NEWS

US forces start war preparations

Terrorism can strike any place, at any time. Don’t become a statistic, says an awareness message aired by the television station of the American Forces Network (AFN) Europe, while showing footage from previous terrorist attacks aimed at Americans at the Khobar Towers in Dharam, Saudi Arabia and the two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Enjoy your tour in Europe, but always keep force protection in mind… Remember force protection as you come is priority one, notes another. Several such awareness messages have been aired for months in broadcasts by the AFN network, keeping US forces constantly on the alert for a possible terrorist attack on military installations overseas. This time, though, the attack was not aimed at a US facility abroad, but rather at the very heart of the nation, against civilians who had no prior warning and no means of defending themselves against a senseless terrorist attack. Within hours of the attack, the US forces across Europe and elsewhere had been instructed to heighten security, raising their alert posture to Force Protection Level Delta, defined as: A terrorist attack has occurred or intelligence has been received that action against a specific location is likely. These new security measures were also enforced at the US naval base at Souda Bay, on Crete. According to sources that requested anonymity, within hours of last Tuesday’s terrorist attack in New York and Washington, armed US security forces from the base had been deployed at housing facilities outside base grounds to protect US servicemen from any possible attack, while Greek authorities provided additional police units that patrolled those areas in squad cars. Some of these measures, unprecedented in scale, are still in effect, while on the base officials are reviewing security measures to see any areas for improvement. The base at Souda Bay – the last on Greek soil after the closure of two US Air Force bases, at Hellenikon near Athens and in Iraklion on Crete back in the early 1990s – has a total of 875 personnel, 500 of which are military. Heavy security measures, with K-9 (guard dog) units and military personnel manning machine guns at sentry posts, were also seen at US bases across Europe, while the US Army base in Heidelberg, Germany had imposed a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew right after last Tuesday’s attack, which only ended last Friday. Preparing for military action As US forces in Europe and elsewhere are gearing up for an all-out assault on militant groups that have carried out terrorist attacks across the globe, the US naval base on Crete could again play a key role, as it did during the Gulf War. Although it is not a major installation, the base, which serves the US Sixth Fleet, is key both to intelligence gathering as well as to providing support for transit aircraft and ships during any operation. Strategically located just 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Libya – known to harbor Islamic militants and Qaida cells – the base is on the front line of surveillance of North Africa, supporting Navy EP-3 and Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance planes. Intelligence gathered at Souda Bay will be relayed back to the United States, where it will be evaluated by intelligence agencies in a effort to identify possible targets. Libya, Algeria and Sudan are some of the countries where terrorists are possible targets, aside from Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries, and which fall in the area of responsibility of the US Sixth Fleet and the US European Command. The base could also play an instrumental role in supporting any operations against Iraq, as it did during the Gulf War, when it was transformed into a stationary aircraft carrier for aircraft operating in theater-wide operations. It was then that intelligence reports had the US naval base at Souda Bay as a possible target of Saddam Hussein’s long-range missiles, which are capable of carrying chemical warheads. Gas masks had been issued then to all personnel in response to that threat, while the base had gone on its highest alert ever. According to Israeli intelligence reports, Libya is also believed to possess a number of missiles that are capable of striking European targets – one such missile had been launched several years ago at southern Italy, but it had missed its target. After analyzing intelligence reports on selected targets, the United States will then move to pick from the array of retaliatory options at their disposal. According to military experts, the air force is expected to play a dominant role in any contingency plans, probably aided by long-range missiles fired by warships from the sea. Ground forces, if used, will probably follow later, and will be mainly special forces units, namely Marines, Seals and units of the elite Delta Force. The US European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, has under its command about 116,000 service members in Europe, Africa and Asia. That includes 70,000 army, 31,000 air force, 12,300 navy and 3,300 Marine personnel. Its area of responsibility includes 91 countries in Europe, Middle East and Africa. The US Air Force in Europe commands 260 airmen and about 225 aircraft, while its regional commands include the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England; the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem, Germany; the 510th and 555th Fighter Squadrons at Aviano, Italy; the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Nildenhall, England; the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany; and the 352nd Special Operations Group at Mildenhall. The US Navy has 95 ships deployed around the world, and it has twice as many near the Persian Gulf as usual. Two aircraft carrier battle groups are currently in the region, USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, each carrying 75 aircraft – including fighters, bombers, and spy planes. Each battle group also can have anywhere from eight to more than a dozen cruisers, destroyers, submarines and support ships, equipped with long-range Tomahawk Cruise missiles. In the Mediterranean, the US Sixth Fleet has 18 warships under its command including one missile cruiser, three destroyers/guided missile destroyers, one guided missile frigate, two attack submarines, one command ship, one multipurpose amphibious assault ship, one dock landing ship, and an amphibious transport dock. Aboard these ships are 6,357 sailors and marines. If ground forces are deployed, marines aboard the amphibious assault ships and SEAL forces could lead the operations.