The strategic importance of European ports in US military deployment against Iraq

Misha Van Herck from Belgium explains how the main European harbours are set to play a vital role in the war preparations against Iraq. They can only be ‘replaced’ at a very high cost. Its is clear that without at least the passive collaboration of Belgium and Europe a war against Iraq would be impossible. The ports of Northern Europe will be filled with military equipment, supplies and ammunition.

'Victory is the beautiful bright coloured flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed'

(Winston Churchill)

On the August 17 and 18, 1990, the First Division Ready Brigade (DRB) of the 101 Airborne Division of the US army was sent in all urgency to Saudi Arabia to discourage an invasion by Iraq. This logistic movement included 2742 soldiers, 117 helicopters and 123 pallets of hardware with the help of heavy C-5 and C-141 Air Force planes.

However, the movement involved in the Desert Storm Operation obviously dwarfed what at the time was a seemingly impressive transport movement. Rapid transport-ships of the US navy and ships of the Ready Reserve Fleet carried more than 2000 tanks, 2200 other armoured vehicles, 1000 helicopters and many hundreds of different pieces of mobile artillery to the Persian Gulf. Roughly 85 percent of ammunition was transported by sea. And an important part of that US and British military transportation went through the European ports.

Military logistics of the 21ste century

Lieutenant General Roger G. Thompson of the United States Transportation Command expressed himself in lyrical terms on the logistic efforts of the Europeans during the Gulf War. In his speech at the Belgian port of Antwerp on April 27 1999 he declared: "…you in Europe supported this massive transportation effort in so many ways: bus companies delivered our troops to airfields; the ports of Northern Europe were filled with military equipment, supplies and ammunition; the Rhine river became a water highway for thousands of items of rolling stock; railroads contributed their capability; because we had so many of our own trucks either fully utilised or sent to Saudi Arabia, the armies of Holland, France, Belgium and Great Britain offered their truck units to assist; border clearance procedures were streamlined to allow our convoys and trains to pass more rapidly; airports and airlines also contributed;"

The speed and the scope of military deployment are of crucial importance in limiting human and material losses and in deciding a victorious military outcome. Hence the demand for an enquiry by the American Congress to determine the logistic needs for the US army in the 21st century. This 'Mobility Requirements Study' (MRS) advised the construction of - initially 20 but later reduced to 19 - supplementary logistics ships. Those ships are called 'Large Medium Speed Roll-On/Roll-Off Ships' (LSMR). Eight of those ships are used in 'prepositioning operations'. This is a permanent presence at sea of great quantities of military equipment near to potential or acute areas of conflict (the Army Prepositioning Afloat programme or APA). The task of the other eleven ships consists in the rapid transportation of reinforcements from the United States of America or from the Army War Reserves (AWR) situated outside US territory. One of these AWRs - called AWR 2 - is located in Europe and spreads over six localities namely: Brunssum, Coevorden, Eygeslhoven and Vriezenveen in the Netherlands, Bettembourg in Luxemburg and Zutendaal in Belgium. It is no accident that these are located near the two "main” North European ports, Antwerp and Rotterdam.

Apart from the LSMR and the ships for the transportation of troops pertaining to the US Marine Corps, we want also to stress the importance of the ships of the National Defence Reserves Fleet (NDRF) and of the Ready Reserve Force. Those are former commercial transport ships which have been kept in reserve in the US or overseas and which can become operational within four to one hundred and twenty days in moments of crisis.

The US Army also contracted American merchant ship owners to guarantee its logistical needs in 'peacetime' (Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement or VISA). Since the war preparations against Iraq the US Army has approached the international chartered market. Lloyd's of London announced four times at the beginning of August 2002 the intentions of the US Navy to charter a big roll-on-roll-off ship. It was clearly specified that those ships had to enter three ports in North and South West Europe.

The North Atlantic sea-lane is the most important logistical route for military deployment in the Middle East. This route includes the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Bremerhaven (Germany). An American strategic study mentions the following:

'Strategic lift is the critical lifeline for the Central Command, and is essential to the success of our operations. At over 7000 air miles and 8000 sea miles, the extraordinary distances from the US amplify the immense difficulties of moving a force in response to a regional crisis or contingency. As demonstrated during recent operations in the Gulf Region and in Somalia, strategic lift must remain a high priority.

