NATO Engages 2019

“Serving Side by Side”

 Speaker: Major Matt Wilson, United States Air Force

Introducers: Ines Pohl, editor-in-chief, Deutsche Welle
Nik Gowing, Founder and Director, Thinking the Unthinkable

Location: Washington, DC

Time: 4:20 PM EDT
Wednesday, April 3, 2019

INES POHL: Pleasure and honor to ask you to get seated to get the last session started. I think at the very end of this very long and intense day, we’re going to have the real one and only rockstar here, Madeleine Albright. She will do the closing remarks, so it’s most definitely worth being here until the very end. But now, it’s my honor and pleasure to introduce to you major Matt Wilson. He’s an F-16 pilot who served two terms in Afghanistan.

He worked with NATO alliance, and he will talk about how it feels like working in tandems and fighting together, coming together to achieve a common goal and defend shared interests and values. Matt, the floor is yours. Thank you so much.

MATT WILSON: Thank you. So I can see I have a bit of an uphill battle. The noon coffee is wearing off, and the afternoon coffee hasn’t quite kicked in yet. But fortunately, for the lighting, I can’t see your faces, so it’s all the same to me. I’m here today to talk about my experience. Madeleine Albright, ma’am, it’s very good to see you, and I am a little bit nervous to be honest, to be leading off in front of you, but I will be in the background there watching you speak, so thank you for that opportunity.

When my neighbor Chad from the USO asked me if I would speak to you all today about my NATO experience, I took the opportunity to reflect on some memories that I haven’t thought about in a while. So what I do is I went and dug through some pictures to see from my time in Southwest Asia to see if I could jog any memories. If we could throw that one picture up, please?

I know you’re going to have a hard time seeing it from here, but what that is a sunrise in Afghanistan as you look out towards Pakistan. And it reminded me of one of many long nights in Afghanistan, where at the end of the night, I would come back and stare into the rising sun as I was trying to get enough gas just to make it home. That night, so five hours earlier that night, my wingman and I took off, two F-16 out of Bagram Air Base. As we climbed through the dusty air, I could see the gigantic peaks of the Hindu Kush in the distance illuminated by the moonlight.

For a farmboy from Maryland, that’s a pretty impressive sight to see, if not life changing. As we leveled off at 25,000 feet, I had the opportunity to have my humming jet engine interrupted by a far too familiar voice. It was an air battle manager from Al Udeid Air Base over 1,200 miles away. She told us in her British accent that we had a new job for the evening. She gave us three critical pieces of information. It was a name, a number, which a number for us is a radio frequency, and a position.

As we flew off to meet our new friends, my wingman and I developed our game plan for how we were going to handle our mission that evening. When we checked in, our new friends were eight German special operators, and I promise you I didn’t make that up based off of the comments from earlier. They truly were German special operators. So as we checked in with them, my wingman and I spent the next four hours scouring their position, looking for any signs of threat to them as they walked through the mountains.

Alone and unafraid, they were miles from any civilization, and even further from any that was friendly, so to me, it was a truly impressive moment to see eight brave soldiers so far from help. As my wingman and I had a conversation, it was unbeknownst to the eight soldiers below us, we discussed how we’d employ our weapons in the event that we needed to, to accommodate for the terrain and to mitigate any damage or friendly fire that would happen out of that.

As we had that discussion, we did not ever once ask if we would employ lethal aid for these men. It was only a question of how we would do it. Fortunately for us, those eight special forces soldiers made it safely to their destination, and we left and went home that night. Now, it may sound to you like an uneventful, quiet night in Afghanistan, but to me it meant a lot more. To me, it represented trust. It was a very high level of trust that only usually exists between members of a national force that operate together, but the fact that it was a multinational force that night was something special to me.

Fast forward now, if we can go to the next slide. So I don’t know if our Polish Lieutenant Colonel is in here still, but maybe she could help me with the pronunciation. If you look on Poland, at the very bottom, there’s what looks like an Lodz to me. That’s the city of Lodz, Poland. Did I get it right?

Thank you. I promise you, and I’ll spare you the embarrassing stories, spare myself the embarrassment of that story, of how I pronounced that in front of my Polish counterparts the first time I met them, but I promise you it sounded nothing like Lodz. So that day, our mission was very different from anything that I’d ever done before. We were taking off out of a country in which I’d never flown, flying around a piece of land that was armed to the teeth with Russian made weapons systems that were specifically designed to target the aircraft that I was in.

