Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we’re very pleased to be joined by U.S. Air Force General Tod Wolters, U.S. European Command Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks and then we will turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I’ll turn it over to General Wolters for his opening remarks. Please go ahead, sir.
General Wolters: Thanks, Andrea, and from SHAPE Headquarters here in Mons, Belgium, good afternoon to so many of you, and I suspect good morning to some who may be in a different time zone. Sincerely, it’s good to be with you. It’s been a while.
Let me start by offering our deepest condolences to all those affected by COVID-19. The pandemic impacts so many aspects of our lives. Luckily, via smart modifications to all of our military activities with strict adherence to mitigation measures, and the efforts and professionalism of all of our allies and partners, we’ve allowed ourselves the opportunity to continue to effectively deter and generate defensive activities inside of Europe to generate what we think is most important, which is peace. And at the end of the day, we bear responsibility to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security issue, and we all know that we still have a long ways to go.
As so many of you know, we still face significant challenges in the Euro-Atlantic area: increasing threat capabilities, diffusion of disruptive technologies, and malign activities below the level of armed conflict by adversaries on the periphery. We must maintain our campaign momentum to strengthen indications and warnings, command and control, and good old-fashioned mission execution. We’ve strengthened these 21st century warfare pillars as we develop future capabilities, we field new forces, and we improve our operational and strategic alignment. All of these efforts increase the likelihood of achieving our strategic goals, which are saving lives and preserving the peace.
On land, allies deter aggression as part of NATO’s four multinational battle groups, as does our enhanced forward presence in the Black Sea region. Allied Land Command coordinates and synchronizes NATO and partner land forces by enabling readiness, interoperability, standardization, and good old-fashioned competency.
At sea, joint exercises and patrols facilitate NATO’s awareness and security. Recently, and particularly in the Black Sea region, we have strengthened our maritime posture with superb support from Georgia and Ukraine. The USS Porter and USS Donald Cook recently conducted multidomain operations with NATO AWACS and P-8s in the Black Sea – a demonstration of how we’ve enhanced our interoperability.
In the skies above, air-policing missions reinforce collective defense, demonstrating alliance cohesion and resolve to implement deterrence and defense. Canadian support to enhance air policing and current Spanish air force missions over Romania underscore the transatlantic link. Another outstanding example is the deployment of MQ-9 aircraft to Camp Turzii in Romania, fortifying regional security and a – and once again enhancing interoperability.
We remain laser-focused in space, a domain whose importance to NATO and the globe cannot be overstated. In October of 2020, we established a new NATO Space Center at Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany, monitoring satellites and collecting data on possible threats. Currently, experts from the United States, Great Britain, and Germany are assigned to the Space Center, and in the coming months we anticipate receiving additional allied personnel. We continue to refine this critical initiative.
Cyber-threats to the alliance’s security are active and complex. We protect networks 24 hours a day from cyberattacks. NATO’s Cyberspace Operations Center here in Mons, Belgium, is a first and unique theater component for cyberspace, responsible for persistent, centralized, and comprehensive situational awareness and coordination of full – of the full spectrum of NATO military activity.
These critical efforts and initiatives demonstrate the alliance – these demonstrate how our alliance is actually fortifying its deterrence and defense posture in all of our domains, while conducting vital operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.
NATO Mission Iraq continues to provide train-and-advise support to the Iraqi Security Forces focused on developing self-sustaining national security forces to provide stability, prevent the return of ISIS and Daesh, and combat terrorism in all forms.
NATO’s Resolute Support Mission supports the pursuit of peace, preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for international terror groups. Our force adjustments directly support this objective, while we’ve maintained capabilities, enablers, and flexibility to train, advise, and assist Afghan Security Forces. Throughout, the alliance remains true to its mantra of in together, adjust together, and when the time is right, out together.
Our NATO Mission Kosovo forces bring stability to Kosovo and the region. The KFOR Mission is providing support to local communities in the response to COVID-19. This includes donations and deliveries of critical medical supplies, personal protection equipment, food, and clothing.
Turning to future training and capabilities, Exercise Steadfast Defender is the first in a series of NATO-led exercises to ensure that our forces are trained, interoperable, and ready to respond to threats from any direction. This is a long-planned defensive exercise focused on reinforcing the Euro-Atlantic area. It demonstrates the continued importance of North America and Europe working together in a challenging and ever-changing security environment. For the first time, this involves two new NATO commands: the Joint Support and Enabling Command, based in Ulm, Germany; and the Joint Force Command Norfolk, based in Virginia.
