MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, Commander, 9th Air Force, Air Forces Central, Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, and the Combined Forces Air Component Commander for U.S. Central Command, Southwest Asia. Lt. Gen. Grynkewich will provide opening remarks on the command’s priorities, AFCENT’s commitment to the region, and CENTCOM’s 90-day assessment. Lt. Gen. Grynkewich will also take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic today. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to Lt. Gen. Grynkewich for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Hey, Sam. Thank you very much. This is Alex Grynkewich here, coming to you from my headquarters forward in the region, and I just want to say up front I really appreciate the Dubai Media Hub inviting me here today and certainly appreciate all of those of you who have joined us for a conversation about what United States Air Forces Central is doing in the region and where we think we’re headed in the future with our partners here.
So, as you mentioned, what I’d like to do is start by talking a little bit about U.S. Central Command Commander Erik Kurilla, Gen. Erik Kurilla, and his assessment that he delivered back to our Secretary of Defense of the United States after his first 90 days in the job. That 90-day assessment and the release of it coincided with about the time that I took commend here in late July, and so it has been something that I have anchored on as the new commander of 9th Air Force and AFCENT in order to develop my own vision for how we can work with our partners in the region and our objectives and my priorities.
So with that, Gen. Kurilla spent a fair amount of his first 90 days in command traveling the region so that he could hear regional perspectives from the regional chiefs of defense, from heads of state in the region he met with, from ministers of defense, and get an impression on the ground from the forces that he has here forward in the region and members of the global coalition that join us in our fight against ISIS to get their perspectives on exactly where they thought the Central Command ought to put its emphasis looking forward.
So his assessment is certainly informed not only by his opinions but by a lot of regional voices and a lot of the voices of those who have a stake in the region either because they live here or because they’ve been here for a while working on their part.
So at the end of that 90-day assessment, he came away with a couple of key points. The first was that this region really mattered from a – not just a regional security perspective, but from a global security perspective. And that’s because of the number of people that live in the AOR – 506 million, over half a billion, not insignificant whatsoever; the size of the AOR – a map covering 21 countries and 4.6 million square miles; but also the economic impact that the region has and has had for a couple of reasons. The most obvious one that many of us would gravitate to is energy resources that the world depends on still to this day to fuel much of the global economy, but also the rich cultures, the rich history that the region has, the tourism that comes to the region. Just it’s a critical part from a global transportation perspective. It’s the node that connects east and west. There’s a lot that this region does to really tie the world together.
And then there also are, unfortunately, some things that are – there’s challenges that exist in this region, and I’d just highlight a couple of those. The first is violent extremist organizations. They exist all over the world, of course, but some here have been sort of the ones that have been more aggressive in attacking our shared values and our shared systems of government, starting all the way back before September 11th with al-Qaida. And certainly we saw the scourge of ISIS as they grew and expanded across Iraq and Syria and Levant. And those are something that all of us collectively, whether we live here in the region, whether we work here or whether we come from afar, have an interest in countering and keeping under wraps.
The second elephant in the room, if you will, when it comes to problematic actors in the region is, of course, Iran, with a network of partners and proxies that does threaten regional stability, and we can certainly talk more about that. But the provision of those partners and proxies with advanced conventional weapons, and then Iran’s ability to control those partners and proxies either for their own ends or their inability to control them and now you have armed groups that have advanced weapons they can use in destabilizing ways that no one really has control of. It’s something that is clearly a concern here. So Iranian behavior in the region, primarily driven by its designs for regional hegemony, are another issue that has – that is certainly challenging here for us.
So as we look at those problems that we see in the region and combine that with the importance that the whole area has to the rest of the world, Gen. Kurilla came up with a strategy for addressing the longer-term challenges that we collectively face. And I use the word “collectively” intentionally in that his main approach is all about regional partnership and it’s about partnerships over posture and thinking about how we strengthen our relationships in military-to-military space with those in the region that share our views of what regional stability ought to look like and how we can collectively work against common threats.
What that really boils down to from the United States perspective, we see ourselves as here in the region not because we have a transactional desire to sell military equipment or to exploit the resources of countries that are here, but we really do see that we have shared interests in the overall stability of the region with our partners. So it’s a deep partnership. It’s a particular partnership that we’re intent on maintaining and making even stronger with all the countries that we work with.
I compare this, by the way, with what we see other competitors on the global scale doing here in the region where they are more intent on being here because they have interest in selling particular weapons to folks, but they’re not really interested in a strategic partnership without a transactional relationship, or, in some cases, it’s about trying to get leverage over countries so that they can bend the rules of the international order toward their particular ends.
