Top U.S. military officials are drawing up rotation plans to replace weary troops in the Persian Gulf area and may propose to do it in part by redeploying forces currently based in Europe, according to Pentagon officials.
Use of the European-based American forces, part of the NATO force structure, would mark the first regular deployment of those units outside that region since they were permanently based there after World War II, officials said. It would be yet another departure from four decades of Cold War policies in which the Pentagon put European security ahead of all other foreign defense issues.
U.S. military authorities said they expect to complete their scheduled buildup of heavy armored fighting forces on the Arabian peninsula within the next two to three weeks, but said the full logistical force needed to support those units will not arrive for at least a month.
Plans to dispatch replacement units to the Persian Gulf area could bring a surge of tens of thousands of extra troops in the region after the currently scheduled contingent of about 240,000 is in place. Troops now in the region to guard against an Iraqi advance into Saudi Arabia would not leave until their replacements arrive and take position in the desert. Some commanders said those rotation forces could provide additional strength for launching an offensive attack on Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, if ordered by President Bush.
The bulk of the surge could occur as early as January, but no timetable has yet been set.
Military officials have been drafting recommendations for troop rotations for the last several weeks, with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney expected to issue new policies for addressing the controversial issue within the next two weeks, Pentagon officials said.
Pentagon officials said NATO policies have barred use of European-based U.S. troops in past contingencies. Officials said that although NATO leaders have expressed no objections to using the forces for rotations to the gulf, Congress and limitations forced by conventional arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union could create other obstacles to using significant numbers of the 300,000 U.S. troops now in Europe.
Hundreds of men and women based in Europe in medical, aircraft and other units have already been deployed to the Arabian peninsula, authorities said.
In other matters involving the U.S. forces, the Air Force's senior commander in the Middle East, responding to a recent spate of airplane crashes, has ordered new restrictions on low-level training flights in the gulf area, raising the minimum altitude to 1,000 feet from a previous 150-foot minimum.
Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, in a statement released by the Pentagon, said the new limit is "not realistic for combat training, but it'll get the point across. Then we'll work our way back down to realistic training altitudes."
Horner last week grounded all training flights for a 12-hour safety "stand-down" after two planes crashed within several days, killing four crew members. Since the gulf operation began, 14 people have died in 20 jet and helicopter crashes near the Arabian peninsula.
In the rotation discussions, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, has requested that units from an additional Army corps, most likely from the United States, be dispatched to the region. Military officials said part of that corps would be used to replace some existing units, including the 82nd Airborne Division and the headquarters division of the 18th Airborne Corps now in Saudi Arabia.
Military authorities said the 82nd Airborne, a rapid deployment force that was one of the first units to arrive in the region, could return to Fort Bragg, N.C., as soon as November. Commanders of the light assault force have been eager to remove the unit from Saudi Arabia for several weeks, saying it should be kept in reserve for other contingencies around the world after the arrival of heavier, more potent forces on the Arabian peninsula.
Most other rotations would not begin until January, officials said. The services are proposing that forces rotate with their units rather than as individual troops, the method that was used during the Vietnam War.
Army and Marine Corps officials are considering unit rotations that would keep combat units in the region about six months and combat support forces about a year. Officials said most of the six-month rotations would actually keep the troops away from their home bases for up to eight months because of the time required to move the forces. The rotations include sending the aircraft carrier USS Midway to the region when the USS Independence ends its six-month duty tour.
Some small, critical units may not be permitted to rotate because there are no comparable units to replace them, according to Pentagon authorities. Officials said the Army also has not yet determined whether it would dispatch all the weaponry and equipment with the troops returning home, or leave the equipment in Saudi Arabia and move only troops. The former scenario would ensure that the troops cycled home would have equipment for training at their home bases, officials noted.
Officials said the Army is considering sending additional M-1A1 advanced main battle tanks to Saudi Arabia, but it is uncertain whether the request is intended to provide extra firepower or reserve equipment for tanks already there.
In addition to the 208,000 American troops and about 40,000 combat-ready Saudi troops in the region, European and other Arab nations have now dispatched about 42,000 of their promised 95,000 soldiers to the Arabian peninsula, according to U.S. and Arab officials. A Soviet transport plane carrying Syrian troops was reported to have arrived in Saudi Arabia this week.
The Saudi military has asked many of the Arab military forces to delay arrival in the kingdom because of a shortage of accommodations for the troops. Even though the American forces travel with most of their own support equipment, the deployment to the desert environment has taxed the Saudi government's ability to provide enough sleeping accommodations, transportation and food services for the U.S. troops.
Most of the Arab and African troops being send to Saudi Arabia will not arrive with their own logistical support, forcing the Saudis to provide provisions and accommodations, and in some cases, weapons for the troops.
Staff writer Patrick E. Tyler contributed to this report.