Because of the great distances involved and limited theatre infrastructure in the AOR, the en route support structure provided at European strategic ports is vital to our ability to meet our operational commitments.' (our emphasis; quoted from: US and USCENTCOM Strategy and Plans for Regional Warfare, Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 1998; page 7)

Diplomatic and legal conditions

Military hardware alone is not enough to resolve those military and logistical problems. The USA has to invest relentlessly in maintaining and developing diplomatic relations with its allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation plays a pivotal role in this respect. NATO was created in 1949 as an alliance directed against growing Soviet power in Europe. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union NATO has been confronting a crisis of identity. The vision of the US of NATO's future is very clear. The US wants the alliance to become an instrument of their military hegemony in the world. More precisely, NATO needs to guarantee free access to vital logistical infrastructure. That's why the US pressurises the alliance to move outside of its territorial boundaries. Another study confirms this:

'The debate over NATO's mission has concerned whether and how to transform an alliance traditionally focused on the defence of members' territory into an alliance that is also capable - and willing - to respond to the crises that threaten the allies' collective interests near their territory, or even farther away. Some observers have summarised NATO's post Cold War prospects by the phrase "out of area or out of business”.'

'NATO will become the reservoir of multinational expertise and essential infrastructure to conduct the rapid deployment of task forces to respond to a wide array of crises.' (our emphasis; quoted from : Strategic Assessment 1996: Elements of U.S. Power; Chapter Ten: Security Relationships and Overseas Presence).

The September 11 events have accelerated this evolution. On October 4, NATO ambassadors decided to activate article 5 of the Treaty. This meant that all harbours and airports would be open to American military transportation. Despite the fact that European civilian infrastructure and personnel had become a logistical necessity they were still considered a security liability. Therefore the US wants the legal framework of NATO members to be adapted to meet the new security demands. Let's quote again from the strategic military documents:

'With the terrorist actions that occurred in 2001 and the corresponding heightened concern for the safety of MSC (Military Sealift Command) ships in the MSCEUR Area of Responsibility, Command Counsel was extensively involved in force protection/anti-terrorism (FP/AT) planning and coordination with COMSC and other European commands. Major issues addressed including defining the legal parameters for use of civilian mariners and contractor security forces in FP/AT actions and possible legal implications of these efforts, advising on weapons and self-defence training for civilian mariners, and assisting in Command negotiations on FP/AT responsibilities for MSC assets while in the MSCEUR Area of Responsibility.' (our emphasis; quoted: from The U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command, Europe; 2001 in Review, p.33)

This has meant for instance that in Belgium the highest magistrate of the 'main port' of Antwerp decided in September 2002 to prohibit all trade union demonstrations on the main roads leading to the harbour. The Minister of Interior also announced a new law which would give private security companies more powers. Moreover we have discovered lately that the US army envoys wanted the environment legislation to be adapted to circumvent the necessary inspections and security reports from local civil servants. This will mean increased risks for dockworkers, fire fighters and other personnel in the harbour.

Political consequences

The European harbours, and in particular the so-called 'main ports, are set to play a vital role in the war preparations against Iraq. They can only be 'replaced' at a very high cost. Its is clear that without at least the passive collaboration of Belgium and Europe a war against Iraq would be impossible.

This fact has far-reaching political consequences. In many, if not all, European countries the question of the war preparations against Iraq is dividing political parties and governments. The leaders of the 'socialist parties' claim they are opposed to the military solution against Iraq, at least in words. But there is no doubt that once the diplomatic manoeuvres inside or outside the United Nations have been exhausted these parties will rally behind the US/UK attack. 'We have done everything we could' will be their reply. The reaction of the Green parties will not be very different. This will be sheer hypocrisy! As they are fully aware of the above mentioned facts, a genuine opposition to the war would mean closing the European ports to US and British troops and military hardware. The absence of Belgian or German warships in the waters of the Middle East does not mean these counties are not participating in the war effort. In the Netherlands a ship being used for US military transportation was spotted two weeks ago in the port of Eemshaven. This has led to parliamentary interventions. Both the ministers of Interior and Defence replied that the ship was there for civilian purposes and that the US marine soldiers on the ship were in the port for… 'recreation'.

At a recent press conference, Vonk, the Belgian Marxist paper, also denounced the use of the Antwerp harbour for military purposes and it is waging a campaign of young people and trade unionists against the war and against capitalism. The launching of an Anti-War Committee in the same city attracted some 50 young people last week.

The trade unions in Europe and the antiwar movement, if they are really serious about their opposition to the war, should therefore call for and organise a trade union boycott of military transportation in the harbours and demand the dissolution of NATO itself.

November 2002

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