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Q&A: Outgoing AFCENT Boss Grynkewich on the Future of the Middle East

When the National Defense Strategy was issued in 2022, the U.S. military mission in the Middle East took a back seat to the ongoing challenges of deterring China or Russia. But since then, no region has been more combustible. From Iran and its proxies to the Islamic State, American forces have had to contend with multiple threats.

As head of Air Forces Central, Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich has been at the heart of almost all U.S. military action in the Middle East, from overseeing airstrikes against Iranian proxy groups to protecting troops as America’s air defense commander for the region. In addition to his critical role in combating immediate threats, he set up a task force to develop future capabilities.

Just before handing over his command to Lt. Gen. Derek C. France on April 18 to become director for operations (J3) on the Joint Staff, Grynkewich played a pivotal role in the successful effort to help Israel defeat a massive Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel from April 13 into the early morning hours of April 14. Later that day, he spoke with Air & Space Forces Magazine and reflected on his tenure as head of AFCENT. This transcript has been edited for length.

Q: Where do you see the region going forward? Are we going to get stability? Should we be hopeful or not?

A: All three of the world’s major monotheistic religions have deep, deep roots here, and it is an absolute, just phenomenal place. The people of the region are also some of the most hospitable people that I’ve ever met. They open their homes, they open their hearts, they open their countries, and they’re very proud of all the cultural and religious aspects of their particular nations, and they should be. So I find it to be a region that is just full of hope.

Now, it has also been a region that has historically had challenges with stability. Everyone has seen that, everyone talks about it. If we back ourselves out of the current crisis and we take the long view, I think we’re on a trajectory over time that leads us to a better future for all the people of the region, no matter what country they come from, or what their religious or ethnic background is. We clearly saw that we were on that trajectory prior to October 7th. This is a major crisis with tons of opportunity for things to get set back a bit. But over the long arc of history here in the region, it’s inevitable that we’ll get to the point where we find a prosperous, peaceful area.

Q: CENTCOM has focused on improving integrated air and missile defense in the region for a while. Where does that stand now?

A: We’re trying to stitch together partners in the region who share a perspective of a threat, share concern of the threats to stability in the region, which primarily emanate from Iran with a large number of ballistic missiles, and be in a position where we’re able to share information, share threat warning. And the ultimate goal is to get to a much deeper and fuller integration. We’ve made tremendous progress. There is a lot that’s been accomplished.

Q: How have you managed your role as the area air defense commander, and how did the progress you mentioned come about?

A: We have always had a very tight relationship across the joint force in the air defense community. And a lot of that tight relationship is physically present in the Combined Air Operations Center, in the CAOC. We’ve got broad expertise, both from an air perspective but also from an air defense perspective that’s right here. The doctrine on joint air defense is very mature. It’s something that I felt the need to get very smart on very quickly. What fundamentally our role is as the area air defense commander is to look at what our posture level should be across the region, set the appropriate posture and readiness level based on the threat that we see, and then take whatever assets we have that are either under our tactical control or in a direct support role across the joint force, in the coalition, and stitch them together, so that we can synchronize the fires and effects when we get into that air defense fight. We’ve done a lot of work synchronizing all the way down to the base level.

There have been a ton of exercises that we’ve done. A lot of those in the counter-UAS realm, a number against ballistic missiles over time, and it’s been really valuable.

Then the one other thing that gets into the regional missile defense is we coordinate with adjacent capability—so even if they’re not directly supporting the CENTCOM area air defense commander, if there are adjacent coalition or allied capabilities, we’re able to have enough connectivity with other nations’ air defense operations centers or their AOCs, depending on what their architecture is, to go, ‘Hey, we see something coming, are you going to take it or we? We share threat warning, share the picture that we see, and make very rapid decisions across an even broader coalition than those forces we directly control and command.

Q: Task Force 99 was stood up to be an experimental unit with small drones, but what are they operationally doing? And how you envision them operating in the future?

A: They’ve got a couple of tasks from me that have really stayed consistent since we stood them up in the fall of 2022. I asked him to work on improving our air domain awareness, I asked them to look at how we could improve our targeting cycle, and asked them to look at how we could present dilemmas to the adversary. And we’ve made different amounts of progress on each of those.

Air domain awareness has proven very difficult. We’ve done some experimentation with high-altitude balloons, trying to see if there were particular sensors that we could launch on them that would be able to fill gaps in our surveillance coverage. That work is still, I would argue, in the experimental phase. It’s more expensive, it takes more time, so that’s going to be something that they continue to work on. We haven’t really closed any major technologies yet or brought them into the field. But they do continue to work on that.

The second area was to improve our targeting. We have made some pretty good progress on that. In the first six to 12 months of Task Force 99, back in a period where we had some significant threats to our forces in certain areas, we were able to use this small short-range drone and go out and do some tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, ISR missions, and go out and find some things that were threats to our forces. So operationally, we’ve used some of those very short-range drones.

As the environment evolved over here and we kind of shifted our focus on what we’re defending, I asked Task Force 99 to look at longer-range, more persistent, and higher-fidelity platforms without bumping up the price point significantly. The idea for the ISR work is to get to some level of affordable mass, is what I would call it. I need a volume of ISR capacity that I don’t have with our traditional platforms. Particularly in some of our operations we’ve been conducting in Yemen, more ISR is always going to be helpful. So that’s where their main focus is now. We’ve got several platforms that are in evaluation right now. I think over the coming months, you’re going to see some of them get to the field. They have been putting a ton of effort into that targeting cycle and the ISR platforms that we might be able to get and improve our capability there. I think there’s going to be real gain there.

