Jumping at night into a foreign country while working with international allies and following COVID-19 guidelines is how paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division are spending their next few weeks.
Airborne soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, jumped into Estonia beginning late Thursday night and into early Friday morning as part of a multinational joint exercise known as Swift Response 21.
Swift Response is an exercise involving multiple European partners while showcasing the ability to deploy forces on short notice across the Atlantic.
The Fort Bragg paratroopers aren’t alone for the training exercise.
The division’s headquarters commanded the exercise from Romania and is also overseeing the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s jump into Bulgaria between Sunday and Monday, and the Polish 6th Airborne Brigade’s jump into Romania on Monday.
Swift Response is the division’s first big exercise since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Lt. Col. Michael Burns, a spokesman for the division, said.
It’s part of the larger U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command’s Defender Europe exercise that involves about 28,000 multinational forces from 26 countries conducting near-simultaneous operations across 12 countries.
For Swift Response, there are about 7,000 multinational paratroopers involved, and about 1,000 are from Fort Bragg.
Every paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division participating in the exercise is fully vaccinated, said Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“The last thing we need to do is to send somebody overseas that is not vaccinated,” Donahue said. “Our job is to help wherever we go.”
Each paratrooper in the division received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine and had two weeks for the vaccine to go into effect, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Peterson, the division’s surgeon.
“Simply going with all of us fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine is the best defense against getting it and spreading it,” Peterson said.
The vaccine appears to be effective against the B117 variant of the virus that was first at Fort Bragg and is prevalent in the U.S., and the United Kingdom variant of the virus, Peterson said.
Estonia and Romania appear to be on a downward slope of spikes in the virus, Peterson said.
But that doesn’t mean precautions like wearing masks, washing hands or checking for symptoms will stop, he said.
There’s also the obligation to follow international COVID-19 mitigation requirements of the host nations the paratroopers are in, Peterson said.
Some of the nations require testing negative for COVID-19 even if the paratroopers are vaccinated, he said.
Medics are traveling with the troops, and host nations are providing medical clinics with providers, if needed.
Donahue said, though he doesn’t think the pandemic is completely over, he does think it is being better mitigated through the vaccine.
“I think this is a good example of how (we) can train as we work through this pandemic,” he said.
Donahue said he thinks it’s important for local paratroopers to go through the exercise and receive training because of the 82nd Airborne Division’s responsibility as the nation’s Immediate Response Force.
“This is just another opportunity for us to go through that process of alerting, assembling and delivering a force to somewhere in the world … wherever our nation needs to go,” he said.
Maj. Ben Barnard, a planner for the division and exercise, said there’s been plenty of preparation.
At the division level, there’s been coordination with the Air Force to use its C-17 and C-130 airwings to take paratroopers to Bulgaria and Romania, he said.
Burns said there’s been safety preparation, inspections and personnel setting up the drop zones ahead of the jumps.
Donahue said that, ahead of jumping into Estonia, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team left with a British airborne company that trained with the brigade at Fort Bragg.
In prior years, Fort Bragg has sent battalion-sized elements of about 600 to 700 soldiers to participate in the exercise, Burns said.
This year, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team sent two battalion-sized task force elements to jump, and another battalion-sized element to pre-stage areas from Lithuania.
One of the brigade’s battalions loaded C-17s and left about six hours ahead of the other battalion, refueled in the air and linked up with the task force over the Atlantic before all jumped into Estonia, Burns said.
Bernard said this year’s exercise is unique by having an aerial link-up of the two battalion task forces, along with all three brigades being dispersed across three different countries closely at once.
It’s combining a complex maneuver of large forces in Europe all at once, during a tight window, he said.
Donahue said the division’s paratroopers will work with partners and allies they haven’t worked with in the past, describing jumping into an unknown location as important for training.
Five different nations are also providing aircraft into Romania, which has required coordination the past three months to ensure everyone is picked up and arrives at the same time, Barnard said.
He said described the joint forcible entry airborne operation into Romania as multinational, giving the 6th Polish Brigade as an example because it is comprised of three different subordinate countries.
“(It’s) pretty complex, but awesome events, when you think of how many different flags are on the shoulders of these paratroopers who are coming out the door,” Barnard said.
Donahue said the exercise is important for interoperability amongst NATO allies to ensure everyone is ready if the alliance ever needs the troops “for any sort of defense operation.”
It’s about making sure the U.S. and its allies are postured for the future to deter any aggression from other nations that may pose a threat, he said.
He said there’s interoperability at the division level down to a tactical level, along with United States Army, Europe, and European Command
That interoperability, he said, is the ability to communicate with allies and partners.
At the brigade level, that’s communicating when resupplying. At the division level, it’s properly preparing and executing the exercise, he said.
The division staff at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, is ensuring all the appropriate people are aware of what’s going on during the exercise, through consistent communication, Donahue said.
The exercise is no secret to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, he said.
“The most important messaging that we just want to give anyone across the world is, ‘Hey, the United States military, and its allies … are very effective,'” Donahue said. “Our interoperability is substantial and is only increasing, and our readiness together is only increasing.”
Beyond the technical aspects of the exercise, Donahue said, he hopes the paratroopers and his division establish relationships that will last their entire military careers.
“It’s sort of the same people (training) over and over again, which is exactly what we want,” he said. “So I do want this next generation of folks coming up to start to get to know each other. This is extremely important as we go forward. “
During the next couple of weeks, the Fort Bragg paratroopers will participate in a brigade-sized training to seize an airfield, conduct follow-on helicopter assault operations, conduct defensive operations and conduct live-fire exercises, Burns said.
Soldiers with the 5th Squadron, 73 Cavalry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team will be practicing air assaults with the Estonian military, 1st. Lt. Mitchell Denning said.
“I feel like a lot of different militaries bring a lot of different things to the table, and so there’s a lot you can learn from different tactics and procedures that other militaries have and how they do things,” Denning said. “We want to bring what we can to the table and learn from them.”
Donahue said leaders are already writing after-action reviews of lessons learned and best practices to share with NATO and U.S. Army Europe once the exercise is complete.
The exercise, he said, is another repetition for being able to plug into networks, work with allies and various combatant commanders, and jump anywhere in the world.
“This is our bread and butter,” he said.
In July, the division’s paratroopers will participate in Defender Pacific, he said.
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