By James Kitfield
October 1, 1997
n the steep hillsides of Naples, Italy, super-heated steam and pungent sulfur spew visibly through fissures in the earth. Some U.S. military facilities in this crowded, cacaphonous city in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius-home to both NATO's Allied Forces Southern Europe headquarters and the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet headquarters-lie in the crater of a dormant volcano. Literally and figuratively, the sense of standing astride unstable and potentially explosive terrain is an integral part of duty for U.S. military personnel in the region.
Capt. Ken Golden, commander of a three-ship Amphibious Readiness Group attached to the Sixth Fleet, learned just how quickly the forces acting on U.S troops can erupt earlier this year, when, with little warning, his ships and their contingent of Marines were ordered to evacuate 900 American and allied civilians caught in a violent civil war in Albania. Along the way, the U.S. warships assisted in the nighttime rescue at sea of more than 100 Albanians fleeing in unsafe, overcrowded boats.
In the midst of that operation, Capt. Golden was ordered to steam 5,000 miles to western Africa for a possible evacuation of American and other international civilians from war-torn Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. That forced Golden to leave his two sister ships behind in the Mediterranean and head for Africa aboard the USS Nassau, for the first time splitting an Amphibious Readiness Group to cover two missions simultaneously. Within months, Marines would once again be called upon to evacuate American citizens from Sierra Leone.
Golden and other U.S. commanders in Southern Europe are at the forefront of a strategic shift as NATO increasingly confronts flashpoints along its southern flank, from Bosnia and Albania in the north, to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the south.
"Whether it's precision raids, security reinforcement of U.S. embassies, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping or non-combatant evacuations, unfortunately these types of operations seem very much in vogue today," Golden says. "While a lot of Americans back home seem to think we don't have enemies anymore, I can tell you there's a lot of hatred in this region. The world as we see it out here is a very unsettling and unstable place."
The Madrid Summit
The growing strategic importance of the region and Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) provided the critical subtext to the historic NATO summit in July. Debates among western leaders in Madrid over the pace of NATO enlargement, the future composition and leadership of the alliance, and burden-sharing all stand to affect future NATO operations in the southern region.
For example, during the last year, France has delayed its promised reintegration into NATO's military structure, arguing unsuccessfully that a European should first be given the powerful position of commander of AFSOUTH. Because the command has ostensible control over the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, however, U.S. officials have insisted that the AFSOUTH commander remain a U.S. officer.
At the July Madrid summit, President Clinton and the other western leaders took the historic step of inviting the former Soviet Bloc countries of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the trans-Atlantic alliance. However, the United States rejected the proposal by a majority of European alliance members that Romania and Slovenia should also be invited to join. Alliance members such as France, Italy and Greece felt adding those Southern Region nations would help shore up NATO's increasingly volatile southern flank.
Immediately following the Madrid summit, however, President Clinton flew to Romania to assuage hurt feelings, and he was greeted by enthusiastic throngs of Romanians. NATO officials noted that the summit participants had singled out Romania and Slovenia for their democratic reforms, making them prime candidates for invitations when the alliance meets in 1999 on its 50th anniversary.
In what many observers saw as a fit of pique over the U.S. veto of the proposal to extend membership to Romania and Slovenia, President Jacques Chirac publicly ruled out increasing France's annual contribution to help pay the cost of expanding NATO. Burden-sharing and the costs to the United States of expanding NATO already are shaping up as perhaps the greatest potential obstacles to Senate ratification of enlarging the trans-Atlantic alliance next year.
The Clinton administration has estimated that the expansion will cost the United States roughly $200 million annually for the next 13 years, with the other 15 members and the three new nations to pick up the rest of the tab, which is expected to be between $27 billion and $35 billion. Clinton's task in selling NATO expansion will be further complicated by timing. The Senate debate over NATO expansion next year likely will run up against a controversial summer 1998 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Bosnia, another source of conflict and instability along NATO's southern flank.
As instability increasingly threatens from the South and requires deployment of forces outside NATO's traditional domain, there is widespread agreement on the need to reorient the alliance from its traditional focus on the East-West divide and the principal of collective defense.
"The problems in Albania and the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia indicate that we need to see a strategic shift in NATO from the Central European Region to the Southern Region. The main challenges today are not along the East-West axis, but rather along the North-South axis, where so many new democracies are struggling with this difficult transition," Akis Tsohatzopoulos, the Greek minister of defense, said at a recent symposium on trans-Atlantic co- operation. "I'm convinced the strategic artery of southeast Europe will prove vital to future European security."
From his sprawling office at Allied Forces Southern Command in Naples, Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, the dual-hatted commander of AFSOUTH and U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, has his finger directly on the pulse of that strategic southern artery. To a degree that might surprise many policy-makers and officials in Washington, his area of responsibility-which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope-pounds with strife.
