Eight US F-16 multirole combat aircraft arrived at the Graf Ignatievo Air Base in Bulgaria on July 9 for this year’s iteration of the Thracian Star military exercise. The joint American-Bulgarian air force exercise is being conducted to, according to US Air Forces in Europe and Air Force Africa, "enhance the ability to rapidly deploy to remote locations and provide credible force to assure stability for the region."
The region is the Black Sea, where what the US and NATO consider "temporarily-occupied territory," Crimea, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet are located. Not far beyond are the South Caucasus, the Donbass and the Middle East (for example, Syria and Iran).
The F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft arrived from the Aviano Air Base, Italy, which was employed for NATO’s bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, and airmen from the 435th Combat Training Squadron and the 4th Combat Training Squadron deployed from Ramstein, Germany where both US Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command have their headquarters. The latter two share a commander, as do NATO as a whole (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) and US European Command and US Naval Forces in Europe and Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO.
As with other US-led air combat drills, Thracian Star 21 will provide the American Air Force the opportunity of engaging in mock combat encounters with Russian-designed aircraft. Bulgaria is providing Sukhoi SU-25 ground attack aircraft and Mi-24 helicopters for the purpose; in the past it has also supplied MiG-29 jet fighters, but will not do so this year because the crash of one last month which killed a Bulgarian pilot. But the host nation will provide anti-aircraft missile units. Maneuvers will occur in the air space of Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. Another description of the exercise states it will "include offensive counter air and defensive counter air, protection of high value assets, and close air support in a contested environment."
In the past the exercise has included as many as 32 F-16s.
The Graf Ignatievo Air Base also hosts the regular Thracian Viper air force exercises. Last year’s version was described by its director of operations as "important because it gives us the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Bulgaria and NATO."
The current exercise follows on the heels of several other U.S. activities and actions in the region:
- The US and 31 allies and partners completed the two-week Sea Breeze war games in the Black Sea on July 10.
- The Pentagon led the Swift Response airborne exercise in Bulgaria and Romania (as well as Estonia) in May with over 7,000 troops from 11 nations as part of the mammoth DEFENDER Europe 21 exercises.
- Five American warships, including four guided-missile/interceptor-missile destroyers and cruisers, have been deployed to the Black Sea this year independent of the series of U.S./NATO exercises held there.
- In June US B52 strategic bombers flew over the Black Sea escorted by Turkish F-16s.
- The US announced it is funding a $152-million construction project in Romania to transform the air base in Câmpia Turzii into a "new major hub for NATO aircraft in the Black Sea region."
- In May the U.S. participated in the Trojan Footprint special operations forces exercise in Black Sea nations Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania as well as in Montenegro and North Macedonia.
Bulgaria and Romania were inducted into NATO at its summit in Turkey in 2004. The following year the US signed an agreement with Romania to secure the use of five military bases, including the Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, Babadag Training Range, Cincu Training Range and Smârdan Training Range.
Earlier this year the US announced it was going to base both surveillance and combat drones (MQ-9 Reapers) at the Romanian Air Force Base 71 at Câmpia Turzii.
The Mihail Kogălniceanu base was used for the US’s attack against Iraq even before Romania joined NATO, and since for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. It serves as the home of NATO Enhanced Air Policing in the Black Sea region and hosts the U.S. Army Europe’s Black Sea Area Support Group.
In 2006 the U.S. signed a complementary military agreement with Bulgaria for the deployment of American troops and equipment to the Bezmer Air Base, Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Novo Selo Range and Aitos Logistics Center in Bulgaria.
The Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base and the Graf Ignatievo Air Base are among the most important American military bases outside the US. They have been expanded and upgraded since Washington gained access to them 15-16 years ago. They were the first military bases the Pentagon gained access to in former Warsaw Pact nations. They have not been the last.
The Deveselu airbase in Romania, closed in 2003 but reopened by the U.S. in 2015, now contains U.S.-NATO Standard Missile-3 Block IB interceptor missiles.