In November, we recently announced the arrival of the final NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance aircraft in Sigonella, Italy, a significant milestone towards improved sensing of the environment.
NATO’s commitment to allies remains ironclad. We endure as the strongest military alliance in history. Allied command operations and U.S. European Command continue to focus day in and day out on preserving peace.
Andrea, thanks for allowing me the time to deliver those words, and I look forward to the opportunity of embracing your questions.
Moderator: And we’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. We’ll go ahead and start our first question, pre-submitted by Nicholas Fiorenza from Janes Defence Weekly in the UK. And the question is, “What is the status of planning for Exercise DEFENDER-Europe 2021?”
General Wolters, the floor is yours. General Wolters, can you hear me?
General Wolters: Hi, Andrea, can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can, sir.
General Wolters: Okay, great. I think the question had to do with DEFENDER-Europe 21 and its status, and I’m pretty certain that’s what it was, and what I’d like to say is planning is ongoing. We’re very, very excited. What we anticipate is over 30,000 U.S., allied, and partner forces that will get together, stretching all the way from the Baltics to Africa, and they will represent 26 separate nations, and we will actually have touchpoints in well over 10 nations with respect to embracing the actual exercise activities. It’s an all-domain exercise. It’s going to demonstrate our ability to lift and shift large forces over large swaths of territory, and as we speak, planning is ongoing and we’re exciting about – and we’re all very, very excited about embracing the exercise.
Moderator: Thanks for that, sir. Our next question comes from Thomas Gutschker from F.A.Z. in Germany. Go ahead, Thomas.
Question: Yes, thanks a lot for giving me this opportunity. General, last summer U.S. laid out plans to reposition – reposition around 11,000 troops from Germany, and to partially relocate them inside the NATO European area. With the new administration in Washington and Congress effectively putting these plans on hold, where do you see them heading, and how much – and how advanced are your plans at this stage? Thank you.
General Wolters: Thomas, I anticipated that question and as you can well imagine with the change in administrations, there is a lot of consultations ongoing. The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is at this moment in the process of conducting a very, very thorough review, and he will receive advice of both civilian and military leadership, and once he actually is allowed to collate all that advice he’ll ultimately embrace our U.S. President and the White House and deliver us a decision. Don’t know what that’ll be, and as you well know, Thomas, I’m a smart military member so I want to make sure that I give my senior civilian leadership the appropriate maneuvering space to make the decision that they need to make so that we can collectively go forward in the future. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. And our next question, again a pre-submitted question from Ian Pannell with ABC News – the question is, “What would you say are the major emerging threats as opposed to ongoing traditional ones like Russia?”
Over to you, sir.
General Wolters: Well, Andrea, as you well remember, I’m never keen to talk about threats. I’m really keen to talk about our capability. But in this particular case, I’ll mention several. Number one, international terror groups still pose tremendous danger to civilization. Certainly, those folks here in Europe, those folks on the periphery of Europe, extending all the way across the Atlantic. So international terror groups are still a –
Moderator: Hello, General Wolters, can you hear us? I think the line may have dropped.
Operator: His line has dropped.
Moderator: Okay, General Wolters, the floor is yours again on that question.
General Wolters: Okay, thanks, Andrea. Sorry for the drop-off. I had started to talk about a threat, number one, in the form of international terror groups, and I think this audience is very, very familiar with that. It is – it is something that we are concerned about in 2021, and I suspect it will be a concern years and decades from now.
The other – the other concern that we have that’s very widespread and known is the growing cooperation between Russia and China, and it really does suggest an emergence of a partnership of convenience so that each one of those can advance their mutual interest, and that advancement could be to the detriment of Europe and corresponding and surrounding nations. So we are ever so vigilant with respect to that growing cooperation.
And with respect to China, as many know, they’re not an adversary to NATO yet. China presents a rising influence, and it poses challenges for our security, certainly in terms of value, military modernization, and resilience.
So our focus and our vigilance is sky-high with respect to China, the relationship between China and Russia, and certainly with respect to international terror groups.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that, sir. Our next question comes from Nick Schifrin with PBS NewsHour. Go ahead, Nick.
