Shock exercise sends 173rd Airborne Brigade engineers to Po River for lesson in bridge building
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 19, 2016
PIACENZA, Italy — Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade quietly paddled rubber rafts through low-lying fog on the Po River Monday night to reconnoiter the river before a bridging operation by Italian army engineers the next day.
On Tuesday, they watched the Italians launch a massive, motorized pontoon bridge they’d previously assembled into the water, drive several vehicles onto it, and use it as a ferry.
Part of a “shock” exercise, the operation also tested the 173rd’s ability to be ready to quickly deploy, ideally within 18 hours.
The unit, Company A of the brigade’s 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, was not advised in advance of the exercise. “It is supposed to literally be a shock to the unit,” said Maj. Joshua Blizzard, of the 7th Army Training Command who helped plan the exercise.
Still, with the myriad protocols, checks, equipment and communications preparation and rehearsals required, that was the easy part, in a way. “The 173rd has always been good at that,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
The platoon was ready to go within 16 hours after getting the alert at 4 a.m. on Friday, said Maj. Juan Martinez, 173rd Brigade spokesman. But it took a “tactical pause” until Sunday to comport with the Italians’ timeline.
An important feature of the exercise was working together with — and learning from — NATO allies.
The exercise also represented a recognition that a particular skill — the complex art of combat river crossings — within USAREUR is in need of a renaissance.
“This is a skill we have had to rebuild,” Hodges said. “We realize we need the capability again. The ability to deter depends on how fast we can get to a place, and crossing rivers is part of that.”
When the last U.S. tanks briefly left Europe a few years ago along with their armored division in a flurry of downsizing, they took bridging capabilities with them.
While tanks and other armored vehicles have since returned to Europe in connection with concerns related to Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine, the Army still lacks the ability to bridge rivers on its own.
“I’m not criticizing the decision. I probably would have made the same one myself five years ago,” Hodges said of the Army’s drawdown.
But U.S. and NATO military officials have grown increasingly concerned about further Russian encroachment. They’ve particularly focused attention on a route linking Poland and Lithuania called the Suwalki Gap, which abuts the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, nestled between the two countries. NATO and the U.S. would have to get there fast, military planners say, or Russia could cut off the route and sever the Baltic states from the rest of the alliance.
“In a real crisis in Europe, to move, say, from central or southern Germany to the Suwalki Gap, we’d probably have to cross seven or eight rivers,” Hodges said. For that, “we depend on our allies.”
Engineering units in almost all NATO member states retain their bridge-building equipment, and training drills involving the pontoon units are fairly frequent.
This week’s bridging exercises — another was scheduled with British engineers in Livorno — were among several the U.S. and NATO have conducted over the past year.
In June, during the massive Anaconda exercise, German and British army forces built a floating bridge across the Vistula River in Poland, after which the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment rolled its Stryker armored vehicles in a long convoy toward the Suwalki Gap and Lithuania. “It’s about the best bridge I’ve ever seen in my life,” Hodges said.
Next summer’s exercises will feature several more river crossings with allies and Army Reserve engineers, since most Army engineers are in the reserve component, Hodges said.
The 33 paratroopers on the exercise practiced doing reconnaissance on both sides of the river before the bridging, then took up defensive positions as members of the Italian 2nd Engineer Sapper Regiment launched the French-made Motorized Floating Bridge into the water.
Originally, plans called for the bridge to stretch across the river like a ribbon. But the water level was too low for that, regiment commander, Capt. Stefano Manca, decided. He was in charge of 119 Italian troops. Instead, they used the bridge as a ferry. Within an hour, the ferry bridge had made two trips, as U.S., French and Norwegian military observers watched from the riverside.
Manca said that launching a 100-meter self-propelled bridge into a river is no big deal. “It’s fundamental for us,” he said. “It’s our job.”
For the 173rd’s 1st Lt. Louis Tobergte, the hardest part of the exercise was ensuring that a different type of vehicle — the unit’s Humvees — were gassed up, mechanically sound, and ready to go. “It was my first time doing a convoy,” Tobergte said. All the vehicles made the trip, going 50 miles per hour on the autostada, from Vicenza, traveling the 125 miles without incident.