U.S. base on Romanian coast bridges Europe, Middle East.
On this afternoon in April, several C-130 planes are resting on the airfield close to the highway. The high fence around the base obstructs the view from the curious eye.
A white tourist bus ferries U.S. soldiers from their hotels about 20 km away, from a Black Sea resort called Mamaia--a ghost town with rows of deserted hotels along the beach waiting to be revived by the masses of tourists that come here every summer.
Toward the far-off end of the resort's main road, the only sign of the American presence is the sight of Romanian security guards in black uniforms, trained to fend off any uninvited guests trying to enter the hotels that lodge U.S. troops.
The U.S. soldiers are under lock-down. They are not allowed to leave their confined spaces or interact with the local population.
"This was not a planned deployment," said Air Force 1st Lt. Chris Watts, a public affairs officer.
The Romanian base became a last-minute substitute after Turkey denied basing rights to American troops invading Iraq through the north. That decision "changed a lot of things," said Watts.
The number of Americans in the Constanta area fluctuates between 1,000 and 3,000 people. The support airmen are in the hundreds, while most of the troops "are just passing through," said Air Force Capt. Patrick Whelan, who runs the morale, welfare and recreation activities on the base. "For the most part, they are waiting for their orders to go further. They hurry up and wait."
At this base, people, supplies and equipment are in transit from Europe to the Middle East, said Air Force Col. Steven Dreyer, the commander of the 458th Air Expeditionary Group. He is a 32-year veteran who came from the Air Force base in Keflavik, Iceland, to run the operations on the "Mihail Kogalniceanu" base in Romania.
"People come in on a daily basis," he said. "They have to go through a briefing to make sure that they have all their equipment and make sure that their bags will get to the right place," he told National Defense. "It does not sound like much, but it is labor intensive."
On average, he said, eight to 10 C-17s land on the base daily to drop off and pick up cargo, and immediately move on. About four to five C-130s come to the base every day, as well as some C-141s.
The base--home of the Romanian 57th Fighter Group--has a 44-year history. It housed, throughout the years, Russian MIG fighter aircraft, ranging from the MIG-15 and MIG-17, to the MIG-21 and MIG-29.
The MIGs, however, have been grounded, and the base will be used for Western fighter jets, now that Romania is a member of NATO, according to Commander Tiberiu Fratila, a spokesman for the Romanian Ministry of Defense. Some IAR-330 Puma helicopters are also currently stationed on the base, said Dreyer.
The base has only one 10,000-foot runway, which is somewhat limiting, said Dreyer. "The runway is in really good shape," he said. "The Russians and Eastern Europeans have built good runways. They use good concrete that is heavy-duty and made to last. It works very well for the heavy stuff and the kind of traffic that we have."
The air traffic controllers are English-speaking Romanians. "We did not bring any of our own, said Dreyer. The Romanian military is employing 700 to 1,000 Romanian soldiers on the base to provide mostly security and participate in some daily operations.
"We want to make sure that the Romanians know what we are doing and they are kept abreast of any kind of action," he said. "It is their base, and they have been very gracious."
Dreyer said that so far, the Pentagon has spent $5 million on this mission, including the base setup, contractors, lodging, food, tents and jet fuel. The cost of being stationed in Constanta comes to about $100,000 a day.
The U.S. soldiers are using as much of the infrastructure of the base as possible. Whelan said that some of the buildings did not meet the Air Force's insulation needs.
"It was very cold when we got here, and I am told that it is very hot in the summer," he said. He also said that some of the tents that were purchased did not have the right insulation.
Dreyer said that they will have to figure out how to create more storage space, which at this point is not sufficient. "There is not a lot of warehouse space," he said. "We are setting up tents.
The United States hired Romanian contractors to build a 700-meter gravel road for heavy-duty trucks moving cargo from a deposit site that is temporarily housing containers arriving by ship in the port of Constanta. The road-repair project cost $50,000. "The roads have had a lot more wear than the Romanian military had expected," said Dreyer.
