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The News & Observer March 22, 2007

82nd giving up rapid-reaction unit

Division will no longer maintain brigade that can move on short notice

By Jay Price

The U.S. military could take days rather than hours to respond to a surprise international crisis because all four of the Fort Bragg-based 82nd Airborne Division's combat brigades will be in Iraq and Afghanistan later this year.

The deployments have forced the 82nd to begin transferring responsibility as the Army's only short-notice "division ready brigade" to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. But the 101st, which specializes in air assault by helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, can't deliver a major force via parachute, so for some missions it could take days longer to strike, said John Pike, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank that tracks international military issues.

If the objective is safe enough to land transport planes, the 101st should be able to arrive just as quickly as the 82nd, at least once it has learned the procedures for shipping out rapidly, he said. But an emergency mission requiring helicopters, say for a well-defended target, could take much longer because of the logistics of moving so many helicopters by cargo jet.

The 82nd's division ready brigade -- about 3,300 soldiers -- is always on call, ready to begin flying anywhere in the world in 18 hours. It has been assigned that job for decades, in part because it is the nation's only full division of paratroopers. It's an integral part of the identity of the division, which bills itself as "America's 911 Force."

A spokesman for the Army's Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., which controls the assignment of the ready brigade, said the change wouldn't slow the Army's ability to respond. The 101st is a capable unit, and there are other units that the Pentagon could call, Barry Morris said. Among them are several smaller units that can parachute into battle, such as the Rangers.

Also, because the Army's heavy deployment tempo means there are always units preparing to leave, the 101st could easily be supplemented by other forces, he said. From a practical standpoint, Morris said, few potential problems would dictate an 18-hour response time.

"When things are about to happen, when someone is about to invade someone else, for example, we normally have intelligence in advance, and we know something is going to happen," he said.

Also, he said, current analysis doesn't show any threats likely to warrant instant response. Meanwhile, the United States is fighting two very real wars.

82nd leaders don't have precise records but think the division has had a ready brigade since the Vietnam War era. The tradition, though, is yielding to wartime realities.

The division ready brigade, Morris said, was "a peacetime construct," and given the current tempo of deployments, a change was inevitable.

"At this time, we're not at peace, we're in a protracted war, and we have to be more flexible in our thinking," he said.

'We don't see a risk'

"The current situation is that to take a unit offline and say, 'You're not going anywhere,' just isn't possible," he said. "We're using our units in the best way possible to handle the mission. We don't see a risk with doing this."

Army officials could recall only a few times the ready brigade has been used, including Operation Desert Shield in 1990, when the United States felt it needed to move quickly, in part to send Iraq a signal that it shouldn't try to extend its invasion of Kuwait into Saudi Arabia. Also, the 82nd brigade that was ordered to Iraq in late December and became the first element in the Bush administration's controversial troop buildup was the ready brigade. It managed to be completely deployed in five days, even though a third of the unit had been back from Iraq only a few weeks.

Neither Morris nor an 82nd Airborne spokesman, Tom Earnhardt, could recall a case when a unit had just 18 hours to move. Pike agreed that such a mission would be highly unusual. That standard for getting the brigade's departure started was to some degree an artificial goal, he said.
"This 18-hour [departure] standard does have a certain amount of gee whiz to it, and it probably has as much to do with the 82nd's esprit de corps and sense of itself as anything," he said. "There is considerable romance in it.

"Given the situation, this may be eliminating the 'nice to have' in favor of 'must have,' " he said.

The 101st was well aware of the time standards for the job, and it would meet them, said Lt. Col. Ed Loomis, a spokesman for the division. "This division has never failed in a mission," he said.

Not unique to 82nd

Being ready for short-notice missions is routine stuff for many Army units, not just the 82nd, said 82nd Airborne spokesman Tom Earnhardt. It will help, he said, that many officers in the 101st have also served in the 82nd.

"We're confident in our brothers from the 101st to handle this mission," he said.

Still, while learning how to leave in a hurry may sound simple, the complexity of moving so many people and so much equipment means it isn't, Pike said. The 82nd has honed the specialized role for decades, and getting as good as the division won't be simple.

"The 82nd has spent a lot of time perfecting that division ready brigade construct, and the 101st hasn't," Pike said. "There are a lot of things it takes to make that work, and I don't know that the 82nd has written them all down and has a cookbook they can just ship down there."

The gap when all four 82nd brigades will be gone will last only about three months, Earnhardt said.

It's unclear, though, when -- or even whether -- the 82nd will regain the ready brigade mission, Morris said.

Copyright 2007, The News & Observer Publishing Company