France Tapped as New Air Force Commander in Middle East

Maj. Gen. Derek C. France has been nominated to become the top U.S. Air Force commander in the Middle East, the Pentagon announced on March 14. If confirmed, he will have to deal with continued unrest in the region that has resulted in multiple rounds of USAF airstrikes recently.

President Joe Biden tapped France to pin on a third star as the next boss of Air Forces Central (AFCENT) and the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) for U.S. Central Command. The current head of AFCENT, Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, has already been confirmed as the next director of operations on the Joint Staff (J-3) at the Pentagon, a critical role overseeing U.S. military actions worldwide.

France’s nomination was received by the Senate on March 12 and referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee for consideration.

France currently serves as the commander of the 3rd Air Force, part of U.S. Air Forces in Europe—Air Forces Africa, which leads all the wings in USAFE-AFA. Some key air force units are part of France’s current command, including the:

  • 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, which hosts F-16s
  • 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdalem Air Base, Germany, another F-16 unit
  • 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, U.K, home to F-15Es and F-35s
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, U.K.
  • 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

Some of those forces—F-15Es from Lakenheath and, before that, F-16s from Aviano—have been called to the Middle East in recent months as tensions flared with Iran, then Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, prompting broader upheaval.

AFCENT is currently tackling Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea region, responding to more than 150 attacks on U.S. troops supporting the campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, including an attack in January that killed three Soldiers in Jordan at an outpost just across the border from Syria, and conducting humanitarian aid airdrops over Gaza.

In his current job, France has been responding to the other major international crisis: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. USAFE has bolstered its exercises and posture in defense of NATO, as its boss, Gen. James B. Hecker, has committed to enhancing readiness and being ready to deter any further Russian aggression.

“We don’t know what’s coming on the horizon, so we have to be ready for a lot of different things,” France said in 2022. “I expect our Airmen to take care of each other and take care of themselves. … Take care of your wingman, take care of yourself.”

France is a former F-22 pilot and F-15C instructor at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. He has nearly 3,000 flight hours in F-22s, F-15s, and F-16s, and he has experience in the Middle East, serving as the wing commander at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates before becoming the deputy director of operations for U.S. Central Command from 2018-2020.

France became director of operations for USAFE-AFA in June 2020—when Israel was still in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility rather than part CENTCOM—before taking his current position in June 2022.

“We have a leader that not only knows how to execute the mission, but one that also knows how to take care of Airmen and their families,” now-retired Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, then the USAFE-AFA commander, said of France when he took command of the 3rd Air Force. Harrigian added that France had “warfighting excellence and operational knowledge.”