The U.S. takes pride in its relations with Latvia, and there is no one who would stand idly by if these relations were in danger. Serious work is in progress to implement various investment projects which would, for instance, allow modern fighter jets such as an F-35 to be seen in Latvia one day. During an exclusive interview with TVNET, the Vice Commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, Major General Timothy M. Zadalis, said the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is prepared to defend Latvia in case of need and that “there is no restricted airspace” for the most powerful Air Force in the world.
Major General Zadalis is of Lithuanian descent and began his military service in the USAF in 1984. During his career he has held a variety of positions in the USAF. He has also performed duties in support of U.S. operations in Iraq, Horn of Africa, Haiti and Afghanistan. Major General Zadalis has also commanded the 618th Air Operations Center, tasked with supporting air mobility operations throughout the World.
What other operations are being carried out by the U.S. Air Force in Latvia?
The U.S. and Latvia are both NATO member states. We do a lot of training together during which we play out various scenarios and get to know each other. Joint [military] training allows us to understand each other, because different countries work differently. When we face a crisis, you don’t want to be learning then, you want to have already practiced and trained together. We learn the areas where we are close and the ones we still have to work on. For example, while visiting Lielvarde airfield we made sure that we know and understand what Latvia has planned for it and that appropriate investment is being made in the infrastructure and capabilities. We understand what [Lielvarde] airfield needs to become a more robust air base and to provide extensive opportunities for exercises and training.
What other investments are envisaged for Lielvarde airfield? Which military installations are going to be developed?
This was the first time that I have visited Lielvarde airfield. I had only seen [National Armed Forces Air Force] base maps, but just as I went through the airfield gates, the view was impressive. During my service I have travelled the world and seen a lot of military installations. It is easy to tell when an airfield is well-maintained. That is exactly what I saw in Lielvarde Air Force Base.
The investments made in Lielvarde have been wise. [National Armed Forces] Air Force Base Commander showed me a map with the long-term development plans - where the upcoming base improvements have been planned in the next five, ten and fifteen years. Latvian National Armed Forces have considered the future development of the airfield well. For us, the U.S., looking at the investments some made with funds allocated to reassure Europe, the existence of such a plan proves how serious Latvia is about its role in NATO and how it pays attention to detail.
As I visited the airfield, I spoke to soldiers and pilots from both the U.S. and Latvia, and I could tell they really like it there in Lielvarde, and they are really proud of it.
Speaking about the European Reassurance Iniative – is the U.S. Air Force planning to deploy fixed-wing aircraft or other any other type of aircraft?
I can guarantee that we are working on a lot of plans. Some of them will be implemented, others – maybe not. Part of the initiative [program] is the development of infrastructure – installations, the development of which we can already see. Concerning the deployment of fixed-wing aircraft, there are already various U.S. aircraft stationed at the airfield during training – fighter jets and helicopters. Such events are planned in advance, and many of them are planned to be continued in the future. I cannot reveal what and when, but be sure: if you have an airfield with so many possibilities as well as a great determination to train [together with allies], then in future you will see a lot of planes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, soldiers and pilots.
Will we also see the modern fighter jets F-22 and F-35 in Lielvarde in the future?
I wish we could take F-22s and F-35s with us everywhere. These are great planes and, as a pilot, I wish there were more of them. Currently, a relatively small number of F-22s has been produced, and there is a great demand for them. On the other hand, the rate of production for F-35s is considerable, so I would not be surprised if we saw these fighter jets at Lielvarde one day. F-35s have been in Europe only a couple of times, and it would be great [if they participated in training at Lielvarde].
May be it would be possible to station Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) in Lielvarde?
It is a command and control platform that does not need to land anywhere to provide support. The AWACS at the U.S. disposal can fly out from Oklahoma, perform aerial refueling, fly along the coasts of the Baltics, France and Spain, turn around and fly back. The aircraft does its job and no one even notices it. The plane does not have to be stationed at the airport to be beneficial. AWACS are a perfect example of this – it does not have to be above the particular territory, but you can be certain – the aircraft is in the air and provides support.
How large is the force stationed in Latvia by the U.S. Air Force at the moment?
The USAF aircraft are stationed in Latvia on rotating basis. The number changes frequently. The aircraft arrive and depart often. Sometimes they are based at temporary locations, sometimes they fly over, are involved in operations or their presence is demonstrated. The delivered U.S. Army helicopters will stay here for some time. If I am not mistaken – about seven or eight months - and they will be used in many exercises in Latvia.
What will happen afterwards?
You have to ask that to the U.S. Army. But I can say that the U.S. Army has accomplished considerable planning for the future. The Army, the Air Force and the Navy work on planning various exercises and training in the Baltic region.
What are the US Air Force plans for Estonia and Lithuania?
It is not just one airport or site that is being developed within the framework of the initiative to encourage Europe. The initiative refers to several locations that can be used for operational support. Investments are made in each Baltic state. The nations differ slightly; however, the U.S. works both through NATO and separately to ensure that the investments in Estonia and Lithuania have a connection with overall investments in the Baltic region.
There have been concerns that Russia could discredit or turn its propaganda campaigns against NATO soldiers in the Baltics. Have you encountered this problem yet and are you preparing for such a possibility?
Every country has its own opinion and beliefs as to what the truth is. Sometimes, things they do are against those values that the U.S. and Latvia stand for. The most powerful weapon at our disposal is the truth. That is the freedom of the press, the possibility to tell and show what we are doing. The truth is the way how we can compromise the most serious propaganda campaign.
