Americans, Kuwaitis Test their Mettle in Joint Exercise

A U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tank fires at night during a U.S.-Kuwaiti partnership exercise on Dec. 7. (Stars and Stripes photo/Chris Church)
A U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tank fires at night during a U.S.-Kuwaiti partnership exercise on Dec. 7. (Stars and Stripes photo/Chris Church)

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait -- An M1A2 Abrams tank can give you a sense of comfort and security when you're sitting in it. That's especially the case when your tank is in a formation with a contingent of U.S. and Kuwaiti armor, artillery, mortars and snipers. It's the stuff of an adversary's nightmares.

But that comfort faded swiftly to organized chaos as a joint exercise got underway, beginning with the whooshing sound of artillery and mortars hitting targets in the distance, quick radio chatter, tanks roaring across the desert and Apaches flying overhead.

Swift and organized is exactly what the U.S. and Kuwaitis wanted as they proceeded last week with their first combined joint live fire exercise in six years -- unofficially called Operation Lightning Eagle -- involving the U.S. Army and the Kuwaiti army and air force. This level of integration is what U.S. Army Central Command, or ARCENT, is looking for with all of its partnerships in the Middle East.

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"What we are doing here today is working with our Kuwaiti counterparts, trying to use this exercise as a stepping stone for Kuwaiti-U.S. partnership exercises in the future where instead of doing it at the company level, we do it at the battalion and maybe even brigade (level)," said Col. Robert E. Lee Magee, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, is currently deployed to the Middle East as a contingency force and to conduct large engagements with allied countries.

With more than 22,000 soldiers supporting a region that covers 20 countries in the Middle East, U.S. Army Central Command aims to provide stability in the most unstable part of the world. A large part of ARCENT's mission involves theater support operations, such as logistical and equipment support for campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and engagements with regional partner nations.

"We partner with nations across the region and do these focus training events to really work on inter-operability between U.S. forces and local forces, so if we do have to do a contingency operation together, we are prepared to do it," said Maj. Gen. William B. Hickman, ARCENT's deputy commanding general of operations. Similar training was being conducted elsewhere in the region, he said.

Regional instability is a driving factor for ARCENT's presence and the need for partnerships. U.S. and NATO forces are still involved in a 15-year war in Afghanistan, a U.S.-led coalition is fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and a Saudi-led coalition is combating the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Counterinsurgency operations are being conducted throughout a region where terrorist attacks are fairly common.

"If you look around, almost every country in the Middle East right now has soldiers deployed somewhere doing combat operations," Hickman said.

Forward presence is also necessary to protect U.S. and allied strategic interests in the region.

"It's a region we have to stay engaged in every day," Hickman said. "It's not something we step back for and come back later. It's about building trust with our partners ... so that if something does happen we are able to react to it very quickly."

ARCENT stays busy conducting up to a dozen major drills with theater partners each year and a number of smaller engagements and leadership courses, according to ARCENT officials. Seventeen countries work with ARCENT on varying levels, including big partners like Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

The exercise in Kuwait involved about a dozen Abrams tanks each from the two armies. The Kuwaitis also provided a sniper and two Apache aircraft, while the U.S. fielded a three-man sniper team, mortar units and artillery units.

The event was preceded by months of intense planning between the partners.

"What I'm really trying to get after here is how do we work together for both defensive planning for Kuwait proper and how do we increase the capabilities for the Kuwaiti army overall by sharing what we've learned in combat and what we've learned in our deployments over the last 15 years." Magee said.

For the Kuwaitis, the exercise also highlighted the importance of the relationship with the U.S.

"More than friends," said a Kuwaiti official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media. "Like brothers. We work together, our company commanders stayed in the same vehicle to communicate their platoon ... that is a good relationship for us."

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