Vadim Ghirda  /  AP
Romanian soldiers stand at attention backdropped by the Romanian, left, and the NATO flag during the ceremony to mark the accession of Romania to NATO in Bucharest on Friday.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 4/2/2004 7:53:34 AM ET 2004-04-02T12:53:34

A relaxed resort town on the Black Sea with a dilapidated military airport nearby may seem like an unlikely place for a United States military base, but the small port town of Constanta, Romania will likely play a key role in the biggest U.S. military realignment since World War II.

NATO's expansion to include Romania and six other former Soviet bloc countries opens the door to a historic strategic shift of U.S. military forces in Europe, accelerated by the war on terrorism.

On Friday, soldiers from the seven countries raised their national flags outside NATO headquarters in Brussels to mark what is the biggest expansion of the alliance in its 55-year history.

Foreign ministers from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia joined their colleagues from the other 19 allies as a NATO honor guard played the newcomers’ national anthems.

“From now on, 26 allies will be joined in a commitment to defend each other’s security and territorial integrity,” said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. “This is the strongest, most solemn commitment nations can undertake.”

NATO's eastward marchThat expansion has upset Russia, which has been uneasy about the eastward shift of its old Cold War foe. Moscow has warned that further NATO troop movements into the former Soviet satellites would harm relations.

However, alliance diplomats played down fears of new tension with Moscow, and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was to join NATO allies in talks later Friday.

As the ceremony took place in Brussels, plans were under way to drastically reduce the 110,000 U.S. troops based in Western Europe, mainly at large bases in Germany, and open new smaller military facilities in Eastern Europe.

The strategic shift follows a changed reality: the United States no longer needs an enormous military presence in Germany to deter the threat from a long-dissolved Soviet Union, but it urgently needs bases closer to the Mid East, Afghanistan, and other hotspots, according to the military leadership of U.S. European Command. 

Military needs shift east
"Over the last decade it's becoming clear that we need to reposture our forces. A new threat has emerged. Frankly, it's the fundamentalism, it's transnational terrorism, it's instabilities — the threat is moving, or actually developing to the East and to the South," General Charles F. Wald, Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command, told NBC News in an interview. "So the European Command needs to change with the world as it changes."

The United States has no intention of dismantling the large "hub" facilities in Western Europe, such as Ramstein airbase in Germany, which would cost billions of dollars to replicate. But such bases will be downsized and others closed. 

Wald told NBC News that strategically chosen Forward Operating Sites, or FOSs, will be set up in several countries, and will range from small temporary bases to more permanent large sites with troops and support staff. But each site would remain flexible enough to expand and contract as needed for mission strength — and to train local troops to share the burden in the global war on terrorism and in protecting energy supplies key to the world economy.

"I think the beauty of the forward operating location is the flexibility that it lends the United States military," Wald said.

New NATO countries step in
The need for flexibility became painfully clear when NATO ally Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to use its Incirlik base to fly missions into Iraq during the Iraq war.

NATO hopefuls Romania and Bulgaria stepped in to help and the bulk of U.S. Special Operations forces working in northern Iraq flew out of Romania's Constanta.

At the 43rd Mechanized Brigade base near Constanta's Mihail Kogalniceanu airport, commander Colonel Virgil Balaceanu last week displayed the newly remodeled barracks that housed U.S. Special Operations forces during operation Iraqi Freedom.

Balaceanu hopes the United States will set up a permanent base in Constanta, as this would provide good training opportunities for his men and bring in needed finances to improve the infrastructure. The Pentagon has already invested at least $8 million to upgrade the airport and base.

But it's not just what the United States can do for Romania, it's also what Romania can do for the United States, Balaceanu said.

"Modern warfare demands smaller and more flexible troops that need facilities not just for accommodation but also for deployability like harbors, airports, good training facilities, and good ranges. And this area offers these interlinked conditions," he said.

Good training grounds
Another crucial issue for U.S. troops in Europe is good training grounds.

As urban sprawl increases in Europe, areas where troops can train to fire arms at night or fly low over the land are becoming few. European noise regulations hamper training. In contrast, the training ranges in Romania have no such restrictions.

At the Babadag base near Constanta, Romania's only marine brigade was put threw its paces last week by Commander Vasily Romanescu. He has been leading the marines through a restructuring process in order to join NATO, training them for harbor security and anti-terrorist missions.

The marines were running obstacle courses under blank fire, aiming artillery, and even frying fish caught earlier in a nearby lake as part of their survival training.

The Babadag training polygon is ideal for U.S. troops, according to Romanescu. "In a small area you have lake, sea, marsh-type terrain, you have forest, and you have mountains. It's affordable, it's easy to access, and it can offer a lot of opportunities."

Romanescu saw only advantages to an increased U.S. military presence. "We would be able to learn more from them because the American forces have been engaged in real world operations recently, so we would be able to share their experience. They will bring jobs for the local community. So everyone will definitely welcome them," he said.

U.S. military officials have denied that discord between NATO allies France and Germany over the Iraq war played a role in the decision to shift forces East. At the same time, they welcomed Romania's enthusiasm to host U.S. troops and its willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Romania's Minister of Defense Ioan Pascu told NBC in an interview that Romania's new relationship with the United States has been a process of mutual discovery of common goals.

"It's not that we are offering something in the hope that somebody will offer us something in return. We have to cooperate. Otherwise terrorist activities cannot be stopped or countered," Pascu said.

NBC's Judy Augsburger is on assignment in Romania. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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