1st Armored Division Headquarters at Wiesbaden, Germany.

1st Armored Division Headquarters at Wiesbaden, Germany. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

Army officials in Europe are nailing down the final draft of a plan that would begin to move elements of the 1st Infantry Division back to the United States in the summer of 2006.

At the same time, the plan calls for eventually merging and relocating the Army’s top two headquarters in Europe, according to several senior military officials.

Officials have said the process could take as long as 10 years, and stress that the war in Iraq takes precedence in all Army planning.

Current plans call for U.S. Army Europe and V Corps to morph into a single deployable task force and consolidate from their current base in Heidelberg, Germany, to Wiesbaden Army Airfield, Germany, the current home of the 1st Armored Division.

“That’s the plan as it stands now, but things could change,” stressed one Army officer, who — like the other officials — agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.

The shuffle is part of the Pentagon’s global rebasing effort designed to shift as many as 70,000 U.S. troops based in Europe and Asia back to the United States while closing hundreds of overseas bases, from major bases to small communications sites.

Much of the drawdown of forces in Europe will center on the 1st Infantry Division and 1st Armored Division, both based in Germany. Both of the heavy tank and mechanized infantry divisions are slated to be replaced with smaller, lighter airborne units and one of the Army’s new rapidly deployable Stryker brigades.

Although a time line for combining V Corps and USAREUR and moving it to Wiesbaden is not yet clear, it likely will come toward the end of the Army’s drawdown in Europe, said a top defense official.

“It makes sense to put them there, though, because they’ll have the airfield,” said the official. Indeed, the Army’s fleet of VIP jets and helicopters has already moved to Wiesbaden after Heidelberg’s airfield was shutdown last year.

Spring announcement

President Bush announced the broad-brush strokes of the reorganization in August, but the finer points of the plan have yet to surface.

That’s because many of those details are still being hammered out. Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of U.S. forces in Europe, however, is due to sign off on his final recommendations by the end of the week.

From there, say officials, the plan will be vetted by Marine Gen. James Jones’ U.S. European Command and then by the Joint Staff and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

If approved, a formal announcement is expected this spring.

“Prudent planning is now under way,” said Bell’s spokesman, Col. Roger King, declining, however, to discuss details.

“Right now it’s all still very much a soup sandwich,” said the Army official of the ongoing planning efforts, “but we expect to trot the whole thing out in April.”

Planning around war

Much of the uncertainty in the relocation planning is being driven by uncertainty in Iraq and what forces will be needed there in the coming years.

The 1st ID is currently in Iraq and slated to return to Germany in March.

The V Corps staff, for example, expects to be tasked with replacing the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based XVIII Airborne Corps in Iraq in about a year, but no orders have been handed down yet.

Last week, officials announced that the bulk of 1st AD’s war-fighting units would deploy back to Iraq later this year, but without its division headquarters. Nearly all of the division’s Germany-based units returned from Iraq in July after a grueling 15-month deployment.

Officials caution, however, that does not mean the thousands of troops assigned to the 1st AD headquarters and its nondeploying support units are being positioned to relocate back to the States sooner rather than later.

In fact, if V Corps deploys as expected, the 1st AD headquarters “will take over responsibility for the pieces of the corps that don’t go,” said another Army official close to the planning.

If the corps headquarters doesn’t get the nod for the next Iraq rotation, he added, “well, frankly, we’re all wondering what 1st AD [headquarters] will do.”

Summer moves

Officials stressed that unlike South Korea-based units, which deployed to Iraq last year and in the coming months will relocate directly back to the United States, Europe-based units now on deck for deployment to the Middle East and Central Asia, or already there, will first return to Europe before getting reassignment orders to the United States.

“The [South] Korea units don’t have families there, so they could do that, but in Europe we’ve to take care of families,” said the one of the Army officials.

Bell has promised as much.

Every deployed unit “will redeploy and reintegrate at its European home base first,” Bell told Stars and Stripes in August. “No family will be left to move themselves.”

Likewise, Bell has promised all unit relocations back to the United States will largely occur over the summer months to ease transitions between schools for family members.

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