A new Air Force operating location was established in eastern Europe as KC-135 Stratotankers begin supporting Operation Enduring Freedom from Bulgaria. The leaders of Bulgaria took direct action to support Operation Enduring Freedom by allowing US military forces to base operations from this former Communist republic for the first time in history.
The Bulgarians have participated in Partnership for Peace exercises in the past and have regularly played host to members from throughout the U.S. military during brief visits through the military-to-military Joint Contact Team Program. U.S. forces have participated in exercises in Bulgaria for several years. The United States has worked and trained with the country as part of the NATO Partnership for Peace program since 1994. However, this mission is different from anything the U.S. has ever conducted before in Bulgaria. The US government, through the embassy in Sofia, approached Bulgarian officials about this operation. Keeping it under wrap until it became a reality was very important.
Related operations, logistics and maintenance work is taking place at two locations in Bulgaria - Burgas International Airport, and at nearby Camp Sarafovo. In just a short time, operations at Camp Sarafovo and at the airport have seen tremendous changes. The improvements continue daily. Quality of living continues to be top priority; deployed civil engineers have been working side by side with the camp and airport maintenance teams to make the needed improvements. Fire fighters from RAF Mildenhall's 100th Civil Engineer Squadron have been teaching local airport fire fighters emergency response procedures for the KC-135 and other military aircraft. Fire safety training is also being provided to employees at the dining facility. CE technicians are also helping with the improvements by weather stripping some of the facilities and by building shelves for maintenance and operations work centers. Morale programs are also in progress. Services is offering scheduled trips to several of the local tourist areas, including tours of a nearby ancient city and downtown shopping trips. A recreation program, which includes ping-pong and dart tournaments, is also up and running.
The Bulgarian Government announced 22 November 2001 its decision to approve a request by the United States for transit of personnel and equipment participating in Operation Enduring Freedom. This act implements the recently concluded bilateral Agreement with the US on overflight, transit and stay on Bulgarian territory of US troops and equipment supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, says a press release from the Government PR Department. The Government asked the Defence Minister, jointly with the Foreign Minister to set up a Coordination Center with participation from the ministries of defense, the interior, foreign affairs, transport, communications and finance for the purposes of implementation of Bulgaria's obligations in support of Enduring Freedom. Defence Minister Nikolai Svinarov announced a diplomatic note from the US side had been received requesting the use of the airport of the city of Bourgas (on the Black Sea) and that the Government had decided to allow for it.
On 14 November 2001 the Bulgarian Parliament ratified an agreement between the US and Bulgaria allowing the overflight, transit and stay of troops and equipment of the US and countries supporting the US efforts during Operation Enduring Freedom. The agreement was concluded on November 12 by Bulgaria and the US through exchange of diplomatic notes. It is effective for the duration of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Foreign Ministry announced on 22 November 2001 the Government had agreed to have US cargo aircraft land at Bourgas Airport and US personnel "servicing the operation" stay at the Sarafovo base. The first planes were due to land in Bourgas on Friday, November 23. They were to buy fuel from the Bourgas Neftochim refinery and refuel other US aircraft performing humanitarian operations within the Operation Enduring Freedom,
Foreign Minister Solomon Passy did not specify the number of US planes that will arrive in Bulgaria. "We give them sky and land, and they buy petrol from Neftochim," said Passy, responding to a question on what Bulgaria is giving the U.S. and what it is getting in return. Germany too has made a request but it is for transport planes only, said Passy, and Bulgaria has already granted Germany's request, Passy said. The US Ambassador R. Miles voiced satisfaction with the Bulgarian government's support for the fight against terrorism.
Bulgaria's cooperation with the US is consistent with the resolve of the country, declared on September 13, to join the international coalition against terror and act as a de-facto ally of NATO and the United States.
The US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Richard Miles, joined by Foreign Minister Passy and other Bulgarian VIPs, attended a ceremony on 23 November 2001 to mark the arrival of the first of as many as six U.S. Air Force KC-135 aircraft to be based temporarily at Burgas airport. The KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft were based in Burgas to support operations, especially humanitarian operations, in Afghanistan. At least one hundred fifty US military personnel were also based there to maintain this operation.
According to Ambassador Miles, the use of Bulgarian oil and fuel products, the procurement of various material and services, and the purchases of the military personnel "should have a significantly positive impact" on the Burgas economy and on the Bulgarian economy as a whole. Major General Kenneth Hess, Commander of the US Third Air Force in Mildenhall, UK, also attended the November 23 ceremony to mark the arrival of the KC-135s. A statement from his command noted that the "United States military continues to assist the people of Afghanistan with humanitarian assistance. As Operation Enduring Freedom continues, the repositioning of aircraft often becomes necessary to ensure the safety and efficiency of the operation. Humanitarian concerns are always of vital interest to the United States, no matter the region or the situation."
