Hobbins’ World

June 1, 2007

Gen. William T. Hobbins since December 2005 has served as commander of United States Air Forces in Europe, based at Ramstein AB, Germany. In a recent meeting with Air Force Magazine, the general discussed in some detail the major issues confronting his command. What follows are excerpts of his remarks.

Into New Europe

“Mihail Kogalniceanu, MK Air Base in Romania, [is an] area we really have a lot of interest in. First of all it’s on the Black Sea. If you looked at its range space to the north, and its army ground maneuver ranges to the south, and you tied all those together, and you overlaid the Nellis Air Force Base range space, … it’s even bigger than what we have at Nellis. The Romanians ask us to come there and fly with them all the time because they’re a brand-new NATO nation. They have MiG-21s, and our A-10s, … F-16s, … [and] F-15Cs will go down there.”

Eager Partners on Black Sea

“Both Bulgaria and Romania have over a dozen projects where runways are being enhanced, facilities [and] buildings are being built. So we’re actually taking advantage of the fact that there’s a lot of NATO money being spent. … MK Air Base is a great place to go, and it’s going to be a great place for us to train. [The Romanians] are very, very strong supporters in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. I go to Kabul [Afghanistan] a lot, and I see the Romanians there running the base. … They’re interested in US equipment and training, tactics, techniques, and procedures. They attend our schools. They attend our academic courses, and they just continuously ask us for more, and so we’re going to capitalize on that.”

Equipment Forges Ties

“A country like Poland buys [the] F-16. … They bought 48 of them. That solidifies the relationship with the United States Air Force for at least 30 years. … Their runways are being modernized because … they’re a brand-new NATO member, and their infrastructure is being modernized. They now have the most modern fighter in this part of the world with that Block 52. So we’ve started a relationship there … and then we’ll have over 44 military-to-military engagements with that country this year.”

No F-22s in Europe

“Right now, the number’s fixed [at 183 F-22s for the entire Air Force]. That’s what we’ve been given, and that does not say that we won’t eventually be given more. … Obviously I’d like to see some in Europe, but … look at the distances that our F-22s travel. [The distance from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, to Northeast Asia, for instance, is essentially the same as the distance from Langley AFB, Va., to Western Europe.] The responsiveness of those aircraft is such that they could go either way.”

Stealth Fighters Will Come

“In the F-35 world, we have six … partners in Europe—six countries. And so we should have in the future some great F-35 capabilities, some advanced fighter capability over there that would be a huge offset for not having the F-22. But quite frankly you have to look at your priorities and I think our Air Force has done that—they’ve picked the right locations. I hope that we get more than seven [F-22] squadrons, and we see them over in Europe from time to time, but for right now, I think the distances work out.”

USAFE and Africa

“[There are] tremendous resources there, and the other thing that we’re worried about is the roots of terrorism. You have this region between the northern part of Africa and the southern part of Africa called the Trans-Sahel, sort of a dry arid line that separates the Arab Muslim north from the Black Christian south. And along that line you’ve had the terrorists and actually kingdoms and leaders who have done human trafficking for decades, and they move clearly along this line from Sudan all the way across through Mali and Mauritania. … They have these big, open porous areas which are very susceptible to terrorist activity.”

Medical Missions

“We have sent numerous medical missions, which I wish got more notoriety, but our doctors and our nurses and our technicians and our optometrists [are] going to places like Ghana and they see well over 3,000 patients in a very short period of time, hand out over 1,500 [pairs of eyeglasses.]”

Battle for Influence

“You’ll find a lot of Chinese influence [in Africa], and I tell everybody that there’s a lot of stadium diplomacy going on down there. I mean that they’re building stadiums, soccer stadiums—China’s built 22 of them down there. In exchange for that, they’re developing Chinese cell phone systems and infrastructure and roads and car plants, etc. If you look around the continent, you see that the Chinese president and the foreign minister have been visiting a lot of places. We have been engaged there, too, quite frankly. I’m scheduled to go to South Africa and Botswana and several other African nations later this year, and I expect to go down there and find ways to help out with their air forces. Many of them have United States Air Force equipment, and sometimes just the military-to-military engagements are enough to help … those relationships flourish even more.”

