July when the – when the units will return to the planned locations where – our territory. The Slovenian Armed Forces are taking part in the exercises with armored units, air defense units, maritime forces, artillery, engineering, signals, and aviation. Around 2,000 members of the Slovenian Armed Forces will take part in the exercises in the Republic of Slovenia, and an additional 250 people will be engaged abroad. Up to 600 members of the allied and partner armed forces will be present in the Republic of Slovenia.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.
I’d like to start with a moderator’s privilege question to our two speakers. How many different countries joined the exercise and did they have a – did each country have a given specialty or did they – did you all work together in sort of similar military areas?
Major General Semmel: Yes, Justin, General Semmel here. We had several countries – Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, and obviously the United States – involved in this year’s Astral Knight 21. Each country brought quite a bit of capability to the exercise, whether it be their military ground units, with their surface-to-air defensive units, or their aircraft and their controlling agencies. So everyone, all partner nations, really had a big part in the exercise.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much, General. We have a question here from a Marinos Gkasiamis with Mega TV in Greece, and his question – I guess he has two questions here. His first question is, “What are the possibilities of a hot engagement with Russian units over Black – over the Black Sea? And at what level would the Greek Air Force be asked to involve itself along with U.S. air units?”
Major General Semmel: Justin, General Semmel again. Astral Knight is an exercise obviously that, as we’ve talked about, that we use to exercise and practice for readiness – readiness of our troops on the ground, in the air, et cetera – to defend against that air threat, whether it be an aircraft, a ballistic missile, a cruise missile, et cetera. But we train in these exercises for the reason of readiness – readiness for a collective security across the region – and the message of deterrence.
So, ultimately, the objective and the message of the exercise is to train together side by side to learn from each other, to have that collective security, to send the message of deterrence to any threat or aggression throughout the European theater, specifically with Astral Knight 21 the Southeast European theater.
Moderator: Thank you very much. And he has a second, follow-up question: “And what is your opinion so far for the level of – on the level of the Greek Air Force and on the collaboration between the Greek and U.S. Air Force?”
Major General Semmel: Yes. Just like all the other countries, Greece has participated greatly in the exercise with their aircraft, with their ground units, et cetera, each of the days of the exercise, and we very much appreciate their participation, their training with us. Obviously, as a coalition, when we come together to train, we learn from each other. We learn the tactics, the techniques, the procedures with this mission from each other, and we share ideas and those ideas coming from all the countries, like Greece, really make us better as a NATO alliance.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. We have a question here from Christopher Woody with Business Insider. His question is, “This is an air and missile defense exercise, so can you talk about the air and missile threats that you’re facing in this region? Have they proliferated or gotten more complex?”
Major General Semmel: Well, we train against an air and missile threat that is a simulated threat that we will train against anywhere in the European theater. So we train generically against that threat in a simulated environment, both simulated and live environment, and that training is really against a threat that could be generalized as any threat or aggressor throughout the region.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. Okay, at this point I am seeing no further questions from the folks on the line there, so I think we’ll draw this to a close. Major General Semmel, do you have any closing remarks for the journalists here?
Major General Semmel: Yeah. Thanks, Justin. Let me just say again our thanks to the partnership with the Slovenian military, specifically all the support that we got here with Astral Knight 21 at Cerklje Air Base. We couldn’t have done it without them. This week was very positive in the lessons that we have learned, the opportunity to come together to train together with the Slovenians and all the other countries. So it’s been a great week and a great opportunity to bring our NATO alliance together – once again, to train together, shoulder to shoulder, to ensure that we’re ready, that we send a message of deterrence, that we have interoperability, and I think we succeeded this week.
So thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you very much, General. We do have one late-breaking question here, so let’s answer that question and then we’ll go to Colonel Gaube for his closing remarks. So the final question is also from Christopher Woody with Business Insider. He has a question: “Can you talk about the role of distance in this exercise? Are you trying to coordinate planning, sensors, and shooters across longer ranges?”
Major General Semmel: Yeah, the objective is really to plan and execute across all ranges. So we look at threats from long-range cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, to short-range threats that we could face. As an example, just an unmanned aerial system that is flown short-range against one of our critical assets. So we really look at the full depth of threats from short to long range, definitely.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. And that was, in fact, the last question. Let’s go to Colonel Gaube for his closing remarks before we wrap up. Colonel Gaube, please.
Colonel Gaube: Yes, thank you. The Republic of Slovenia is an equal member of the alliance by participating in joint military exercises. The Slovenian Armed Forces’ response to modern security risk – we do responsibility and solidarity the security of the Republic of Slovenia. At the same time, I would like to remind of the possibility of training allied and partner joint terminal attack controllers in our school here at Cerklje ob Krki, when we can know also 24/7 availability of the military airport in all weather conditions.
Moderator: I’d like to thank Major General Semmel and Colonel Gaube for joining us today, and I’d like to thank all the reporters on the line for your participation and for your questions. Very shortly we will circulate an audio file of the briefing to all the participating journalists, and we will provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback. You can always email us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call. Thank you very much.