"During the Cold War there was a central focus and unity among nations in this region, because everyone knew who the potential enemies were," Lopez says. "Now if you take a macro-look at our theater, it's literally filled with instability and pockets of unrest."
That gloomy perspective is perhaps unsurprising from a man who until last November spent nearly all his time on the ground as commander of NATO forces in Bosnia, keeping a lid on a fragile peace. Finally relieved of direct responsibility forthe NATO Sustainability Force in Bosnia to focus on other challenges in the southern region, Adm. Lopez and his staff confronted a strategic map dotted by potential flashpoints.
They faced economic collapse in Bulgaria; anarchy in Albania; massacres by Islamic fundamentalists and civil unrest in Algeria; conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists; a crumbling Middle East peace process; tensions between nearby NATO allies Turkey and Greece over the island of Cyprus; arms buildups by rogue nations such as Libya and Syria; and civil war in Africa.
"With the end of the Cold War, the new enemy is instability, and it is manifested in this region more than in any other place in the world," says Lopez, who argues that military officers no longer can concern themselves simply with traditional military threats. As proof, he points out that political unrest and civil war in recent years have prompted U.S. military responses in places never before considered of strategic importance, such as Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Albania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.
Signs that NATO and U.S. officials increasingly view AFSOUTH as a critical bulwark against the tide of unrest on Europe's southern flank are not difficult to spot in Naples. The U.S. Navy's new windowless headquarters building for the Sixth Fleet at the 60-acre Capodichino complex is a case in point. It is part of a $500 million Naples Improvement Initiative that represents the largest military construction and quality-of-life improvement project for U.S. service members in Europe. At a time when many overseas bases are closing, U.S. forces in Naples will move into completely modernized operations buildings and housing areas in the next few years. Plans also call for NATO's nearby AFSOUTH headquarters to relocate into new buildings by 2000.
The massive construction project is a tangible commitment to the Southern Region by NATO officials, who increasingly view the Mediterranean periphery as the most likely venue for the "out of area" operations many see as the primary challenge of the future. A look inside the high-tech command-and-control room at Sixth Fleet headquarters, located underground and protected by 27 inches of steel-reinforced concrete, helps explain why.
As briefing slides show, the building itself is within range of Libya's Al Fatah missiles, MiG-29 aircraft and possibly chemical/biological warheads. Besides monitoring the situation in Albania, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sixth Fleet ships continue to patrol the Adriatic off the coast of the former Yugoslavia, where in recent years they helped enforce an embargo that involved 62,000 ship challenges and 5,000 boardings.
Potential hot spots dot the electronic map, with a crisis requiring the response of Sixth Fleet ships occurring on average every five months. To cope with the stepped-up pace of contingency operations, AFSOUTH has established Standing Naval Forces Mediterranean, a permanently activated squadron of U.S. and NATO ships on call to respond to regional flare-ups.
"This is a theater in conflict, and the potential for increased conflict exists just below the surface in any number of its regions, from the African littoral up through the Middle East and into the Black Sea and the trans-Caucasus area, a little-known region which we think you'll be hearing more of in the future," says Capt. Augustus Clark, deputy chief of staff for plans, policies and requirements for U.S. Naval Forces, Europe. "We strongly believe that our presence in the area is a deterrent, as is our ability to respond to flash points early to put the lid on them, and we expect to work our forces even harder at that in the future."
Engagement on a Shoestring
The philosophy that engagement by U.S. and NATO forces remains the most effective tool against instability in the region is reflected in Sixth Fleet's aggressive schedule. In 1996 alone, for instance, the fleet participated in 68 major exercises and conducted more than 400 port visits and 250 military-to-military exchanges.
To further reach out to nations in the region, AFSOUTH has been pushing its Mediterranean Initiative, an effort to secure elusive funding for bilateral military contacts and dialogue between NATO and nations such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Mauritania. The Sixth Fleet also conducts regular West African training cruises during which Navy/Marine amphibious groups and even Coast Guard cutters make port visits and train with the forces of numerous African nations. AFSOUTH officials would also like to see a southward expansion and enhancement of NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative, which promotes military exchanges and exercises, primarily with former members of the Soviet bloc.
As evidenced by the need to split the USS Nassau Amphibious Group to respond to crises in both Albania and the former Zaire, however, the number of ships and other units available to Sixth Fleet has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War. While the command had two forward-deployed carrier battle groups in the 1980s, for instance, it now must share one carrier with Central Command in the Persian Gulf region. The number of in-theater surface ships has likewise declined from 19 surface combatants to six, and from five amphibious ships to three.
As a result of the Quadrennial Defense Review released in May, Navy force structure will decline further than previously anticipated, from 131 surface combatants to 116 by fiscal 2003. The direct impact of those cuts on Sixth Fleet force structure is not clear.