Again, we see ourselves and our goal is to be the partner of choice because of our shared interests, our shared values, and our shared view of the world. So it’s all about partnerships from where Gen. Kurilla sits. That also does mean – I said it’s partnerships over posture. Posture implies how much – how many U.S. service members are in the region, how many ships and airplanes and everything we have here. The real coin of the realm moving forward is probably not those ships and airplanes and soldiers, boots on the ground that we have living and working alongside our partners. Certainly there is a minimum amount of that that we aim to keep in the region that allow us to exercise, to experiment, innovate with our partners here. But the other big thing that we’re looking at is how do we share information, how do we share intelligence, how do we gain a common understanding with each other. That really is a huge, huge piece of our cooperation here regionally. And I can talk more about that, and I know that there’s all the questions on exactly how that translates either in the fight against terrorism or perhaps in terms of integrated air and missile defense, etc.
The last thing that Gen. Kurilla has challenged us to do is think about innovation, challenged us to think about if we have a smaller footprint in the region in terms of the normal military power that we have, how do we look at new tools and other new technology in order to get more bang for our buck from what we do have here. And there’s a number of really promising technologies that are out there, most of them related to the digitization of our capability, thinking about how we use the existing data that we have that comes in from a variety of sources that we would share with each other across our partnerships and alliances and now make sense of that data and use it to build shared situational awareness and shared understanding of whatever particular problem it is that we face. So innovation and thinking creatively with new approaches to technology as we look at the – again, the shared issues of concern here regionally is of great importance to us.
All that being said, while Gen. Kurilla has that focus, my focus is very much aligned with his from an AFCENT perspective. The things that we are working are to ensure that we keep pressure on violent extremist groups so that they can’t attack here in the region or attack any of our homelands. We certainly are looking at ensuring that we maintain deterrence against Iran so that the partners and proxies that they have or Iran itself does not break out and that they know that we will defend ourselves and our forces, that we’re here working with our allies and partners.
And then we are certainly mindful that we are in a global strategic competition for influence and that the Russian and Chinese influence that’s here – thinking about, again, how we strengthen our partnerships with the air forces and air defense forces in the region. That’s a key place for AFCENT, again, I think, so we have comparative advantage based on the strategic relationship of our partnership versus the more transactional nature of the client-based relationships that you might see with Russia or China.
So with that, that leads me to kind of how I lined up my priorities. The first one is about valuing the contributions of our coalition partners, valuing the contributions of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, base force numbers that are in the air component, that assist us on a daily basis with getting our mission done. We value the contributions of everyone on the team, which includes a whole host of coalition officers from the region and from outside the region here at my headquarters. Then we’ll be able to innovate, capture all the ideas that they have, come up with some new ways of solving problems, and that then allows us to partner, and that’s the third point. So we value, we innovate, and then we partner for strength with other nations in the region. Again, our – the air forces in the region, the air defense forces of the region, and drive the partnership both bilaterally and multilaterally together to better defend ourselves – again, largely based on shared understanding and sharing information and intelligence.
And then, lastly, we want to prevail. We want to prevail in our fight against ISIS that many of us have been involved in, certainly since 2014, and we want to prevail, again, in becoming that partner of choice here for everyone that we have longstanding historic relationships with.
So with that, I will – I will pause and be happy to take questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. And we did receive quite a few questions in advance, so I’ll start with one of those pre-submitted questions today, sir, and it comes from our colleague Mohammed Hamadeh with Asharq News. And he asks, “Regarding the Arabian Gulf and the protection of maritime navigation, you recently announced a force that includes air and naval forces. How do you assess the situation today in terms of protection of maritime navigation?” Over to you, sir.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: That’s an excellent question, and I really appreciate Mr. Mohammed asking that. So we work very closely with our maritime components, which is led by 5th Fleet down in Bahrain, to protect sea lines of communication, to look where there’s smuggling activity, piracy activity, or other we would call it malign activity that is occurring at sea. There’s a couple of ways that we do that. From the Air Force side, from AFCENT, we provide a fair amount of armed overwatch, if you will, with surveillance capabilities that help maintain broad situational awareness in the maritime domain that we share with our surface forces, with the fleet, if you will, and then we of course do from time to time provide overwatch for specific transits through strategic chokepoints so that we can maintain awareness if we have an asset that’s going through the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab, and protect it as it goes through against any potential attacks.
