The commander of U.S. forces in Europe, General James Jones, says the United States is ready to begin negotiations with new NATO members Romania and Bulgaria about basing U.S. forces in those countries.
General Jones told a House of Representatives committee Wednesday that officers under his command have made repeated visits to Romania and Bulgaria, and the time has come to begin formal talks on basing U.S. forces in those countries.
"We are definitely at the launching point, as opposed to the conceptual point," he said.
General Jones says the possibility of basing U.S. forces in Romania and Bulgaria fits into the Defense Department's plans re-structure its force deployment around the world. The plan is to move away from large bases far from potential conflict zones, to smaller bases closer to where the forces might be used.
"We're very excited at the possibility, in the European transformation, of basing an Eastern European brigade, a rotational brigade, in Bulgaria and Romania, along with the accompanying air assets and logistical assets necessary to sustain that presence," he added.
A brigade would be between 3,000-5,000 troops, plus supporting units.
General Jones, who is also the NATO supreme commander, says talks with the two new NATO members should begin soon on details of the basing arrangements, which he said could include ports, airfields and facilities for ground forces.
"I believe that this year we will now turn to dialogue with both nations to work out the basing agreements, the status-of-forces agreements, and the most important one is the access that the United States wishes to have to its forces,” General Jones said. “I think the secretary of defense has been very strong in saying that we don't want to put forces where we can't get at them. And so we have to work out those agreements. But I think that in the case of Bulgaria and Romania we will."
In the past, some countries that host U.S. forces have refused to allow those forces to be deployed directly to conflict areas, or the base facilities to be used in operations that the host country does not support. This was a problem with U.S. forces in Turkey when the Iraq war began two years ago.
But General Jones indicated he does not expect such issues with Bulgaria and Romania, which he described as "extraordinarily accommodating" and expressing a strong desire to have part of the U.S. European Command on their soil.
The general did not mention the incident last week in which U.S. forces apparently killed a Bulgarian soldier by mistake in Iraq.