On a beach by the gray waters of the Black sea, scores of young American airmen are racing against the clock to get ready for war. Surrounded by Kalashnikov-toting Bulgarian military police, fenced in by red corrugated iron, and shrouded by a pine grove, the men of the US air force's 409th air expeditionary group are pioneers in a mission that is reconfiguring decades of the US military presence in Europe and redrawing Europe's military map.
"We're in a rush," said Sergeant Jason Smith, just arrived from Charleston in North Carolina. "Our main role is to support the global war on terror. And we're preparing for future operations."
Since last Tuesday night when two US Hercules transport aircraft dropped out of the sky from Ramstein base in Germany on to Bulgaria's Burgas airport, 200 meters from the Americans' beachside encampment, the airmen, many barely out of their teens, have been working frantically to get Burgas fit for the US war machine.
A U.S. KC-10 refueling plane sits at Sarafovo airport near Bulgaria's easthern city of Bourgas, some 480km from Sofia, March 4, 2003. The Bulgarian government approved US forces use of Sarafovo airport in the event of a US attack on Iraq. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
The battleship-gray transports - huge C-5 Galaxies, C-141s and the C-130 Hercules - have been landing almost every day over the past week, disgorging hot dogs and Coke, computers and secure phone systems, huge tarpaulins for a "tent city", showers and tanks of water, and more troops and pilots.
Yesterday afternoon a brace of KC-10A Extender jets, the biggest air tankers in the USAF, landed at Burgas to play a key role in the campaign against Saddam Hussein. The two tanker jets, capable of carrying more than 160,000kg of fuel, are to be followed by at least 14 others.
"No one asks us whether we like it or not," said Mincho Minchev, the Bulgarian airport's technical director. "We're just under orders to service the US aircraft. We're not told what's going on, just on a daily basis what will be arriving." The Americans on the beach at what has been dubbed Camp Sarafovo are the first foreign military to commandeer Burgas airport since the Luftwaffe seized it in 1943.
But they are the thin end of a wedge of a US military project that is appropriating strategic assets in a vital area that Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, terms the "new Europe".
"If things go on as they are right now, there will be a lot more of this," said Sgt Smith, at 27 a nine-year veteran of the USAF.
Just up the Black sea coast in neighboring Romania, hundreds of US troops as well as planes and helicopters have been pouring into an air base beside the port of Constanta over the past 10 days. Last November Washington invited Bulgaria and Romania to join Nato. With war looming, it is, perhaps earlier than expected, payback time for the impoverished, corrupt Balkan states whose proximity to the Middle East have boosted their value to Pentagon planners. Suddenly the talk of eastern Europe is of the Americans snubbing pacifist Germany and of redeploying their vast military presence there to the cheaper, more welcoming, and more passive "new European" countries of Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
With not a single vote cast against the decision in parliament in Sofia, the Bulgarian government last month offered the US the Burgas base, the Sarafovo camp (a holiday complex for Bulgarian army officers), and more in the pipeline. "We're ready to negotiate over locating American bases in Bulgaria," said Lubomir Todorov, the foreign ministry spokesman. "Our territory could be a very good place for new bases because it is close to the Middle East."
A senior western diplomat in Sofia said: "There's going to be a lot of activity here. It's a convenient location."
Just back from Washington last Thursday, the Bulgarian defense minister, Nikolai Svinarov, announced: "There's a possibility of providing four or five bases to the United States." The Romanians have already offered the port of Constanta, the center of the national oil industry, as well as the country's air bases.
In Poland, derelict Warsaw pact garrisons are being dusted down by enthusiastic locals who think the GIs are coming their way after spending a couple of generations in Germany. In Stuttgart yesterday, the top US commander in Europe, General James Jones, confirmed that Washington was looking at bases in Bulgaria, Romania and Poland for mobile and more flexible deployments of US forces in about a year's time.
He denied that the move was a "kneejerk reaction" aimed at punishing Germany for its anti-war stance, but was part of a reordering of US strategic planning. "This is not about building up eastern Europe in the same way we built up western Europe after world war two," he said
Public support for the Americans is soaring in Poland and Romania. In Bulgaria, which was so cravenly loyal to the Kremlin in the Soviet era that it was nicknamed the Soviet Union's 16th republic, opinion is more ambivalent.
There was a small anti-American demonstration in Burgas a couple of weeks ago and locals fear that the US airmen will wreck the Black sea tourist business that is its lifeblood. "Everyone's afraid. Who wants this?" said Mr Minchev.
But the opposition is passive. The government is committed to backing the Americans. Burgas is only an hour's drive from the Turkish border, a couple of hours' flying time from Baghdad, and home to the country's largest oil refinery with big money to be made from supplying the fuel that the Stratotankers will use.
The base is also to be used for secret operations. "It will be mostly refueling operations. But I expect a more intense exploitation of this base," Mr Todorov said.
Bulgaria is additionally valuable to the US. It is the only one of the 13 east European countries that have signed declarations of support for Washington to be currently sitting on the UN security council. The declarations infuriated France and Germany - old Europe in Mr Rumsfeld's description.
Washington can count on Bulgaria, as well as Britain and Spain, to support it on the new UN resolution on Iraq which aims to unleash a war. If Germany and France deride the east Europeans as the "new vassals", take the view that once a (Soviet) satellite, always a satellite, and Paris warns Bulgaria that it is imperiling its chances of joining the EU, the east Europeans are sulking but unrepentant.
Their history is that of being squeezed and invaded by the rival big powers. Just when they thought they were safe within the shelter of the west by getting entry tickets to Nato and the EU, they are being squeezed yet again between Europe and America over Iraq. "It's not fair," Mr Todorov said. In Burgas, the young Americans appear to be digging in for the long haul, the vanguard of a new stage of the Pax Americana.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003