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NATO expands Mihai Kogălniceanu air base in Romania

Via Nick Thorpe, Central European correspondent

BBC's Eurofighter Storm in RomaniaBBC

Mihai Kogalniceanu (MK) is becoming the largest NATO air base in Europe

Six RAF Eurofighter Typhoons lay on the taxiway, two with their engines roaring, while ground staff rushed to put the finishing touches on before takeoff.

In the distance, a cloud of dust rose in the summer fog over the construction site of a second runway, 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) long, next to the first. The hot north wind blew into new and old hangars.

Mihai Kogalniceanu (MK) Air Base takes its name from the nearby village, named after a 19th-century liberal politician.

Now, this is not an unlikely setting for what is becoming NATO’s largest base in Europe, even larger than Ramstein in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin justifies his war in Ukraine on the grounds that NATO is encroaching on Russia’s European flank. In response to his invasion, many pieces were advanced on the NATO chessboard.

Getty Images A tank opens fire during a NATO exercise in Romaniabeautiful images

Bordering Ukraine, Romania is currently located right next to a war zone

The MK base will soon have a squadron of Romanian F-16s – recently purchased from Norway – as well as MQ-9 Reaper drones and a military city that NATO troops, air forces and navy Troops from 32 countries will rotate there.

The newest arrivals are the Finns. Just 20 km from the Black Sea coast, the base is 300 km from Odesa as the fighter flies and 400 km from Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea.

This is the third and last tour of duty for RAF pilot Flt Lt Charlie Tagg here.

“There is a much larger US presence here, more infrastructure, accommodation, people and equipment.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, changed both the areas he flew over and the strategic posture of the mission. In 2021, on their final tour, NATO fighter pilots flew far over international waters in the Black Sea. But now they stick to the 12 nautical mile zone above the territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria, “to avoid misunderstandings and escalation with the Russians.”

Lieutenant Charlie Tagg in front of the aircraft, inside the hanger

Lieutenant Charlie Tagg is on his third and final tour of duty at MK Air Base

“We were here before with the purpose of preventing any Russian aggression. Now it is more of a reassurance to other NATO countries, such as Romania, that we are here and we are ready to defend.”

There have been no calls to intercept Russian planes since his arrival, he said, despite previous missions over the Baltic Sea.

“They will just make a mistake – it is not against any international law, they have the right to do it. But we will place a plane next to that enemy plane. From a posturing standpoint, it shows the Russians… that we are being active. We are flying armed aircraft so it sends a clear message.

“And it also provides valuable intelligence to us, we are recording the serial numbers of the aircraft and the weapons that those aircraft are carrying, so it also provides information to the entire intelligence picture set.”

Colonel Nicolae Cretu

Colonel Nicolae Cretu is the commander at MK air base

Late at night at the British compound at the MK base, he watched the war unfold in neighboring Ukraine on his radar screen.

“We can see the Shahed drone entering Odesa. Heat sources on the ground, where weapons are impacting, reach radar feeds that are tracking aircraft, both friendly and not so friendly aircraft. So it was quite surreal.”

While NATO jets avoided unnecessary encounters with the Russians, there were two known incidents over the Black Sea. In September 2022, a Russian pilot misunderstood ground control orders and almost shot it down a British intelligence gathering aircraft with a crew of up to 30 people.

In March 2023, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone flying from Romania was detected. intentionally lowered by Russian SU-27 “Flanker” jets over international waters.

Getty Images Ukraine mourns a pilot who diedbeautiful images

Ukraine is suffering heavy losses in defense against the Russian invasion

Daily life at the MK base is mostly calm. In front of base commander Nicolae Cretu’s office block, flocks of seagulls and crows were noisily harvesting a row of cherry trees. In his semi-permanent office, Scott Delay of American Army Support – Black Sea, plans logistics for the 1,840 American personnel the base currently supports.

“We try to make them feel at home while they are here. So it’s really no different than any other community. It just has a fence around it.”

One thing American soldiers have had difficulty getting used to, he said, is that delivery times for items ordered on the internet can take weeks in Romania, instead of hours.

Before I left the base, British pilot Charlie Tagg gave me a tour of his plane. Up close, Typhoon looks strong but a bit old. But he explained, weapons are always being upgraded. It can now drop three different types of bombs.

“And we’re bringing in new radars, which will allow us to detect and intercept threats even further away.”


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