On the – from the maritime component, they have a lot of their initiatives in an innovative space where they are trying to build a network of surface capabilities using unmanned assets that can provide maritime domain awareness. So they have a new task force, Task Force 59, that has a network – a sea of things, an ocean of things that they are building to help build that maritime awareness. And frankly, they’ve done such a good job that I am looking for ways to replicate their success in the air component.
So we are looking at how do we fill some of our gaps in our awareness in the air domain by stitching together new sensors, new technologies that might make us much more aware of what’s out there. So we’re looking at the potential for enhanced use of drones, not the kind of drones that we usually have, but smaller, less expensive, that we can network in some way. We’re looking at the unique placement of sensors that we can put up at high altitude in order to build broad situational awareness. And again, that interlink between us and the maritime component is very strong and I think that together we’ll be able to maintain the security of the maritime domain.
It’s certainly not without its challenges. It’s very broad, very large. But we’re doing everything we can to ensure the safety and security of that domain. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Our next question comes from the live queue and goes to Suzy Elgeneidy from AlAhram newspaper in Egypt. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Do you hear me now? Hello?
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Got you loud and clear.
MODERATOR: Yes, Suzy, we can hear you. Go ahead, please.
OPERATOR: My apologies. She has dropped out of the queue.
MODERATOR: Okay, no problem. We’ll go to another pre-submitted question. So our next question comes from Mike Wagenheim from i24News, and he asks: “Ahead of President Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East, there was much talk about a proposed regional air defense alliance, but it seemed to garner a cool reception amongst some allies. Can you give us an update, Lt. Gen. Grynkewich, about where that proposal stands and what specific concerns allies have relayed to the Pentagon about such an alliance and how those concerns might be alleviated?” Over to you, sir.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Yeah, Mike, that’s a really good question, and I alluded to it a little bit in my opening remarks. So what I would tell you is while some sort of a regional alliance faced we’ll say a cool reception, if you will, what did not face a cool reception is the idea that we could partner together in the region in order to gain better awareness of threats from the air or from the atmosphere, so air and missile threats that might come at us.
So where we are on this is we are looking at how do we stitch together the sensors that we have in the region so that we can account for the 360-degree nature of the current threat today. So when I talk to regional leaders, there’s broad support for this type of approach. Let me just kind of describe how I approach it.
The first thing is when we conceive of the threat that we face today, really ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial systems are a large part of what has been used by militant groups in the region, and even by Iran on occasion against different forces here in the region as well, as evidenced by the attacks back in 2019 against Saudi Arabia or you can name any number of attacks from the Houthis or from militant groups in Iraq.
The issue with the ballistic missile threat is that it doesn’t just emanate from Iran proper, but there are ballistic missiles that have been sighted with militant groups in Iraq, there’s ballistic missiles in Syria; the Houthis down in Yemen have ballistic missiles. So a threat to one of our partner nations or to U.S. forces and coalition forces in the region can really come from any direction.
The same is true when you think about the unmanned aerial vehicle threat. Even if a UAS, as we call it, is coming at you from the east, let’s say, it could fly some sort of a buttonhook profile where the terminal attack heading is actually from the west, the opposite of where it emanated from. So what this means is that those of us tasked with air defense, whether it’s myself at AFCENT or the various commanders in the region, the nations in the region, is that you have to be able to protect things, again, in 360 degrees. None of us have the resources to fully fill up that picture, 360 degrees around our country, but if we work together we can stitch together the sensors that all of us have, and there’s considerable capability, and build a much broader awareness that will cover most of that 360 degrees of access for most of the country.
So the more that we can stitch the radar picture together, the more that we can tie our defenses together, the more that we can share information, then the more nations will be enabled to make their own sovereign decisions about the defensive acts that they want to take when a threat is coming their way.
So, again, less of an alliance perspective like we might think of in the NATO context, and more – this is much more about information sharing and now empowering nations to set up their own – once they have that information, once we all have a common picture, nations are now empowered to decide themselves and certainly the United States is going to be there to help when they ask for help, and frankly, the United States forces that are here in many bases rely on our regional partners to help us as well to defend our forces that are here. So it’s kind of a two-way street, so a multilateral version of information sharing is really what we’re going to develop. Again, thanks for an excellent question.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. We do have quite a few callers in the question queue and we’ve got quite a few pre-submitted questions, and we’ll try to get through as many as we can in our remaining time we have left. Our next question is from the live queue and it goes to Toni Mrad from Lebanese-based LBCI TV. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hello. On August 23, the U.S. Navy forces conducted airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor, in Syria. So these strikes as mentioned in the statement were to defend the U.S. forces from attacks like the ones on 15 August. My question is, the attack occurred on the 15th of August. Why did the U.S. decide to respond almost a week later? Is that related to the Vienna talks and is the exchange of U.S.-Iranian strikes in Syria related to the Vienna talks? Thanks.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: No, thank you for your question. So as the Pentagon has said previously, I’ll just repeat: We’re going to defend our forces no matter when they’re attacked or where they’re attacked. We do so at the time and place of our choosing, and there is – there is no connection to the Vienna talks with that timing whatsoever. So when we think about the defense of our forces, that’s an inviolable principle and we entirely compartmentalize that from other things that might be going on politically.
