HEIDELBERG, Germany – As part of NATO’s transformation to a more flexible and affordable force, the alliance on Thursday deactivated its Headquarters Allied Force Command Heidelberg, ending a 61-year history that tracks largely alongside that of the U.S. Army’s in this old German city.
Lt. Gen. John W. Morgan III, the unit’s final commander, cased its colors for the final time on a muddy parade field at Campbell Barracks, the home the unit has long shared with U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army.
The unit’s deactivation, NATO officials said, is unrelated to the move of USAREUR’s headquarters from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden, just coincidence.
But along with USAREUR’s move, the deactivation of the NATO headquarters — and the redeployment of its roughly 600 personnel — will leave this city without a military presence of any kind for the first time since World War II.
“As we know, the end of the Cold War prompted NATO to review its structure,” German Gen. Hans-Lothar Domröse, commander of NATO’s Joint Force Headquarters Brunssum, said during the deactivation ceremony. “Being a NATO officer, but always a German, we are truly the winner of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Germans, Germany, were united. And what we now experience is sad for Heidelberg, it’s sad for the people, but it’s good for our country and Europe.”
The closure of NATO’s headquarters in Heidelberg is part of a larger transformation agreed to by NATO members in 2010 that will shutter seven NATO headquarters across the alliance. When complete, six headquarters will remain – one each for air, land and sea; two four-star joint forces commands; and an overarching command, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
Another allied force command similar to Heidelberg’s in Madrid is slated to close down in June.
Both are being replaced by a new NATO Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, which stood up in November. Its commander, Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, said Thursday that the new command should reach its initial operational capability in August, but isn’t expected to be fully operational until December 2014. It will likely reach out to partner nations in the Middle East, such as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, which have cooperated closely with NATO in the recent aerial war over Libya.
NATO’s Heidelberg headquarters was established as a bilateral unit of German and American forces, but grew over the years to encompass more than 20 NATO nations and a handful of “partner” nations.
But the war it was built for never came, and its deactivation comes at a time when the alliance is redefining its role in the world.
NATO’s readiness to defend alliance members’ territory, liberty and people has not changed, Domröse said, though the alliance is no longer threatened by the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. Today’s threats to NATO’s security, he said, come from outside Europe, which is fringed by “an arc of crisis” that includes the civil war in Syria, unrest in Egypt, a hostile Iran and myriad other emerging troubles.
“So, we have no enemy,” Domröse said, “but we are surrounded, unfortunately, [by] many threats” that always have the potential to affect NATO territory.