Hot Spot

Inside the Navy's new, windowless headquarters building for its forces in the Mediterranean, dots on an electronic map pinpoint ongoing operations and potential flashpoints. Sitting in Naples, Italy, just beyond the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and within range of Libya's Al Fatah missiles and MiG-29 aircraft, this underground command-and-control room is protected by 27 inches of steel-reinforced concrete. As the electronic map shows, it sits in the middle of a region teeming with conflict.

In August, for example, the map tracked U.S. forces taking part in a five-day military exercise in nearby Albania to demonstrate NATO's ability to contain the crisis in neighboring Yugoslavia's Kosovo province. More than 400 people have been killed and 100,000 left homeless this year by fighting in Kosovo. United States participation in the exercise was radically scaled back at the last minute due to concern over terrorist threats following explosions at U.S. embassies in Africa and the arrest of suspected Egyptian terrorists in Albania weeks earlier. Last year, warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, located in nearby Gaeta, Italy, were forced to evacuate 900 civilians caught in the civil war in Albania.

The map also blinked on the nearby island of Cyprus, where NATO allies Turkey and Greece have been involved in escalating tensions over a plan by Greek Cypriots to buy anti-aircraft missiles from Russia. And officials were monitoring a raging civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where only last year Sixth Fleet ships were dispatched for the possible evacuation of U.S. embassy personnel and foreign nationals.

Meanwhile, Israeli jets had recently launched strikes against terrorist strongholds in Lebanon, U.S. forces were trying to maintain an uneasy peace in nearby Bosnia, and nationalist rivalries threatened civil war in the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea, where U.S. naval forces were set to take part in a major naval exercise. All in all, it's just another average month for U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, where a crisis requiring the response of Sixth Fleet ships crops up roughly every five months.

Eye of the Hurricane

"We're at the center of the most tumultuous theater in the world, which largely explains why NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has said that the alliance must increasingly look south and east. We've revised our strategy to reflect that theme, and Naples is central to that new strategy," said Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, commander of NATO's Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) and all U.S. naval forces in Europe, during an interview at the Navy's 60-acre Capodichino complex in Naples. NATO's new strategic concept, which focuses on projecting power and enforcing stability through operations outside of its member countries, is expected to be formally adopted when the alliance celebrates its 50th anniversary at a summit conference in Washington next April.

The central role Naples and NATO's turbulent southern flank play in that new strategy is evident in the massive construction under way at Capodichino, and in a brand new Navy housing and support community going up at nearby Gricignano. While many overseas and domestic military bases have closed in recent years, the United States is pouring more than $500 million into the "Naples Improvement Initiative," making it the largest military construction project in Europe.

At Capodichino, U.S. naval personnel sip frozen cappuccinos on a cafe patio in the midst of a pristine, Mediterranean-style complex more reminiscent of a college campus than an American military facility. Fresh bread and Italian specialities are offered at the "Ciao Hall." Nearby, service members sweat through daily workouts at a high-tech health club complete with computerized running and biking stations, neon lights and a thumping, state-of-the-art sound system. New housing at Gricignano features marble foyers and American-style amenities such as large refrigerators, central air conditioning and cable TV. A new high school, hospital and shopping center will also be featured at Gricignano.

"We want to attract our best and brightest youngsters to come here and deal with the instability we face in this region, and to do that you have to offer them a good quality of life. That explains much of this construction, because for a long time Naples as an area was neglected in terms of quality of life," says Lopez. Indeed, Navy officials concede that because of problems with high crime and poor housing, Naples has been an unpopular post in the past. "We're determined to change that," says Lopez. "When [former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael] Boorda was AFSOUTH commander and I was here as Sixth Fleet commander, we both recognized that Naples had been neglected, and we made a decision to invest in this area. Personally, I think Naples is a great place to be, not only because of its great culture and the hospitality of the Italian nation, but also because of its very strategic location."

Aggressive Engagement

To keep a lid on simmering hot spots and prevent future conflicts, AFSOUTH and U.S. naval forces steam the Mediterranean regularly, conducting military-to-military engagements, joint exercises, and port visits. To help shoulder the constant burden, AFSOUTH has established Standing Naval Forces Mediterranean, a permanently activated squadron of U.S. and NATO ships on call to respond to crises in the AFSOUTH area of operations, which encompass the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black and Caspian Seas, as well as Africa's west coast. The area includes more than 100 nations, 65 of which have ocean shorelines.

To adequately patrol such a vast area and show the alliance flag, U.S. Sixth Fleet forces log roughly 90 joint training exercises and 1,000 port visits annually. Navy officials say this high operating tempo serves the dual purposes of making friends and influencing potential enemies by demonstrating NATO's military might. Wherever they travel,
NATO forces act as ambassadors of the West.

"Essentially we have to deal with the hand history has dealt us, and history is dealing out a lot of instability cards right now," says Lopez. "That's different from the Cold War, when we focused our energy on being ready to fight a war. Now warfighting is still a focus, but you can't just be a warfighter anymore. You also have to be a diplomat, a coalition builder, and someone who makes friends for the United States and the NATO alliance."

Showing the flag and responding to crisis in such a vast theater of operations--especially given that AFSOUTH forces that have shrunk nearly in half since the end of the Cold War--forces AFSOUTH and Sixth Fleet planners, analysts and intelligence experts to spend many hours prioritizing their commitments. What emerges is a hierarchy of engagement that can range from a short port visit to invitations to join the
NATO alliance itself.

