By Jeff Maisey
French Air Force General Jean-Paul Palomeros, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), will relinquish his command September 30 during a ceremony in downtown Norfolk.
General Palomeros has served as SACT since September 2012 after a distinguished career that began in 1973.
During his 42-year military career, in addition to flying combat missions over Chad, according to his resume, “General Palomeros also has a diverse background in multinational operations and was deployed in Vicenza, Italy (1993) as Deputy Commander of the French Air Force during Operation “Crecerelle,” French participation in operation “Deny Flight”, and then in Kiseljak, Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995) where he was in charge of coordinating the air-ground campaign during Operation “Deliberate Force.”
He became the head of the “Studies and Strategic Plans” Department of the French Air Force Staff in 1998. Promoted to Brigadier General in 2001, he was appointed as Chairman of the Capability Development Committee within the French Joint Staff and in August 2002 became the Head of the Plans and Program Division.”
Gen. Palomeros also served as Air Force Chief of Staff in France from 2009 to 2012.
I recently had the honor of sitting down with the general to learn more about his career and reflections on NATO’s present and future role.
Let’s go back to 1973 when you joined the French Air Force. What was your mindset at that time? Was military service always something you wanted to do?
As long as I can remember, yes. I had such a motivation to become a fighter pilot. That was my aim in my life. I never thought of doing something else.
Then I opened the door at the French Air Force Academy in this wonder place, Salon-de-Provence. In the beginning it was more military work. On a day to day basis we used to see the aircraft taking off. So it was a great motivation for us.
After one year we started to fly, and then two years later was the real start of the pilot training.
The world was different in a certain way but it was perhaps more predictable and more stable, even if we were in the depth of the Cold War.
But I remember this day as I speak; jumping into the unknown with a great determination to be successful.
Do you recall your first official combat mission?
In fact, that was in Chad. I had to take off by night. I had been flying a lot to protect the families of this wonderful country from an attack by Mr. Gaddafi’s forces. When I landed I realized that was the first combat mission.
Libya continued to be a challenge for many years. What are your thoughts on the removal of Gaddafi in 2011 and the role of the French Air Force in support of opposition forces on the ground?
I was Chief of the French Air Force at this time. We had only less than 36 hours to prepare ourselves. I was very proud to see the French Air Force fighters overflying Benghazi, stopping Gaddafi’s forces from slaughtering his own people.
The Libyan equation is complex. The first aim and mission was to stop the slaughter. It took some time. The military part of that was achieved with very minimal collateral damage. It was a very good job all together the allies have done under the NATO flag. But, you know, it is very tough. You address certain crisis while you know the long term issues are much wider. I knew that from my own experience because being in Chad I had the opportunity to study and understand this is a master piece in the world and link to the north and Europe, and a link to the Sub-Saharan and Arabic world. It is a central piece. And how you cope with that with such a large country with huge borders? This is what we understand now.
At the end of the day I prefer that we have done this job than if we had waited and let Gaddafi do his nasty business.
There was some optimism during the so-called Arab Spring following the removal of President Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya, but the region remains in chaos. These power vacuums have allowed the rise of the Islamic State fighters. What is your view of these trouble spots, including Syria?
I think this is true that fundamentalism is a great concern and a great threat. What we have seen is the Islamic State organization building itself and taking any opportunity in any empty spaces. Most concerning is how they reach some youth who are looking for an aim in their life.
Perhaps the good news is that we see great solidarity between the allies, and not only NATO nations, but Arabic countries. Seeing all these nations joining together to fight against this extremism is perhaps the best news we have had for a while. It will take time because we have to fight with caution because we want to limit the level of violence to what is required. We need intelligence. We need to make sure that we can really achieve our aims. We are addressing the roots of the problem, not only the symptoms.
You were Chief of the French Air Force before becoming NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. When you came into this role three years ago, what did you hope achieve?