I’ll just add to that very briefly, we certainly would ask the Iranians the same thing in terms of were they attacking us or was that related to the Vienna talks, I think would be that that is a compartmented issue. Without – we compartment that issue as well. It’s entirely separate.
So the defense of our forces, again, inviolable, totally unrelated to the talks on JCPOA. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Next question is also from the live queue and goes to Ray Hanania from Arab News. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Grynkewich, thank you so much for taking my call. By the way, I want to note I’m a U.S. Air Force veteran from the Vietnam War, toward the end of the war. So I appreciate what you do. My question is, with the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine and our support of Ukraine, how has that impacted American defense capabilities and its support readiness for the Southwest Asian region against ISIS and other threats? And can you detail our military strength in the Southwest Asia region in terms of numbers and equipment?
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Okay, thanks. I appreciate your comments up front and I’ll just open with a thanks for your – thanks for your service and, again, I really appreciate you joining us here today.
I won’t go into details about the exact force laydown that we have in the region, as you’d appreciate as a former military man. We protect that for security purposes. But what I will say is that CENTCOM certainly has and AFCENT certainly has adequate forces in the region to continue the fight against ISIS. We have adequate forces in the region to defend ourselves as required. There’s been an intentional vision to maintain that sufficient level of forces here, and that’s because we know again that, if you go back to my opening comments, the threats from violent extremism, the destabilizing activity that we see from Iran, and the need to continue to work with our partners in the region doesn’t go away just because there’s something else going on, something very important going on in another area.
So my judgment is we have sufficient forces here for all the tasks we’ve been given, and the overall posture has generally not been affected by things that are going on elsewhere just because the entire United States Government recognizes the importance of the region as evidenced by President Biden’s visit here and all of the discussions that came from that. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. We’ll take the next question also from the live queue, and that comes from Mr. Michael Gordon from The Wall Street Journal. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Thank you, General. You mentioned that the environment includes malign actors, the danger posed by Iranian militias. Can you please explain a little more fully what went into the military response to the attack on the al-Tanf garrison, what particular aircraft were used, what ordnance was dropped, and the effectiveness of the military response as you assess it? And have you seen any malign activity since that time that has posed a threat to U.S. troops?
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Okay, sure. Yeah, so what I will say about the strike was that whereas we tend to focus on what weapons were used and what the combat aircraft were that were involved, which there were, I won’t give too many specifics on that. It takes a broad set of aircraft to pull something off like that and a broad set of folks on the ground that are assisting them. And so the combination of command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and then fighter aircraft were certainly involved in that precision strike, specifically tailored to avoid escalation and to reset deterrence.
My observation would be that – and this has been discussed publicly previously, but there were some responses to that and then some additional activity by the forces on the ground that were taken in self-defense following the strike in the 24 hours that followed. But my hope is that things have de-escalated now and that we have reached a point where deterrence has once again been established. And again, I’ll just say we maintain the ability to respond in the time and place of our choosing. We certainly have sufficient forces in the region to do so, and the right of self-defense is something that we take very seriously and is inviolable on our side. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. We’ll take a couple more questions. Let’s go to Isabel DeBre from the Associated Press. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hi. Hi there. Thank you so much, Commander. It’s Isabel from the Associated Press. I was wondering on the issue of the tit-for-tat strikes in Syria in the last week, there were some reports that have emerged over the last 24 hours or so that U.S. ally Israel was hitting IRGC-linked targets on Thursday night, and there were reports that an Israeli airstrike in the west of Syria hit a very large arms depot that was housing missiles for Iran-backed fighters. I’m wondering if AFCENT was aware of that or if there was any sort of comment on those reports.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Yes. So I will tell you that we, of course, maintain a tight relationship with all of our – all of our partners in the region. The actions that CENTCOM and AFCENT took for self-defense are entirely disconnected from any other actors, whether it be Israelis or anyone else, and again, purely based on self-defense. Certainly aware of a lot of the reports that you’re referring to, but no connection between those and the actions that we took.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Let’s go ahead and do one final question, and if you don’t mind, sir, I’m going to actually combine a couple questions that we have pre-submitted from some of our journalist colleagues in the region. And they’re similar questions, but I’d like to address both of them to you. And one comes from our colleague Ibrahim Badawy from the Al Raya Daily newspaper in Qatar, and he asks how you view the U.S.-Qatari cooperation regarding Afghanistan as well as the development of facilities and operations at the U.S. base in Qatar. And then our colleague Fathulrahman Mohammed Idris from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Saudi Arabian newspaper, asks what are the prospects for strategic cooperation between the U.S. administration and Saudi Arabia to protect the security and stability of the region? So I’d like to just group those questions together for you, sir, and ask you to talk a little bit about that cooperation with our allies in the region, including Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Over to you, sir.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Okay. No, absolutely, and thanks for both of those questions. So I’ll start with kind of a broad statement and then I’ll work my way down to the specifics of those two nations and our relationship.
