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BAUMHOLDER, Germany — For the first time in recent history, the 1st Armored Division is going into the game in relief.

A first-in projection of U.S. military might since its creation in 1940, the division this time around may be supporting or replacing elements of the combat-weary 3rd Infantry Division in what is shaping up to be a post-war Iraqi stabilization mission.

There’s a simple explanation for why the U.S. Army’s only armored division is going in now, said Col. Michael Tucker, commander of the 1st AD’s Friedberg-based 1st Brigade. The 3rd ID already was in the desert before the war started. The Fort Stewart, Ga.-based division had rotated into Exercise Intrinsic Action and Operation Desert Spring, Tucker said.

Exercise Intrinsic Action in Kuwait is designed to enhance the Army’s capabilities to rapidly deploy to the Persian Gulf. Under Operation Desert Spring, the 3rd ID was deployed to Camp Doha and to various locations around the country in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But experts emphasize the increasing importance of rapid mobility to the 21st-century battlefield. Fort Stewart’s Web site brags about being “home to the most … rapidly deployable mechanized force in the world — the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), the ‘Iron Fist’ of the XVIII Airborne Corps.”

By comparison, the 1st AD clearly falls on the “heavy” side of the “heavy, middleweight, light” blend of ground forces balanced for all contingencies espoused by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, said Ralph Peters, Virginia-based author of “Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World.”

In fact, the 1st AD’s configuration is not dramatically different from the 3rd ID, Tucker said. “The difference between us and them is … they have one more mechanized [infantry] battalion,” he said, with the 1st AD having one more tank battalion.

Each of the 1st AD tank brigades has two tank battalions, one infantry battalion. The 3rd Infantry Battalion’s tank brigades have one tank battalion, two mechanized infantry battalions.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the units is how much time the 3rd ID has spent training in the desert compared with the 1st AD, according to 1st AD officers and soldiers. Various 3rd ID units have been training in Kuwait since early 2002, while 1st AD soldiers trained in the mud and cold of Grafenwöhr.

That doesn’t mean 1st AD units aren’t ready for the desert.

“It’s not the flag,” Tucker said. “A unit is no better than the soldiers who are in it,” adding that he served four years in the 3rd ID. Other 1st AD soldiers had extensive desert training at stateside bases. “We bring that with us,” Tucker said.

The 1st AD has a history of being out front. In 1991, it led the VII Corps’ 100-hour sweep across Kuwait. In 1995, it was first across the Sava River into Bosnia and Herzegovina during Operation Joint Endeavor. In 1999, the then Bad Kreuznach-based 1st AD was first into Kosovo during Operation Joint Guardian.

Though the entire division was originally called up March 4, elements of the division were already fighting in Iraq. Baumholder-based Company C, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Brigade deployed April 21 on a mission attached to V Corps.

The divisions’ advance party of 200 headquarters staff left Saturday morning. Just why isn’t clear. In March, officers told Stars and Stripes that transportation problems slowed down the deployment. Media reports indicated that the division was to deploy to Iraq earlier, then stood down.

A spokesman at 1st AD headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, is adamant that the deployment is not running behind schedule.

The invasion plan for Iraq “worked perfectly,” said Maj. Scott Slaten. “We’re well inside our original deployment window,” he added.

The 1st AD is headed for an unstable Iraq, and division officers and senior NCOs emphasize the need for flexibility, with the division deploying as a lighter force than it would for combat.

On deployment, each of a division’s three brigades undergoes a number of changes. In garrison, each brigade has about 2,400 people, said Donald Cluxton, a retired infantry colonel and a former 3rd ID brigade commander. “If you multiply by three, that only gives you 7,200 people while a heavy division typically has between 13,000 and 16,000 people,” Cluxton said.

Upon mobilization for war, a number of units — cavalry scouts, civil affairs units, aviation, artillery, and maintenance — are attached to the division, he said. While all those pieces may not necessarily be needed for peacekeeping, the core division is deploying, Slaten said.

Media reports stating that Division Artillery, based at Baumholder, wouldn’t deploy to Iraq were incorrect, Slaten said. That said, some heavy tactical firepower that might be attached, such as missile systems, may not go, a decision to be made by commanders.

“We don’t necessarily need to obliterate entire grids of terrain in order to provide a secure environment, not to mention the huge cost to taxpayers of maintenance to deploy weapons systems that may not used,” Slaten said.

What U.S. commanders do need is bodies, say experts. At the moment, “we simply don’t have the bodies on the ground in Iraq to do the constabulary functions — the police work — required throughout the country,” said Peters, a former 1st AD battalion commander.

Because they bring force and numbers, Peters still sees a bright future for heavy divisions such as the 1st AD.

“Certainly, the goal has to be greater deployability,” said Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. But Department of Defense planners searching for the perfect balance of speed and force “have yet to solve the issues of firepower and survivability,” he added.

“I think Gen. Shinseki’s model of a heavy-middleweight-light Army, will remain valid at least through this decade.

“Long term, though, the goal has to be to pack the firepower and protection into lighter packages. But we’re not there yet.”

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