I knew NATO. I had been engaged in the operations. While I had never been posted in NATO, mainly because France was not part of – in my time – an integrated military, I have been involved in so many NATO missions including in Bosnia. It struck me that at the end of the day NATO was the tool, the organization which was required when we had to solve a real crisis. That has been the case in the Balkans, in Bosnia; that has been the case in Afghanistan, and other places as well.
I was very keen to come within the organization and bring my own experience, and to help this organization to keep credible, relevant, to try to optimize capabilities and influence nations to reinvest wisely in the people and make sure we train. And to make the best of this position of this command in this wonderful country, here in Norfolk, Virginia, to make sure we keep the best transatlantic bond. It was really a key objective.
During your three years in Norfolk, the adversary NATO was originally created to defend against – Soviet Union/Russia – has reemerged as a potential threat to the United States and Europe. Were you surprised to see Russia annex Crimea and threaten Ukraine?
This is a fascinating question because here at ACT our role is to look into the future and try to decrypt to see what are the main threats…We are seeing the reemergence of a major power on the borders of NATO. We didn’t find it likely in the short term. What struck me was that it came earlier than we could foresee. I have drawn the conclusion that we must be ready at any time. We put together the Readiness Action Plan because NATO cannot be caught by surprise. We need more strategy to warn us. We need to improve our agility, our mobility. This illegal Crimea annexation provided us even more motivation. That was a convincing factor at the Wales Summit in September of 2014.
Russia’s move came at an interesting time when many people were asking what NATO’s role and relevance was in the modern age. When you look 15, 30 years in the future, where do you see NATO?
I describe the transformation as a golden thread linking the past, the present and the future. We are learning from the past. We must capitalize. We must assume the responsibility of the past. We adapt to the present and keep a vision for the future. This is our role in ACT.
When I look into the future, the future is not returned anywhere. What we try to do here is identify the main threats. In front of us we have some main concerning trends about resources and even climate change, about new technology and potential adversity. We put that on the table very candidly.
On the other side, we see 28 nations able to combine capabilities. At the end of the day NATO is strong because we are stronger together. Down the road, I will say, NATO will keep its relevance and capability provided we keep together. Solidarity is the key that we really enforce the collective defense – All for one, one for all – not only defending our borders, but defending our values in crisis; where it is needed; when it is needed.
Today we enjoy many partners. Some of them could, in the long term, become members of NATO. Others will stay partners. The fact is that we increase the sphere of security, the sphere of mutual understanding in doing that. With a strong NATO, a relevant NATO, the world is safer.
To keep NATO well-funded there needs to be resources. Will it be essential for all nations to contribute more in terms of their GDP?
We came to good results in Wales. For the first time in recent history all the NATO states pledged for a gold line of 2 percent of GDP spent on defense and within this budget 20 percent in reinvestment. That was a really good result.
In addition to that we have to focus on quality. We have to deliver a value for bucks, if I may say so. In ACT we don’t concentrate only on getting resources, but we are concentrating on the outcome. How we can provide a better outcome to prepare for the future. The suitable capabilities. Sustainable capabilities. How we control the costs of what we do. This is very important. We are accountable to the tax payer in what they pay for in security.
So the economic dimension is absolutely crucial. On the other hand, this investment is paying off for industry. A lot of people are leaning on these new technologies we are developing. There is a self-improvement circle in that process of transformation. Doing much better with a little bit more and doing that together, smarter.
Russian fighter jets and strategic bombers are probing American and European airspace with increased frequency. They are also said to be flying without their transponders on, thus making them non-identifiable. Is this activity more provocative today than when you were flying patrols in defense of France during the Cold War?
This is true. I had the opportunity to fly these kinds of flights. It was always surprising to meet a big Russian bomber off the coast of Brittany or the Mediterranean Sea. But we were used to that. The world had been such since the 1950s. There was a kind of routine.
Now, I would say, it is more concerning. First, because we thought it will not come back again. Secondly, I am not sure that they are playing by rules. When I say that it is very serious. We have had a close call with civilian traffic. You cannot jeopardize the security of hundreds of millions of passengers. You must identify yourself. I can tell you from every single NATO exercise, not a single pilot is taking any risk. We are using the agreed convention and treaty to make sure we are protecting our people.
