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HEIDELBERG, Germany — The Army’s top commander in Europe said unexpected turns in Iraq and Afghanistan scrubbed the military’s original timelines to reposition forces in Europe back to the United States.

Last month, President Bush unveiled plans for the biggest drawdown of overseas basing in a decade, announcing that some 70,000 troops and 100,000 family members in Europe and Asia would be relocated to bases in the United States over the next 10 years.

Those moves probably won’t start for at least two years, said Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of U.S. Army Europe.

Much of the move is expected to revolve around the Germany-based 1st Infantry and 1st Armored divisions. But when asked which units would be the first to relocate, Bell said the ongoing wars make it too hard to say at this point.

“I would have loved to have answered that question six months ago and probably could have if some of the thoughts we had on rotations into Afghanistan and Iraq had followed a path of declining force levels,” Bell told Stars and Stripes.

But the shift in plans underscores the challenges military leaders are facing as they try to balance two wars with the desire to embark on a wholesale redesign of the Army.

Order of march

Last year, reports said that 1st AD troops would begin moving to the United States within six months of their return from duty in Iraq. Now, Bell said, the order in which units will be restationed will be based largely on how things develop in the combat zones.

“The order of march of any unit that could be withdrawn from here,” said Bell, “is a function of which unit we need to go back to a short-tour war effort. Dependent on when they’re not needed is when they’ll go back [to the States].”

Officials have not announced war rotation plans beyond next year, but have said force levels will likely remain the same, with more than 150,000 troops split between Iraq and Afghanistan.

In practical terms, that means most of the Army’s war fighting formations are now facing one-year-on/one-year-off rotations into the combat zones. The Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, for example, returned from Iraq in March and is now preparing to take over duties in Afghanistan early next spring.

In fact, just about every combat unit in the Army is facing a similar tempo, and somehow, relocating tens of thousands of troops and families to new bases has to be squeezed in.

“If you want to do this right — deliberately — with respect to the people involved and fight the global war on terror, this is going to take awhile,” Bell said. “You can’t do one or the other without impacting the other, unless you do this deliberately over time.”

That means moves back to the United States won’t even begin for another two to three years, at the earliest, Bell said.

“We are fighting a war for our nation’s survival,” said Bell. “That war will be our first and foremost priority. Whenever there is a choice to be made about moving a unit or its services being needed in combat, that unit will go to war. We can’t do both simultaneously.”

Rebalancing

Before any units are relocated, however, some will be disbanded altogether. That process has already begun with the deactivation of 1st Armored Divisions air defense battalion last month. When 1st Infantry Division returns from Iraq, its ADA battalion will be cut as well.

“Some of that will continue apace,” Bell said. “I would expect one or two other units to be impacted in rebalancing next summer in addition to [1st ID’s air defense battalion].

“How those units will be reinvested, how those numbers will add up to affect USAREUR, I don’t know yet; but there will be a rebalancing, minor but real, next summer.”

Further out, Bell said, his own headquarters will merge with V Corps, to create a single “USAREUR & Task Force 5.”

“We’re essentially taking a layer out,” said Bell. “It will work more efficiently than the stacked way we are now.”

BRAC concerns

Military and congressional leaders have to figure out where to move the Europe-based units, but first, officials will decide where they won’t go. The next round of stateside base realignment and closures, known as BRAC, is slated to begin next year.

Military leaders want to cut scores of bases they say are no longer needed, and “nothing will be done on any of this until the BRAC process plays itself out,” Bell said.

“As soon as we get through BRAC, the guys at the Pentagon and we will look as carefully as we can at which rotations what division will be in and when it would make sense to begin a move.”

In the meantime, he said, new facilities in the United States will have to be built or at least improved to handle the influx of troops and families.

“Before I let a unit out of here, I want to know about the schools the kids are going to. I want to know about the facilities the units are moving into,” he said. “I don’t want them to move into [a] lousy environment where this will be a bad deal for them.”

The new USAREUR

While hearings on base closures are under way in the States, Bell said, he expects to be spending much of his time discussing with local leaders which bases will remain in Germany while also looking to expand the Army’s presence in Italy, eastern Europe and Africa.

Bell’s 62,000 troops in Europe are spread out among more than 200 installations, mostly clustered in some 15 communities. And most of those are in Germany.

Within the next 10 years, Bell said, the Army will be left with “more than 20,000 but less than 30,000” troops based in Europe. All of those will be “accompanied tours” with soldiers living in Europe with their families.

They’ll live in about five main community hubs. Three of those he knows for sure:

¶ Kaiserslautern — Military officials have long said no matter what happens, they want to keep Ramstein Air Base as a main operating base. Bell said the Army’s presence adjacent to Ramstein will be part of that. “The Kaiserslautern area is paramount for us. Today, the support units for U.S. Army Europe are located in the Kaiserslautern area. They’re physically partnered with the Ramstein Air Base so that we can take advantage of that great hub,” Bell said. The Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, jointly manned with the Air Force, near Ramstein will also remain.

¶ Grafenwöhr/Hohenfels — The Army’s training complex in eastern Germany split between Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels is “vital to our future,” Bell said. One of the Army’s new Stryker brigades will be based there to take advantage of the live-fire ranges and maneuver area.

¶ Northern Italy — 173rd Airborne Brigade and its parent command, the Southern European Task Force, are based in Vicenza, Italy. Bell said he’s already negotiating with the Italians to find room to put a third airborne battalion and additional support units there. “We’ll need additional room in Italy to accommodate the larger-size brigade combat team,” Bell said.

“Other locations where we might stay because it just make sense,” Bell said, “I have not really worked yet.”

Still, the coming transition will not be easy.

“I’ll tell you this is hard government work to make sure we take care of our soldiers and our families and our civilian employees with dignity and respect and honor,” Bell said. “But we can do that.”

No place like home, but it might not be Kansas

Conventional wisdom says the 1st Infantry Division will go back to its original home of Fort Riley, Kan. After all, that’s where one of its three brigades is already stationed.

But the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe says don’t bet on it. At least not yet.

“If anybody believes that’s a given, it’s because they want it to happen,” said Gen. B.B. Bell. “I can absolutely guarantee you that the leadership of the United States has not made any calls on where anything is going. They can’t. The laws are clear.”

That’s because the upcoming base realignment and closure process, or BRAC, hasn’t started yet, and it’s a political fight where military leaders are reluctant to get in the middle.

Still, Bell offers some simple insight on where he thinks his units should go.

“I would say put armor units where armor units can train best,” Bell said.

“I would tell you that our ability to deploy, with the infrastructure in the United States, is pretty good. Air, rail, sea — you can get around. We built the interstate system with [Defense Department] funds with the whole idea of having internal lines of communication. The issue is put them where they can train.”

— Jon R. Anderson

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