We were flying over to Estonian land to drop training munitions on ground that I’ve never seen before, and I was talking to an Estonian for the first time in my life. If you can imagine the long list of things that could have gone wrong in that event, we did, and it was a very intimidating list. I’ll spare you the details, but I will summarize it for you the same way that my wingman summarized it for me as we were walking out to our aircraft. He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, Matt, there are so many ways you can get fired today.

Fortunately for me, his warnings did not materialize, and we made it back OK. As we were flying back over the Baltic, I do what I normally do at the end of a long mission. I take a moment to relax and look out my office window, which arguably is one of the best views in the world. As I looked out, I saw the friendly coast of Poland off our nose, and as I look back, I see the not so friendly coast of Kaliningrad behind us. And it kind of hit me at that moment, there is no other place in the world, with no other organization, where we could have done what we just did.

Above and beyond that level of personal trust that exists between operators, you have institutional knowledge that was super deep, and a bureaucratic process that is required to get weapons on the ground in support of our allies. You also have a common consensus that again, I don’t think exists in all the alliances that I’ve been a part of in the past, but it was rock solid that day, and it has been for 70 years.

And then finally, you have a multinational commitment to make that event happen. To me, it was an eye opening experience. I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to work with such competent people in such a compelling and awesome mission that afternoon. I look forward to doing that in the future, and I appreciate your time for letting me tell you my story today. Have a good day.

NIK GOWING: Major, just before you go, the business of public accountability is becoming increasingly a central political issue for many member states in the alliance, on targeting and so on. What kind of processes do you have in place now to make sure that what you’re targeting and what you achieve can be defended legally?

MATT WILSON: So I’m sure most of you have heard, there’s rules of engagement that oftentimes we operate under. Those rules of engagement are made by people at a much higher level with much more knowledge on the situation than I have, but we’re very familiar, and so part of our training is to memorize those rules of engagement and know them by heart. So in Afghanistan, for example, every time I drop a weapon in Afghanistan in support of troops on the ground, I receive a ROE from the guy on the ground that’s controlling that weapon.

Between the two of us, we both are responsible for that weapon, and that ROE is our legal way to do it. So that is one example, and that’s the legal framework that is required. There’s also the personal work that we do to mitigate any damage that our weapons cause. So you know, pattern of life is a term that we use, where we develop as much pattern of life as we can to make sure that no friendlies get hurt, that no civilians die, and that the right guys die on the ground.

GOWING: Can you be sure where your weapon is landing and what it’s hit?

MATT WILSON: Absolutely. So as we were talking earlier, I have what’s called a targeting pod. Most fourth generation and later aircraft have the ability to see with relative precision what we’re looking at on the ground and to separate it from the other stuff around it.

GOWING: Because it is now an issue in many member nations, particularly this issue of accountability, and it becomes national parliament issues, and defense committee issues about what are we doing. Are we sure that the targeting is actually hitting the target as opposed to taking out a lot of collateral, which means actually people who have families and others. And when you look at the drone images, particularly coming out of the Air Force bases, where the target is sitting in a desert as opposed to flying like you, they clearly have a lot of information, and it goes to a political advisor and also a legal advisor.

MATT WILSON: There is no doubt that there is some advantage to that. I agree with you 100% on that. There’s also some advantages to what we bring to the fight, and there are technological gaps that they’re overcoming that may make what you said a valid case 100% of the time for all combat aviation. So I agree with that, but I will, if I have a moment, give one example to kind of amplify the point that I’m trying to make.

I have a friend. He’s also an F-16 pilot. He’s now in the Air National Guard in Texas. He’s a very accomplished pilot in the F-16 and in the fighter community in the United States Air Force. He has a lot of accolades and a lot of awards that he’s won throughout his career, but there’s only one piece of paper that’s pinned to the wall in his office, and it’s a picture of a mother and daughter that were pulled off the mountain in the middle of Syria, that he was airborne for when he helped kill the ISIS agents that were surrounding that mountain. So to me, that codifies to me what, you know, an F-17 pilot, any kind of pilot in the Air Force of all the NATO countries, what matters to us. We’re here to save people’s lives. We’re here to do in a safe and responsible way, and that’s how I would look at it.

GOWING: Major, thank you. And I should say that you are now flying a laptop.

MATT WILSON: That’s right.

GOWING: Johns Hopkins for a year.

MATT WILSON: That’s right.

GOWING: So you’re safe.

MATT WILSON: That’s right.

GOWING: You think.

MATT WILSON: I think, although riding my bicycle in DC is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.

GOWING: Major, thank you very much.