Hundreds of containers have arrived by ship into the port. "It is a great place here, it has a port and a railhead that goes right into the airfield," he said. "So, we are able to move a lot of stuff."
Airlift is not a very efficient way of moving cargo, said Dreyer. Sea lift is more efficient and less costly. "In Western Europe, we can use the rail, of course. The rail here does not work that well," he said. It also helps that fuel is readily available from a Romanian vendor.
"For the kind of air bridge that we have, having availability of fuel that is good quality and a runway that is very durable and well built, and the ramp space--that is half the battle," he said.
The Air Force had to bring generators to complement the power sources on the base, said Dreyer. It also has its own tactical satellite communications. "You can't do anything without computers. A lot of times, we have Web pages that we follow the movement [of cargo] on. It works well when you have that Internet capability, because you can pull out information from everywhere."
One piece of equipment that the Air Force likes is the USC-60, a satellite dish that can break into panels and can fit into a tent. Dreyer said it provides fairly high fidelity and can work with different power sources, as well as with rented commercial generators.
The Air Force also brought medical tents, where a military surgeon can perform operations, or a dentist might provide dental care. U.S. officials also have checked out the local hospitals. While Romanian media had speculated that soldiers from the Iraqi front may be brought in for treatment, Watt said that checking out the local hospitals is standard procedure and that no war injuries would be treated in Constanta. The hospitals may be used for the troops already stationed there.
The deployment to this Romanian airbase does not match many of the classical deployment characteristics. Soldiers live in hotels instead of tents. "There is not a lot of space out there and you need a lot of space to do a tent city," said 'Whelan. "It is all valuable farm land and if you put a tent city up it is going to have a serious impact in the stuff that grows there."
The Air Force did not have to bring portable kitchens. The cooking is done on the base, and the Air Force has been employing the Romanian cooks, closely supervised by Americans, to make sure that everything works by the book.
Whelan said more equipment is needed, such as refrigerators and storage facilities.
Because the troops are under lockdown, the morale is of utmost importance and concern, said Whelan. "Boredom is the quickest way to have a morale problem," he said.
Dreyer noted that the Air Force has set up a "morale rent" that has computers with Internet access and satellite phones. Troops on base are able to make one phone call a week. The morale, welfare and recreation staff is creating a library and bringing in newspapers. Projectors for a movie theater are also on the order list, Dreyer said.
The Air Force is renovating the gym that is already on the base. "Fitness is a big part of readiness," said Whelan.
U.S. troops could be stationed in Romania at least until June. "We do nor know if we are going to stay as long as the war [in Iraq], or if we are staying after the war for the reconstruction," said Wart. Soldiers and airmen on base are ready to stay for as long as they have to, and are also able to pack up in a matter of seven days, should new orders arrive.
The uncertainty related to this deployment is complicating planning, said Whelan. At press rime, the Air Force was negotiating the hotel contracts for this summer.
Mamaia is one of the most popular resorts at the Romanian Black Sea, and the necessary security for the American troops is going to affect the business this summer, should they stay until the tourist season starts.
U.S. troops are bound to return to the Romanian air base in the fixture, for training exercises, said Dreyer. He mentioned that exercises are planned for other bases in Romania as well. "[Romania] is a great place for training, you have good ranges here, good accommodations and understanding when we fly at different times a day and do a lot of night operations, which is very hard to do in Western Europe."
The Romanian air base, although useful, cannot even compare in size to bases such as Ramstein in Germany and Aviano in Italy. "It has a lot of old things that in the fixture could be better," Dreyer said. "They may need a little bit more repair, but I think they are nor very far off [from NATO standards]."
In a statement earlier this year, the Romanian defense minister said that he thinks that the American presence will continue, even after the war. Regarding speculation that it may become a permanent base, he said that there is no certainty that would happen. U.S. officials are said to be considering moving some of their bases in Western Europe to countries in the East, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.
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|Date:||May 1, 2003|
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