The US regularly updates its military options for threats from Iran’s evolving nuclear facilities, US Lt. Gen. and CENTCOM Air Force Chief Alexus Grynkewich told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview.
Israel also seeks regularly to gauge how much of a threat Iran’s nuclear program presents and how much backing Jerusalem would have from the US if it needed to confront that threat with preemptive strikes. The Post asked the AFCENT chief whether the US military would continue to be able to potentially handle the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite the construction of a new, deep, underground nuclear facility at Natanz.
“You can assume we are keeping a very close eye on Iranian facilities out there, continuing our evaluation of what it means, what Iran is using it for, what options we might have for those facilities,” Grynkewich said.
His comments were some of the most detailed to date – in terms of the US regularly working on and updating military options – including with respect to new Iranian moves.
Despite the impressive capabilities of the US military, Grynkewich was queried about the possibility that deterrence from Washington was not working. For example, in spite of US threats and capabilities, Tehran in the last two years has managed to move its nuclear program forward to enriching significant quantities of uranium to the very high 60% level, as well as having sufficient quantities of enriched uranium for around seven nuclear bombs – if Iran chose to cross the nuclear threshold.
“When I talk about the deterrence of Iran, there are several different things we are attempting to deter, as a matter of the US position in the region. We’re certainly trying to deter attacks on ourselves or any of our regional partners,” he said.
He added that “There is an interplay of a couple of different things with respect to Iranian attacks on us,” clarifying that now the US “is trying to ensure that the Iranians understand that even though the US doesn’t have the same amount of forces in the region as it had previously, we can still bring those forces back very rapidly.”
“That, I do think, contributes to the deterrent effect against Iran,” he said.
Next, Grynkewich said the US deters Iran by ensuring the strength of its partnerships in the region.
“The partnership with Israel is of course extremely important to us,” he said. “We have an ironclad commitment to Israeli security.”
He also said that “there are a lot of our Arab partners in the region as well, where we intend to maintain a true partnership – and not just a transactional relationship – and stitch the region together in a more integrated fashion. The more we can do that, the more of a deterrent effect that has on Iran because they see that they are facing a unified front.”
With respect to the nuclear program, Grynkewich was adamant: “Every recent president has said we will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.”
“Our job is to ensure that Iran does understand we can bring forces in here quickly to respond to any provocation. There are plenty of options on the table with respect to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Our job is to ensure that the military options are well thought out and robust,” the US general said.
One element that Grynkewich has emphasized in multiple public comments is Task Force 99’s contribution to stability in the region, including confronting Iran. He discussed the role Task Force 99 could have in confronting Iran and other adversaries in the region. The AFCENT chief said that the use of drones had grown exponentially over the past several years, particularly one-way attack drones. He suggested that if there were one-way attack drones “or something else” of which “we could have a fleet of a very large number of unmanned platforms, which are relatively inexpensive,” it is possible that they could be used “to impose dilemmas on our adversaries.”
Questioned about which kind of drones he was contemplating tactically, including kamikaze drones, Grynkewich responded, “It could be a kamikaze version or it could be a non-kamikaze version. You know if you send a swarm of several hundred intelligence surveillance drones and reconnaissance drones somewhere, your adversary is going to have to react to it in some way, either to prevent the collection you’re doing or to prevent an attack.”
Regional air defense
GRYNKEWICH HONED in on regional air defense, which Israel has publicly said it now has with Abraham Accords countries, and even some countries who have not yet joined the accords – without naming names.
“There is a requirement to share information, to share threat intelligence, to give point-outs if something is approaching from some axis. If there is a country that sees that, it should be willing to pick up the phone and call the country that it’s a threat to.”
Regarding different kinds of threats and communications between the regional air defense countries, he explained, “So, for a one-way attack UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], that kind of sharing is really important. That works for UAVs, but it doesn’t necessarily work for other kinds of threats that might be out there, like ballistic missiles,” he said. With missiles “you have seconds of reaction time, as opposed to what could be minutes or even hours, depending on the length of a UAV flight.”
And “somewhere in between” those two scenarios, he said, “there is an air threat,” but, he said, “that’s not a major concern.”
Although recently “we have seen reporting on Iran potentially getting SU-35s [aircraft] from Russia. If that happens, that would become a larger concern for us as well. But all those kinds of threats are out there.”
In fact, he said, if Tehran got SU-35s from Russia, it could alter the entire regional dynamics, though some of that would also depend on what armaments Moscow would provide and how long it would take the Iranians to train with the new aircraft.
“Cruise missiles are another one,” he added, noting that information about “the cruise missiles that Iran has in their own inventory, and some of their partners and proxies,” was “widely reported.” And the aim was to be “able to detect those and respond more quickly than phone calls.”
That “is where we’re trying to go,” he said, and “that is where we require some sort of a digital connection. It can be something which enables human-to-human contact, just at a faster speed than a phone call – using a chat function… or classified versions of that – where we can share information quickly with a broad group of people.”
He explained that “There are IP-based systems, which are not datalinks… kind of like using a signal on your phone, but think of that on a secret computer system.” Such a system enables communication to “remain flat and faster,” he said.
“But really, if you get to Link 16 [a military communications network], if I can pass an actual threat track from one country to another, it enables nations to provide mutual defense of each other, if they have that understanding that they will defend each other in response to that threat,” explained the air force commander.
“What we bring at AFCENT to this, is a way that information comes into one location, it can be fused, and then different countries are willing to share different qualities of information or different speeds of information,” he said.
As to the various countries potentially involved in such information-sharing, Grynkewich said that “some” might not be willing to share information “if the US was not in the middle.” He called the US “a very useful place for information to come together.”
The US can be the middleman he said, between two or more countries. “If countries are willing to share, if there are three countries, we can help triangulate and correlate the data from say the radars that are picking up from whatever threat it is. And then send out one authoritative location of that threat entity to whichever the threatened country is.”
The threat from Iran
ASKED ABOUT views that Iran had succeeded in moving advanced weapons to Lebanon and Gaza, while much of the world was distracted by the Iranian nuclear threat, Grynkewich answered by referring to the IDF. He said that he had “a tremendous amount of respect for the Israeli air force, and the Israeli defense forces.” He told the Post that “Some of the best work I have seen is the interdiction work that your country’s forces are able to execute when they stop the flow of those weapons. It’s a very difficult problem to stop all of them, but I have a ton of respect for what they are able to do.”
Regarding “the broader picture” of the nature of the Iranian threat, he answered: “All of the above.”
“We are all very concerned about an Iran nuclear weapon,” he said.
Yet, “On the military side, we are equally concerned about other asymmetric capabilities which the Iranians have… The first are their air threats, including ballistic missiles, UAVs and cruise missiles. That’s a very complex combination of capabilities.”
And if Iran would “have the will to use those kinds of weapons” and “use them against an undefended location,” then Tehran could meticulously pick off wherever is least defended, since not all things can be equally defended.
“It is an asymmetric threat that we have to think about deterring,” he said. “The other asymmetric capability that they have are their partners and proxies, which now when you pair that with the UAVs and ballistic missiles, and the proliferation of those to proxy groups, you end up having a 360-degree threat to almost every country in the region, where those partners and proxies operating in other countries besides Iran can come at you from different axes.”
Many of the countries “here in the region” have been attacked by “the Iranians or by their proxies over the last three to four years,” he said.
Grynkewich agreed with Israeli intelligence views that it was “very plausible” that Iran has used human catastrophes, like earthquake aid, to smuggle weapons to Syria.
DISCUSSING US-ISRAEL military relations and his personal connection to IDF Air Force Chief Maj. Gen.Tomer Bar, Grynkewich said: “We were just talking yesterday, exchanging text messages. Tomer and I are very close.”
They have been working on building their relationship since July 2022, “shortly after he took over. I came a little after him. I tell you, I have got a lot of respect for him. He is a really good friend, a very serious, thoughtful leader.”
Bar and Grynkewich enjoy flying together when the occasion permits. “I got to fly with Tomer in Israel.” Asked who the main pilot in their joint flight was, he laughed, “He was the main pilot. But I would have gladly taken control of it… We are trying to find the time to fly together again, maybe in separate aircrafts and a formation together… I hope to do it in the coming months.”
Of course, he said “in private, there are a lot of smiles around airplanes... He has a good sense of humor – very much like mine, being a little dry.” Grynkewich said he had “enjoyed hosting [Bar] in the US for a Red Flag [military drill] event.”
In his previous job at US CENTCOM in Tampa, he said, he was “fortunate” to already have a very good relationship with IDF Maj. Gen. [Operations Command Chief] Oded Basiuk.
“In the course of my engagements over the two years,” Grynkewich said, “I built up a fairly strong mutual understanding,” with the key senior Israeli defense officials.
Looking back, he said, he first started visiting Israel “when I was at [the US’s] European command,” in the 2010s, around 2010-2012. “I had seven or eight trips to Israel. At the time, we were working on defensive plans.”
During flights with Israeli civilians at Ben-Gurion Airport, he said that he found “Israelis are extremely talkative, they want to know what you are doing” and they are very interested in America and “generally supportive of the US military.”
On the subject of how the ups and downs between the Israel-US political leadership and in this case the tense relations between the Netanyahu and Biden administrations have impacted military relations, the AFCENT commander responded with some insight into “how militaries work with each other.”
“Political relationships between nations do go up and down, between the US and all of our friends and partners, in this region and in other regions. They’ll go up and down, as nations’ interests clash with each other or as they have different perspectives on issues of policy.”
Yet, “At the military level, what our overall objective is – and this is irrespective of the region of the world – the military-to-military remains relatively steady.”
The general explained that although “policy guidance could come down which constrains things that we do, typically even our policymakers keep that isolated across the board, so they allow strong military-to-military relationships to continue.”
“They know that that relationship is foundational to long-term success. So we end up having a longer view on the military side of things.”
Additionally, liaison teams carry out “a lot of exchanges for intelligence purposes… and that battle rhythm has endured over the years. It was the same back in 2010-2012. It certainly goes at a faster pace sometimes or at a slower pace” at other times.
He cited “common values and experiences between the countries” as keeping the military relationship solid, even when there may be friction at the political level. The military connection Grynkewich said, is “driven by other things in the operational environment, threats that we see, rather than any type of political guidance.”
“And that relationship is not just me with Tomer Bar. It is repeated up and down the chain of command, including top commanders above and wing commanders below.”