Question: Hi, General, thank you very much for doing this, and forgive me for asking again about the withdrawal or the drawdown, but if I could try just asking a question that my colleague hinted at a little bit. Can you talk about how far planning got or how far along the order actually was for these specific movements? You know better than us, the headquarters movement to Belgium; the Air Force squadron to Italy; the 2nd Cav back to the U.S. Can you talk at all about how far that got, how far the planning was, has it been stopped? Can you give us any details on that? Thank you.
General Wolters: The previous planning that was ongoing for the previous initiative has been put on freeze so that – so that our Secretary of Defense and this administration could conduct a thorough review of everything that has transpired up to the point where Secretary Austin took charge. And there were so many pieces and parts to the plan, we could probably sit here for weeks and guess on the depth and how far along we were. But in all those cases, there were branches and sequels with multiple options.
So I will just tell you that the new administration has comfortably stated to us that we need to conduct a thorough review, cradle to grave, in all areas, and then after they’re allowed to conduct that review we’ll go back to the drawing board. So I know you tried again to dig out a little bit more on that, but that’s where we stand. Thanks.
Moderator: And now I’d like to go to another one of our pre-submitted questions from Dan Alexe from Radio Free Europe. And the question is, “What is the real practical use of the missile shield element in Romania?”
General Wolters: Aegis Ashore in Romania is the system that advances our operational indications and warnings, our ability to see the environment. It also enhances our command and control. So in very, very simple terms, it extends our eyes to improve our ability to better deter on NATO soil, yet it also affords us the opportunity to be able to use it as a hub to transmit and receive more information. So in the areas of deterrence where it’s critical to see the environment and where it’s critical to have command and control so that you can get feedback to the military organizations that need to make decisions about what to do next, this system in Romania is a tremendous contributor in both of those areas.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. And now I would like to go to John Vandiver with Stars and Stripes. Go ahead, John.
Question: Thanks. Thanks for doing the call, General, and sorry to beat a dead horse here on the Germany question. But just one kind of – I wanted to get your big-picture outlook on it. Back in July, when this was announced, you had said that the plan to send 2nd Cav and rearrange things in Europe basically would strengthen the military’s ability to deter aggression in Europe, on the continent, and that it was, in a nutshell, superior to the current posture. Are you still of that view, and if so, could you kind of elaborate on why you thought that plan was sort of advantageous? Thanks.
General Wolters: At the time, based off the guidance given, those options that were addressed in the public domain were the ones that we thought most clearly addressed the advantages. What I will say that exists at this very moment is that every single one of those options, that they’re all on hold and they will all be re-examined from cradle to grave. And the purpose in doing so is to make sure that you have a comprehensive look at all of the options, from A to Z, and you take a strategic and operational examination of each and every one of those impacts on the larger deterrence and security picture. And that’s exactly what’s going to take place, and that’s exactly what our new U.S. Secretary of Defense needs to ensure that we can continue to do the things that we need to do in Europe to generate more peace.
So, John, thanks again for the question.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. And now we’d like to go for our next question to Paul Shinkman from U.S. News and World Report.
Question: Yeah, hi, can you hear me okay?
Moderator: Yes, Paul, go ahead.
Question: Yeah, thank you. I’ve got my son in the background here, so pardon any extra noise. Sir, we’ve seen during – I’d like to ask you about Russia. We’ve seen during prior instances of domestic turmoil and unrest that coincide with Russian adventures abroad, notably their invasion in Syria and interference in Ukraine. And I wonder when you look at the riots last night, the ongoing civil unrest in recent weeks surrounding the Navalny trial, whether you’ve seen so far any evidence that that has had any effect on Russia’s international posture or whether you think that it might in the near future. Thank you.
General Wolters: Hey, Paul, that’s a great question. And I got to tell you, I – you hit the mark on where military commanders’ minds should be. And since that question was so good, I just want you to know we heard your child in the background, and I also want you to know that the United States Air Force Academy is a really good college, so when it’s time to send your little one off to college, you let me know if you need some additional support.
