KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force in Europe has made it through the Pentagon’s latest troop-reduction plans unscathed, at least for now.

That’s because U.S. Air Forces in Europe — the air component for the U.S. European Command and a key provider of air assets to the Middle East — had already completed a major transformation, a USAFE spokesman said.

The command has pared down its presence to one-fifth of the bases it had in the mid-1980s and reduced its forces by more than half, USAFE spokesman Col. Edward Worley said.

What remains — 63,000 active-duty airmen, civilians and their families, five main operating bases in England, Germany and Italy, and five forward operating bases — is needed for expeditious access to current hot spots and potential problem areas, Worley said.

“We’re not going to be able to fly from the United States to anywhere in the world without stopping someplace,” for fuel, crew rest and cargo, he said. “We just don’t have the tanker or airlift capability to do that,” Worley said.

Although early reports indicated that F-16 squadrons in Aviano, Italy, and Spangdahlem, Germany, may be relocated, a Pentagon official said Monday that those bases would remain — for now.

Talks continue with Turkey about whether any U.S. fighter squadrons would move to Incirlik — which the Air Force recently expanded as a tanker and logistics hub for operations in the Middle East. But USAFE officials didn’t want to speculate as to how those talks would turn out.

“We’re always looking at our structure,” Worley said.

At the center of the Air Force basing strategy in Europe is Ramstein Air Base, which also is undergoing a massive transformation. It already serves as an important cargo base and a vital way station for ill and wounded troops from around Europe and the Middle East on their way to nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

But by December 2005, Ramstein will take over all airlift capability from Rhein-Main Air Base, making it and Spangdahlem Air Base the key European airlift hubs.

The $600 million “Rhein-Main Transition Program,” at times makes Ramstein and Spangdahlem look like one big construction zone. But the sound of graders and backhoes should be beautiful music to the local businesspeople whose livelihoods rely on the 44,000 Americans in the Kaiserslautern area — the largest community of Americans overseas.

“What that should tell people is that Ramstein’s position as a major European airlift hub is pretty well assured for sometime to come,” Brig. Gen. Rosanne Bailey, commander of the 435th Air Base Wing, said Wednesday.

In fiscal 2003, the Kaiserslautern military community pumped nearly $1.29 billion into the area’s economy, according to an annual economic impact report released in February.

Although Germany would be hit hard by the proposed removal of some 70,000 U.S. troops in the coming years, the decision to keep the Kaiserslautern-area installations is good news, Kaiserslautern Lord Mayor Bernhard Deubig said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

“For Germany as a whole, the withdrawal of U.S. troops will mean a certain loss of stability and security and, naturally, will cause considerable economic problems in the affected areas. The city and county of Kaiserslautern therefore are all the more pleased to hear that this region will apparently not be affected,” the e-mail stated.

Deubig, who led a delegation of regional leaders to Washington, D.C., last year to lobby for keeping troops in the country, said that the American presence in the region had “an enormously positive effect on the local population’s attitude and has encouraged a more open-minded approach to the challenges of globalization.”

In all, five Air Force and 10 Army installations are in the Kaiserslautern military community. The 21st Theater Support Command, a major logistics hub, is the largest Army asset in the area that also apparently has survived the chopping block, a EUCOM official said Tuesday.

In short, he said, Ramstein and the other installations around it are in “the perfect geostrategic location.”

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