In Eindhoven, The Netherlands, sits one of the most important logistical facilities of the military alliance. Under the leadership of a German colonel the MCCE ensures that weapons get to crisis areas and soldiers to military training – and that the Bundeswehr is spared embarrassment.
The most secure space of the centre is a room without windows. No one can listen in on conversations there, the location is only accessible through several levels of security. Colonel Reinhard Krell walks past the door. “We need this meeting room maybe once every two weeks” he says. Only when it comes to highly sensitive tasks: For instance when soldiers were killed in operations abroad and are to be brought home, the air transport is discussed in here. The general public would not yet know of the deceased, hence the secrecy. The logistics unit of NATO, the Movement Coordination Centre Europe at Eindhoven Air Base, is also handling such delicate tasks.
The 58-year-old Colonel Reinhard Krell is heading the MCCE for over a year. Under him are currently 32 soldiers from 17 nations, all of them “the best men from their countries” as Krell says. Each week they receive between 20 and 50 transport tasks and ensure their implementation.
Currently, hell is going on: Krell’s people are bringing tanks, jeeps, ammunition as well as hospital beds or complete infirmaries into and out of crisis areas. Even with the deployment of troops, the evacuation of diplomats or Special Forces, Krell’s specialists are involved. They use aircraft,ships or trucks of the participating NATO countries. The refuelling of fighter jets in the air is also one of their tasks: With access to all 62 tanker aircraft of the member nations the MCCE provides something like the largest free gas station above the clouds.
As in a huge transport pool centre, the MCCE organises every conceivable transport task for the military – even if it is sauna stones for Finnish soldiers in their camps abroad. The MCCE currently has 25 member nations, Slovakia will soon join as number 26. The logistics centre on the upper floor of the red brick building in Eindhoven makes all military transports of these nations visible.
This morning ten soldiers sit inthe open-plan office, each one in front of multiple displays. They look at charts and flight plans, they know every air transport of the member nations. On a window sill stands a world atlas with red illuminated digits: For each major region the local time is visible. For instance, the British Army sends a Boei ng 747 from Brize Norton Air Base to Camp Bastion Airport in Afghanistan every week. This week the Belgian Army needs space for some containers on part of that leg, the Swedes require cargo space on the way back. The soldiers in the MCCE match supply and demand. In a private company, they would be called forwarding agents or transport brokers. It is an unparalleled facility. And the cooperation is of enormous help to the nations’ armed forces, some of which are in a somewhat poor state. For example, the Bundeswehr.
Recently, once again a Transall aircraft had to stay on the ground. It was supposed to bring trainers and equipment to Erbil in northern Iraq, but could not take off because of technical defects. Out of 56 Transall aircraft only 21 are fully operational. For the NH-90 helicopters, there are two – out of 33. The transport equipment of the armed forces is outdated, in part dating back to the times of the Korean War. Only with the cargo aircraft Airbus A400M, of which the first aircraft is currently entering service, the situation should improve. In the end, for the flight to Erbil, NATO partner The Netherlands flew the urgent German delivery.
Recently, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen received a alarming study report on the current state of the Bundeswehr. Verdict: The federal government squanders billions of euros when procuring defence equipment, and its state of maintenance is often poor. Neighbouring countries are the same: France’s air transport fleet is grounded, the first A400M successor aircraft are constantly on mission. Smaller NATO countries are unable to meet their transport requirements. The logistics unit MCCE, established in the year 2007, was designed precisely for that reason: as a neutral NATO facility, to resolve their transport problems. If necessary, also with unconventional means such as the current use of the Russian cargo plane Antonov. An employment that is controversial at the moment, given the difficult relationship with Russia.
At the edge of the airfield of the military base in Eindhoven stands one of these largest transport aircraft in the world, a white-blue Antonov of the Volga-Dnepr company. The cargo plane, two and-a-half times as big as the new A400M, has lifted its nose up. Dutch soldiers are loading vehicles into it. “Without the Antonov, NATO could not fulfil its tasks” says Colonel Krell. Using the bypass of a “sub-community” of 12 nations and with a long-term contract his logistics unit can utilise the much desired freighter. Unless the operating company just hired it to Siemens or another industrial group. Because of the ailing fleet of the Bundeswehr, this kind of solutions are inevitable, also from the perspective of the Military Commissioner of the Bundestag. “We have to live with the current overaged aircraft. The gaps must be filled with other means” says the Military Commissioner Hellmut Königshaus (FDP) to the “Welt am Sonntag”. This could be achieved with civilian transport providers or through increased cooperation. “If old aircraft are put out of service, but new ones have not yet been delivered, interim solutions are needed. Here, a European facility can help” says Königshaus with a look to the MCCE. Surplus transport capacity could be better utilised “if it is offered jointly on a European level”.
Precisely this is the objective of the logistics centre in Eindhoven, and the soldiers there enjoy amazing autonomy. “This is my first job without a boss” says Colonel Krell, who during his career has already served on 16 postings. Even from the Ministry of Defence no one tells him what to do. On the state of the Bundeswehr and its causes, Krell expresses himself with restraint. Investments in the old unit, as he calls the Transall, were stopped prematurely. “Specialists are not everywhere” says Krell. But the pressure from the Parliament to reduce the armed forces is enormous. “No one knew in advance how much would transpire” he says and he refers to the crisis areas in which Germany is involved.
