German air force maintains training mission at Fort Bliss despite downsizing
By DAVID BURGE | The El Paso Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 14, 2017
The sun starts to rise over the desert out in the Fort Bliss training area, and German air force soldiers are already on the move for what promises to be a busy day.
A convoy of vehicles rumbles through the desert and stops. About a half-dozen German officers get out.
They quickly start setting up the Patriot air-defense system, including a launcher, radar set, power generator and engagement control station.
It is all part of the training that they are receiving at the German air force’s Air Defense Center at Fort Bliss.
The German military has had a presence at Fort Bliss since 1956 but has been downsizing its presence at the installation in recent years.
In 2013, the German air force closed its North American command at Fort Bliss. But the Germans have continued to operate their Air Defense Center and, with it, an important training mission.
The Air Defense Center trains about 350 to 400 German officers and noncommissioned officers a year to understand all facets of the Patriot.
The center will remain at Fort Bliss at least through mid-2021, a date that keeps getting pushed back.
“We got smaller, but we are still here,” said Capt. Felix Herold, the chief instructor for tactics at the Air Defense Center.
The German air force has about 90 soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss and another 25 civilian employees. That’s the size of a typical U.S. Army company and a far cry from the 2,000 soldiers, civilians and students the Germans had at Fort Bliss in their heyday in the mid-1980s.
In addition to providing air-defense training for officers, the Air Defense Center also conducts Patriot classes for NCOs, classes in maintenance and force protection and specialty classes for battalion-level air-defense operators.
The current class of officers started out earlier this year at Fort Sill, Okla., where they went through 12 weeks of training. They went through a portion of the U.S. Army’s Basic Officer Leader Course and then learned about NATO tactics and procedures.
The idea is to be able to better work with American and NATO forces in the future, said Herold, who is from Dresden, Germany.
Next, they came to Fort Bliss where they are finishing up 4½ months of in-depth training that included classroom instruction, using Patriot simulators and exercises out in the field.
In particular, trainees are learning how the German version of the Patriot differs from the equipment that U.S. forces and other partner nations use, Herold said.
First Lt. Sten Richter, one of the officers going through the class, said Fort Bliss offers a year-round training opportunity that they can’t get in Germany, thanks to the mostly sunny weather and the immense size of the training area.
“We don’t have anything like this,” said Richter, a 28-year-old from Rostock, Germany. “To me, this is mind-blowing.”
First Lt. Martin Petzold got to serve as the mission commander for one day during the recent training exercise.
“It is really difficult and hard” training, said Petzold, a 29-year-old from Laage, Germany. “There are so many things you have to keep in your mind.”
First Lt. Vanessa Petzold is a student in the same class as her husband, Martin Petzold.
The 30-year-old from Laage agreed that the training they have been receiving has been quite challenging but will make them better officers.
“You have to know all the vehicles, which you normally don’t work with, and have to do all the different jobs — not so you are an expert, but are able to run the system and know how it works,” she said.
Senior Master Sgt. Markus Korte, a trainer from Lennestadt, Germany, said Fort Bliss provides “a unique training opportunity.”
“It’s perfect,” Korte said.
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