RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — U.S. Air Forces in Europe is mapping out ways to comply with a U.S. European Command plan to shift forces toward Eastern Europe in the coming years.

USAFE Commander Gen. Gregory S. Martin briefed EUCOM commander Marine Gen. James Jones on Wednesday on USAFE’s initial blueprint for such a move, which includes increasing its presence at bases in Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.

Jones, who also is the supreme allied commander-Europe, has said that it would be more economical and efficient to move U.S. troops away from western European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.

Martin noted, however, that the Air Force is different from the Army and Marines because the Air Force typically doesn’t rotate its forces to forward bases for weeks or months at a time, then return to the United States.

“We actually operate out of our bases. We fight from our bases,” Martin said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.

A hasty, massive move eastward could mean the Air Force would have to shut down bases that it genuinely needs and refurbish allied bases or build new posts from scratch at a huge cost, he said.

“We have to weigh carefully what force structure he [Jones] needs here to handle his emergencies that pop up; what force structure he needs here to engage with the different countries; and how the base structure best suits that and how the rotational structure best suits it,” Martin said.

The command is doing just that by developing a model for the Air Force to extend its reach eastward by improving allied and partnership-for-peace bases in the region and increasingly using them for exercises and weapons practice. If it makes sense in the coming years to wholly move to such a base, upgrades would already be in place.

“If we come, they will build,” Martin said.

The concept of eastern European bases is getting a good first test during Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially because of Turkey’s reluctance to support U.S. troops on its soil. The Air Force, including a sizable contingent of USAFE airmen, is operating supply and refueling operations out of bases in Constanta, Romania, and Burgas, Bulgaria.

Troops and contractors already are upgrading buildings, constructing roads and making other improvements. Other bases in those countries also are being studied for future use.

“I’m committed to operating out of those bases and to continue to develop them [to prepare for] future contingencies and exercises,” Martin said.

In addition, USAFE plans a major exercise in Poland this summer. The Poles already have pumped $20 million into Krzesiny Air Base in anticipation of the exercise.

Martin visited Romania and Bulgaria during a tour of forward-operating bases last weekendUltimately, some of those bases might become forward posts that troops deploy to on three- to six-month rotations. U.S.-based units such as certain intelligence and reconnaissance squadrons already rotate through Europe, so it wouldn't be much of a stretch to move them east, he said.

“All of those places now represent opportunities for us to create relationships that someday will allow us the access we need,” he said.

In the meantime, Martin argued against the abandonment of all its bases in Western Europe to, for example, move units back to “hub” bases in the United States.

Because of limited airlift and refueling capabilities, the service needs bases roughly every 2,500 to 3,500 miles apart, he said. European bases are key in that chain.

For example, he said, right now the Air Force is using six bases in Western Europe to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the event of a major contingency, many more bases could be needed. For example, during Operation Allied Force — the campaign in Kosovo, 22 bases were used.

During a humanitarian airlift operation, such as that in Mozambique, the service needs three- to four bases in the area of operations.

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