UPDATED with Sec. Carter statement & Gen. Barno comment
WASHINGTON: The four-star chief of US and allied forces in Korea will become the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe — the critical SACEUR position first held by Eisenhower. For Gen. Curtis M. “Mike” Scaparrotti, it’s out of the East Asian frying pan into the European fire.
“The big ticket items that he faced in Korea, he’ll face in Europe as well: missile defense, nuclear weapons, (and) multi-national (alliances),” said retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, an old Army comrade of Scaparrotti’s who’s now vice-president for education at the powerful Association of the US Army. “I don’t think you could prep a guy better…. I think it’s a wise decision.”
The Korean theater pits a strategically vital but politically delicate alliance against a rogue state possessed of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, massed artillery, one of the world’s largest special operations forces, and a nasty track record of provocations. The European theater features all of the above, but bigger. The NATO alliance has 28 members to manage instead of two. The adversary is a relatively wealthy (if sagging) oil and gas exporter rather than a famine-prone basket case. Its provocations include the outright invasion of neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine. And, of course, Russia’s nukes can wipe out every city in the United States.
If you wanted to train a future SACEUR in a microcosm of the European theater, with many of the same essential challenges, you couldn’t pick a better place than Korea.
[UPDATE: “His move from USFK (US Forces Korea) to SACEUR is unprecedented,” said David Barno, a retired Army three-star. “No former commanders in Korea have ever moved on to any other more senior position since at least the mid-70s to my knowledge” — but the world has changed. “His ability to deal with the intricacies and nuances of the balance of power on the very dangerous Korean Peninsula will serve him very well in a newly contentious European security environment thanks to Vladimir Putin and Russian aggressiveness – much different than Europe five or 10 years ago.”]
“You talk about a guy who’s well prepared; he’s seen it all,” Swan said, “to include NATO partners in Afghanistan.” In 2011, then-Lt. Gen. Scaparrotti took over the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) Joint Command (IJC) in Afghanistan. It’s through ISAF that most NATO countries have gotten most of their combat experience in the last 15 years. As a result, said Swan, “he will not be an unknown quantity when he gets to Europe.”
Scaparrotti is also a known quantity in the Pentagon, where he served as director of the Joint Staff, a position that put him in constant contact with the top military and civilian leadership. “That’s one of those so-called kingmaker positions where people are identified as a future leader,” Swan said.
Scaparrotti also commanded the Corps of Cadets at West Point and the famed 82nd Airborne Division, having grown up in the airborne and light infantry community. In fact, the biggest weakness in his background is arguably a lack of experience in either heavy armored or mid-weight Stryker units, both of which play a major role in the open plains of Eastern Europe in a way they can’t in mountainous Korea.
So what’s Scaparrotti like?
[UPDATE: “Scap is an unusually softspoken, thoughtful and erudite Army general,” said Barno, “a military intellectual who is equally at home commanding troops.”]
“He’s a low-key individual… very unassuming man, very quiet, almost subdued,” said Swan. “I regard him as a very inclusive leader. In an environment like NATO and European command, he will listen to a lot of points of view, with some level of patience — which is hard to do in those commands, because they can grind you down.” Again, command in Korea is good preparation, with chronic conflict between US bases and their neighbors, an abiding strain of anti-Americanism in some quarters of Korean politics, and the government in Seoul itself waffling on such issues as which country should take command in wartime and whether South Korea should request an American THAAD missile defense system.
Scaparrotti, presuming the Senate approves his nomination, will replace the current SACEUR, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove. Breedlove fought successfully to quadruple European Reassurance Initiative funding for deterrence against Russia, giving his successor a good start. The unanswerable question is whether Vladimir Putin will become any more cooperative.
“General Scaparrotti’s proven leadership over the course of several difficult assignments will serve him well in this critical command,” Carter said in the statement. “From 2011 to 2012, he commanded the ISAF Joint Command during ‘the surge,’ when there were more than 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. During his tenure, NATO forces made great gains throughout Afghanistan, allowing time and space for the Afghan security forces to take over the fight. General Scaparrotti then returned to the Pentagon to serve as Director of the Joint Staff, leading and coordinating the efforts of our forces around the globe. General Scaparrotti’s most recent assignment as Commander, US Forces Korea, further demonstrated his excellence as a soldier-statesman, skills he will need as he works closely with our most trusted Allies and partners in Europe. General Scaparrotti is one of the U.S. military’s most accomplished officers and combat leaders, and it is my hope that the Senate will act quickly on his nomination.”]