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A U.S. Air Force B-52 flies over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 flies over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A U.S. Air Force B-52 flies over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 flies over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Spanish Centauro moves down a hill with armor vehicles in the background during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

A Spanish Centauro moves down a hill with armor vehicles in the background during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Smoke rises over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, after an artillery strike during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. The village in the foreground was the objective of the NATO troops participating.

Smoke rises over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, after an artillery strike during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. The village in the foreground was the objective of the NATO troops participating. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

An AH-64 Apache from Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment (Attack Reconnaissance) out of Katterbach, Germany, hovers over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

An AH-64 Apache from Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment (Attack Reconnaissance) out of Katterbach, Germany, hovers over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Special operations forces are inserted into the village to free a hostage during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

Special operations forces are inserted into the village to free a hostage during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Spanish Centauro rolls across the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

A Spanish Centauro rolls across the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Soldiers return to a Chinook helicopter after freeing a "hostage" during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise at the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

Soldiers return to a Chinook helicopter after freeing a "hostage" during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise at the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A Spanish F-18 streaks through the sky over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

A Spanish F-18 streaks through the sky over the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

An American UH-60 Black Hawk flies over San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, after picking up "wounded" during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

An American UH-60 Black Hawk flies over San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, after picking up "wounded" during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

NATO troops head for their objective during the land exercise at San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

NATO troops head for their objective during the land exercise at San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

After jumping from C-17 airplanes, paratroops from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne and a Spanish unit parachute on to the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

After jumping from C-17 airplanes, paratroops from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne and a Spanish unit parachute on to the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Lt. Gen. John Nicholson listens as NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg talks with 82nd Airborne soldiers who parachuted onto the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.

Lt. Gen. John Nicholson listens as NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg talks with 82nd Airborne soldiers who parachuted onto the San Gregorio training area near Zaragoza, Spain, during NATO's Trident Juncture exercise, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

ZARAGOZA, Spain — NATO allies attacked on land and from the air with an impressive array of aircraft, fighting vehicles and troops Wednesday as part of a massive exercise that spanned three countries.

After more than 1,100 troops from several NATO countries launched a complex mock attack on a small dusty village to engage a fictitious foe and rescue hostages, 500 paratroops who flew direct from Fort Bragg, N.C., jumped onto the San Gregorio training area here.

Engaged in the battle were aircraft from at least three nations, including F-18s, B-52s, Apaches, Chinooks and Tigres. On land, there were Abrams, Centauros, Strykers and Leopards accompanying infantry, artillery, cavalry, Belgian and Italian commandos and Czech special operations forces.

The day’s events at San Gregorio Exercise and Training Area marked one of the high points of a three-week exercise held in Italy, Spain and Portugal and in their waters and airspace. Called Trident Juncture, the war games involved about 36,000 troops from more than 35 countries.

Although two years in the planning, the exercise — one of the largest since the end of the Cold War — has taken on added significance since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine last year and the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

NATO officials, along with hundreds of representatives from all 28 allies and partner nations on hand to watch Wednesday’s demonstration, pronounced it a success.

“From what I’ve seen today, NATO is up to the test,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We are also sending a very clear message: NATO does not seek confrontation, but we stand ready to defend our allies.”

Participating troops also were pleased with the way the scenario unfolded.

“It went really well. We honestly had no issues,” said Lt. Chris Nelson, with the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment (Attack Reconnaissance), based in Katterbach, Germany. He flew one of the four Apaches involved in the scenario, which had to stop to refuel three times during the 15-hour trip to Spain from Germany.

On the ground, Sgt. Enrique Bella, with the Spanish cavalry, was engaged in a flanking maneuver in a Centauro. “We managed to overcome the hill quite fast,” Bella said. “There was no problem. It was quite nice.”

The 511 paratroops with the 82nd Airborne Division had flown nine hours from North Carolina when they jumped from seven C-17 Globemasters along with 50 Spanish paratroops who had been training with them in the U.S.

“From start to finish, everything went great,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Mitchell Rucker, who was the second jumper out of the lead plane. As he floated down, he thought, “I’ve never been to Spain before; this is great.”

Pfc. Chandler Smith agreed. “I kind of looked around and took it all in. It’s kind of cool.”

The chief goal of the exercise has been to train and test NATO’s rapid response forces, including land, air, maritime and special forces.

In the past year, NATO has worked to heighten its state of readiness by doubling the size of its crisis-response force, set to grow to 40,000 troops. In addition, a new spearhead force, known as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, has been established as a rapid-reaction unit capable of mobilizing in 48 hours.

“We deter through strength and speed of our land forces,” said Lt. Gen. John Nicholson Jr., commander of Allied Land Command, who also attended Wednesday’s demonstration. “Strength matters. Speed matters.”

While a more assertive Russia has renewed NATO’s focus on the Baltics and eastern Europe, the rise of the Islamic State group on NATO’s doorstep to the south has also grabbed the attention of military officials.

Trident Juncture comes at a time that’s “far more unstable and potentially more dangerous,” NATO Deputy Secretary- General Alexander Vershbow said last month at an opening ceremony for Trident Juncture held at Trapani Air Base in Italy.

“To our south, from Syria to Libya, failed and failing states have opened the door to extremist and terrorist groups, eager to fill the vacuum,” Vershbow said.

The exercise’s objective was to aid Sorotan — a fictitious region beset by political instability, ethnic tensions and socio-economic problems — that faces an invasion from an opportunistic neighbor. NATO responded to various scenarios, taking on challenges of so-called hybrid warfare, which involves propaganda, intelligence and covert operations.

Wednesday’s mock attack, although lasting only an hour, would have required weeks of planning and taken two or three days in a real-world scenario.

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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