Army Gen. Wetzel rides point for US forces in Germany BY]By Peter Grier, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE general reaches into his briefcase and pulls out some small photographs of terrorists. ``I'm a target,'' he says. ``They have my picture. They know the exact way to get into my office. We found documents when we captured some of them.''

As commander of US Army Fifth Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Wetzel is on the front lines in more ways than one.

The staccato-voiced, three-star general's troops defend one of the most dangerous places on earth: the Fulda Gap. A natural gateway on the border between West and East Germany, the Fulda Gap is where a Warsaw Pact invasion might well begin.

In addition he must fight the enemy within. Last November a terrorist bomb ripped into a Fifth Corps shopping complex in Frankfurt. Thirty-five people, including soldiers' spouses and children, were hurt.

The bomb was set by hardened Middle Eastern operatives who do not know the meaning of the phrase ``innocent bystander,'' according to General Wetzel. In the past, such attacks have been carried out by indigenous German groups.

``To protect my people we spent $16 million last year on lighting and fences. I have 2,500 more soldiers guarding things today than I did last August,'' he says.

With responsibility for 10 United States compounds in West Germany, Wetzel is in essence the mayor of 10 cities, and he worries about having to wall them in with barbed wire. He wants to encourage, not discourage, mixing between US troops and the local populace.

In a sort of adult buddy system, each of his battalions trains and socializes with a German counterpart. US personnel are encouraged to join local clubs for hobbies such as stamp collecting and soccer. ``The Germans are big club people,'' says Wetzel.

The relationship between the Fifth Corps and its neighbors is not all flowers and perfume. The US Army has lots of helicopters and the Germans have many villages for them to fly over, and so helicopter noise has become a hot local political issue.

``We alter flight routes. We limit our training hours,'' says the Fifth Corps commander.

As this density of helicopters shows, there is arguably more firepower per square mile around the Fulda Gap than anywhere else in the world.

For the West, the components of that firepower are changing more rapidly than they have in decades, as new weapons such as the M-1 tank flow in to replace old equipment.

Pentagon officials often cite this modernization as one of their top achievements of the last six years. Yet when the Reagan military buildup began to slow last year, the Army was a main target. The proposed fiscal 1987 defense budget contains less money for new tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles (armored troop carriers) than the Army had planned for. Meanwhile, the Strategic Defense Initiative, President Reagan's ballistic-missile defense research program, is slated for a big increase, from $2.75 billion to $4.8 billion. Do the Army's heavy forces in Germany feel like cousins who got left out of the will?

``I am clamoring for keeping the flow to Europe. I don't get into interservice squabbling as such,'' says Wetzel in response to the question.

The weapon Army brass most fear they might lose is the Bradley, which looks like an M-1 tank's younger brother. In the making for some 20 years, the Bradley was designed to be a taxi with punch, carting soldiers about the battlefield while threatening enemy infantry with its 25-mm cannon and tanks with its anti-armor missiles.

But critics question whether each Bradley is worth its $1 million-plus price tag.

Critics say that the vehicle's aluminum armor would splinter and disintegrate after being hit by antitank warheads, and that ammunition stored inside would explode, dooming passengers.

``We've got to have that Bradley in Europe,'' replies Wetzel. ``With it you win, without it you lose.''

Pentagon officials have testified before Congress that in a fight, Bradleys would be relatively protected, lingering behind while M-1 tanks form the front line. Wetzel says that wouldn't always be the case. ``Sometimes it will go up the hill with M-1,'' he says.

NATO commanders have long counted on technology to give them an edge over the Warsaw Pact's sheer numbers, and Wetzel ticks off a list of things now under development that he says he needs: a medium-range antitank weapon, a new tactical missile, and new ways for gathering battlefield intelligence. He admits that he worries about the fact that all these systems have not fared well in Washington budget battles, compared with other services' favorite items.

Wetzel will retire in June. Someone else will be in charge of Fifth Corps, facing the Warsaw Pact fence with the top tilted back toward the east, to deter their own people from escaping.

``Why is that ugly scar going across Germany?'' he asks. ``It really is an ugly scar.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Army Gen. Wetzel rides point for US forces in Germany BY]By Peter Grier, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today