"When I go to a country in West Africa, for instance, I'm conducting what I call 'formative engagement,' " says Lopez, who notes that Marine Amphibious Readiness Groups routinely conduct West African training cruises as a form of showing their presence. "But if you get to a point through that engagement where Angola, Nigeria, Mauritania, and South Africa all stabilize, then maybe West Africa takes care of itself and we can go and use our resources somewhere else. That would be basic, formative engagement."

AFSOUTH's Mediterranean Initiative, launched in 1994 in recognition of the growing importance and instability of the Mediterranean region and North Africa, represents a higher level of engagement. "The Mediterranean Initiative is a more defined engagement. Through cooperation and dialogue with countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel we're trying to achieve [more openness] in the Mediterranean region," says Lopez.

NATO's Partnership for Peace program, under which former members of the Soviet bloc and Warsaw Pact interact and participate in exercises with NATO forces, represents the next level of engagement. In return for outlining steps they will take toward democratic reforms and instituting civilian control of their militaries, nations that join Partnership for Peace can assign full-time personnel to NATO headquarters and participate in joint military exercises with the alliance.

While the Partnership for Peace program does not include security guarantees--only a promise that NATO will consult with any participating state in the event of an outside threat--it is seen as a necessary interim step on the road to full NATO membership. This past summer, for instance, U.S. Naval Forces Europe conducted a Partnership for Peace exercise called "Baltic Ops" in the Baltic Sea with 12 countries, including NATO aspirants Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

U.S. officers say the program helps build relationships with the military forces of the former Warsaw Pact that can pay significant dividends in a crisis, as evidenced in Bosnia by the relatively smooth working of the international peacekeeping force. "One of the great benefits of these exercises is that you get face-to-face contact with all these different military forces. You share their culture, make friends, and feel the kinship that all soldiers feel for one another," says Marine Corps Col. James Haynie, co-commander of a recent exercise in Lithuania. "That way in the future if we're ever called upon to work together, we will have already formed a bond with these people. We may operate somewhat differently, but we'll know they're good people."

At the highest level of engagement is NATO membership itself, an invitation that has recently been extended to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

"There are benefits to each level of engagement, and countries will occasionally move from one to the next. We adjust our priorities accordingly," says Lopez. "What you find at every level, however, is that countries are reaching out to the West. They want to share our values and tie themselves to us, politically, economically and militarily. And that leads to a more stable international environment."

Forces Stretched Thin

While firmly believing that engagement by U.S. and NATO forces with various countries in the region is the most effective tool against instability, U.S. officials concede that the high operating tempo exacts a cost on forces. On any given day, U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean may be conducting military-to-military engagements, port visits, joint exercises, humanitarian relief missions, peacekeeping operations, non-combatant evacuations or even combat operations.

A number of experts worry that such a high pace of operations is degrading the readiness of U.S. forces. The Navy has already admitted this year that it is failing to recruit enough sailors to man its future ships, and is having trouble retaining the requisite number of junior and mid-level officers. All of the services have reported shortages in spare parts and regular maintenance on their equipment. Earlier this year, the Sixth Fleet was forced to send its only aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf for yet another showdown with Saddam Hussein, leaving the Mediterranean without the services of an aircraft carrier for months.

"I don't think the American public really understands how terribly disruptive and expensive it is to move major military forces back and forth to the Persian Gulf," says retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, director of the National Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Because the Pentagon cannot budget for such deployments, he notes, the money initially must come out of the services' operations and maintenance accounts, which fund activities such as training and equipment repair. "Even if the money is returned in an 11th hour 'supplemental,' just before the services all turn into pumpkins, its hard for the military to make up for lost training or scheduled maintenance," says Scott.

Navy officials in Europe freely concede the growing challenge of trying to adequately patrol a massive and turbulent area of operations with fewer forces. "We have a world full of instability, and a Navy force structure that is 40 percent smaller than in 1991, so our Navy and Marine Corps forces are in high demand. Trying to cover my theater with less than 20 ships certainly forces you to make some hard decisions," says Lopez. "And when I have to send an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf during a crisis because that's a higher priority, that leaves my theater vacant. For that period of time, we don't have a ready force structure. That's why I contend that the Navy has gotten small enough."

Lopez and other Navy officials, however, oppose the suggestion advanced by some lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they should radically scale back their operations and participation in exercises to give forces a breather. Forces come to forward-stationed commands such as AFSOUTH expecting and even eager to take part in real-world missions, say officials, and they are not disappointed. Because the Navy gives forward-deployed forces priority in terms of parts and supplies, many of the readiness problems that are affecting stateside units are less apparent in the Mediterranean.

"That priority status keeps us on the cutting edge of readiness. So if we're not ready, I sure as hell don't know about it," says Lopez, who makes frequent visits to ships underway in his theater. "What I find are sailors and Marines that can respond to crises almost instantly, as we recently did when we steamed into the Adriatic off the coast of Kosovo. There's a lot of enthusiasm in the fleet. Believe me, these kids are ready. To me, the bottom line is that I can't influence events in my theater if my forces are not out there."

If that engagement exacts a toll on the fleet and on the United States--which still spends vastly more than any nation in the world on its military forces--Adm. Lopez argues it's money well invested. "I think the most important thing we can do for our grandchildren is to prevent future wars, and as the world's only superpower, we have a tremendous opportunity to do just that," said Lopez. "That will require us to engage the world in a focused way, to put our energy in the right countries and the right regions, and to do some predictive analysis about where trouble is likely to arise. We won't always be right, but we'll be right a lot of the time. And all of that is a hell of a lot cheaper, in terms of the costs in resources and especially in lives, than fighting a war. So my thesis is very simple. You have to pay for peace, but it's worth the money."

James Kitfield is a staff correspondent at National Journal.

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