It was a real test for the allies. During Exercise Defender Europe 2022, soldiers from Poland, the USA, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and France proved that NATO’s motto – “Strong Together,” is more than just words.
The aim of Defender Europe, an exercise organized regularly by the US Army, is to check the mobility of forces and build interoperability among NATO members and partners. This year’s edition, which took place on the territories of eight countries, included a total of 18,000 soldiers from 20 countries, 7,000 of whom exercised in Poland.
This time, Polish soldiers exercising with the allies came mainly from the units located in the west of the country. Detachments of the 17th Mechanized Brigade were given an order to redeploy their forces to the training ground in Bemowo Piskie. In order to execute this task, they had to cover almost 1,000 km, which took nearly a month. “Our Rosomaks are great for public road transport. However, this time, soldiers from the USA, France and Sweden exercised with us, and they used railroad transport, among other means. It takes a little longer, so from time to time we would stop at earlier designated places and wait for them to join us,” explains LtCol Damian Kidawa, commander of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Battalion of the 17th Mechanized Brigade. The soldiers used these stopovers, usually lasting several days, to practice elements of tactics, giving first aid or engineering and sapper activities.
Another important part of the redeployment was crossing water obstacles. This element of operation is not as easy as it might seem, as it has to assume that the army is forcing their way into enemy-occupied territory. The first crossing took place on the Vistula river near Dęblin. In order to transport Rosomak armored personnel carriers, the French VBCI (Véhiculeblindé de combat d’infanterie) IFVs and the US Abrams tanks, the military engineers set up a floating bridge of 163 meters.
Several days later, a similar activity (this time forcing) was practiced by the allies in Nowogród, on the Narew river. “This time, the bridge was set up together by engineers from the USA and Sweden, and the ferry crossings were organized by soldiers from France and Poland. What’s important, our vehicles crossed the river thanks to the crossings organized by the allies, and the French ones used the crossings prepared by Poles,” says Col Marcin Jarek, head of the exercise department of the Land Forces Inspectorate of the Armed Forces General Command. The officer adds that in order for the activity to be more realistic, the scenario of the exercise assumed the presence of OPFOR (opposing force), played by the soldiers of the reconnaissance platoon of the 9th Armored Cavalry Brigade. “That’s why, before the river forcing began, the Su-22 fighter-bomber aircraft joined the action and destroyed the targets on the territory occupied by the adversary, and later, the W-3 Sokół helicopters dropped the soldiers of the 25th Air Cavalry Brigade, whose task was to perform reconnaissance tasks and seize the terrain on the other side of the river,” explains the officer.
This situation raises a question whether synchronizing the activities of the allies, who use such various equipment, was not too challenging for the soldiers. “We had a chance to cross water obstacles, which enabled us to check all the procedures. We proved that we understand one another perfectly and we can cooperate together effectively,” said in Nowogród Maj Jefferson Grimes of the US Land Forces. The exercise was also positively evaluated by Pvt Andrzej Ferenc of the Swedish Engineer Troops – a soldier of Polish descent, who began his adventure in the Swedish army with mandatory military service. During Defender, already as a professional soldier, he exercised together with the allies. “Our most important task was to organize the crossings, so that our partners could cross the water obstacles, but it also took us quite a while to redeploy,” said Ferenc right after the crossing, and pointed to another, non-military issue. “My fellows were stunned by the beauty of Polish landscapes. In fact, they said they were like taken from the movies. They also liked the very modern highway here,” he added.
Straight from Nowogród, the soldiers of the 17th Mechanized Brigade, supported by a motorized company from France, made their way to Mazuria. On the training ground in Orzysz, they had to join forces with the paratroops of the 6th Airborne Brigade, but the adversary kept trying to interfere with their plans. “The task of the Blue [according to the exercise scenario the Blue are own forces, and the Red are enemy forces] was to seize the bridges on the rivers Dzięgałówka and Święcek, and to conduct an attack in the vicinity of Kępno lake. We, the Red, were supposed to make it impossible for them,” explains Maj Maciej Szyłkowski, deputy commander of the 1st Mechanized Battalion of the 12th Mechanized Brigade, who was responsible for preparing the operation of OPFOR in Orzysz. Interestingly, troops from the UK also played the roles of the enemy. “This type of activity provides more freedom, as it doesn’t require us to strictly follow the procedures. It’s also a great opportunity to prove yourself. I’m happy to have been able to take part in the exercise and cooperate with the Poles. It was an amazing training for me and my soldiers,” emphasizes Maj Henry Freeman of the British Royal Daragoons.
Fire in Drawsko
Defender was equally full of action in Drawsko Pomorskie. The main group exercising on Poland’s largest training ground was the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade. Col Grzegorz Barabieda, the unit’s commander, emphasizes that the redeployment alone was already very challenging for the troops, even more so that most of them took part in the maneuvers several days after finishing their internal exercise – Bóbr 2022. Their IFVs and Leopard tanks covered 350 kilometers to get from Świętoszów to the training ground in Drawsko, and crossed the river Odra on the way.
And that was just the beginning! The participation of the armored brigade in Defender was divided into two phases. The first phase was Exercise Karakal, during which, together with the allies from the USA and Germany, they conducted a series of tactical operations, such as performing an attack, a counter-attack, crossing a lake (in this case Zły Łęg). There was also a joint firing training, in which not only Polish vehicles, but also the US Abrams tanks and the German Marder combat vehicles took part. “We had a chance to verify if we execute the same type of tasks in a similar way. It’s not always easy, if only because of the language barrier, but working on our interoperability is exactly the reason why we came here,” said Capt Simon, commander of the German detachment.
During allied operations, a very important role was played by artillery. Importantly, for the time of joint activities, a battery of American M777 howitzers was put under the control of the self-propelled artillery squadron of the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade, equipped with Goździk howitzers. “Equipment is the main difference between us. Americans have towed howitzers which require a vehicle to be transported. We have self-propelled howitzers, which makes us more mobile and independent. The US battery is also handled by a larger number of specialists, but the tactic of operation itself is quite similar,” says LtCol Marek Lewandowski, commander of the self-propelled artillery squadron of the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade. The commander of the battery, Lt Patryk Wysocki, confirms his words. “Before we began operation, each soldier met their counterpart in the US Army. The aim was to get familiar with each other’s system of work and maybe learn some new solutions. I have to admit I was quite surprised at how fast we managed to establish an understanding,” he emphasizes.
During Karakal, the soldiers used MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System), which was brought to Poland by the Americans. Due to the fact that elements of the system are mounted both on vehicles and in the soldiers’ kits, it is possible to evaluate the actual losses suffered by the operating detachments. “We have already used this solution several times, for example during an exercise at the US Army training center in Hohenfels. It’s a fantastic way to make the operations of both sides highly realistic, because it’s impossible to hide anything from that system,” says Maj Błażej Łukaszewski, head of the press office of the part of Exercise Defender that took place in Drawsko.
The action did not finish with the end of Exercise Karakal. When the German detachment returned to its mother unit, soldiers from the UK with their Challengers and those from Denmark with Leopard 2A7 tanks started their own operations. What is interesting, it was the first time these tanks had operated outside their country. “The last time Danish soldiers exercised in Poland was in 2015, so Defender is a good chance for us to gain new experiences,” claims LtCol Kristian Kold of the Danish Armed Forces. Danes also had another goal – they worked very closely mainly with their UK allies due to the upcoming mission in Estonia they are soon to start together. They will reinforce one of NATO’s Battle Groups. For us, this exercise was a chance to check all the procedures and get to know each other better,” emphasizes the officer.
From Land and Air
American A-10 attack aircraft were also present over the training ground in Orzysz. The last time the machines, known as Warthogs, came to Poland, was in 2015. This time, they operated jointly with the Polish F-16 and Su-22 fighters, but their support also proved useful to other participants of Defender. “These aircraft don’t only execute tasks consisting in destroying enemy forces, they also conduct reconnaissance. Thanks to the information they collected, and also their cooperation with the JTACs who coordinated the flights, my task was certainly a lot easier,” said LtCol Marcin Wilga, commander of the 18th Airborne Battalion, whose soldiers exercised in Mazuria. 350 of them performed, among other things, drops from Hercules C-130 aircraft from the 33rd Transport Aviation Base in Powidz and CASA C-295 aircraft from the 8th Transport Aviation Base in Kraków.
The fighter pilots also had a lot to do during Defender. For example, the F-16s from the 31st Tactical Air Base in Krzesiny went up in the air repeatedly. Their task was to execute a CAS (Close Air Support) mission. What was their role? One of the airmen explains that sometimes it is enough for the enemy to see the machines in the air, but the situation might also require using armament. In that case, it is necessary to cooperate with the JTACs, who direct the F-16 pilots to the target. During maneuvers such as Defender, the use of the F-16 armament is simulated, but the pilots conform to all the procedures just as if the firing was real. The established rules and regulations are very important to them. On the other hand, what allied army they support does not really matter. “Whether they are Americans, the French or Poles – we all follow the same NATO procedures,” says the pilot.
During Defender, the exercising detachments were also supported by territorial defense forces. The task of the troops of the 14th Territorial Defense Brigade was to secure the routes of the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade going to the training ground in Drawsko, and to help them unload their equipment. The soldiers of the 1st Territorial Defense Brigade, on the other hand, were directed to Nowogród. “Our role was to secure the terrain where the national, allied and partner detachments were performing the river crossing. The soldiers organized control posts and helped to coordinate military vehicle traffic,” says Col Sławomir Kocanowski, the unit’s commander.
The representatives of the youngest branch of the armed forces were also present at the training ground in Orzysz. The 4th Territorial Defense Brigade was directed to this area, with a task of securing the terrain for the joint operation of the 6th Airborne Brigade and the 17th Mechanized Brigade. The territorial defense troops also helped the operational forces to conduct reconnaissance and locate enemy vehicles. “We managed to take two captives,” emphasizes Lt Bartłomiej Sepko, company commander of the 4th Territorial Defense Brigade.
Col Jarek of the Armed Forces General Command emphasizes the fact that Exercise Defender Europe 2022 was organized by the USA, not by NATO, and required a lot of flexibility from the exercising soldiers in every phase of preparing and executing the maneuvers. “It mainly concerns the formal issues. Not all NATO documents determining the procedures of operation were implemented by the exercising states. For example Sweden, which is still outside NATO, based its actions on national solutions. However, due to very precise planning of particular phases of the exercise, we managed to harmonize all the elements and prove that we can operate together very effectively,” he explains.
The participation in such extensive maneuvers also proved to be a very important experience for young officers. “This was the largest scale exercise I’ve ever taken part in. I learned a lot about planning an operation, writing orders. I also had an opportunity to see what this process looks like in other countries,” says 2ndLt Zofia Dolik, operational officer of the 17th Brigade.
The allied maneuvers finished at the end of May. The last phase was an international fire control training. The training ground in Drawsko Pomorskie filled with the sounds of fire from Abrams tanks, Polish and Danish Leopards, British Challengers, while in Orzysz, the shooting was performed by Leopards 2PL, French VBCIs and American Bradleys. The action was observed by Mariusz Błaszczak, Polish minister of national defense. “American, Romanian, British and Croatian soldiers are also stationing here, in Orzysz, and in Bemowo Piskie, on a daily basis, so we create a very strong security system within the frame of NATO,” he said after the exercise had finished.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz, Maciej Nędzyński/ CO MON, Leszek Chemperek/ CO MON