“Poland, the USA, Great Britain, Romania and Croatia – troops of these states’ armies must work together like fingers of one hand, always ready to make a fist and strike,” says BrigGen Jarosław Gromadziński, commander of the 15th Mechanized Brigade, about the cooperation of soldiers of Allied armies. The Brigade is the unit that cooperates with NATO Battle Group Poland (BGPOL) that has been stationing in our country for over a year.
Everything began with the Warsaw NATO Summit in July 2016. There, the member states decided that rotations of Allied forces will be deployed in Poland and the Baltic States within the framework of the so-called enhanced Forward Presence (eFP). On the strength of those decisions, the first rotation of BGPOL began its mission in Poland already in April 2017. The core of the rotation were soldiers of the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment of the US Army, normally deployed in Vilseck, Germany. The history of the unit goes back to the 19th century, and since then its troops have participated in all important wars fought by the USA. The troops brought to Poland almost 100 Stryker armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) in several versions (equipped with, e.g. the 12.7-mm M2 Browning machine guns, the Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers or the 120-mm Soltam K6 mortars), as well as command, engineer, liaison and MEDEVAC vehicles.
Poland also welcomed British troops of the Light Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, who brought several dozen Jackal reconnaissance vehicles equipped with the 12.7-mm L1A1 machine guns and the 40-mm GMG grenade launchers, as well as Romanian troops of the 205th Blue Scorpions Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion with a battery of the Oerlikon air defense system.
Altogether, almost 1,350 Allied soldiers came to our country. “Deploying troops in Poland proves NATO’s coherence and determination. It sends a clear signal to any potential aggressor. The fact that Allies from various states work together within the eFP framework shows that the Alliance is committed to Art. 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, according to which an armed attack against one member state is considered to be an armed attack against them all,” said Gen Curtis Scaparrotti, the current Supreme Allied Commander Europe, during the ceremony inaugurating the activity of NATO Battle Group Poland.
BGPOL’s base was set up at the Land Forces Military Training Area in Bemowo Piskie, and the 1st Mechanized Battalion of the 15th Mechanized Brigade was assigned to cooperate within the battle group. However, the troops did not have much time for assimilation. In May, they already set out to the training area to take part in Exercise Puma 2017, and a month later in the international Saber Strike 2017 and Iron Wolf 2017 exercises in Lithuania. The last point of BGPOL’s six-month mission was the largest of last year’s exercises, Dragon 2017. Soon after that, in October 2017, a new rotation of soldiers came to Poland. This time, the American, British and Romanian troops were joined by gunners, logisticians and military policemen of the Republic of Croatia Armed Forces, who brought the M92 Volcano self-propelled rocket launchers. Just as before, the representation from Vilseck was the most numerous, but they were joined by US Army troops from Texas or North Carolina. Although each rotation is deployed in Poland for half a year, the troops from the USA stay here for nine months.
Currently, the third eFP rotation, numbering almost 1,220 troops, is deployed in our country. Just as their predecessors, they have a very tight schedule – the troops hardly leave training areas. “During the first rotation, we concentrated on integration, but when we welcomed the second one in the fall, we already knew that we would focus on harmonizing procedures. That’s why we changed the training schedule a bit. We introduced, among other things, integrated exercises for respective subunits, so that Polish gunners would train with colleagues from Allied armies, the same rule applying to anti-aircraft troops, sappers or infantry. The main goal of such activities was unifying procedures, which will help to maintain the effect of synergy, even in the situation of rotating subunits,” adds Gen Gromadziński.
Emphasis on Interoperability
The key capability of Allied troops is the ability to cooperate. Puma is one of the military exercises that check if all forces function as one. It has already been organized twice this year. During the first edition in February at Bemowo Piskie training area 2,000 soldiers of Allied armies trained together using over 500 pieces of equipment. The troops exercised on infantry fighting vehicles, the PT-91 Twardy tanks, American Strykers, British Jackals, a Romanian battery of Oerlikon GDF-003 automated anti-aircraft defense system, and the Croatian M92 Volcano self-propelled rocket launchers.
The main emphasis during Puma was put on tactical operations. “We concentrated on territorial defense, also in the scenario when part of the territory had already been seized. We were prepared for the possibility of the adversary’s advantage at the time of attack. It was important to use our knowledge of the area. We were retreating in a way that would make the enemy stop in a zone convenient to us, so that we could counter-attack effectively, split enemy subunits and finally take back the lost territory,” explained the commander of the 15th Brigade. During such operations, each subunit was given a very specific task – the British took care of reconnaissance, Croatian artillery fired guns, whereas Romanians and Poles dealt with antiaircraft defense – the Polish ZU-23-2K cannons and the GROM air defense systems provided support for Polish subunits, while Romanian Oerlikons covered NATO Battle Group Poland troops. The Allies also operated within international structures, e.g. when approaching the line, attacking or counter attacking. “In such situations we cooperated with US Army soldiers. Sometimes we would take command of the American subunit, and the Polish company operated according to the orders of the American army,” says Maj Piotr Półbratek, deputy commander of the 1st Mechanized Battalion of the 15th Mechanized Brigade.
