By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, December 14, 2015 — The spotlight shone on entertainment and sports celebrities last week as Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hosted a USO tour to various overseas bases.
But the tour also provided an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the service members who do the day-to-day work for the U.S. military mission at Sigonella Naval Air Station, Italy; Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti; Bahrain Naval Support Activity; and Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Naval Air Station Sigonella
Mount Etna overlooks this base on the eastern side of Sicily. Americans call the base “the Hub of the Med,” given its strategic location. The base was an important part of the Cold War infrastructure, with its P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft keeping watch from the skies for Soviet submarines. Sigonella’s strategic importance declined after the fall of the Soviet Union, and many people in Italy and the United States believed the U.S. presence would dwindle.
And then came the Arab Spring, said Navy Capt. Christopher Dennis, the U.S. commander of the base.
“Sigonella is perfectly positioned for actions in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said. “It is central to so many crucial areas.”
Sigonella played a part in the NATO operation over Libya, and its anti-sub mission continues as the base will soon begin operating P-8 Poseidon aircraft. In addition, there is a growing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance effort at the base with Global Hawk and Predators. The base also hosts a portion of the special purpose Marine air-ground task force that responds to crises in Africa.
There are now more than 4,000 sailors, airmen and Marines at the base, and they are busy, Dennis said.
When U.S. Army engineers first arrived at Camp Lemonnier in 2002, it had been out of use for years, and goats roamed the site. Originally a French base, the area had been stripped of anything useful. But geography is destiny, and Djibouti occupies key terrain on the Strait of Bab al Mandab at the mouth of the Red Sea. Camp Lemonnier is the only U.S. base on the African continent and comes under the command of U.S. Africa Command, while supporting elements operating in U.S. Central Command’s area of operations.
“We’re in Africa, but the Arabian Peninsula is right across the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, [and] we’re on a religious fault line between Christianity and the Islamic community,” said Army Maj. Gen. Mark Stammer, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.
While there is some spillover from the conflict in Yemen, the biggest terrorist threat comes over land from Somalia in the form of al-Shabab, the general said. “While al-Shabab’s strength and ability to project are waning, they still have intent and capability to harm us,” he said. “I don’t believe they have the ability to wage a long campaign, but they can definitely hurt people, as they have demonstrated in Somalia.”
About 4,000 U.S. service members are based at Camp Lemonnier at any one time. Most are involved with building partner nation capabilities and capacities. Other units provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and special operations support.
Naval Support Activity Bahrain
The U.S. Navy has had a presence in Bahrain since World War II. The Persian Gulf kingdom is home to the headquarters of the U.S. 5h Fleet, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the Combined Maritime Forces multinational naval partnership. The base is a logistics and command and control hub for naval forces operating in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, Centcom officials said.
Vessels ranging from patrol craft and mine countermeasure craft to Nimitz-class aircraft carriers dock in Bahrain. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains a cutter in the area. It is a base dedicated to maintaining freedom of navigation in a sea through which flows a large percentage of the world’s oil.
And across the Persian Gulf lies Iran. The grey-hulled U.S. Navy ships share the sea lanes with dhows, supertankers, Iranian navy vessels and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels.
It would be extremely difficult for U.S. naval forces to operate in the Persian Gulf without a base like NSA Bahrain, officials said.
Ramstein Air Base
Located in Rheinland-Pfaltz, Ramstein lies at the center of a concentration of about 56,000 American service members, Defense Department civilians and their families. Anyone assigned to operations in U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command or U.S. Central Command is affected by what happens at the base, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Ty Thomas, the commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at the base.
At the height of the Cold War, with almost 400,000 Americans based in Europe, Ramstein was a fighter base housing F-4 Phantom II fighter aircraft. Remnants of the hardened hangars still dot the base. Now, Thomas says, the base is the hub for aircraft supporting European Command, Africa Command and throughput to Central Command. It is also the headquarters for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa. The base is also a communications center for the American military.
Nearby is the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. As a base, Ramstein proved its worth during the Cold War. It is doing so again in the face of Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine. At the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the apron at the base was loaded with C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft coming from and going to the battlefield.
“It’s an irreplaceable bit of infrastructure,” Thomas said.
Dunford led the 2015 USO Holiday Show, which included actor/director/producers Elizabeth Banks and David Wain, singer Chris Daughtry, singer/songwriters Kyle Jacobs, Brett James and Billy Montana; comedian Sydney Castillo and Red Sox baseball players Steve Wright and Heath Hembree.