As wars end, 82nd Airborne preps for bigger global response role
Paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division perform a mass jump at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on May 20, 2006.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When more than 1,300 paratroopers flew from Pope Air Field to Louisiana last month, they did something that no Fort Bragg unit had done for a decade.
The soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, conducted a forcible-entry exercise at Fort Polk as part of a month-long Joint Readiness Training Exercise.
The training represented a deviation from counter-insurgency, which has been a large part of Army training for the bulk of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Historically, the 82nd Airborne Division has filled the role as the nation's Global Response Force, which requires the brigade to be ready at all times to deploy within 18 hours of notification.
With the Iraq war over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade Combat Team will return to its role of first responder later this year.
"It's the old full-spectrum operation," said Maj. Keefe Savin, brigade spokesman.
During the exercises at Fort Polk, officials with the 82nd Airborne joined Army-wide leaders as the paratroopers jumped into Drop Zone Geronimo with all the food, water and ammunition they needed for their initial push into the training area.
Jumping into the rural Louisiana post was just the start for the paratroopers, who were joined by about 2,000 more soldiers who already were on site.
Throughout October, the paratroopers trained for a number of possibilities, from protecting a friendly nation from an aggressor to humanitarian relief, guerrilla warfare, stopping criminal enterprises and facing conventional forces.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team — known as the Falcon Brigade — last served in the Global Response Force rotation in 2010, when it responded to relief efforts in Haiti following a devastating earthquake. Such humanitarian roles have been rare, but officials say the 82nd Airborne Division has planned for a number of scenarios that never materialized.
In the post-Afghanistan Army, most brigade combat teams and divisions will be aligned regionally with combatant commands across the globe, officials said. But the 82nd Airborne Division will have to remain flexible.
In its coming role, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team will be tasked with being prepared for many circumstances very different from the nation's recent wars.
The shift is one that the 82nd Airborne Division knew was coming.
In Afghanistan earlier this year, then-division commander Maj. Gen. James L. Huggins said the 82nd would refocus on the Global Response Force upon its return to Fort Bragg.
While some units will see more time in Afghanistan — the 4th Brigade Combat Team has a rotation coming in 2014 — more of an emphasis will be placed on the Global Response Force, Huggins said at the time.
Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. reiterated the renewed focus when he took command in early October, promoting the 82nd's "new mission."
"It's a mission we've had before and, indeed, to some extent, we've never lost," Nicholson said. "It's one we had for four decades prior to 9/11. That is the mission of the Global Response Force — to be ready to deploy anytime, anywhere around the globe, by forcible entry if required, to accomplish our nation's objectives."
Lt. Col. Erik Berdy, commander of 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, said the Joint Readiness Training Center rotation was an opportunity to see his soldiers in action in an unfamiliar environment, and the final test after months of training.
"Do my guys have the mental and physical strength?" Berdy asked from Fort Bragg's Green Ramp in early October as he and his men waited to fly to Fort Polk.
The Falcon Brigade cut its teeth in the last decade with multiple deployments to Iraq. But in assuming the role of Global Response Force, the brigade is preparing for much different battles.
"This is significantly different (from Iraq)," Berdy said. "The desire is to give us a full spectrum of capabilities."
Berdy said one of the contingencies the brigade trained for was the evacuation of noncombatants from foreign countries. They also trained for fighting conventional armies, something troops haven't done since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With those wars over or winding down, Berdy said, the aim is to be ready for whatever comes next.
"We have a new type of strategic threat and this division is a necessity," he said. "The significance of the 82nd goes without mentioning. Whether it's 18 hours or 96 hours, we're going to have trained and made ourselves ready to meet any requirements."
Savin said the return to more traditional training ahead of assuming the Global Response Force role will prove beneficial for young and experienced paratroopers alike.
For the young soldiers, it'll be a look at roles the Army hasn't had to fill in recent years, he said. For the more experienced soldiers, it's an opportunity to "knock off the dust."
"Iraq is closed out. The drawdown is starting in Afghanistan. We still have a responsibility to be ready, to go on a moment's notice," Savin said. "We'll make sure we are prepared to go anywhere in the world on short notice. It's a capability only we can provide."