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Storied Airborne Unit Returns to Europe for NATO Exercise

More than 1,200 paratroopers dropped into Hohenfels, Germany's training area Aug. 26, 2015. They are part of Swift Response 15, a U.S. Army-led NATO training exercise involving 11 nations and more than 4,800 troops. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
More than 1,200 paratroopers dropped into Hohenfels, Germany's training area Aug. 26, 2015. They are part of Swift Response 15, a U.S. Army-led NATO training exercise involving 11 nations and more than 4,800 troops. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)

HOHENFELS, Germany — Two massive groups of paratroops, separated by hundreds of miles of countryside, conducted airdrops Wednesday as part of the largest NATO airborne exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

More than 1,200 paratroops from eight nations, including American troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, parachuted into Hohenfels Training Area early Wednesday afternoon. On the same day, roughly 150 more dropped into Romania at the Smarden Training Area, more than 600 miles away.

Before paratroops touched down in Hohenfels, a combined contingent of American, Italian and German special operations troops cleared the landing area and an adjoining mock city.

This highly coordinated airdrop was part of Swift Response 15, a U.S. Army-led NATO training exercise involving 11 nations and more than 4,800 troops. Wednesday’s air drop was the largest Allied jump in Europe in more than 35 years.

“The most unique aspect of this operation is the multinational component. Every aircraft … had at least three paratroopers from three different countries in it, cross-loaded,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Winksi, deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. “That level of interoperability was unheard of five to 10 years ago. That’s the thing that really strikes me the most about this.”

Swift Response provided a glimpse at how training events like this will be used to augment NATO’s very high readiness task force concept.

NATO’s rapid-reaction spearhead force, conceived after Russia’s annexation last year of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, is meant to be deployable within 48 hours, but is still in a formative stage.

Unease along NATO’s eastern flank because of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and its future intentions has created the need for events like this, said Lt Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe.

“When we look at how quickly things can develop along the eastern flank of the alliance, the ability to move forces to an area rapidly to deter a conflict gives us political options short of war,” said Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, NATO Allied Land Commander. “This is a demonstration of our ability to collectively defend the alliance.”

Swift Response 15 marks the full-force return of the 82nd Airborne Division to Europe after a 14 year absence. The 82nd was once a mainstay of the Army’s presence in Europe.

Since 2001, the division has been in a constant state of deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Small contingents of the division have taken part in exercises in Europe, but nothing like the scale seen on Wednesday.

For this reason, Swift Response 15 represented a homecoming for a unit that saw most of its formative years deployed in Germany.

“It’s great being in Europe. You’re immersed in the history of our division,” Winksi said. “We look to that pioneer generation, the World War II generation, as exemplars for us all to emulate and follow.”

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