Crews ready Army tanks for live-fire exercise in Bulgaria
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 24, 2015
Note: This article has been corrected.
NOVO SELO TRAINING AREA, Bulgaria — The soldiers set to fire the first U.S. tank rounds in Bulgaria aren’t wrapped up in the historical significance of the moment, set to unfold Thursday during a live-fire exercise before an audience that includes the country’s president and defense minister.
First and foremost on their minds is making sure the tanks will fire and fire safely.
“Make sure everything’s up to par so when we actually go do this, that nothing happens; no one gets hurt or nothing goes wrong with the tank itself,” said Spc. Seth Lantz, 22, a tank driver with 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade, 3rd Battalion 69th Armored Regiment, out of Fort Stewart, Ga.
The Speed and Power exercise at this sprawling training area about an hour’s drive west of the Black Sea is the latest in a series of recent exercises in eastern Europe intended to reassure NATO allies in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. This event, however, is also aimed at demonstrating that the U.S. military can rapidly deploy heavy combat equipment throughout Europe.
The 70-ton armored behemoths arrived separately over the past few days, hitching rides in the back of a C-17 cargo plane that departed from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. U.S. military officials promoted the “firsts” the exercise represented – the first time Abrams tanks would be airlifted within Europe and the first time American tanks would fire in Bulgaria. But both things had been done before.
In 2005, two M1 Abrams tanks and two Bradley fighting vehicles were airlifted from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, into Bulgaria’s Bezmer Air Base for Immediate Response 05, a three-week exercise at Bulgaria’s Novo Selo training area. USAREUR also rail-loaded two tanks to the exercise, which involved some 1,300 American troops and live-fire tank maneuvers.
Upon arrival at Burgas airport, the tanks were loaded and hauled by commercial truck to Novo Selo.
“In my job, we always talk about rail operations, ferry, line haul (trucks) and aircraft — things we haven’t practiced in a while,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Melendez, a logistician with the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Calvary Regiment, out of Vilseck, Germany.
“General Hodges said … some guys have to relearn how we do this, how do we move from Point A to Point B and be more effective,” Melendez said, referring to USAREUR commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.
“And we did it, that’s the most exciting” part, Melendez said of moving the tanks. “Plus being up close to the tanks right here,” he added while watching soldiers do maintenance on the tanks Wednesday morning.
Participating in Thursday’s exercise alongside the Abrams tanks will be three Bulgarian T-72 tanks, three U.S. Stryker vehicles and dismounted troops, including about 50 U.S. soldiers. The Strykers arrived by ship and rail.
The firing portion of the exercise won’t last long — only seven to nine minutes — but a lot of ammunition is set to fly, if all goes according to plan. The tanks’ two machine guns will fire off more than 1,600 live rounds in that short time. The tanks’ mains guns, however, will not fire live anti-tank projectiles and anti-personnel heat rounds.
“We use training rounds” on the main gun “because the other ones are four to five times more expensive, and we don’t want to incinerate this whole area with fire,” said Cpl. Craig Ochocki, 25, a tank gunner from Twinsburg, Ohio. “Live rounds would destroy everything, and that’s not the goal of this. We’re not trying to come out here and destroy their training area.”
The tanks fired their first rounds Wednesday afternoon during a practice run for Thursday’s exercise.
From a covered stage on top of a hill with expansive views, where guests will watch the action, two tanks could be seen parked on a distant hilltop. From one tank, a puff of smoke appeared, then a loud, single boom rattled the quiet countryside. Then a pause, then another boom.
On Thursday, plywood vehicle, and possibly troop, targets will be set up, but there will be no reference to Russia in the training props, the soldiers said.
“They’ll be targets, but it won’t be Putin,” Lantz said.
Correction: CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report included statements from U.S. military officials that they were airlifting Abrams tanks in Europe and firing tanks in Bulgaria for the first time; both happened previously.
Tank crews from the 3rd Infantry Division?s 3rd Combined Arms Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, out of Fort Stewart, Ga., prepare their two M1A2 Abrams tanks for Thursday's live-fire exercise at the Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria, Wednesday, June 24, 2015.
Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES