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Interview with Rear Adm. Rick Williamson, USN, Commander Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia (EURAFSWA)

EURAFSWA’s commander credits success ashore to lessons learned as a surface warfare officer

Rear Adm. Rick Williamson is responsible for managing the Navy’s shore installations in Europe, Africa and Southwest Asia. His command includes nine Navy installations plus multiple smaller sites in Spain, Italy, Romania, Greece, Bahrain, Djibouti, and now Poland. Almost all of the installations support operations for multiple Geographic Combatant Commanders – EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM.

Following the Cold War, many overseas bases in Europe were closed. But now, nearly thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, Russian aggression and multiple crises in the Middle East and Africa are reviving the requirement to increase U.S. and NATO responsiveness and preparedness.

These changes have placed a significant strain on the Navy’s overseas installations and support facilities.

“When I assumed command of Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia (EURAFSWA), I was coming from Navy Region Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk,” he said. “It’s a completely different scenario downrange. My biggest challenge overseas is capacity. I simply don’t have enough of it to accommodate the demand signal from naval, joint and Special Forces. It’s also important to note that my 9 shore installations are tenants on the foreign soil of a partner nation and must abide by foreign labor laws and differing Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA). My Commanding Officers are responsible for making sure we don’t violate the terms of agreement with our host nations so the United States can continue to operate from these bases. It’s a complex job.”

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Rear Adm. Rick Williamson, Commander EURAFSWA

As the former commanding officer of Naval Station San Diego and three Navy Regions, Williamson knows the installation world better than most. But he insists that he is a SWO first, and that delivering shore installation readiness, especially in the OCONUS environment, is very similar to command at sea.

“Everything I know about the shore I learned first at sea. As the commanding officer of a surface platform, my responsibility was delivering missions. The shore is no different. I deliver seven missions plus the services and utilities to support them – Air Operations, Port Operations, Security, Safety, Housing, MWR/Galley, and Fleet and Family Support. I group the services and utilities under an eighth mission area I call Core, which is basically your engineering plant. Resident in each line of operation is the requirement to man, train, and equip in a manner that supports successful mission delivery. And just like a ship, there is only so much capacity within the lifelines – limited power, berthing, galley, flight deck space, water, fuel, and so on. It’s my job to make sure the fleet is able to operate from these shore platforms within the limits of services I can provide, and that my bosses are informed about how much excess capacity exists at all of our bases at any given moment.”

“I measure 1,548 unique metrics – everything from waste water capacity to aircraft parking spots – every month. I know how many beds are available at the barracks, or how much fuel is available for issue, or how much water we’ve produced. We can look at inventory compared with demand and communicate the delta to our warfighter customers.”

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Members of the Italian media interview Rear Adm. Rick Williamson, Commander of Navy Region Europe Africa, Southwest Asia, during a reception aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG 80), deployed as part of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor A. Elberg

Much like a Strike Group Commander, Williamson gets a morning brief from his ROC – the Region Operations Center. “I get updated just like the battle group commander would. Security is a big mission for us, so I’m briefed on any suspicious activity, on gates or surveillance systems that are not fully functional. If anything happens on an airfield, such as repairs to a runway or closure of a part of the ramp area, I’ll know about it. I ask the same questions I would ask at sea – Can we operate, what are the limitations and what are the risks? How can we mitigate risk? If Souda Bay’s airfield is having repairs to its navigational aids, can we route traffic through another base, like Sigonella? If we have a large group transiting, we need to be prepared to feed them, or provide berthing overnight. I need to know the fuel state at these bases, so I know that I can refuel aircraft as they transit through. I need to know what our ammunition handling ability is, so I know how best to meet an urgent demand. ”

“We are America to our host nations. In several cases, my commanding officers are the senior military representatives of any service, on the island of Crete for example. That’s a tremendous responsibility and many eyes are upon them.”

Much of this attention to capacity is based on the nature of the security environment. “It’s a volatile, uncertain world,” said Williamson. “The fleet and our joint forces are on the front lines of multiple, diverse crises. If a contingency operation suddenly arises, the shore needs to be ready to support it. I can’t predict when this will happen, but I can be ready…and that means knowing every aspect of my business.”

“For example, an airfield might have 30 spots to park aircraft. Can I put 50 planes there? Yes, I can, but every time I do that, there’s a risk incurred, so I need to make sure the decision makers understand the risk that they’re living with. Ultimately, I don’t make the decision on what comes and what goes, but I can give options and help strategic deciders understand the consequences in the event that a plane gets broken and we don’t have the right ground maintenance capability or hangar space. And the other thing is the turnaround time. The dwell cycle starts becoming impacted. We can continue to support, but it may not be as fast as usual because of the workload on the numbers of people that I have to support. There are operational safety issues, too. We may stretch our firefighting capability too thin,” Williamson said. “It’s my job to make sure that information is available.”

But like a strike group commander, Williamson will meet the mission by pulling assets from other platforms, if necessary. “When you increase security levels, it may require augmenting security personnel, and that can have a ripple effect throughout a command,” said Williamson. “Whatever the scenario, our job is to make sure the shore is ready to execute our seven missions plus core.”

