French Air Force Gen. Stéphane Abrial relieved U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis as Supreme Allied Commander the Transformation in a change of command ceremony held Sept. 9 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).

With the appointment, Abrial became the first European in NATO’s 60-year history to be appointed permanently as head of a NATO strategic command. Mattis, who was also dual-hatted as Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM), will continue his JFCOM post.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, spoke to attending staff members and guests, welcoming Abrial and highlighting the future path of NATO.

“General Abrial, at a time when the transformation of our alliance and Allied Command Transformation’s role in Transformation, your extensive professional experience will be essential,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen also highlighted the significance of Abrial’s appointment stating, “This ceremony is a significant milestone for the Alliance.  General Abrial’s assumption of command here today shows very visibly France retaking its full place in NATO’s integrated military structure.”

Prior to officially passing the ACT command colours to Abrial, Mattis addressed the nearly one thousand guests who filled the aircraft carrier hangar bay.  In particular, he thanked Capt. Dee Mewbourne, Eisenhower’s commanding officer, and his crew for their hospitality, especially in light of their recent return from deployment in support of NATO operations in the central command area.

“The French assumption of one of NATO’s two supreme positions represents an alliance of like-minded nations willing to make new decisions that build the strength and the viability of the North Atlantic Alliance in the protection of our shared values that grew out of the enlightenment with shared security interests that bind us together in the cause of freedom,” Mattis said.  “Our destiny has brought us together today as comrades in arms on the deck of this NATO warship.

I turn over this command to General Abrial with full confidence that, in him, you have a superb leader able and willing to carry forward the mission assigned to him,” he continued.  “And I’m equally confident that his strategic military advice will receive full consideration from you and the North Atlantic Council.  And I further pledge from my continuing position as commander of United States Joint Forces Command my enthusiastic support of Allied Command Transformation.”

As Abrial stood up for his first address as SACT, he also thanked the crew of the Eisenhower for hosting the event and their service in defense of our common values, and went on to commend the renewed ties between France and the other NATO nations.

“ACT, the only NATO command located in the United States, is blessed to be based in a community renowned for its military friendly environment,” Abrial began.  “I am eager to get to better know the leaders and the people of this wonderful area where personnel from all member nations and their families feel right at home.

General Mattis, it is your legacy that I want to celebrate on this date,” he continued.  “I cannot help noticing that you took command onboard the USS George Washington probably anticipating future interaction with a French officer.  And that today, we stand together onboard the USS Eisenhower in a powerful homage to the transatlantic link.  I cannot tell you how happy I am that we will continue to live and work close to each other and how eager I am to maintain the important relationship with ACT and Joint Forces Command starting now.” 

Abrial took the time to commend the ACT staff on their dedication and capability to move forward with NATO’s future.

“I know I speak for all ACT personnel in saying that our commitment is unflinching - first, in supporting the men and the women deployed by providing them with relevant training and timely lessons learned and secondly, in developing the right capabilities for the men and women our nations will send into harm’s way tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.  We owe it to them as we owe it to all who have given their lives in the defense of our shared values,” said Abrial.

Abrial, who has experience as a fighter pilot and operational commander, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1974 and completed pilot training at the French Air Force Academy in 1976. He served with a German Luftwaffe (Air Force) unit from 1981 to 1984 and with a unit of the Greek Air Force in 1988.  During 1990 and 1991, he was commander of the French Air Force’s 5th Fighter Squadron in the liberation of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. 

In 1992 Abrial graduated from the U.S. Air War College in Montgomery, Ala., and from 1996 to 1999 he served at the International Military Staff in Brussels.  During his career he’s held several appointments in private offices of the French Prime Minister and President. He served as head of French air defense and operations, and most recently as Air Force Chief of Staff.

In closing, Abrial said, “ACT’s obligation of excellence, openness and inclusiveness is more intense than ever,” he said in closing.  “With this responsibility, I pledge to give all I have to fulfil my new mission.  The ACT crew is once again ready to take off.”