Marines find they are much in demand as NATO war grows

Leaders worry that troops will be spread too thin to fight if necessary

War In Yugoslavia

May 15, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CAMP HOPE, Albania -- When the first Kosovar Albanian refugees arrived this week at the camp the U.S. military built, they found not only rows of neat tents and a shiny new kitchen -- but more than 100 Marines armed with weapons ranging from rifles to mortars.

The Marine force reflects the surrounding countryside's rough character: mafia gangs in town, rising concerns over crime and nights punctuated by automatic weapons fire.

The razor wire at the north end of camp near Fier does not mark the end of the Marine mission.

The Marines are in demand throughout the Balkans: to guard helicopters, build more camps and guard them -- all while launching airstrikes and standing by to rescue downed pilots in Kosovo.

They are also likely to be among the first U.S. peacekeepers if a political settlement ends NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

Running out of Marines

So numerous are the calls for Marines that commanders fear one of the most agile forces in the region may become so mired in a series of indefinite humanitarian missions that they might not be available for peacekeeping -- or combat, if necessary.

"These are all things that Marines train to do, day in and day out. We're perfectly suited for all these missions," said Col. Kenneth Glueck, who commands the 2,200 Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"That's our strength. But if we're not careful, we'll find ourselves out of Marines."

The Marines in Albania illustrate the military's dilemma on a larger scale.

Expeditionary warfare -- being able to reach the battlefield quickly and adapt to any circumstance -- is only now being embraced by the Air Force and, to a lesser extent, the Army. But comparatively few units have mastered this new form of fighting, putting greater strain on those that have.

The stakes are high. If fighting unexpectedly breaks out on the Kosovo-Albania border, many of the Army forces in Tirana would be unable to get there quickly. Their 58-ton M1A2 Abrams tanks would have trouble negotiating the road to the border.

War clips their wings

Glueck wants his unit to be able to get into the fray by helicopter quickly if ordered. But the security missions at the camps alone are taking troops from his front-line combat units to patrol fences and guard refugees.

Even the air war deprives Marines of one of their most valued weapons: their six AV-8B Harrier jump jets. The jets, flying off the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea, are being used in NATO's bombing campaign, so they are not immediately available to give Marines air cover if they run into trouble.

And if NATO orders peacekeepers into Kosovo, Marines would need the full range of their forces -- artillery, armored vehicles and aircraft -- to back them up.

"That's how the U.N. peacekeepers got into trouble in Bosnia -- when they couldn't bring enough force to bear," said Glueck.

In 1995, United Nations peacekeepers found themselves at the mercy of the Bosnian Serbs, unable to defend the Muslim population and themselves taken hostage for a while.

Camp Hope illustrates just how the Marines are being pulled into a strategy of steady expansion. When the Pentagon started building the camp two weeks ago, 30 Marines from Lima Company's 3rd Platoon landed here to guard contractors' bulldozers and payrolls.

Today, 130 Marines keep watch from eight sentry posts, man a sniper position in a water tower and run at least four roving patrols, armed with M-16A2 rifles or .50-caliber machine guns.

The Marines have been called in because Albania is long on crime and short on order. When Albania's government collapsed in 1997, thousands of weapons were looted from armories. The strength of organized crime grew.

Senior Marine officers say the area around Camp Hope is the turf of at least two gangs. Intelligence indicates that potential for drug trafficking and prostitution will likely increase as the camp burgeons into a small town. Already, nighttime is punctuated by random gunfire a few hundred yards away.

None of the fire has been directed at the Marines. Local people have told the Marines that criminals shoot at night to terrorize local farmers. But it's close enough to hit the camp and has stirred pleas of help to local police.

Eventually, aid groups will assume the responsibility of providing security for Camp Hope and its inhabitants, drawing from local police and the refugees themselves.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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