First off, broadly, I would say that our relationships between the Air Forces Central and myself as the new commander here and the regional air chiefs, regional air defense chiefs, is really strong. I’ve made a number of phone calls throughout the region. I’ve talked to almost every air chief. There’s still a couple that we’re trying to arrange phone calls with. And I’ve visited several of the air chiefs in the region and talked to several air defense chiefs as I’ve traveled around as well. And I would say the relationship is strong both on a personal level, on a professional level – really across the board. Are there places where we can enhance our cooperation? Absolutely. But very pleased with our mutual respect for each other, the things that we can learn from each other, and where we’re able to bring our forces together – whether that’s in the air, on flight exercises, or on the ground as we work logistical issues and intelligence sharing. A really impressive set of relationships and a really impressive set of leaders across the region as well.
On the specifics of Qatar, I will just say there is – that they are fantastic hosts to the forces that we have here. They have – if we go back to – we’re at the one-year anniversary of the retrograde from Afghanistan and the withdrawal. Qatar was there for the United States and it was a sign of a true friend that nearly everything we asked for, they bent over backwards to help us reach mission success. Just fantastic people and fantastic partners, and I can’t say enough about the positive relationship that I have with Gen. Jassim, their air chief here, and the entire relationship that our organization here has with their air forces.
On the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia where I met with His Highness Lt. Gen. Turki, the air chief. I spent some time at our base just outside of Riyadh. We looked at ways to enhance our cooperation across the board with shared exercises, shared intelligence, shared information. And again, a really solid foundation in that relationship that was laid by my predecessor with Gen. Turki, and of course we just had the President visit there and very clear guidance coming out of the President’s visit. Gen. Kurilla visited shortly after President Biden; very clear guidance from Gen. Kurilla that the kingdom remains absolutely one of our most important regional partners. So Gen. Turki and I in our discussions agreed that we would continue to push the bounds of the cooperation and collaboration that we have both for the defense of the kingdom and the defense of U.S. forces that operate here in the region.
So to the specifics from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two fantastic partners. And then broadly across the region, if you ask me that question about almost any country, I could tell you just what fantastic hosts that we’ve got.
Really, I mentioned this when I was talking back to some of the Air Force – U.S. Air Force leadership in Washington, D.C. I actually feel sorry for the air commanders who have to work in other regions of the world because we really have some of the best and most gracious hosts that you could ask for here in the Central region, and couldn’t be more proud to work with them every single day.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Now, Lt. Gen. Grynkewich, if you have any closing remarks, I will turn it back over to you.
GEN. GRYNKEWICH: Well, I appreciate it. Thanks, everyone, for joining here today. I apologize for the short time when we – when we dropped off, but glad we were able to get back in and continue the conversation with you. I will just say that from my perspective as the new commander here at 9th Air Force and Air Forces Central that I’m incredibly honored and humbled to be in this role. I know I’ve got a lot to learn from those who live in this region and who we’re working with on a daily basis. We are committed to this partnership. We’re committed to regional stability, whether that means deterring Iran, countering violent extremist organizations or ensuring that we can compete with our strategic competitors on the global scale. This area is absolutely critical to global security and I could not be more proud to be serving here alongside the other men and women from so many different nations and doing what small bit we can to contribute to that.
So I’ll just close by saying again thanks for everyone being here today, and I look forward to talking with you all again in the future.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, that does conclude today’s call. I would like to thank Lt. Gen. Grynkewich for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.
# # # #