How do you quickly transport armed forces across the Atlantic, distribute them throughout Europe and fight off an enemy attack while cooperating with both Allies and partners from outside NATO? Another attempt to answer these questions was undertaken by the Americans during Exercise Defender Europe 2021.
They set off from Cracow, Bucharest and Constanța. Aircraft met already in the air and quickly reached their destination – the airport in a Romanian town of Boboc. According to the scenario, the base had been taken by unidentified units several days before. The task was to retake it. Suddenly, the sky filled with hundreds of parachute canopies. The parachutists included troops from the USA, Romania, the Netherlands and Germany, but mainly Polish soldiers of the 6th Airborne Brigade, who were to play the key role in the operation. They were in command of all the forces landing in Boboc. This was the start of Exercise Swift Response 2021, an element of Exercise Defender Europe 2021.
Under Polish Command
7,000 paratroopers from 11 states, dozens of aircraft and an operation stretched across three states – soldiers had been preparing for this undertaking for months. One of the training sites was Fort Bragg in the USA, where British and American detachments exercised together. “It was huge help for us. We practiced landing with American parachutes. We were taught the procedures on how to summon the US Army artillery for support,” explained Capt Wesley Schorah of the 7th Parachute Regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery. Before the Americans and the Brits set off for Estonia, the training ground in the town of Tapa welcomed soldiers of the American 41st Field Artillery Brigade and heavy equipment, including M270 MLRS launchers. The armored vehicles of 25 tons are capable of launching 12 projectiles per minute at a distance of up to 80 km.
The brigade itself was reactivated three years ago and immediately redeployed to Europe. “Long-range precision artillery is one of the priorities in the modernization of our army. Now, we have a chance to present our increased capabilities to support NATO Allies,” emphasized during a press conference BrigGen Christopher R. Norrie of the United States Army Europe and Africa (USAREUR-AF). The rocket fire was to clear the way for the US-British assault landing. Soon, the CH-47 Chinook and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters arrived at the training ground to redeploy equipment, including British M777 howitzers and Humvee vehicles. The last to come to Tapa were transport aircraft with US-British paratroopers on boards. A total of over 800 soldiers were dropped at the sight.
At the same time, the Polish troops were getting ready to land in Romania. “First, a detachment from the Netherlands was dropped near the Boboc airport. The troops were to perform reconnaissance tasks, guide the fire of the Romanian Air Force within the frame of the CAS [close air support] procedure to destroy enemy anti-aircraft weapons, and guide the aircraft with main airborne attack forces,” explains Capt Szymon Marcinów of the 6th Airborne Brigade. During Exercise Swift Response 2021, he was a liaison officer at the US 82nd Airborne Division, which commanded the whole operation conducted on the territory of three states. When the first Dutchmen were landing in Boboc, he and his staff were still in Constanța.
Less than two days later, Capt Marcinów (and his entire staff) boarded an aircraft and put on a parachute. He jumped out over the Boboc base together with the main forces – about 500 Poles and a hundred soldiers from four other states. “This was the greatest challenge in our history,” admits BrigGen Grzegorz Grodzki, the commander of the 6th Airborne Brigade. “We had never commanded such an extensive assault landing, which additionally involved international forces. We had 14 aircraft at our disposal. Their flights had to be planned and coordinated in great detail. On top of that, we had to distribute tasks among particular detachments, which joined the fight in two echelons. Keep in mind that over Boboc we not only dropped soldiers, but also equipment,” adds the General. To give an example, the C-130 Hercules from the 33rd Transport Aviation Base dropped an air-mobile vehicle – one of several dozen received by the brigade last year. More vehicles used in the exercise were dropped on the following day.
In Boboc, General Grodzki jumped with his subordinates, and they jointly faced the enemy, impersonated by the Romanian forces. Ultimately, they managed to take the base back. “It was an amazing experience for us, but we are slowly preparing to raise the bar a little higher,” announced the commander of the 6th Airborne Brigade. “We have already started training for next year’s edition of Exercise Swift Response. It seems that the engagement of the 6th brigade’s paratroopers will be more extensive than ever,” he adds. A perfect completion of this year’s exercise was a landing operation in Bulgaria. This time, the drop was performed at night. It involved quick redeployment of, among others, helicopters of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, from several different bases in Germany to the Balkans. Although Exercise Swift Response ended in May, European training grounds are still vibrant with life and action.
Logistics Comes First
Exercise Swift Response, although very extensive, was merely one of the elements of a much more complex puzzle. Defender Europe 2021 involved a total of almost 30,000 soldiers from 27 NATO member states, but also countries from outside the Alliance, such as Ukraine, Kosovo or Moldavia. Particular episodes were played out at 31 training grounds in 16 states. This year, forces operated mainly in southern Europe, but also in Estonia or Germany, for example. The whole exercise was supervised by the United States Army Europe and Africa (USAREUR-AF), which was created in November 2020 by consolidating staffs responsible for the respective continents into one command. The maneuvers also tested the functioning of the US Army’s V Corps Forward Headquarters located in Poznań, also active since the fall of 2020.