We – the U.S. Armed Forces – wish to be your partners. We also understand that we are guests in Latvia, and we are really grateful for that. As guests we have a great responsibility toward you. If any other country tries to discredit us, the world will see our relations [with Latvia] and understand that it is propaganda. It does not matter which country initiates it.
Russia is planning a large scale exercise “Zapad 2017”. Usually they play out scenarios of invading NATO countries. Is the U.S. Air Force preparing for any provocations during the exercise?
Military exercises of any country are a threat only if we allow such situations to take place. The best response to such exercises is the readiness [to react] of both NATO as an alliance and also Latvia and the U.S. individually. That is the best way how to respond to these challenges.
Any nation can perform activities that make us ask a question: why are you doing this, it looks threatening. What we do is we continue to improve our readiness to ensure that if one day they tried to do something, we would be ready to deter any country that endangers any other NATO member state.
Are you convinced that Latvia is capable enough of hosting foreign soldiers? Do we have the required resources at our disposal?
Latvia is working hard and is determined to increase the budget for the defense to 2% from GDP already in 2018. There are few countries that can claim that this indicator has to be reached and actually work on it. It is very good from the future perspective.
Latvia makes investments not only in its own defense but also in the common defense of NATO and the European Union. The money is spent wisely, and the investments are reasonable. That ensures that the infrastructure installations in Latvia are ready enough to be used for an F-35 one day. I am very optimistic.
It is very easy to close the Baltic airspace…
Yes, it is very restricted and disputed airspace. There are several countries and a lot of [military] assets. We – U.S. pilots and soldiers – make sure that the money is invested in the right technologies. We provide training to ensure: if it is necessary, we will ensure the Baltic airspace defense, air superiority and dominance. We have the necessary technology, weapons and people with the necessary skills. It is extremely important to organize training together so that we are ready. We do not want it to happen, but we are prepared and armed. Latvia and the U.S. are located within thousands of kilometers from each other; however, we are united when facing a common threat.
You mentioned that the Baltic airspace is very restricted. Do you consider it a problem that, for instance, Russian airplanes fly with their transponders switched off? Does it cause problems for the U.S. Air Force operations?
As a pilot and representative of the most powerful Air Force I always say: “We do not have restricted) air space.” We [the USAF] are well aware that we have a lot of partners that make us greater and more powerful.
If individual countries perform operations that do not comply with the standards of flying, aviation navigation is under threat. Everybody understands that. We can only hope that these are just mistakes, not purposeful activities. It is a threat if aircraft of any country flies with its transponders switched off.
Do you believe that the Baltic States are capable of receiving help from the allies in case of a crisis? There are only a few airfields that are fit for receiving military transportation. The airfields in Lielvarde, Riga and Emari are actually not very big, with only one airstrip. Is their capacity sufficient for taking in a bigger number of airplanes?
The development of infrastructure requires time and investment. That is happening both within the framework of the initiative to encourage Europe and with the investments made by Latvia itself. We can achieve robust infrastructure, but it requires time, dollars, euros, as well as the work of many excellent men and women. It is not wise to build a hangar for an airplane before you build an airstrip.
It is very important that the invested money is spent wisely. At the moment everything is moving in the right direction. It would be great if we had everything we need by tomorrow. However, there is no country in the world that would be so rich… You are working with what you have to make sure that you can use your resources successfully if there is crisis.
You have had a lot of meetings with Latvian officials. What issues did you discuss?
First of all, I expressed our gratitude – in the name of every soldier and pilot – for the opportunity to stay and train in Latvia. We are grateful for hospitability and joint training and also for the fact that we are given an opportunity to see a part of the world that we do not usually get to visit.
We spoke about the areas in which we could develop our cooperation. I was informed about various training opportunities that are available. Usually we speak about airstrips, aircraft and soldiers, but there is also air traffic control and standardization of rules.
We also spoke about training opportunities for UAV’s [unmanned aerial vehicle] such as the MQ1 “Predator” in Latvia. We define the possibilities; planners review them and then turn them into reality. We also discussed investments and work to improve military relations between our countries.
How do you see the future of our two countries regarding military cooperation?
One aspect is definitely the relations within NATO – Latvia is extremely proud of its participation in this alliance. Bilateral relations are much wider than just connection between the armies. The US State Department and embassy in Riga works very hard to develop these relations.
Concerning military relations between the U.S. and Latvia, I see nothing but an incredibly bright future. Both countries work together very closely. The things Latvia holds dear, are the same things we hold dear: democracy and freedom for our people. That is what will keep this relationship strong – be it the military, economic, or political sector.
How do you feel, as a high-ranking U.S. military official, to be in the country that used to be part of the Cold War enemy territory, but is now a NATO border?
When I travelled to Riga, I had a certain idea, but it proved to be wrong. There are still some old buildings, but it was not all that I saw. I saw a surprisingly dynamic city. I would like to come here with my family in Spring or Summer when everything is green. Riga is such a beautiful and dynamic city.
[Nature and fields] outside Riga reminded me of the places where I spent my childhood and youth. All of us had a certain idea about Latvia, based on what we had heard. There is nothing nicer than coming to Latvia and losing this misconception, and understanding that Latvians and Americans have a lot in common.
We are very proud of our relations with Latvia. There is no one who would stand idly by and do nothing if anyone put this relationship under threat.
Major General Timothy M. Zadalis interview in tvnet.lv.