WASHINGTON — THE US Army is holding a couple of very important retirement ceremonies this week. Generals receiving tank-shaped cakes and gold watches won't be involved.
The retirees involved are whole units - two divisions that have been based in Europe for decades to guard against a Soviet attack. When their flags are folded up for the last time Jan. 17, the Pentagon will have reached a milestone in the post-cold war restructuring of the American military.
"These ceremonies are part of the continuing drawdown of United States forces in Europe, and demonstrate the Army's commitment to reshape to a smaller, more versatile force," Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said Tuesday.
The retirement of the 3rd Armored and the 8th Mechanized Infantry Divisions will effectively cut the Army's European structure in half, according to the Pentagon. Current plans call for that to be as far as cuts go, but many members of Congress and private analysts say that even a 50 percent reduction in the Army's European troop strength is too shallow, considering that the Soviet Union has disappeared.
"The Army is going to lose that battle," predicts a Pentagon consultant who works on conventional weapons analysis.
The division flags being retired Friday are among the US Army's most historic. Since 1955, for instance, the 3rd Armored has been the plug in the infamous Fulda Gap in Germany, a topographic highway long considered the most likely invasion route from the East. In World War II the division landed on Omaha Beach in 1944, and earned the nickname "Spearhead Division" as it fought its way through France. 'Pathfinder' division
The 8th Mechanized Infantry "Pathfinder" Division was first organized in 1918, and fought in France in both World War I and World War II. Key 8th Mechanized units served in the Saudi theater in the Gulf war - as did most of the 3rd Armored.
Instead of being disbanded, some 8th Mech units are being turned over to the 1st Armored Division, which with the 3rd Infantry Division will, for now at least, remain based in Germany.
Under this structural reorganization, US troops have been pulling out of their European posts for some time - about 40,300 left by end of 1991, according to Pentagon estimates. A total of 65,000 will have returned to the US by this fall. The reductions would have been finished sooner, but last year Desert Storm intervened.
The Army is planning on leaving a force of 92,000 in Europe, down from its recent peak of 213,000. Current Pentagon projections call for the overall US military strength in Europe to bottom out at 150,000. Troops being reassigned
Most of the soldiers of the dissolving divisions are being reassigned to other divisions back in the states as replacements, says an Army spokesperson. "There may be some who've elected to leave the service," says the spokesperson, but 8th Mech and 3rd Armored troops aren't being kicked out of the Army en masse.
The Army's projected worldwide base force for 1995 is 20 divisions - 12 active, 6 reserve, and 2 hollow "cadre" divisions. That's down from today's total of 28 - 18 active, 10 reserve. But this base force, like the European drawdown, was planned when the Soviet Union was only in political decline.
Now that it has been thrown on the dustbin of history, Congress might not want to leave even as many as two divisions in Germany.
It's widely thought in Washington that President Bush in his forthcoming 1993 budget will allocate less money for defense than the current budget agreement with Congress would allow. So far it's big weapons like the B-2 bomber and the Seawolf submarine that are rumored to be the target of the brunt of these cuts.