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9 - The Mediterranean, a Sea Of Crisis


A change in Malta's foreign policy was the origin of a major change in AFSOUTH's organisation. Acceding to a request by the Maltese government and following an Italian invitation, NAVSOUTH was moved to Naples in 1971, to facilities on the little island of Nisida previously occupied by the Italian Air Force Academy. Notwithstanding the withdrawal of the headquarters from Malta, NATO signed a seven-year agreement with that government on the use of certain facilities.

Another period of serious tension in the Mediterranean made evident the need for NATO Allies to keep a close watch on events which, even if not in the area covered by the Treaty, were taken by the Soviets as opportunities for military build-up. During the Yom-Kippur War, in October 1973, Soviet Navy units in the Mediterranean were doubled, reaching a peak close to l00 units.

The oil price war that closely followed the end of the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict was a further factor for political instability in the whole area. Against this disturbing background, NATO Ministers had to stress once again the importance for the Alliance to maintain its defensive and deterrent capabilities.

In July 1974 a coup d'etat in Cyprus and a Turkish military action on the island marked a serious crisis in Greek-Turkish relations. A new Greek regime eventually decided to withdraw its forces from the NATO integrated military structure. While the solution of the Cyprus problem, as such, was a matter for the United Nations; the Atlantic Council made every effort to bring about reconciliation between the two NATO allies.

The withdrawal of Greek forces from the integrated structure left the Southern Region's eastern commands with responsibilities over mainly Turkish Forces. It was therefore natural to reinforce the existing co-ordination between NATO and national chains of command, by assigning command responsibility to Turkish officers. On 30 June 1978, the Commanders of Allied Land Forces Southeastern Europe and the Sixth Allied Air Force, both U.S. officers, were replaced in Izmir by colleagues of the hosting nation. Efforts by the Allies to improve the dialogue between Greece and Turkey continued and Greek forces returned to the NATO integrated military structure in October 1980, as the result of a proposal developed by Gen. Bernard W Rogers, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

The year before, NATO's Southern Region had to face a new problem, the expiration of the agreement on the use of military facilities in Malta. British forces had to move off the island and a compromise solution was found, thanks to an Italian mediation. Italy pledged to guarantee Maltese neutrality, while at the same time providing the island with economic assistance. Neutrality meant also denial of access of Soviet warships to Maltese shipyards. Only two years later, in l981, Malta signed an agreement with the Soviet Union for the use of the oil depots previously used by NATO countries. In 1984, while negotiating the renewal of the treaty with Italy, Malta signed an ambiguous agreement with Libya.

Despite the several crises which have affected the Mediterranean area since that time, for many years the Western Allies did not have any reason to further modify their common defensive organisation in the area. Improvements obviously were made, however, to maintain the necessary level of deterrence. Particularly significant has been the acquisition by NATO of the Airborne Warning and Control System. A force of 18 E-3A aircraft with its long-range airborne radars and the use of three forward deployment bases in the Southern Region covered the gaps in the air defence radar system. This was a significant improvement because the air threat had always been one of the most dangerous for the Southern Region.

Another significant change in the Southern Region's contribution to European defence was the deployment in Sicily of cruise missiles. In 1979 the Alliance had to realise that Soviet development of missiles such as the SS-20s and bombers like the nuclear-capable Backfire, were reinforcing the Warsaw Pact superiority in long-range nuclear forces. NATO adopted the so-called "dual track," to modernise her intermediate nuclear forces by deploying Pershing and cruise missiles and withdrawing a great number of older nuclear weapons. NATO also offered nations the opportunity to negotiate a verifiable agreement on armament reduction, which would have made the actual deployment of the new western missiles unnecessary. Italy, as well as other allied countries, accepted her share of the burden of hosting of some of these missiles. Since 1983, a part of this new deterrent arsenal was deployed in the AFSOUTH area, but this headquarters had no direct control over these weapons, eventually dismantled under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

A sign of the changing times in the 1980s was the new growing threat posed by international terrorism. AFSOUTH itself was directly affected with the kidnapping of a senior officer of the LANDSOUTH staff, Brig. Gen. James Lee Dozier, in 1981. The Italian Police rescued Brig. Gen. Dozier 42 days later, but it was clear that an international escalation of terrorism was in progress.

This escalation eventually led to the U.S.-Libya confrontation in 1986. That confrontation included an event which in theory created the conditions for Italy to claim the application of the provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty, when SCUD missiles were fired with the improbable intent to hit a U.S. Coast Guard communication facility on the island of Lampedusa. Italy chose not to call for a NATO response.

The Alliance policy was to deem any terrorist action a threat against its citizens which may jeopardize democratic institutions as well as normal international relationships -- a threat which required a new type of allied co-ordination. This policy was a sign of the changing roles of the Alliance, gradually shifting towards broader transatlantic co-ordination also in matters not directly affecting common defence.

The line of determination always followed by the 16 NATO nations has not always been easy to maintain, but has paid in tremendous dividends. The Euromissiles dispute was a case in point. We now know that the political risks taken, at a moment of Alliance fragility, to continue the deployment of INF missiles was the winning card which caused the collapse of the Soviet long-term strategy.

The international security situation, fostered by decades of NATO unity and Western economic progress - as compared to the internal Soviet economic drama - created the conditions for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 and Gorbachev's era of transition from confrontation to co-operation with the West.

The second half of the 1980's also saw some clear improvements in NATO's capabilities in the South. Spain became the 16th member of the Alliance and, even if not integrated into the military structure, started its military co-operation and participation in Southern Region exercises. These exercises, also strong catalysts for co-operation, started to often see participation by half of the NATO allies.

Eventually the improving co-operation with Spain led to the assignment (on 5 April 1990) of a Spanish Liaison Officer to AFSOUTH. There had also for years been a French Military mission - led by a Rear Adm. - and a Portuguese Liaison Officer.

During the 1980's, modernisation programs developed by all the regional countries significantly improved overall defence capabilities. Even though in several areas still years behind the Central Region in terms of modern forces, the situation was so improved that it allowed a Commander-in-Chief to suggest a "strategic leverage" role for the Southern Region. This referred to the pressure he would be able to exercise against the Southern Soviet Union, in the event of a Soviet aggression against Central Europe.

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