By Marina Malenic

North Atlantic Treaty Organization member nations must continue to invest in cutting edge military technology and manpower to meet new challenges outside their borders, the chief of United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) said last week.

“NATO is the most successful military alliance in history, and the member nations need to continue to invest in the capabilities needed to make it a viable alliance and a credible alliance,” said Gen. Roger Brady.

Brady spoke with Defense Daily at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in Washington on Sept. 16. USAFE is the Air Force component of U.S. European Command.

While the number-one priority for European Command is supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Brady, “on the continent, more locally, our biggest mission is building partnership capacity.”

Asked what challenges he sees for NATO in the coming years, Brady said integrating former Eastern European countries into the alliance and managing its relationship with Russia is high on the list of priorities.

“I think Russia is a challenge,” the general said. “If you listen to what they say, they want to be a player on the world stage. And we’re trying to do things that help them act as a responsible actor on the world stage and respect the sovereignty of nations.”

NATO has expanded in recent years from 16 to 29 countries, and approximately half of those are former Warsaw Pact nations.

“What we’re trying to do is help them as they integrate themselves into a more Western mindset regarding their militaries,” Brady explained. “We spend a lot of time, right down to the unit level, working with their air forces.”

Eastern European members of NATO are in the midst of major military reforms. They are moving from centralized, Soviet-era models to more egalitarian operational approaches– including the very Western concept of the non-commissioned officer corps. All the new members are making contributions in terms of systems upgrades as well, according to Brady.

“Many of them are flying old, Soviet-era equipment,” he said. “As those aircraft wear out, they’re making the transition to more modern systems that interoperate with us.”

“I’ve talked to officials in the three Baltic countries, I’ve talked to people in Romania and Bulgaria, and they have a very good understanding of what they need to do,” he added. “But they have some resource constraints.”

Brady said said each is examining “what they as individual nations need to develop and what they should be able to rely on the alliance for.” For example, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are currently relying on other NATO countries to conduct air policing in their air space. NATO has asked the Baltic countries to work toward alternative ways of conducting air policing by 2012, including possibly purchasing their own fleet of military jets, according to Brady.

“I had some very interesting and productive discussions with them just in the last week about how we might do that,” he said.

The general added that recent hostilities between Russia and Georgia have alarmed many in the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations.

“They have a lot of history with Russia. They are not naive. And I think when they see something happen like what happened in Georgia, it raises some concerns in their minds,” said Brady. “Part of what I’m doing, and what [EUCOM commander] Gen. [Bantz] Craddock is doing, is reassuring them that they’re full members of the alliance and are covered by the alliance agreements. And we will meet those commitments.”

Meanwhile, Western European NATO members are all facing budgetary challenges.

“The French, the Italians, the Germans, the Brits–facing them is like looking in the mirror a little bit, with the challenges that they face,” Brady said.

He also said the U.S. effort to commit AWACS aircraft in the NATO fleet to operations in Afghanistan remains stalled.

“To get the AWACS to do anything for you operationally, you have to have the consensus of the participating nations,” Brady explained. “We’re trying to use AWACS, there’s an effort to use them more. And that request and paperwork is making its way through NATO at its usual glacial pace.

“As an operator,” he added, “I can tell you it’s a capability that would be useful…to commanders in the” Central Command area of responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan. “But it’s taking a little while to get it there.”

The general also said some upgrades are on the horizon for USAFE. The first C-103J models are expected to enter the fleet next year. The A-10 platforms are being upgraded to the C model. And Brady said he is looking forward bringing in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter “at the same time the allies get theirs.” And while USAFE currently does not operate unmanned systems, it will see the first Global Hawks enter the fleet in the coming months.

Still, Brady said, USAFE is facing many of the same challenges the Air Force is as a whole is coping with: “The fleet’s holding up well, but it’s like the rest of the Air Force–it’s an old fleet. It takes more time, more maintenance man hours to keep them up in the air than it used to.”

“It’s tired iron,” he added. “It’s been flying for a long time.”