NATO is working transparently. NATO is there to prevent and deter. We are not in an aggressive posture. We are here to increase the safety and prosperity. We are nothing more, nothing less. But in any case we will be there to respond, and we have to train for that within the scope of agreed convention, agreed procedures, and we’re doing that.
With the Rapid Reaction Force now deployed and logistic headquarters positioned in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, is that a strong enough deterrent to keep Russia from moving against its neighbors?
The strongest deterrence for the other side is the presence of NATO as an alliance. The NATO deterrence is based upon the strong, credible nuclear deterrents supported by a strong and credible conventional force. What we have done in the recent past is we increased our responsiveness.
This is true that during the last 20 years NATO has been engaged most of the time in counter insurgency, starting in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan. So we have to re-learn in a certain way a collective way because we had hoped and felt it would not happen again. We have fixed some very high standards for our forces. We are able to work together. ACT is more and more instrumental in training. We have multiplied by three the number of exercises in which NATO is involved. In two years time this is quite an achievement.
So who could say whether it is deterrent enough? Deterrence is about political will, about capabilities, about showing strength to be able not to use it. So far it is very deterrent. When I listen to the different speeches from different places in Moscow and somewhere else, I have a feeling this is very deterrent.
At the end of the day, when you face 28 countries which are linked by this core value – All for one, one for all – this is, I think, a great deterrent.
What advice and wisdom who you bestow upon your successor?
First and foremost, I know very well my successor. He was my successor as head of the Air Force. I will not have to provide him much advice. He is a very talented man.
First, I would tell him you are arriving in a wonderful country and wonderful place so take the full benefit of your presence. I would tell him to enjoy the wonderful people who are here in this community.
I would advise him as well that what makes the solidarity of NATO is the involvement of the nations. It is crucial to understand the rationale and objectives, to speak and listen. This is what is fascinating in this job and this is how it should carry on. We are not transforming NATO for ourselves. We are transforming NATO because the nations want us to transform NATO to keep it a relevant, credible alliance.
If it were not for a French naval blockade off the coast of Virginia Beach during America’s Revolutionary War, the outcome may have been different. I am wondering if you might reflect on France’s role in America’s revolution and the role of French aristocrat and military office, the Marquis de Lafayette?
This is another dimension of our presence here. We have a command here in the United States to mark this great relationship, this great Trans-Atlantic bond. But, in addition, being here in Virginia it is such a historical place. When I read the history, and had this opportunity here, and saw how much interactive influence of France and America in both revolutions. Lafayette was the hero of two worlds. In America, he was instrumental in getting the French support when it was needed. But, on the other hand, he was instrumental as well in the French Revolution. Just to remember Lafayette was one of the first anti-slavery advocates in 1782. That was a very advanced vision that he had.
The other conclusion that I take from being here is the love of the American people for France. They have a long lasting memory of what he did, but I can tell you it is true as well in France. When I was in Normandy last year for the commemoration of D-Day anniversary, you cannot imagine the number of American flags which were waved by young children.
This is a long, enduring relationship between our two countries.
What does retirement look like for Jean-Paul Palomeros the citizen?
Well, the citizen intends to keep as many friends as possible from this side of the Atlantic. We have spent three wonderful years here and we have many a lot of real good friends. I have discovered that the Atlantic is not so huge.
In addition, I have discovered as well there is a lot to do and if I can make any contribution to make this world a little bit safer I will. I have an ambition to reach more and more youth. We have to teach them and tell them the story of NATO…to tell them liberty is not a given. At a certain point you have to fight for liberty. You must fight for your values. And I think it worth seeing someone with experience speak very candidly to the youths, taking them as very skilled young men and women but who need to learn from where we came and what could be our future. If I can help in that then I would be the most happy man in the world. And taking care of our grandchildren as well.