The exercise also put big emphasis on firing tasks and countering hybrid threats. Troops patrolled and marched across unknown territory, repelled attacks of sabotage groups, they also had to operate in contaminated areas. How did they manage? “These are not the first tasks we have carried out with the Battle Group. Of course, there are new elements, but they have no significant influence on our cooperation,” replies Lt Dariusz Ratyński, commander of the 2nd Mechanized Company of the 15th Mechanized Brigade. Capt Gary D. Loten-Beckford, press officer of NATO BGPOL, is of the same opinion. “We have been training together for some time now, so there are no difficulties at this point. The biggest challenge was to learn procedures and systems used by the Allies, but it’s already behind us. Now, we are simply a team,” he emphasizes.
The situation was similar during the Puma exercise which took place a few weeks ago within the frame of the international Saber Strike 2018 exercise. The main participants were the third rotation of NATO BGPOL and the 2nd Mechanized Battalion of the 15th Mechanized Brigade, which in April took on the role of the eFP partner subunit. During the exercise, the Allies were supported by, i.a., the Polish and the American Air Force, a battalion of US Army’s HIMARS, and a motorized battalion of the 12th Mechanized Brigade. One of the tasks of the battalion was taking over the area of responsibility where the US Army operated before.
The biggest challenge, however, was producing joint fire. “It wasn’t easy to synchronize all systems. With such a vast variety of weapons, we had to practice procedures for two weeks, but now joint fire is no more problematic,” emphasizes Gen Gromadziński.
Alert and Redeployment
An integral element of each eFP rotation’s training program is also the Bull Run exercise. It aims at checking how fast the troops are able to leave the barracks and take positions in places where they would operate in the event of actual threat. The exercise was first organized in July 2017. Then, almost all NATO BGPOL vehicles left the unit in Bemowo Piskie. “Vehicle crews are to get familiar with towns, roads, all areas that can be of strategic significance. Thanks to that, we will be able to move fast in case of a threat, and quickly begin defensive actions,” LtCol Steven Gventer, commander of the first BGPOL rotation, said during the exercise. Troops moved on roads in specially formed columns towards Rospuda Valley. They had several dozen kilometers to go. There were outposts in e.g. Raczki, Bakałarzewo, Filipowo, as well as at a market place in Olecko. “We always train as if we were operating in a real-life situation. We parked all vehicles in a circle, and placed the Oerlikon launcher in the center. Obviously, we also marked out a safety zone, so that we wouldn’t damage nearby buildings in case of using weapons,” reported Capt Andrei Nistor of the Romanian Army during the exercise.
The second eFP rotation had to perform somewhat more difficult tasks during the Bull Run organized in January. Regardless of the freezing cold, the troops not only took the earlier designated posts, but also had to spend the night outside. One of the units with posts in the forest was the logistics subunit of the US Army. There, the troops masked Humvees, carriages and tank trucks. They were in constant readiness to support their colleagues if need be. Soldiers said that the hard part of the whole exercise was not carrying out the scenario, but the climate. “I come from Texas and I’m used to temperatures reaching 40°C. The conditions here are extreme for me, but I am slowly adjusting to them,” said Lt Ostaldo Jimenez of the US Army during the exercise.
The next edition of the exercise that took place in March brought more novelties. The Pisa 2018 staff training took place simultaneously to Bull Run. “When the first rotation of BGPOL was deployed in Poland, the NATO battalion and the 1st Mechanized Battalion were engaged in Bull Run, while the staff of the brigade was in charge of the exercise. However, we came to the conclusion that checking combat readiness should concern the whole brigade, for we’ll all need to be ready to act in the event of a threat,” says Gen Gromadziński.
The Tactical Operations Center of the 15th Mechanized Brigade takes care of the troops’ efficient mobility. The soldiers who are members of this team must first plan the movements of NATO troops and then direct them in a way that ensures a collision-free process, while soldiers on battalion command posts have to constantly monitor the movement of columns.
Almost Like Home
The local community have already got used to seeing soldiers in uniforms of Allied armies. This is not surprising, because even though the troops’ schedule is very tight, they take part in celebrations related to the Polish Armed Forces or the Land Forces. They also often walk around the city, especially at weekends, when there are less exercises at the training field. On such days, a row of taxis lines up in front of the unit’s gate. Many of them have signs saying “Orzysz, Ełk – discount” or “English speaking driver.”
It is not a secret that the presence of Allied troops is important to the locals. For example, there are many more dining options in the vicinity of Orzysz, and the menus are not only available in English, but have also been supplemented with burgers or nuggets, stereotypically considered most popular American food. The soldiers, however, are happy to try Polish dishes. “My personal favorite are pierogis,” discloses Capt Loten-Beckford.
Soldiers are also an asset to the local community – last year, British BGPOL troops helped the dwellers of one of the houses to put out a fire. “We were executing reconnaissance tasks at the training field, when we noticed thick smoke in the distance. We immediately went to check what was happening. It turned out that one of the houses was on fire, and the people living there were trying to save what they could. We joined in without hesitation. Luckily, the fire brigade came to the site shortly afterward,” reported at the time Maj Noel Claydon-Swales, commander of Company A of the Light Dragoons Regiment.
What is their impression of Poland? “We’re very impressed, because Polish people welcomed us in an incredible way. They’re very open. We were met with hospitality both on our way to Orzysz and in the town itself. It’s hard to imagine a better place to be. This is exactly the atmosphere in which we want to strengthen the bond with our Allies,” said LtCol Gventer shortly after his arrival in Poland. “When I found out that I was going to a mission to Europe, I was certain it would be Germany. I was directed to Poland, though, and I really didn’t know what to expect here. The biggest surprise was the language. I had no idea that Polish is so hard,” adds the press officer of BGPOL. “Soon after arrival, I saw a sign by the road with a town name – Szczuczyn. I wasn’t even able to pronounce it, so when we came back to the unit, I found it on the map and asked one of the translators to spell it out for me. He had to repeat it several times before I finally managed to pronounce it,” he jokes.
Luckily, every problem has a solution. Even though the soldiers are staying in Poland only for several months, they have decided to learn our language. The classes are taught twice a week by Kasia Kardasiewicz, BGPOL’s translator. “Soldiers are not only willingly learning new expressions, but also absorb any information regarding Poland, because the classes are full of facts about our country,” she says. “What’s interesting, the lessons are attended by representatives of all states cooperating within the eFP. Pronunciation seems to be the hardest skill to master, but while it is not so problematic for Croats or Romanians, Brits and Americans find some words extremely difficult.” This is confirmed by Capt Charlotte Wilson of the British Army. “The hardest thing for me is to pronounce »sz«, »cz«, »rz«, but our teacher has prepared some special exercises for us to make it easier,” she says.
Why do the soldiers go to such lengths to learn Polish? “I think that when you are staying in a particular country, it is very important to be able to build friendly relations with its citizens. I wanted to learn basic expressions, such as »dzień dobry«, »proszę«, »dziękuję«, which would help me to communicate in shops or restaurants,” says Capt Wilson. “Obviously, it’s impossible to master such a hard language in such a short time, but we can definitely learn some basics. One of the soldiers who came from Great Britain has a Polish wife, for example. Some say that he joined the course so that he could write her letters in her native language,” laughs Capt Loten-Beckford.
Soldiers also often try to see the nearby sights on their own. “There are many beautiful lakes around here. It’s a pity that the weather didn’t allow us to swim or sail,” says Capt Slaven Horvat of the Croatian Army, who served in Poland during the second eFP rotation. “I have already been in Giżycko – the Boyen Fortress to be more precise. I would also love to visit Gdańsk. I hope that I will be able to do that in August, because we will have a long weekend then,” remarked Capt Charlotte Wilson.
The soldiers are happy to travel around Poland. Some of them have already been to Cracow or Warsaw. It is possible thanks to trips organized specially for them. As the spokesman for BGPOL emphasizes, the plan of the trips has always been carefully thought out, so as not to collide with the training program. “The soldiers are very happy to travel around Poland, because in this way they can see beautiful places and, most importantly, learn about the history and understand the culture of the country where they are serving,” he says.
Before the soldiers can think about upcoming trips, though, they have to face the challenges awaiting them at the training field. “We’ve just finished Exercise Puma 2018, but we are not slowing down the pace. We continue training. We will mainly focus on the Life Fire training,” says LtCol Adam Lackey, commander of the third NATO BGPOL rotation. “Besides, we have a new vehicle here. We will fire from it for the first time here in Poland,” he adds.
The mission of the third BGPOL rotation will finish at the turn of September and October. Poland will then welcome a new group of soldiers, including troops of the National Guard of the United States Army.
Translated by DOROTA ASZOFF
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz, Michał Zieliński