The KC-135s' mission is to provide aerial refueling to aircraft in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The US Government requested the use of the Burgas Airport facilities, and the Bulgarian Government granted the request in support of the coalition efforts in combating terrorism. We have worked and trained with Bulgaria as part of the NATO Partnership for Peace program since 1994, and welcome them as part of the coalition against terrorism, according to a US military statement.
US Army troops used the facilities prior to the 351st EARS arrival, and their corporate knowledge was crucial in the camp set-up. Their help was a big factor in getting the Air Force spun up as quickly as they did.
Providing security for the operation is the 31st Security Forces Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy, working closely with the Bulgarian military police and airport police. Additionally, airmen from RAF Mildenhall, its neighbor RAF Lakenheath, and Ramstein, Spangdahlem and Rhein Main Air Bases in Germany are supporting the mission. Civil engineering, communications, transportation, medical, bioenvironmental, and audiovisual specialties, as well as the chaplain corps represent this support.
Since this is the first long-term stay for U.S. forces within Bulgaria, the decision to support the operation had to be approved at the highest level of government. When it came to parliament 100 percent of the members of parliament voted for it. Bulgaria's strategic location within Europe is an even bigger selling point -- a point he hopes will lead to Bulgaria's entry into NATO.
Bulgaria has three major government-owned airports, Sofia, Burgas and Varna. For Burgas Airport traffic in 1999 was 6,000 aircraft movements, 3,500 tons cargo and 580,000 passengers. Projected average annual traffic for the period 2000 - 2003 is approximately 10,000 aircraft movements, 700,000 passengers, and 4.000 tons of cargo. The airport, with modern navigation equipment, has a runway 3,200 m long. Airport activities include international passenger charter flights during the summer season, as well as year-round international and domestic cargo flights and scheduled passenger flights between Burgas and Sofia. By law Turgovishte Airport is a subsidiary.
All of Bulgaria's airports are old and fall short of the standards expected by international travelers. The main driving force will be the reconstruction and upgrading by the Bulgarian Ministry of Transport and Communications of the three ICAO Category II international airports in Bulgaria, Sofia, Burgas and Varna airports, and the plans for upgrading of two other ICAO Category I international airports, Gorna Oryahovitsa and Plovdiv.
Burgas Airport is self-financing the upgrading of traffic control and navigation aid equipment. The airport has larger international passenger traffic, mostly charters, during the summer tourist season. During the rest of the year it operates mainly as a cargo airport, with scheduled service to Sofia. The master plan of Burgas Airport envisages basic reconstruction of the cargo terminal, reconstruction of the area around the runway and upgrading of the airport facilities. Estimated value of the project is $60 million.
There have been allegations of illegal arms transfers, including an April 2001 case in which a Ukrainian plane carrying Czech weapons was halted at Burgas airport on suspicion that the weapons were to be delivered to Eritrea, under a UN embargo at the time. Following an investigation, the cargo was released for delivery to Georgia, the authorized destination, although no explanation was given for reported discrepancies between the actual weapons cargo and that authorized for sale.
Other Bulgarian Air Bases
On 30 August 2001 Bulgarian Defence Minister Nikolay Svinarov unveiled a runway and subsidiary facilities at the Graf Ignatievo Air Base, upgraded in line with NATO standards. The runway, extended from 2.5 to 3 km, is one of the longest and highest-standard in Europe, Brig-Gen Evgeni Manev said. Cargo and combat aircraft of all classes can use the facility. Its renovation, including the construction of taxiways, parking areas and lighting installations, was completed for a record-short period of three months by the Stara Zagora based Putstroy Engineering. The contractor, selected after a public auction, applied cutting-edge technology which presents a novelty in this country. The Defence Ministry allocated 10m dollars for the project.
In his first major policy speech before the National Assembly, Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg-Gotha conceded that most of his policies would be continuations of the former government of the Union of Democratic Forces, including the pursuit of NATO membership. Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov visited the airbase Graf Ignatievo August 3 to review preparations for the upcoming international military exercise, Cooperative Key 2001, which was to be held in Bulgaria on September 2 involving military units from 23 countries. When fully upgraded, Graf Ignatievo will be the first airbase in Bulgaria to meet NATO requirements.
In 1998 there were Serbian reports that America was constructing a reserve military airbase at Kustendil in Bulgaria - a base which Serbia claimed was used during NATO's war over Kosovo as a targeting navigation station for B-52s and a transport base for C-130 transport aircraft.
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