Little Infrastructure

“The infrastructure there is pretty tough. I mean, I’ve been studying a little bit about how you get around in Africa, and I know that there’s not … a central airport that [can] get everywhere. There’s no ‘Atlanta Airport’ in Africa. … In many places in Africa, you have to fly back to the European continent before you can turn around and come back to the country you want.”

16th AF Becomes 3rd AF

“We just had a change of a name of the numbered air force [at Ramstein] from 16th to 3rd. Basically, 3rd Air Force stood up, and 16th Air Force became an air expeditionary task force [at Izmir, Turkey]. … When you look at the rank, honor, and lineage, which we always do, … you find that 3rd Air Force has 16th Air Force by a whisker. I mean, it goes back to campaign streamers; it goes down to actual victories in combat, it goes down to … citations, and all of those things. [Third Air Force also] had a long history with the British, so they would have preferred a 3rd Air Force.”

What the NAF Does Now

“Third Air Force is now going to be responsible for the [organization, training, and equipping] of the wings. …We want to qualify 3rd Air Force as a [joint task force] commander. … [Lt. Gen. Robert D. Bishop Jr.] has the ability to pick up and move forward and become a joint task force commander directly under EUCOM or wherever else he’s assigned. … Third Air Force [is] doing this already—we have a de-mining operation where we’re in Guinea-Bissau, and we’re training the Guinea-Bissauans how to do de-mining operations. … We have a space shuttle launch … that’s going to happen here in the next couple of months. Third Air Force pre-positions the medical crews and the aircraft that do the emergency recovery if the shuttle has to land someplace short, within our theater.”

Expeditionary Task Force

“[If NATO] would prefer a commander that was south of the Alps, [Lt. Gen. Maurice L. McFann Jr. is] already running all the combined air and space centers down there for NATO, so he would be available should we need it. But [the 16th Air Expeditionary Task Force is] there in title only, without any forces assigned, and without a great big staff. … Once the President and the [Defense Secretary] decide how we’re going to go forth in Africa, we may decide to eventually have a numbered air force approved, so I have the makings there.”

Half-Sizing the Headquarters

“USAFE’s force [cut is] about the 3,500 level, … but clearly we have a plan to absorb the loss of those people. … With all the locations we have you would think, well, that kind of a cut might be very significant, but quite frankly a lot of the cuts come right out of my headquarters. … I’ll be down to about 51 percent of what my headquarters was, so you will see a lot of the centralization of functions.”

Where the Surpluses Are

“One of the largest [Air Force specialty codes facing cuts] is ammo systems. Another one was comm electronics, and another one after that is personnel. [More than 1,000 USAFE airmen will be cut from these three AFSCs.] I’ve asked the wing commanders to really work with me [to] look at process improvement as a means of finding efficiencies where our airmen won’t feel the pain.”

Kill the Wasted Effort

“I believe if we reorganized or if we looked at it from a different process standpoint, we’d find waste in what we do, waste in time. You’ve got numerous examples that show … if we did it right, we would actually be able to do our job with less people. … I wanted to know what the average workweek was. So we went around and we measured all the squadrons and found out that … they were working about 51 hours a week on the average. … My goal here is to try and reduce the workweek—so I’ve reduced the stress of the force and, at the same time, [used] that as a motivator.”

Critical Crew Chiefs

“Look at maintenance, the crew chiefs. I’m worried about crew chiefs leaving, because crew chiefs are the lifeblood of an aviation unit. Our young airmen are trained and they’re expert at what they do. Losing that talent is very hard for me because I want to plan for it before they leave, … so when we find a Smart Ops 21 [process improvement program] initiative that we can grab onto that helps us save maintainers, it’s really high value.”

Where You Can Centralize

“Public affairs, legal, logistics, … and personnel, they’re all looking at ways to perhaps pull some of the manpower that exists in the four [theater] Majcoms back to the States and be able to do the jobs back there. … For instance, the people who do assignments, they can operate and live out of San Antonio, and you just have to run a 24-hour clock. And we could actually call back home to get that work done. Do you need to have those kinds of people also at the major command at USAFE [and] at the wings? I think the answer to that is ‘no.’”