I think this has the opportunity to give us, as an Air Force, a new approach to platform acquisition and a new way to think about capacity that we might not have thought of in the past. So those are some of the things that I’ll take forward as I go out of this job and provide back to Air Force leadership on some insights from our lessons.

The last one was to cause dilemmas to our adversaries. In that case, you can think about any number of one-way UAS attacks and large swarms of UASs that you have to deal with, it can be a big operational problem. What I would like to do is be able to turn the tables and provide one-way attack UAS capability or one-way UAS harassment capability that I could use against our adversaries. We’re making some progress in that area. It’s still work that’s ongoing. But there is a potential for real capability and capacity here that would have uses not just across the U.S. CENTCOM [area of responsibility], but I think in a number of different areas.

Q: So have some of these capabilities been used operationally?

A: Some of them have been used operationally and we have several more that I think will be used operationally in the next six months.

Q: How is Task Force 99 being formalized, because you have pulling Airmen from many different jobs. How is it going to work as a unit going forward?

A: We do have plans to make it more permanent. Those billets are being aligned right now. There’s some real benefits to rotational manpower and people coming over for six months rotations, and that you get new ideas and fresh looks at problems, if you will. So we want to preserve some of that. But we also recognize that there’s a need for some stability in terms of how you run the program and how the tasks are metered out.

The plan we’ve got moving forward is to move from a purely rotational model, where almost everyone is swapping out every six months, which has some benefits, to now a model where you’ve got kind of a mix and match. You’ve got the stability in some key leadership positions and some key technical positions. But at the same time, you leverage the advantages you get from those new looks. We’ll have to make some decisions of where we go from there. It’s something that I think will sustain and potentially become a model for other parts of the Air Force as well.

Q: What was the biggest lesson you learned as AFCENT commander? What is your takeaway?

AFCENT is a microcosm of the U.S. Air Force, because we have Airmen that deployed here from every other part of the world, every major command of the Air Force. We get to see Airmen of all walks of life, every background, as they all come together for a cohesive team here operating in an AOR in what still very much executing combat operations.

If you asked me what I’m most proud of, it’s that those same Airmen have made tremendous strides and adapted to the new realities of the region and particularly here in the headquarters. We shifted from our focus on the missions that we’ve been doing for a long time of counter-[violent extremist organization] and counterinsurgency. That is not our main concern anymore. We still support some of those operations, but we are much more focused on long-term campaigning and readiness should that campaign require it for major combat operations.

There are a couple of things that, as an Airman, I’m very proud that we’ve accomplished. We clearly provide exceptional command and control capability to the U.S. Central Command commander. The CAOC, as distributed as it is between our forward headquarters and back at Shaw Air Force Base, that distributed node of capability has tremendous ability to synchronize joint fires and effects, to plan and to think through hard problems, and to accelerate the joint targeting cycle at speeds that we haven’t been able to do for decades.

The Air Force has had core functions or core missions that have changed over the years. One of them was always command and control. The conversation has evolved to talk about JADC2 and the future of C2. I think you see the future of C2 here, and you see the value of our long history of providing that exquisite operational-level command and control and the benefits that it brings to the joint force.

Q: You’re also in the only place where you’re fighting a war. What lessons can you teach the U.S. military broadly about preparing for so-called Great Power Competition—or preparing for anything? We all talk about future war, but what can we learn from the fight that’s happening now?

A: The world’s a very unstable place. There’s tremendous benefits from serving anywhere, whether you’re up in Europe, focused on the Ukraine-Russia threat, or you’re in the Pacific looking at our pacing challenge. I think what AFCENT has to offer is a place where you can gain real-life combat experience. Wherever it is, you’re executing mission command, you’re executing Agile Combat Employment, your execution of tactical actions in the cockpit or repairing a runway, or whatever it happens to be, you get real-world experience with all of that. 

In some cases, unfortunately, you also come under fire. And those Airmen who have come under fire over here will know when they go to other fights, they will know what that feels like. In the years ahead, the A1Cs and senior Airmen and the lieutenants and captains who have done that will be better combat leaders because they’ve experienced it once before. So I think we bring value to the Air Force in terms of gaining that combat experience at the tactical and operational level. Being able to practice in a real world, austere environment, a harsh environment. That’s fundamentally different from some of the other harsh environments, but harshness is harshness. We give the Air Force a place for Airmen to prove their mettle, hone their leadership skills, and be ready for the next fight.

Q: What does “campaigning” mean to you? That can be an amorphous term.

A: It’s about our longer-term actions and posture here in the region; it’s about building those partnerships and deterring our adversaries. It’s thinking through what are the operations, activities, and investments that we need to do every single day that will have positive long-term outcomes, as opposed to just thinking about what’s coming down the pipe in the next [air tasking order] cycle. That is significant, but I think it is really going to pay dividends in the future.
Q: What do you expect in your future role as J3?

A: I know I’ve got a lot to learn. As I mentioned, I’ve been in U.S. Central Command for a while. I know that there’s a lot that I’ve got to dig into and fundamentally understand as much as I can.

Q: Do you have any parting thoughts as AFCENT commander?

A: Thanks to the Airmen that served over here with me over the last few years, and there’s been a lot. Thanks to the leaders that have been willing to come over here. Thanks to my sister component commanders and U.S. Central Command for all the support that they’ve given. And finally, a thanks to my own family for continuing to support me and allowing me to serve. It has been the honor of a lifetime. I’ve learned and grown as a leader myself in this position, and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else.

Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central) commander, thanks Airman 1st Class Chelsea Kindle, 79th Fighter Generation Squadron assistant dedicated crew chief, for her support to his final flight as the AFCENT commander April 9, 2024, at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal