The goal of such exercises as Exercise Immediate Response 2019 is not only to test how logistics works in NATO structures. It is also the most faithful imitation of a battlefield.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine revealed that despite increasingly advanced military technology, soldiers must be prepared for the classic artillery attacks. It is not only about enemy artillery volley, but also about single, though continuously spoiling shell-fire. Today, the conclusions are drawn from the activities in Donbass. Hence the Exercise Immediate Response 2019: in a fictional scenario, a country friendly to NATO is being destabilized by enemy forces and paramilitary units. In order to stop this process, the Polish task force unit (one of the three battalion airborne groups participating in the exercise) had to transfer soldiers, establish a forward operating base, receive auxiliary forces, and then, by securing key bridges, make sure they are fully maneuverable. The above tasks are a classic example of using airborne forces, and are nothing new for the 6th Airborne Brigade. The organizer of the Exercise made sure that the time spent on training fields in Slovenia was the time when even the most experienced soldiers could improve their skills.
“Much attention was put on the role of artillery, both as a threat and as a warfare tool. We were being shelled practically all the time, and this is the most hostile environment for light infantry, as we don’t really have any vehicles or protection at our disposal. At the moment of attack, all we could do was to bite ourselves into the ground,” says WO Artur Zieliński of the 6th Airborne Battalion, and emphasizes that carrying out their tasks in such conditions required specialist reconnaissance sub-subunits. The scouts collect information about the enemy and detect enemy fire posts to target allied artillery at them. “Throughout the entire exercise, our reconnaissance was doing just that. Our scouts helped us do our main task,” he says.
Within four fighting days, the paratroopers had to seize and defend an airfield and the crucial for operation railway and road bridges. The main task was performed by about 350 troops of the 6th Airborne Battalion supported with a platoon allocated from the Italian 185th Paratroopers Division Folgore. Before the Polish battalion combat group air-landed, reconnaissance was sent to the landing zone.
One Step Ahead of Enemy
Weather conditions can spoil even the best planned airborne operation, but its success does not depend solely on the weather. The so-called vanguard group, which is to check and secure a terrain, must get to the landing theatre before the main airborne drop. This task was done by the scouts in the reconnaissance company of the command battalion in the 6th Airborne Brigade. They proved how skilled they are as soon as in the first hours of the mission. “We were the only air-landing soldiers at the time. Despite very harsh conditions, our scouts reconnoitered the assault and airfield territory, and delivered all necessary information to us. All that time, they remained undetected,” explains the chief of the reconnaissance section, Capt. Marcin Drewnowski, and he adds that the task was even more difficult because of a flat and open terrain, characteristic for vast airfields.
The mission was furthermore complicated by the OPFOR (enemy), “played” by Slovenian troops of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade. Their task was to eliminate, as soon as possible, the airborne bridgehead. “Our potential was limited, but our troops were prepared to fight in these conditions. They were improvising all the time. During a repeated shell-fire, we were organizing patrols which were purposefully exposing themselves. As a result, the enemy forces thought that we occupied much larger territory than we in fact did,” emphasizes Capt Drewnowski, and adds that most of his soldiers gained their experience in missions abroad.
The NATO procedures, including requesting artillery fire, are well known to them. “This part of the exercise was only a reminder of the issues we earlier trained in combat. Still, we kept in mind that almost a decade had passed since the mission. Throughout that time, a battlefield kept on changing. In Afghanistan, our adversary didn’t have any advanced logistic support. Now, we had to assume that enemy forces would have a very well developed artillery,” explains the officer.
Reconnaissance tasks were also done by snipers of the 6th Airborne Battalion. They call themselves a commander’s additional pair of eyes, prepared to act in every situation. “During the exercise, we established forward observation points, from which we would detect threats on a given direction and secure own forces, including assault platoons. Contrary to what people think, we didn’t do any conventional warfare. To do our tasks well, we had to penetrate into an enemy-controlled terrain, and remain unseen all this time. Paradoxically, bad weather helped us,” explains a commander of a sniper team, CPL Tomasz Frączek, and adds that in missions during the Exercise Immediate Response some advanced equipment was also used. In observation tasks very helpful were: the Dragon scope with thermal-vision add-on device and the Vector binocular rangefinder. The reconnaissance sub-subunits were equipped with modern Harris Falcon III radio stations. “Being a sniper, I used this equipment in Afghanistan – it is one of the best in the world communication means which also the special forces have. A total novelty for us were the mats protecting us against thermovision, which we used to camouflage our posts. This kind of solution is very new in our sub-subunit, and means some kind of revolution,” emphasizes CPL Frączek.
Not For the First Time
Not only reconnaissance troops, but also snipers contributed to the seizure and keeping of the airfield and the bridges. The troops were responsible for checking whether there are mines or other engineering obstacles in the objects, and for neutralizing them. Despite enormous time pressure and adverse weather, all tasks were carried out according to plan. “In the profession of a sapper, being in no hurry is crucial. It is very difficult to achieve this kind of comfort when under attack, so you need to find a compromise. And never forget that security comes first. I don’t imagine any situation where security comes second,” says Sgt Jakub Kuźma, a deputy commander of the sapper platoon in the 6th Airborne Battalion. He also says that during the exercise the most difficult was not the minefields arranged by the enemy. It is the very good preparation of OPFOR and a continuous shell-fire that made these tasks quite demanding. “We took part in the assault on the bridge as a breaching element, and we were under fire. We had to withdraw from the bridge twice because of artillery volley. After we seized it, we started to secure it by deactivating anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.”
High-class specialists, such as scouts or sappers, need advanced equipment. Due to the nature of airborne forces, they need to wear this equipment on their back, which puts on many limitations. For this reason, the equipment is divided into individual sections, and some teams are trained to be able to take over some tasks to unburden their colleagues. Ultimately, gained skills combined with the ability to adapt to brand new conditions define the paratrooper efficiency.
Therefore, the aim of an exercise like Immediate Response 2019 is not only to test how logistics works in NATO structures. It is also the most faithful imitation of a battlefield. During the exercise, soldiers must leave their comfort zone and face unexpected challenges. The paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Battalion passed this test with no problems. “I appreciate their stamina and ability to adapt. All this time, they were not only fighting the enemy, but also a very bad weather. They nevertheless were capable of doing all their tasks within the designated time,” says Maj Marcin Wilga, a commander of Polish task force, adding that this was not the first time his soldiers worked with the US 173rd Airborne paratroopers. Earlier, they cooperated during the Swift Response or Saber Strike exercises. Hence, they very well know the way their American colleagues function, and they work as equals. “Our operational procedures at the tactical level are identical, we also have no problems when working in English-speaking environment. We proved that we’re able to operate in any place in Europe shoulder to shoulder with US troops,” says Maj Wilga.
autor zdjęć: Sebastian Brzezina