NOVO SELO TRAINING AREA, Bulgaria -- The American military presence in Bulgaria and Romania "is critical to a strong Europe and a deterrence to Russian aggression," said Col. Benjamin Jones, referring to the proximity of Russian forces in Crimea, just some 200 miles away.
That U.S. presence is at Camp Mihail Kogalniceanu, or Camp MK, Romania; and Novo Selo Training Area, or NSTA, Bulgaria, said Jones, who is the commander of U.S. Army Garrison, Ansbach, Germany, which oversees both sites.
It's important for rotational units to maintain a continual presence in Romania and Bulgaria to effect an immediate response to aggression, said Maj. Brad Stark, operations officer for the Black Sea Area Support Team at Camp MK. His team oversees training there.
By maintaining that presence, should a conflict arise, there won't be a need to conduct a forced entry in an anti-access, area denial setting since troops will already be on the ground, he reasoned.
Stark noted that NSTA, Camp MK and other military bases in both nations can and have hosted a maneuver force of nearly a brigade, along with NATO troops. The most recent exercise of that magnitude was Saber Guardian 17, which ended about a month ago.
In addition to such exercises, Camp MK hosts a small squadron of Royal Canadian Air Force Tornado jets, which are fully armed and conduct air-policing missions over the Black Sea, he said. The British Royal Air Force preceded them in their NATO-led role and the Portuguese are expected to eventually replace the Canadians.
Additionally, the Marine Corps has a presence of 1,300 members of the Black Sea Response Force at Camp MK, who are serving as a quick-reaction force, he added. They will depart soon for a training mission in Norway.
Just recently, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment left after a nine-month rotation. They will be replaced by 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment next month, he said.
Currently, 2nd Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade (Assault Helicopter Battalion), is at Camp MK with 20 Black Hawk helicopters, doing combined training missions with the Romanians.
There are also Soldiers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructing and renovating a number of facilities at Camp MK and NSTA, as both areas continue with their expansion plans.
The important thing to remember, Stark said, is that the training missions use a "total force approach," which means all U.S. military, including Guard and Reserve, train with host-nation forces, as well as with NATO partners.
Stark is a member of the Alabama Army National Guard, and a number of Reserve Soldiers at Camp MK are with the 21st Theater Support Command, which handles combat service support.
Matt Cornman, physical security specialist at NSTA with U.S. Army Installation Management Command, said the biggest value of training here is the coming together of the many coalition partners, each of which has its own unique doctrine and way of operating.
By combining forces, much is learned by all and the whole becomes greater than the parts, he added.
Eastern Romania and Bulgaria are considered more remote areas of Europe, so getting troops and their supplies there takes some creativity, Jones said.
Lt. Col. Tracey Smith, commander of U.S. forces at both Camp MK and NSTA, said troops can arrive via a small commercial runway on Camp MK that is run by the Romanians. Additionally, U.S. tanks and other vehicles and equipment can be offloaded at the nearby port of Constanta on the Black Sea or at the port of Varna in Bulgaria, which is also on the Black Sea.
From there, troops can be bused to NSTA, which is a 28,000-acre training area where live-fire and maneuver training is conducted.
Elements of a brigade might also split off to other training areas like Graf Ignatievo, Bezmer and Aytos in Bulgaria and Cincu, Babadag and Smardan in Romania, she said.
Julia Sibilla, site director of NSTA, noted that there are other ways troops arrive in Romania and Bulgaria. Some of them are bused in from Poland, Italy and Germany, she said.
Railway cars haul their equipment from Constanta, Varna or other points in Europe. The NSTA railhead at Zimnitsa is just 17 miles away, she noted.
Another way troops get in to NSTA is by helicopter, she said. Some 600 paratroopers jumped into Bezmer in Bulgaria recently, which is an hour from NSTA.
Not all arrivals are U.S. troops, she added. For instance, during Exercise Trident Jaguar, the French took the lead, she said, adding that leading the exercise was a huge confidence booster for that NATO ally.
Also, non-NATO partners, like the Georgians, have trained here as well, she said.
WECOMING THE AMERICANS
Bulgarian and Romanian military leaders and civilians alike have been extremely welcoming of the Americans here, said Sibilla.
Romanian Col. Eduart Dodu, the commander of Camp MK, said "our relationship with the United States is great," and he added he hopes the U.S. presence will be permanent and even expand.
NATO, along with the U.S. and Romania, will continue to put more capabilities in this region because they understand the threat and that adding more resources means investing in the collective future, Dodu predicted.
Dodu said he recalls the days when Romania was a member of the Soviet's Warsaw Pact treaty. He said those were dark days and it's not a period to which he or the Romanian people ever want to return.
Scot Seitz, deputy commander, Black Sea Area Support Team at NSTA, stressed the importance of NSTA as a forward training area.
The retired Marine said training here guarantees that "U.S. troops are as ready as possible to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver."
Having a presence here assures allies and partners that the U.S. is committed and dissuades adversaries who might be tempted to meddle in the region, he said.
It's important too that lawmakers and the American people understand the value they're getting in having a presence here, he added.