Patriot exercise in Crete could signal more frequent training
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 29, 2015
CHANIA, Greece — Many Patriot crew team members go whole careers without taking part in a single live-fire launch, but this week Army Spc. Harold Holland will be one of the lucky ones to watch the multimillion-dollar missile take flight over the Mediterranean.
“The closest I’ve ever gotten to actually seeing one fire is on YouTube, so this is a big deal,” said Holland, a Patriot crewmember with the Baumholder, Germany-based 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery.
On Thursday, five U.S. Patriot crews will fire 10 missiles from the Greek island of Crete, home to Europe’s lone launching site for the warhead. The mission is to intercept a fake enemy missile and blow it out of the sky.
This rare opportunity to engage in live-fire action could become more commonplace at the seaside NATO Missile Firing Installation in Chania, where the Army’s top general in Europe wants to see increased participation between U.S. and allied air defense units.
“Doing live fires builds confidence in one another and builds trust when you talk about firing a live missile. There is trust that comes with that,” said U.S. Army Europe’s Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges during a stop Tuesday at the training site, where he met with U.S. and German troops. “Probably the biggest threat to the population in Europe is going to be ballistic missiles, coming from any number of places.”
The exercise, known as Rapid Arrow, aims to certify a German Patriot battalion to NATO standards, but it also will put U.S. troops inside German systems, which will then be mounted with the Army’s Patriots for U.S. soldiers to test-fire. For the past week, U.S. troops have been learning how to operate the German system, exchanging tactics and ideas with their air defense counterparts.
“We’ve found a lot of similarities,” said Chief Warrant Officer II Kevin Kruthers, a tactical control officer with the 5-7 ADA. “In today’s world you never know if you will have to serve with them side by side.”
For Hodges, the participation of U.S. troops is part of a larger strategy aimed at stretching the reach of his force of 30,000 troops in Europe. In the wake of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine last year, U.S. European Command has sought to expand the military footprint in Europe on air, land and sea in order to reassure allies and deter Moscow.
For USAREUR, that’s meant a constant presence of soldiers along NATO’s eastern flank, where paratroops and other infantrymen have been deployed to train allies. In Crete, Hodges hammered home a message that has become a mantra when he meets with soldiers in the field.
“We have to make 30,000 soldiers feel like 300,000,” he told the air defense troops.
For the Army’s 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command based in Germany that has meant a hectic schedule, from recent missions in Poland to a 12-month stint in southern Turkey last year. During the latter, troops joined a NATO effort to defend Turkish airspace near the Syrian border.
“Our air defenders have the highest op tempo of any military operational specialty in all of Europe in the Army,” Hodges said. “They are gone all the time.”
The Army has boosted the presence in Europe with a steady supply of rotational forces from the U.S. and plans to pre-position heavy vehicles and tanks across eastern Europe, which should streamline troop movements, Hodges said. He said USAREUR will need to find ways to sustain the increased tempo for air defenders and others being called upon to do more. Hodges said he hopes to tap into more National Guard and Reserve ranks for an additional boost.
“I feel like we’ve got momentum now in terms of big Army really putting their shoulder to the wheel,” he said. The challenge will be finding the resources in a tight budget environment.
“For sure, there is a ways to go,” Hodges said.
Crete is one area where Hodges wants to do more, with “larger and more sophisticated” exercises.
For Sgt. Joshua Francis, a tactical control assistant with 5-7 ADA, that would be a welcome development. On Thursday, Francis will fire a Patriot for the first time, pushing the launch button inside the cramped three-man Patriot control room.
“I never thought I’d shoot a missile,” said Francis, adding he’s grateful the chance comes in training rather than combat. “If I shoot off a missile, that means something bad happened. … You don’t want missiles coming at you.”
A German Patriot missile battery rolls to a firing position the NATO Air Missile Firing Installation outside Chania, Crete, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. German forces along with soldiers of the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Commandare at NAMFI for a Patriot missile live-fire training.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES