Sunday 9th of August 2020, 19:31 CET|
|Strategic shift US sees new role for Romania as forward military post|
July 7, 2003
BBC News Europe
Written by Nick Thorpe
Posted by HW on August 9, 2020
The Mihail Kogalniceanu civilian-military airport near the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta, is awash with new concrete - flexi-concrete.
The new developments are an indication of the growing American role in the region.
Cornerstone 2003, a military exercise with participants from six countries plus the US, will end in mid-July after two months.
Engineers from Greece and Turkey, Albania and Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania, have been building new helicopter pads, new approach roads, and a parking and servicing apron for huge KC-135 stratotankers, one of the largest and heaviest planes in the US air force.
Close to trouble
"Any deployments or hostilities the US might be involved in are to the east and south of Europe now," explained Lieutenant-Colonel Ira Queen, head of US-Romanian military co-operation.
"So it only makes sense to move troops and training areas to the south-east of Europe. It's the closest jumping off point to the Middle East, Asia, even parts of Africa."
He qualifies his statement carefully.
No official decision
The US and Nato have not actually made any decision yet about closing bases in Germany and opening new bases in Romania and Bulgaria.
But that is clearly the way the wind is blowing in the wake of the war in Iraq.
The airfield has already played a crucial role in one war.
In March, when Turkey refused at the last minute to allow its territory to be used to open a northern front against Iraq, this base was used to airlift US special forces, as well as senior military and civilian officials, into northern Iraq.
The willingness of the Romanian authorities to provide facilities then has put them at the front of the queue of countries in eastern Europe offering new facilities to Nato, when the organisation expands eastwards again in May 2004.
The new friendship with the US was crystallised by President George Bush's visit to Bucharest last November.
"The US president was the only leader from north, south, east or west who came to Bucharest and said from now on Romania has no fear," Defence Minister Ioan Pascu told the BBC.
"Generation after generation for hundreds of years has been fighting and longing for such a security step, which finally comes! So the relationship with the US is very strong."
But anyone who expects new American cities to spring up on the coastal plains of Romania may be disappointed.
The runways, the canteens, and the gyms are being spruced up, but there is no sign of new accommodation for the families of US soldiers.
This will be a lighter operation, of training bases, and facilities for rapid reaction troops, rotating through the region, for tours of duty lasting several months, not years.
In neighbouring Bulgaria too, the air force bases at Graf Ignatievo and Kumanovo near Plovdiv have been completely renovated, with new communications equipment.
Like Romania, the Bulgarian Government is offering not only bases, but enormous training grounds to Nato.
In sparsely populated areas, deep in economic recession, US planners have been told the local population will welcome the Americans as saviours.
The public relations exercise is proceeding almost as fast as the military one.
At Corbu, a village near the Kogalniceanu airbase, the old primary school building has been renovated by engineers taking part in Cornerstone 2003, and a whole new building added.
The first wedding has also taken place, of a US serviceman, deployed to Romania during the Iraqi war, and a Romanian journalist.