President Joe Biden has tapped Army Lt. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla to lead U.S. Central Command, overseeing America’s military operations in the Middle East from its headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Central Command is a multi-branch command that administers all U.S. military activities in 21 nations from Egypt east to Kazakhstan. The command officially added responsibility for the military’s relationship with Israel last year.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Kurilla’s nomination Thursday.
Congressional records state only that Kurilla was nominated for promotion to the rank of four-star general, though the Associated Press reported Kurilla’s nomination for U.S. Central Command has been expected for months.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kurilla would succeed Gen. Frank McKenzie, who took over in early 2019 and whose command is scheduled to end in April.
Kurilla, who is from Minnesota, served multiple tours in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Before that he participated in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, the 1991 Gulf War and was stationed in Korea.
He was wounded in the arm and leg while deployed in 2005 with the 1st Stryker Brigade in Mosul, Iraq. That incident gained wide attention when the writer Michael Yon published a firsthand account on his blog, describing Kurilla as continuing to fire at the enemy and issue orders after he had been shot three times.
Kurilla is currently commander of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. Before that he was chief of staff at Central Command under McKenzie and McKenzie’s predecessor, Gen. Joseph Votel, who has since retired.
In a Friday interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Votel described Kurilla as “a very accomplished fighter” who “led our soldiers and Marines through very challenging operations.” Votel said he was a strong relationship builder, excellent communicator and a “visionary strategic thinker, who can see the big picture.”
Votel praised Kurilla as an early adopter in the areas of artificial intelligence and immersion technologies. He said a willingness to leverage new technology would bode well for Central Command, as the U.S. will face many of the “same problems as always” in the Middle East, but with fewer traditional forces in the region to carry out its mission as priorities shift toward threats from China and Russia.
The U.S. has withdrawn all forces from Afghanistan and shifted its role in Iraq from combat to advising Iraqi national forces. Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militia groups have recently increased the pace of their attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Syria.
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Votel said the situation would require Kurilla to work in the “gray zone of influence,” with a focus on diplomacy, partnerships and preserving the U.S.’s interests and influence in ways different from his predecessors.
“He is perhaps the most innovative and forward-thinking leader in the Army today, and that’s probably an opinion shared by others,” Votel said.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Frank Kearney has been a mentor to Kurilla since 1985, when Kurilla was a cadet at West Point and Kearney was his rugby coach.
Kurilla later served under Kearney for 15 years as he moved up the ranks, commanding a company in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, and as a brigade operations officer in Italy in the 1990s.
Kearney’s son, a colonel, now works for Kurilla, Kearney said.
“His Ranger, Special Operations, and senior Army leadership experience has placed him squarely in the heart of every aspect of CentCom’s activities over the last 20 years,” Kearney said, “and his time on the Joint Staff has given him a Defense Department and Joint Staff perspective to add to the skill sets needed.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.