The logistics centre starts working as soon as national armies ask for it. And this demand is increasing: From 2012 to 2013, the brokered freight volume has quadrupled, and it will continue to increase this year. Member nations in 2013 alone filed a total of 350 requests for airlift, from January to August 2014 there were as much as 400. The tasks are complex: Krell’s soldiers make flight plans and arrange for overflight permissions, even in remote areas. They order the gasoline for refuelling and even search for hotels for the crews. Inland surface transport and sealift are also included. If required, the MCCE can deliver each transport to the front door or barracks entrance. Currently, for example, the logistics centre is planning the NATO exercise “Trident Juncture”, which will be held next year in southern Europe.
The transports are not paid for with money, because that would make the system complicated and inflexible. Instead, flight hours are credited: The basis is the C-130 transport aircraft, one flight hour with that is the currency. For instance, the French army currently requires two of these equivalent flying hours for one flight hour of their more expensive Airbus A310. These equivalent factors are updated annually. Those, that are too expensive and hardly booked, will reduce their rates, the market sets the price. The soldiers in the MCCE calculate every match into these units, all is retraceable for all in spreadsheets. However, too high a “debt” is also in this system taboo: Each nation can be maximum 600 flight hours in the red. A similar system applies to the land and sea transport.
Still, the material advantages for the member nations can be calculated also in money: According to their own statements, nations save at least a five-digit amount of money per match through the work of the MCCE as opposed to using civilian transport companies. For that, Krell and his men do nothing else all day but seek and use spare capacities. For example, the Danish army has contracts for special ships of the civilian ship owner DFDS. These are Ro-Ro ships, the ramps of which are in the side and that are therefore able to take on board heavy tanks even in shallow harbours. This fleet is on their regular routes available to all member nations of the MCCE. The Dutch in turn have a particularly economical bus company at hand: If soldiers need onward transport after a flight to their base, the logistics centre reverts to that contract.
Colonel Krell is in the planning area, a soldier from Turkey is briefing the day’s work. The man is wearing a collar and tie, while a British colleague in sand coloured fatigues looks like he came in from desert deployment. A Frenchman in a short-sleeved shirt joins. “This one you can send with a knife between his teeth everywhere, he will get through” Krell says of the paratrooper. He has seen many soldiers. Right after school, Krell began as a grenadier in the army and has since then worked his way up: To battalion commander in Erfurt, department head at the Ministry of Defence under Franz Josef Jung, and the NATO Head Quarters in Lisbon. For him there seem to be no unsolvable problems. As a toddler, Krell miraculously survived a tragic accident. He was less than two years old when he fell into a tub of boiling water on his parents’ farm in northern Hessen. More recently he was hit by a car in Lisbon while riding his motorbike to NATO. He broke his hip. Yet, little seems to startle the wiry soldier. Deployments have brought Krell in almost all crisis areas. For months he was in Afghanistan, he knows Sudan or Mali as well as other countries in Africa.
When Hurricane “Katrina” devastated the southern United States, Krell was deployed on site and coordinated aid transports. And after the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 with 100,000 dead, Krell was several months on site. He knows the work on the streets: With dollar bills in hand, Krell went out and got trucks and drivers for transports inland. Those were his most satisfying missions, as he says today. There could soon be more of this kind of humanitarian operations. In the large conference room Krell asks his soldiers for a spontaneously convened conference call: Half a dozen organisations want to bring relief supplies to the countries affected by the Ebola epidemic in Africa. This fits the latest offer of the MCCE: The busy Krell has just brought the Member Nation Austria to show in Eindhoven to other NATO countries a special operating room. The medical device can be carried on cargo aircraft and doctors can operate in it during flight. With the MCCE orientation on humanitarian aid, Colonel Krell pursues yet another goal: He wants to enlist the United Nations as a member.
Another major task: The logistics centre must reorganise the redeployment of troops and equipment from Afghanistan. As of 2015, the current transport route will be blocked. Because NATO does not want to renew the transit agreements for the route, that also runs through Russian territory. The prerequisite is to cover as many kilometres as possible by freight train. After sealift, that is the most economic means of transport. Krell’s people have already found an alternative route up to the Black Sea. It leads through states like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. For the negotiations on that, Krell took Turkish, Polish or Czech colleagues with him, all of who speak Turkish – which helps in for instance Azerbaijan. “I live here
on what my men bring with them” says Krell. And sometimes that is a red canoe. A British soldier who is about to begin in the MCCE, had the long, slim boat transported to Eindhoven. Now it is in the ground floor of the building. For the Brits, that was quite easy to solve, as their service members are allowed to bring luggage up to 50 kilograms for free on their duty travels. Krell likes this harbinger of the new man, even if he has not yet met him personally. He expects his people to do sports.
Whether Krell would also accept a carpet? The Colonel smiles, he understands the hint: The former Development Minister Dirk Niebel, currently a lobbyist for the defence industry, once took a carpet with him from Afghanistan and had the Air Force bring it to Germany. “For us that would only go through a task from the Ministry of Defence” says Krell. And its ministers had not yet filed such a request.
Source: Welt am Sonntag