"I think our present force structure [of about 20 U.S. Navy ships] in the Mediterranean is about right, but I certainly wouldn't want to lose any. We're pretty busy, to say the least," says Lopez, noting that the number of ships deployed with the carrier battle group has dropped from 10 when he was Sixth Fleet commander in 1992 to six today. "And we have seen some degradation of our exercises as a result of contingency deployments in the last few years, especially when you consider we've had an almost constant naval presence in the Adriatic supporting the Bosnian operation."
Early squabbles over sharing the NATO expansion costs, which could top $30 billion over the next decade, also have raised concerns. For instance, French and German officials, who are struggling to meet stringent deficit reduction goals in order to adopt a common currency next year, have recently stated that enlargement should be accomplished at "zero cost."
According to a number of U.S. naval officers, disparities in defense spending between the United States and the European members already have produced a trans-Atlantic divide that threatens the interoperability of NATO forces, especially in the realm of command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I).
"A lot of us believe there is a growing gap in C4I capability, and that it's one of the most important issues facing NATO," says Capt. Walt Stevenson, chief of staff for a Sixth Fleet Submarine Group. "Put simply, the U.S. is moving ahead in C4I advancements quite rapidly, and our allies are moving ahead at a slower pace, and the net result is a growing gap in the ability to communicate. And if you can't communicate, you can't fight together."
For Lopez, the struggle to balance the demands of a continuous stream of missions with declining resources and forces is a routine part of the job. As a result of the emergency deployments to Zaire and Albania earlier this year, for instance, AFSOUTH was forced to cancel exercise Destined Glory 97, a multinational amphibious exercise that was to have involved nine nations and 22 ships. What NATO simply cannot afford to do, he says, is pull back from a region that serves as a critical crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa.
"I still believe that the only way to influence events and maintain stability is to have our forces involved in daily, face-to-face contact and exercises with our allies and friends in this region," says Lopez. "I also believe there's a need to make new friends through our Mediterranean Initiative and
Partnership for Peace, so that NATO and the United States are viewed in a positive rather than threatening way."
Because NATO enlargement carries the promise of added stability in a region widely shaken by the nearby war in the former Yugoslavia, it is generally endorsed by military officials. "Most of us view this as an effort not just to get these nations' noses under the NATO tent, but to bring them inside as a way to build a wider community of nations with common goals," Capt. Clark says. "That provides stability."
Here on NATO's southern flank, however, officials also understand that including new members could cause added strains in the alliance. When France announced in 1995 that it would once again join NATO's military committee after a long absence, for example, the quid pro quo was thought to be the establishment of a more independent European defense identity within NATO. Almost no one foresaw the diplomatic brinkmanship of France's very public insistence earlier this year that command of Allied Forces Southern Europe be given to a European.
Because the commander in chief of AFSOUTH has control of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, the French demand was rejected by U.S. officials. They worried that such a move might erode support in Congress for keeping the Sixth Fleet in the NATO command structure. Some European officials, meanwhile, were concerned about possibly losing the U.S. commander in Naples as a mediator and honest broker removed from the internal squabbles of Europe.
"Many of us wondered why the French would paint themselves so publicly into a losing corner on this issue, because they are not naive," says an Italian AFSOUTH official. "Either this was an opening gambit and they have another agenda: They wanted a face-saving way to back out of their rapprochement to NATO, or else the French want a way to join NATO's military structure yet still continue to publicly blame the Americans for trying to dominate it."
For their part, French officials say that sharing more command positions should be part of America's insistence that the Europeans share more of the alliance's burden. "It's in the United States' own best interest to have a strong European partner in NATO, and the United States has recognized that it's important to strengthen the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance," says Gilles Andreani, a senior official in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
According to U.S. officials, negotiations are still under way within NATO on what arrangement short of AFSOUTH command might mollify the French. Partly for that reason, NATO has postponed until December a streamlining and paring of the entire NATO command structure that was to be completed in time for the Madrid summit.
For his part, Lopez clearly believes that keeping American forces firmly engaged in the region means retaining AFSOUTH Command. "It's the right thing for America to be engaged in Europe, especially when you consider our vast economic, political and cultural ties to this continent," he says. "America also has the predominant military force here in the Mediterranean, and the tradition and general expectation in joint military endeavors is that the nation with the predominant force leads."
In terms of NATO enlargement, a number of experts also question whether expanding the alliance will complicate decisions to act militarily in response to future crises. In the most recent crisis in Albania, it was not NATO but rather an Italian-led group of volunteer forces that decided to act and send troops to stem the mass exodus of refugees.
"Because the NATO operation in Bosnia has been so enormously successful, people point to it as the template for future crisis response," says a U.S. official in Naples. "They forget it took years for NATO to come to closure on Bosnia despite horrible massacres of innocent civilians. They also assume that an expanded NATO will be able to generate a rapid consensus in favor of a future military intervention, which I doubt. In the future, I think we're more likely to hear a lot more of this wonderful phrase that NATO came up with for Albania: 'a coalition of the willing.'"
By James Kitfield
October 1, 1997