Back to Russia. You are so right: We take a holistic review of Russian activity, and I certainly examine everything that they’ve done from 2014 to the present, and this adventures abroad is something that we pay close attention to, and obviously with what is unfolding as we speak with respect to the Navalny case, we’re very concerned about that. And Russia has a – has some tendencies to be a little adventurous at times like this, and at other times they have tendencies not to. But what I can tell you right now based off our observations is we see no symptoms of adventurism on behalf of Russia as a result of the turmoil that they’re going through with respect to the Navalny incident.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. And our next question goes to Loara Stefanescu from Romanian National Public Television. Please go ahead, Loara.
Question: Thank you. Washington sent, sir, the warship to Black Sea region. How do you explain this reinforcing enhanced presence, military presence, in the Black Sea region? And an additional question: Could we see the process of repositioning the U.S. European military presence from Germany going on this year? Thank you.
General Wolters: Loara, the advertising and the discussions centered around NATO activity and U.S. activity in the vicinity of the Black Sea has to do with NATO advances in their NATO military strategy and the NATO concept for deterrence and defense of the Euro-Atlantic area and what we call comprehensive defense and shared response. So in NATO, we want to ensure that we comprehensively deter in all geographical quadrants to the greatest degree practical, and we had seen some cases where there might have been a small mismatch of resources to certain regions several years ago, and we wanted to make sure that we took a strategic look at where these resources were so that we could comprehensively deter and defend in the Black Sea region as well as we did in the Arctic, as well as we would in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as we would in the Baltics, and as well as we would in the central portion of the Atlantic Ocean.
So all those considerations coming into account, beginning in 2017 and starting in 2018, there was a little bit of a shift with respect to resources to improve our ability to see the environment in the vicinity of the Black Sea, and that actually explains the change that you certainly have witnessed firsthand from Romania.
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one more question, and it will go to Ashley Roque from Janes Defence. Go ahead, Ashley.
Question: Hi. Hi, good morning. Hope you’re well. I wanted to follow up on DEFENDER-Europe 2021 and just sort of take the idea – you scaled back significantly last year because of COVID-19. Sort of where do you stand with the ongoing pandemic in discussions of sort of how to maybe change the exercise, and at what point do you decide that plans have to change due to the ongoing pandemic?
General Wolters: Ashley, we examine that every second of the day, and it starts with approximately 30,000 U.S., allied, and partner forces that come from 26 separate nations, and as we speak, the intent is to touch at least a dozen nations extending geographically all the way from the northern tip of the Baltics down to the Sahel. And with each and every passing day, we examine the disposition with respect to each one of the participating nations that have troopers, and each one of the nations that are cooperating and allowing us to be on their soil. And we scrutinize the disposition of COVID-19 in those contributing nations and in those hosting nations, and we scrutinize the disposition of the military forces that represent our allies and partners, and we have branches and sequels.
And our goal, Ashley, is obviously to keep all 31,000 people ready, willing, and able to get all – to touch all 12 separate nations. And with each passing second, we realize there may come cases where we can’t do that. And we’ve got cutoff points established in our plans, called Program of Actionable Milestones, and we make decision points all the way leading up to the exercise to get as much as we possibly can out of the exercise when we do ultimately start it.
And strategically, because we’re part of society and we’re good military members, we don’t forget our number-one charter, which is to make sure that this pandemic does not morph into a security issue. And if we were to force-feed some actions that wouldn’t be prudent with respect to good order and discipline from a COVID-19 perspective, we would violate the tenets of not allowing the pandemic to turn into a security issue.
So our discipline will remain in place. At this moment, we still believe we have a chance of getting all 30,000-plus soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to all 26 – from all 26 nations to touch all 12 nations, and along the way we may come to some stops as a result of the impact of COVID-19 and not be able to exercise DEFENDER-Europe 21 in its totality. But at this point we’re still a go with the contributions of 26 nations, about 30,000 folks touching about 12 different countries. And as soon as we get to a point to where there’s a stop due to challenges with respect to COVID-19, we’ll be keen to make sure we point that out in the media.
Thank you, and I’ll just pass it back over to you if that’s okay, Andrea.
Moderator: Thank you, General Wolters. Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for. And I’d like to thank General Wolters for joining us and thank all of the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions.
The Brussels Hub will circulate an audio file of the call shortly to those who RSVP’d, and later today we’ll also circulate the transcript. A digital recording of today’s call will also be available for 24 hours. I’ll now turn it back over to AT&T to provide instructions on how to access the recording. Thank you