Exercise Defender Europe 2021 was to prove Americans can quickly redeploy their forces across the Atlantic and cooperate with Allies in Europe. At the end of April, southern European ports started to welcome cargo ships with equipment. The first one to set off was the enormous USNS Bob Hope, with 800 military vehicles and containers filled with equipment on board. It began its journey in Jacksonville, Florida, made a short stop at Portsmouth, Virginia, and after covering almost 5,000 nm it arrived in Durres, Albania. There, logisticians exercised operations referred to as JLOTS (Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore), which involve unloading vessels without the benefit of fixed port facilities. The equipment carried by USNS Bob Hope was transferred to smaller vessels, and from there to the mainland. From land, it was loaded onto two other transport ships – an American and a British one, which took it to Zadar in Croatia.
Along with the JLOTS operations, the soldiers also pumped petrol from the cargo ship to the mainland. Altogether, the vessels carrying equipment came to ports in four states. “We proved our army is able to efficiently redeploy enormous amounts of equipment to the region of operation. On top of that, our troops can unload it even in places where port infrastructure has been partially destroyed or is entirely missing,” emphasized CWO Abdelkader Hosni of the 7th Transportation Brigade, adding that the US Armed Forces have not undertaken such an extensive operation in Europe since WWII. Ultimately, 1,200 units of equipment came from the USA to the south of the Old Continent by sea.
The transported equipment was actually only a part of what the participating units had at their disposal in Europe. They also used Army Prepositioned Stock (APS) drawn from sites in Western countries, such as the Netherlands. It was redeployed to a training ground in the German town of Grafenwöhr, and then transported to the south of the continent. The soldiers came to Europe by aircraft.
In May, military convoys appeared on European roads. Before reaching their destination, they often had to cross several borders. In mid-May, a column of 75 vehicles drove across Slovenia and Croatia. It was transporting, among other things, the Patriot missile launchers, which were later presented at the Croatian air base in Zemunik. Patriot is an American surface-to-air missile system for countering aircraft and helicopters at a distance ranging from several to over 150 km. During Defender, Americans also demonstrated a different way to transport equipment by road. In Romania, vehicles, including Bradley IFVs, were loaded onto civilian trucks and transported across Hungary to a Croatian training ground in Slunj. Nevertheless, this extensive logistical operation was merely a prelude to the exercises.
A Chain of Exercises
Four Blackhawks took off from the Dubrave airport near Tuzla. The seats in the helicopters were occupied by US soldiers, who were transported to the training ground in Manjača near Banja Luka. There, Americans launched the first shelling with a local light infantry battalion. Next to Swift Response, Exercise Immediate Response 2021 was one of the three most extensive ones encompassed by Defender. It involved 5,000 soldiers from eight countries. They operated on training grounds in nine states, and their main tasks included live-fire from various types of equipment. Extensive firing tasks were also an element of Exercise Saber Guardian 2021, during which 13,000 soldiers from 16 states conducted air and missile defense operations, plus a large-scale medical evacuation.
In addition to the exercises included in the Defender program, there were many other undertakings in Europe and northern Africa, more or less related to it. To mention a few, the air force Exercise Astral Knight 2021 began in mid-May. The command of the exercise was located at Aviano Air Base in Italy. The combat aircraft that took part in the exercise included machines from the USA, Greece and Croatia. There were F-35s, F-16s, but also MiGs. They conducted joint combat operations to fight off a simulated enemy attack.
Meanwhile, in Estonia, after the end of Exercise Swift Response, several thousand soldiers exercised during Exercise Spring Storm 2021. There were also Polish troops taking part. Two minelayer landing ships along with an embarked Naval Missile Unit element set off to the north to take part in the exercise. In the initial phase, the representatives of the Polish Navy did not want to reveal what tasks they would carry out in Estonia. The known fact is that two years earlier, also during Spring Storm, the Naval Missile Unit launchers destroyed simulated targets in the Gulf of Finland. Experts emphasized it was NATO’s way of showing it is capable to quickly cut off the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet from the open sea. This year’s Defender was closely linked to the African Lion maneuvers, which were held mainly on training grounds in Morocco, and involved large-scale live-fire exercises, as well as air and maritime training exercises.
The last accord of Exercise Defender Europe 2021 was redeployment of American forces back to the USA, which began in June. “The character of this undertaking is defensive. Our goal is to deter potential adversaries, prevent aggression, but at the same time make sure our forces are able to quickly respond in the event of a crisis situation and carry out a large-scale combat operation,” emphasized during a press conference John F. Kirby, the Spokesman for Pentagon.
autor zdjęć: st. kpr. Mariusz Bieniek / 6bpd, USAF, US Army