NATO nerve center in transition

FRANKFURT, Germany — A year ago this month, at the height of NATO's air

war against the Serbs in Kosovo, the U.S. military transformed a small airstrip

near Frankfurt International Airport into the nerve center of one of the

most successful real-time surveillance operations in history.

Rhein-Main Air Base is indistinguishable from the urban sprawl that surrounds

the Frankfurt airport. But that's where the U.S. Air Force built a home

for a squadron of joint surveillance target attack radar systems (JSTARS)

aircraft during the war in Kosovo.

For 78 days, the JSTARS crew members took off in full view of the public

and directed NATO aircraft to Serb targets using JSTARS' sophisticated array

of radar sensors and data communications systems.

But Rhein-Main is in transition. The United States on Dec. 23, 1999, agreed

to cede control of the base to Germany by 2005 and will consolidate its

military air operations at Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases.

Most of Rhein-Main will be transferred to the Frankfurt airport, a spokesman

for the base said.

Although the U.S. reportedly will receive $400 million for returning the

base to Germany, some of the information technology infrastructure upgrades — including underground fiber-optic cable — installed by the Air Force during

last year's Operation Allied Force will remain in place, according to a

spokeswoman for U.S. Air Forces Europe headquarters.

"If it's cheaper to remove it, that's what they will do," the spokeswoman

said.

Aside from a small staff of military personnel, "Freedom Birds" — charter

flights that ferry troops between the United States and Europe — represent

the only major activity at Rhein-Main today, according to spokesman for

the U.S. European Command.

"We are still a contingency base and maintain the capability to do what

we did during Allied Force," the base spokesman said.

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