Will We Have an Established NATO Naval Presence in the Black Sea?

Uncategorized - January 17, 2024

The Biden administration has managed to finalise a Black Sea strategy at the last minute before the 2024 US election year. For the past few decades, the US – like other major European states – has seemed to ignore countries in the region, but the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation has forced the administration in Washington to rethink its strategy, including its military presence. For the first time, in the middle of last year, the US Congress passed The Black Sea Security Act, which will form the basis of the US strategy for the region, one of the key points of which is to ensure a constant NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. This is, however, difficult to achieve in the light of the Montreaux Convention, which only allows access to these waters by littoral states.

Under an agreement concluded in 1936 in Montreux (Switzerland), also known as the Montreux Convention, Turkey gained control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, the only maritime access routes to the Black Sea. The Montreux Convention limits access to the Black Sea to the number and tonnage of warships belonging to countries other than those bordering the Black Sea. Access by aircraft carriers and submarines is also prohibited and the stationing of military vessels belonging to other countries is limited to 21 days. 

Will the US open its fourth military base in Romania?

In this context, Romania has become, for the US, the point from which “it will help project power in the Black Sea”, as the former head of US troops in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, said. For this reason, in recent months, after the adoption of the law, voices have appeared in the public arena, more and more concretely, supporting, on the one hand, a permanent American presence in Romania – currently American forces operate from three Romanian military bases and on a rotational system – but also scenarios that could circumvent the provisions of the Montreaux Convention. One of these envisages a NATO fleet sailing under the Romanian flag. This would require the US to consider investing in a fourth US military base in Romania, in addition to those at Mihail Kogalniceanu, Deveselu and Câmpia Turzii, with a maritime component in the Danube Delta.

General Ben Hodges, as well as the former US ambassador to Bucharest, Adrian Zuckerman, are declared supporters of a permanent US military presence in Romania, even if – at least for the moment – a US base on the model of the one in Poland is a taboo subject. The two noted the progress made by Romania in recent years in terms of equipping its army, but criticised the still precarious infrastructure, which is an impediment not only for the civilian but also for the military area and can represent a disadvantage with serious consequences in the event of external aggression.

“There are thousands of US troops constantly in Romania, both ground and air forces. I’d like to see more, I’d like to see a permanent presence,” said retired General Ben Hodges last year.

“For us, the United States, Romania is the center of gravity. We have thousands of American troops near Constanta, and the Air Force flies out of Câmpia Turzii, which is a Romanian air base. From a security point of view, obviously, along with the rest of NATO, it’s the perfect place from which to help project power into the Black Sea,” he said. 

“Romania has one of the best militaries in NATO, so we’re going to be here in Romania for a long time, and I think it’s very impressive the way the Romanian Ministry of Defence has worked to modernise the Romanian forces,” said General Hodges, who was commander of NATO’s allied ground forces from 2012-2014.

And, indeed, in recent years major progress has been made in terms of state-of-the-art technology, with Romania acquiring Patriot systems, Himars launchers, NSM coastal batteries and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, and the purchase of the F-35 Lightning II, a 5th generation aircraft produced by Lockheed Martin, which is the most sought-after new military aircraft by many NATO member states. The F-35 programme has an estimated Phase 1 value of $6.5 billion and could be the most expensive military procurement programme in Romania’s history. The transition to 5th generation aircraft is scheduled to take place after 2030 and involves infrastructure, logistics and pilot training.

The Balck Sea Security Act is a Republican and Democratic amendment to the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was passed on July 27, 2023. Basically, the Balck Sea Security Act obliges the US government to develop a comprehensive strategy that combines diplomacy, intelligence, economic investment and the military to ensure security in the region, including energy security. In this context, as part of this strategy, the Phoenix project was launched last year, whereby the US will bring in a small nuclear reactor, as revealed at the October hearings of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Black Sea strategy as it has been outlined so far. The Black Sea Security Act states that it is “in the interest of the United States to support efforts to prevent the spread of armed conflict in Europe by recognising the Black Sea region as an arena of Russian aggression” and recognises the essential role of the littoral states in countering this aggression. At the same time, the Black Sea Security Act “stresses the need for a stable, rotational NATO maritime presence in the Black Sea”.

Turkey, which controls access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, is opposed to such a scenario, citing the 1936 Montreaux Convention, which limits access to the Black Sea to vessels not belonging to the littoral states. The US military presence in Romania increased significantly immediately after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, even before the Black Sea Security Act was passed. While by 2021 there were 500-1000 military forces in Romania, deployed on a rotational basis, the number now stands at around 5000. Moreover, over the last two years, the executive in Bucharest has consistently called for an increased NATO military presence on Romanian territory to ensure the defence of the eastern flank of the North Atlantic alliance and, at the same time, to deter a possible Russian offensive. 

220 million to modernise military bases in Romania

In 2022, the US has allocated more than $220 million for the modernisation of three military bases in Romania: the 71st Air Base in Câmpia Turzii (Cluj county), the 57th Air Base in Mihail Kogălniceanu (Constanta county) and the Romanian Land Forces Training Centre in Cincu (Brasov county), which has become the headquarters of the NATO Battle Group in Romania. About half of the total amount went to the Câmpia Turzii site. Last year, in October, an elite US Army unit, the 101st Airborne Division, was sent to Romania to support NATO’s eastern flank. Earlier, in February, two US Air Force Europe (USAFE) F-35 Lightning II aircraft were deployed to 86th Air Base in Borcea.

In terms of maritime presence, so far only one US warship, the destroyer USS Nitze, has been seen operating in the Black Sea in the past year. This was the closest US warship to Russia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The ship entered the region and visited Turkey on the 3rd of February, which was confirmed on the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet Twitter account, and a few days later the ship also visited the port of Piraeus in Greece.