 

Beyond the fenceline

One of CNREURAFSWA’s most important responsibilities is managing the dynamic relationship between host nation constraints, U.S. capacity, and the demand signal placed upon both by mission-driven requirements. As a result Williamson makes “beyond the fenceline” communications a top priority. “If we build the relationships, we can build understanding and trust. We work closely with our host nations and their military forces because in most cases, they own the piers and runways we need for our own operations. It doesn’t happen often, but there have been times when we needed host nation manpower and equipment during a national holiday weekend. It’s difficult to ask for favors when the relationship is only focused on a contractual agreement.”

Overseas installations also rely on significant host nation labor contributions. In the U.S., civil service members can remain associated with an organization or department for many years. That isn’t the case overseas, where civilian employees have to rotate back to the states. “Much of my workforce is transient, and there is a high turnover of U.S. civilian personnel. In many cases, the most stable part of my workforce consists of host nation employees, and we need to take care of them. I simply can’t do my job without them, and many remain employed by the U.S. Navy for 30-40 years.”

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Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada visited Camp Lemonnier August 15. After a brief tour of the installation, Commander, Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, Rear Adm. Rick Williamson, presented a rungu stick as a gift, which is a traditional wooden throwing club or baton bearing special symbolism and significance in certain East African tribal cultures. U.S. Navy photo by Timothy M. Ahearn

Williamson said his team is concerned with taking care of the military and civilian workforce, and adding value to their careers. “It’s a dynamic workforce. They’re constantly moving, traveling, developing, and delivering. We need to support them so they feel like they’re valued and they have the ability to come here and serve as well as learn and develop leadership and program skills. And when they go back to the States, they return with some increased skill sets.”

Spouses that come over also represent a tremendous pool of talent, Williamson said. “They bring an incredible skill set with them. There are limited opportunities off base, but inside the fence line there are jobs in our DOD schools, child development centers, exchanges, and many of the commands and activities.”

Williamson summed up the experience of commanding the Navy’s largest overseas Region this way: “We are America to our host nations. In several cases, my commanding officers are the senior military representatives of any service, on the island of Crete for example. That’s a tremendous responsibility and many eyes are upon them. Therefore, it’s imperative that we know our business, act professionally, and uphold the values for which our country stands. Our Sailors and families understand that role and many walk away from their overseas shore assignments forever changed. But the bottom line is that we have a mission to do and everyone plays a part. Every member of my team is essential to the delivery of our seven missions plus core.”

 

Aegis Ashore

The new Aegis Ashore Missile Defense site at Redzikowo, Poland is Williamson’s newest installation. The facility is being built at a Polish Air Force base.

“It’s fascinating how you have a patch of dirt and all of a sudden it starts looking like a base,” he said. “The work that the people are doing there is amazing.”

Naval Support Facility Redzikowo is currently commanded by Captain Rick Gilbert, who joined the Navy in 1982 as a boiler technician, and was later commissioned as an engineering limited duty officer (LDO).

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Col. Piotr Lewandowski, Redzikowo Polish Base Commander and Commander of the Polish Force Protection Battalion, observes Capt. Rick Gilbert, commanding officer of Naval Support Facility Redzikowo, as he prepares to take his turn in signing one of three memorandums of agreement during the 10th Joint Security Working Group. The memorandums allow American Sailors and Polish soldiers to train and coordinate in a variety of areas essential to security and communication concerning NSF Redzikowo. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Alexander Perrien

Gilbert served aboard the Leahy-class guided missile cruiser USS Reeves (CG 24); Knox-class frigate USS Fanning (FF 1076); Kilauea-class ammunition ship USS Kiska; the Austin-class landing platform dock USS Juneau (LPD 10) and Forrestal-class aircraft carriers USS Independence (CV 62) and USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). After serving in shipboard engineering assignments, Gilbert changed his designator to the new 6490 security officer career field.

Gilbert said his surface warfare background prepared him for command. “I had a lot of great engineering leaders – and I’m talking enlisted leaders –petty officers, chiefs, senior chiefs, and master chiefs and chiefs,” Gilbert said. “They brought me up with a good work ethic. You cannot partially complete a job in engineering – it has to 100 percent completed correctly so that a ship could get underway.

Gilbert said the Navy is building a base with physical security already in mind. “Rear Admiral Williamson stresses to us that safety and surety of the bases, the assets, and the personnel on the bases are the number one priority. We’re operational. But we can’t perform the mission if we are not safe and secure.”

“We expect a lot of pretty young sailors, and I would say that every one of them that gets here intends to meet the mission and that expectation,” said Gilbert. “These sailors are doing a great job of that.”

“Our young sailors represent the United States of America every time they walk outside this fence line, and they understand it,” Gilbert said. “That’s a lot of responsibility for a sailor, and I think they enjoy it.

“It’s exciting watching the capability being built in front of you, and understanding how the Navy will manage that capability to defend Europe,” Williamson said.

(Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org).)

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...