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What the U.S. enhancing its military presence in NATO nations could look like

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, today, among the agreements announced at the NATO summit this week, the U.S. said it would enhance its military presence in a number of NATO member nations. But we wondered what that actually means and, frankly, what that looks like. Our producer, Miguel Macias, who's here with us in Madrid, went to find out, and he is with us now to tell me what he saw. Hi, Miguel.

MIGUEL MACIAS, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. Great to be with you in Madrid.

MARTIN: Well, likewise. So tell us a little bit about where you went this week and why it matters.

MACIAS: Well, while you all were at the summit, I took a cab for about 20 minutes to the air base at Torrejon de Ardoz, just outside of Madrid. This is a major Spanish Air Force base that has been in use since the late '50s and continues to be a major asset for a number of purposes. But the reason why we're talking about it today is because it is also home to a NATO unit - the so-called Combined Air Operations Centre.

MARTIN: What did you see while you were there? What stood out to you?

MACIAS: So first of all, let me point out that part of their security measures involved no recording at all until the moment I sit for my interview. And as a radio producer, this was painful. As you know, Michel, I was...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes, I could imagine.

MACIAS: ...You know, dying to record more. I was picked up at the entrance to the base by my contact, Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Dominguez.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Dominguez - is he from Spain?

MACIAS: Actually, no. Manuel is French. Long story - he's super charming, he's telling me all these things, and I asked him again if I could record. Of course, the answer was no.

Anyway, NATO has two buildings inside the base. One of them is a newer building with all the flags of the NATO members outside, and that's pretty much the only newer construction I see. Everything else looks kind of old, actually, and not particularly well kept, at least from the looks of it.

MARTIN: Well, what else did you see?

MACIAS: Fun fact - all the planes from the official delegations at the NATO summit were parked there. So, for example, I saw Air Force One for the first time in my life, along with four other planes from the American delegation.

MARTIN: So you saw a little hardware - that's interesting. But were you able to talk to anybody on the record while you were there?

MACIAS: Yes, I was. But first, I had to leave all my things in a locker at the entrance of the second building NATO has inside the base. This is all a classified area. I had to leave my cell phone, USB drives, laptop, and I could only take the equipment I had reported to them days before. They also gave me a badge that I had to use every time we changed rooms. But I digress. You want to know who I was able to record an interview with?

MARTIN: Yes.

MACIAS: OK. I spoke to Lieutenant General Fernando de la Cruz Caravaca, commander of the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre in Torrejon. I'll let him introduce himself.

FERNANDO DE LA CRUZ CARAVACA: Well, I'm Lieutenant General de la Cruz from the Spanish Air Force, and we are in the Combined Air Operations Centre in Torrejon, which is a dedicated unit that take care of and secure the airspace in southern Europe - from Madeira and Canary Islands until Turkey and all the Black Sea, Romania. And of course, right now, we have dedicated flights in those countries close to the Ukrainian border.

MACIAS: De la Cruz knows a thing or two about air operations and planes.

DE LA CRUZ CARAVACA: My background - I was a fighter pilot in the Spanish Air Force, so I joined the military long ago. In fact, I started my career when Spain joined NATO in 1982. So I was, let's say, in the NATO environment from the beginning.

MARTIN: So how many NATO units are there in Spain, and what do they do?

MACIAS: Well, this is interesting, Michel, because growing up in Spain, when I was young, I always thought that the U.S. Army bases - and there are two of them in Spain - were NATO bases, but they're not. They're quite literally U.S. military bases on Spanish soil. They're both in the south of Spain - Andalusia, where I'm from - the air force base of Moron and the naval base of Rota. But the unit inside Torrejon is the only NATO unit in Spain.

DE LA CRUZ CARAVACA: This unit in Spain is a - we work together - 18 nations - people from 18 NATO nations. Our - my responsibility is to protect the 14 nations in southern Europe. So we work all together for the same mission. And of course we have Americans, but we have from many other nations - Canada, the U.K., Germany, Italy, France - of course, all the 14 nations in the south as well. So the good thing is that we work all together for the single mission - that is, protecting our nations.

MARTIN: Protecting our nations. What does that mean exactly?

MACIAS: That basically means, in simple terms, that they police the skies of Europe. And they work 24/7. That might seem obvious, but it's not. It's not the same for the naval or the land units.

DE LA CRUZ CARAVACA: In the air domain, NATO has two dedicated units who are working 24/7, which is not the same for the Army. They normally - they have some units, like in - here in Spain, the NRDC. That is a Spanish unit prepared to be moved whenever they - NATO requests them to move. But we have to be in the air domain because everything happens so fast, we do not have to wait and to move the people. We have to be there always.

MACIAS: And Michel, there are two units like this in Europe - the one in Spain, which watches over the south of Europe, and the unit in Germany, which watches over the skies in the north.

MARTIN: So, Miguel, what problems do these two units address? Could you just tell us a little bit more about what we're talking about here? Did de la Cruz tell you?

MACIAS: Yes, he did. We were talking about anything from a commercial flight that has lost communications - so an actual fighter jet could pull up next to the commercial flight and call them on an emergency channel and say, hey, what's going on with you? - or it can be a military plane that is where it's not supposed to be, or it could even be illegal flights, like smugglers. From what he told me, they're kind of the police of the skies in Europe. And with the war in Ukraine, they're also watching every move. De la Cruz is definitely proud of the work they do.

DE LA CRUZ CARAVACA: When you see people from different nations, different experiences, different cultures sometimes, doing their own business, and at the end, all of them work for the same purpose. And it's amazing that this is NATO.

MARTIN: Miguel, this is interesting because this sounds a bit like the United Nations in a way, than a defense alliance that's trying to slow down a bad actor. Do you see what I mean?

MACIAS: I know. I was thinking the same thing when I was listening to de la Cruz, and I pushed him a tiny bit on that.

It sounds very much, like, almost like an international peace operation. I think that some people who are critical of NATO think that it's a war machine.

DE LA CRUZ CARAVACA: Not at all. In fact, NATO is a defensive organization. For instance, right now, in this conflict with Ukraine, we are very careful not to overreact and not miscalculate anything because we are defending our nations from the beginning. We are prepared, we are ready, but we're not offensive at all. So this is an important message that people, I think - they need to know. It's a group of nations working all together, trying to support each other as much as possible.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, the U.S. announced that it would establish a new NATO base in Poland, and this is the first of its kind on the eastern flank. And did the commander give you any sense of how that base might be used?

MACIAS: Well, from what de la Cruz told me, more American bases on European soil means more capacity to activate troops for NATO. It doesn't mean that these are NATO units. It just means that, if there was a need to defend a member country, the troops could be there and ready to be operational. For de la Cruz, it probably doesn't make much of a difference. He still has half of the continent to watch over every day.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Miguel Macias. Miguel, thank you.

MACIAS: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.