When U.S. military officials began scouting basing possibilities in Bulgaria, one of the first places they were shown was Bezmer Air Base along the country’s southeast border with Turkey.

Until just a decade ago, the base served as one of the first lines of defense against Turkey’s NATO squadrons.

Today, old enemies are new friends, and Bulgaria, which wants to join NATO, has declared open house at Bezmer, pitching the base as prime real estate for U.S. troops.

And it may be right. The commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Gen. James L. Jones, said his ideal base in eastern Europe would include room enough for Army and Air Force units, plenty of space for hassle-free training and enough logistics facilities to surge forces in and out quickly.

Much of the media attention in Bulgaria has centered on the air base in Burgas, which currently is being used by the U.S. Air Force as a way station into Iraq. Local officials think Bezmer might be a better fit.

“Our vision is that this one air base could be a main center for U.S. forces in Bulgaria,” said Velizar Shalamanov, who is helping broker Bulgaria’s bases.

“Bezmer is very close to two of our most important training ranges,” said Shalamanov, chairman of the George C. Marshall Association in Bulgaria and a former deputy defense minister. Those ranges — the Koren and Novo Selo maneuver areas — are already seeing heavy use by British, French and Italian forces.

Unlike Burgas, which is a commercial airport serving Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts, Bezmer is far from any major city.

Sitting inland along Bulgaria’s southern border, Bezmer has an 8,200-foot runway big enough not only for fighters but also for heavy-lifting cargo planes, and has already received several million dollars in U.S. Air Force upgrades.

“Also nearby is a testing range specially prepared by the Soviet munitions industry for everything from anti-tank missiles to artillery,” Shalamanov said.

Within a few hours’ drive from Bezmer is Agia Naval Base, south of Burgas, on the Black Sea.

“It has good facilities that can be used as a port of entry for heavy equipment,” such as tanks and other armored vehicles,” Shalamanov said.

About 100 miles west of Bezmer lies Graf Ignatievo Air Base, near the city of Plovdiv. It also has received major upgrades from the U.S. Air Force in recent years, including runway extensions that put it on par with even the largest NATO airfields. It hosted one of the alliance’s largest air exercises in 2001.

Mixed reviews

Recent tenants of Bulgarian military properties offer mixed reviews.

Late last year, the French moved a brigade of tanks and mechanized infantry into Novo Selo for four months of maneuvers.

“It only took us about an hour to get from the port to the training area,” said Col. Marc Rivayrand, Paris’ defense attaché in Bulgaria.

Novo Selo offered “an excellent live-fire range,” he said. The units that trained there could use all types of ammunition and shoot all day and night. The only restriction was the use of tracer rounds during a dry period when brush began catching fire.

Because of a network of irrigation ditches, however, the maneuver area was limited, he said, especially for the heavy armored vehicles.

“Our tanks had to stay on the reinforced roads,” he said, “otherwise we would have just destroyed the place.”

The Koren training range, which the French and other NATO nations also have used extensively, “is perfect, with a large-scale maneuver area.”

Not so great were the troop facilities. Barracks, he said, were dilapidated and flea infested.

The Graf Ignatievo Air Base, said defense analyst Tom Donnelly, who traveled there last year, would “require significant investment to make it fully useful to American or modern NATO air forces.”

Still, he said, planned upgrades will provide the base with a modern air traffic control system. The recent runway expansion — as well as apron and taxiway improvements — has opened the airfield for wide use.

“British Jaguar units have deployed to Graf Ignatievo for training successfully, and bombing and air combat ranges are said to have few restrictions,” Donnelly said. “There is ample surrounding land to expand the base, which has a railhead running to it. The local populace seemingly would like nothing better than to host an American or NATO permanent installation.”

Test drive

Bulgarian government officials, said Shalamanov, are encouraging the U.S. military to try out the facilities.

In addition to test-driving the bases, he said, temporary leases for training would also help the cash-strapped country finance its support of U.S.-led international efforts.

Better yet, he said, training could focus on helping bring Bulgarian forces up to standard for those missions.

“Because Bulgaria is without serious experience, especially with large formations, the U.S. could really help us during the training,” Sholamanov said. “The military is eager for training, as well as suggestions for equipment and tactics.”

The country already is supplying peacekeepers in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Bulgaria also has volunteered to deploy a battalion into northern Iraq this summer with a second battalion following in October.

“We believe joint training of these troops with the U.S. will improve interoperability and will give Americans a chance to train on our ranges,” said Shalamanov.

“The money earned from the use of those facilities could then help offset the cost of our deployments.”

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