Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of Air Forces Central, at a press briefing in Abu Dhabi on September 20, 2023.

Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of Air Forces Central, at a press briefing in Abu Dhabi on September 20, 2023. Mohamad Ali Harissi / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMAD ALI HARISSI/AFP via Getty Images

Top US Air Force official in Mideast outlines risks of Rafah invasion

AFCENT’s Grynkewich also says the future of warfare is playing out “in front of our very eyes.”

Few outside Israel keep as sharp an eye on the Israel-Hamas war as Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, the Air Forces Central Command leader who’s soon to join the Joint Staff as the director of operations. He told reporters today that Israel's plans to push ground forces into southern Gaza, and their recent strikes in Syria, could further destabilize the region. 

Israel has not shared the details of their plans, Grynkewich said, but warned that an invasion into Rafah would bring more harm to civilians.

“It has kind of a destabilizing effect, and it allows malign actors like the Iranians, who frankly, in my view, don't really care about the plight of the Palestinian people. They just are taking advantage of that situation. It allows them to use it as an excuse, so that's the military risks that I see—just sowing additional instability, depending on how that operation is executed, and that has long-term implications, not just for our security interest, but frankly, for Israeli security in the region,” he said at a Defense Writers Group event.  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that Israeli forces must take Rafah to win the war against Hamas. But U.S. officials have expressed concern about the planned operation because the city is filled with over a million civilians who have nowhere else to go and some who have been displaced multiple times. While Israel has yet to launch a ground invasion, Rafah has already been targeted by air strikes. U.S. officials have said that there are better alternatives to a ground invasion, and have been pushing for more precision strikes instead of a major assault. 

Grynkewich restated the “overall U.S. position” that there needs to be a plan that takes into account the protection of civilians in Rafah. 

There is “robust dialogue” with the Israelis, he said. He speaks with the Israeli Air Chief a couple of times a week and U.S. and Israeli air operation centers communicate almost daily. However, AFCENT doesn’t conduct any on the ground advising or helping the Israelis with targeting, he said. The discussions are “higher level” and they emphasize to Israel the “importance of minimizing civilian harm and collateral damage.”

Grynkewich also is worried that Israel’s recent air strike on a building near the Iranian Embassy in Syria, which killed a top Iranian general, could lead to regional escalation. He said his command is watching their intelligence sources “very closely” to see if they can understand Iran’s response. 

“I am concerned because of the Iranian rhetoric talking about the U.S. that there is a risk to our forces. I don't see any specific threats right now to our forces, but we're watching that very closely to see if the pause that we've benefitted from since Feb. 2 and 3 were to end. We would have to think very carefully through how we would respond to that,” he said. 

Asked about Israel’s air campaign in Gaza and the IDF’s process for protecting civilians, Grynkewich said he visited one of its strike cells late last year and said it appeared that “they were doing all the things that we would do” with no-strike lists, and they knew where protected facilities are. 

He reiterated the Defense Department’s position that Hamas is an “extremely challenging” adversary that puts “valid military targets” next to protected facilities and uses human shields. 

“My assessment is they are or were making a bona fide effort to adhere to the law of armed conflict and were doing that within the context of the conflict that they're fighting, from the perspective that they're fighting, with the existential threat that they see themselves facing,” he said. 

But Israel’s military operations continue to kill non-combatants. Most recently, Israeli airstrikes killed seven aid workers for the World Central Kitchen, despite at least one of the vehicles being clearly marked. The organization also said it shared its movements with the Israeli military.

At least 32,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its military offensive on Gaza after Hamas’ October 7 attack, the Gaza health ministry said Wednesday, and more than 2 million Gaza inhabitants are on the brink of famine.

Pre-emptive strikes on Houthis

The U.S. military is still shooting Houthi unmanned aircraft off the coast of Yemen, and most recently, on March 30, U.S. forces destroyed two Houthi UAVs, one “over the Red Sea and the other was engaged on the ground prepared to launch.” 

Grynkewich said they have a “layered” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection strategy to obtain information to carry out pre-emptive strikes. The command receives imagery from “national sources” and also uses an airborne layer of ISR, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, to collect information. 

“We kind of pull all that together and then we have a small cell that fuses this very rapidly, so as tipping and queuing comes in, we can even rapidly retask assets to go take a closer look at it. And then, we're looking for the telltale signs that something’s set up, something's on a launch or something's ready to go. Sometimes that's backed up by other intelligence that we understand some of the intent behind what we might be seeing,” he said. 

That information then gets delivered to the aircraft conducting the strike via the battle management network, Grynkewich said.

“The overall command-and-control architecture includes aircraft, it includes ships and so there's always someone who is doing the battle-management function, so it'll come from our dynamic cell and the air operations center, get transmitted to whoever that battle manager is,” he said. 

New drone efforts

To monitor military operations in the Middle East, Grynkewich said his command has used new capabilities from Task Force 99, AFCENT’s push to field unmanned technologies.

“Their task is to develop solutions that we can apply in Yemen or elsewhere. We have used their capabilities in the AOR, in actual combat conditions before. I won't say where it was but we have done that before, and I intend to do it again as soon as we have the right capability to apply in the right environment,” he said. 

Last fall, Grynkewich said the group had almost 100 unmanned systems “either on order or on hand” across 13 types that can travel anywhere from 10 miles to 900 miles and conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or attack missions. 

“They have a couple of promising technologies. I won't get into exactly what they are, but in general, the task I've given them is I need them to figure out a way to flood the zone with additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, so we can identify these threats in the maritime domain faster, better, cheaper than we can right now, and they’re getting really close,” he said Wednesday.

The future of warfare is playing out “in front of our very eyes” in the Middle East, with drone swarms of 20 to 30 coming out of Yemen, and smaller swarms being used in Iraq and Syria, Grynkewich said. 

“Certainly, the Iranians would have the capability to send these swarms and it would be a swarm that's not just UAVs but probably cruise missiles and you pair it with a ballistic missile, now you have a multi-domain problem—atmospheric and exoatmospheric that you have to deal with at the same time,” he said. 

Grynkewich wants to “turn that around” and use affordable mass to overcome the defenses of adversaries. The Pentagon’s new drone program, called Replicator, aims to do just that and quickly build cheap drones in the “multiple thousands.” 

“Replicator is trying to identify which of the solutions that we have is affordable, but we haven't quite figured out how to scale it so that its mass, and make that happen, and see [whether] industry [can] support getting the numbers that we would need, etc., to do that,” he said.