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Paratroopers build alliances on Steadfast Defender

To mark Armed Forces Week we showcase how British airborne forces built links with our NATO allies on Exercise Steadfast Defender in Estonia - which ranged from working with Polish paratroopers to US Navy bomb disposal experts.

16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team (16 Air Asslt BCT), the British Army’s global response force, is in command of more than 2,300 soldiers, sailors and aviators from four NATO nations training to build the alliance’s readiness to respond to international crises.

Light reconnaissance troops from the US Army’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment (1-73 CAV) and a company of Polish paratroopers from 6 Batalion Powietrznodesantowy (6 BPD) joined the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment Battlegroup (3 PARA BG).

1-73 CAV scouted ahead of the main body of 3 PARA BG to collect key information about enemy positions and terrain to shape how British and Polish paratroopers could outmanoeuvre the enemy.

6 BPD’s Major Marcin Pająk said training together allows troops to “exchange experiences and familiarise ourselves” with how each other operate.

Each nation has different capabilities and, through cooperation, we can complement each other." Major Marcin Pająk
Polish Army

“Each nation has different capabilities, and through cooperation, we can complement each other,” he said. “We have trained with our allies from the UK and the USA many times and, year by year, this cooperation becomes more effective. And all this effort is put in to ensure that NATO countries remain safe.”

A meeting of minds saw the US Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 8 (EODMU 8) join forces with 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal & Search) (33 Engr Regt (EOD&S)). The engineers operated together to find and defuse explosive threats in buildings, roads and trenches.

Chief Petty Officer Preston Lee, of EODMU 8, said: “We might be in the fight together one day, and this training is about building relationships and understanding before it comes to that.

“There are so many similarities in how we do the work, the main difference is in the size and capability of our teams. Our mantra is to be ‘jack of all trades’, while the British have more manpower and soldiers with individual specialisms. That means we might need less people on a job, but the British can manage a larger task.”

33 Engr Regt (EOD&S)' Sergeant Daniel Bacon said: “We do the same job, with slight variations, and we’ve learnt from each other to make both units that little bit more effective.

“Both of our units use robots and metal detectors, but the kit has slightly different capabilities and we’re finding out how best to exploit these differences to work better together.”

There is a natural camaraderie between us because we face the same dangers.” Chief Petty Officer Preston Lee
US Navy

CPO Lee highlighted the bond that had rapidly formed between the soldiers and sailors.

“In the Navy we are in our own bubble, and I feel that we have found the same bubble in the British Army,” he said. “There is a natural camaraderie between us because we face the same dangers.”

In the air, British paratroopers jumped from US Air Force C-17 transport aircraft under US T-11 parachutes to earn their US Army jump wings. The British 4 Regiment Air Army Corps Battlegroup lifted Polish and US soldiers into action by Chinook support helicopters, escorted by Apache attack and Wildcat reconnaissance helicopters.

On the first NATO deployment for the new AH-64E variant of the Apache, the helicopter joined Finnish Army manoeuvres on their way to Estonia.

An Apache pilot, who cannot be named for security reasons, said: “It’s been fantastic to show our allies what this state-of-the-art attack helicopter can do, while ourselves learning about its capabilities.

“For me, while training in Finland - one of NATO’s newest members - the highlight was live firing in support of Leopard 2 tanks, to show the potency of attack aviation and armour working together. Moving across to Estonia, we operated as a battlegroup to deliver the helicopter functions of lift, find and strike to a multinational force on the ground.”

The lead planner for the exercise was Major Seth Pearson, an officer from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division working in Headquarters 16 Air Asslt BCT.

You could say that I am a case study of NATO interoperability – we pool our resources to be stronger together.” Major Seth Pearson
US Army

“I’m doing the same work as would be expected of a British officer, and there is a British officer working at the 82nd,” he said. “It’s been a fascinating experience to deepen my understanding of the British Army, while being able to share my American perspective and experiences. I have learnt things, and I hope others have learnt from me.

“You could say that I am a case study of NATO interoperability – we pool our resources to be stronger together.”

The training in Estonia was one element of the US Army Europe and Africa-led Exercise Swift Response, which 16 Air Asslt BCT has participated in every year since 2015. This year’s iteration saw 13,000 troops from 17 nations training together in eight countries – stretching across Europe from the Baltics to the Balkans - to deliver six co-ordinated airborne operations across one week.

It formed part of Steadfast Defender 24, NATO’s largest military exercise since the Cold War. Some 20,000 British personnel were among 90,000 troops from all 32 NATO allies training together to test plans to reinforce European defences.