TIRANA, Albania -- NATO started work Thursday to upgrade Albania's communist-era Kucova Air Base, which will allow it to be used for alliance operations.
The 45.8 million-euro ($52 million) upgrade will include renovating the runway, taxiways, and storage facilities and is designed to increase NATO interoperability and support airborne early warning missions over the western Balkan country.
The base in Kucova, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the capital Tirana, will serve Albania and also support NATO air supply operations, logistics support, air policing, training and exercises.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said NATO's choice to use the facility as a tactical base "confirms the fact that tiny Albania is, nevertheless, an added value to this alliance.”
The upgrade is expected be complete by autumn 2023, according to the Defense Ministry.
Kucova air base was built in the 1950s when Albania was a close ally of the Soviet Union. The first Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 bomber landed there in 1957, and Mig-17 jets were deployed later. Albania's communist regime collapsed in 1990.
Kucova remained a military air base, though its old Russian and Chinese-made jets stopped flying in the late 1990s.
Albania has been a NATO member since 2009. Last year the country hosted the U.S. Army-led Defender-Europe 21 multinational military exercises.