US Army's 173rd paratroopers jump into German countryside
April 12, 2016
HOECHENSEE, Germany — Dozens of German residents of this rural town gathered to watch as nearly 900 paratroopers leapt from their military aircraft Tuesday to the open farmlands below.
This air assault — part of the U.S. Army Europe-led training exercise Saber Junction 16 — was the culmination of a year of planning and a journey that began hundreds of miles to the south in Vicenza, Italy, where the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade is based.
From there they traveled the short distance to Aviano Air Base, where hundreds of 173rd troopers, the Italian Folgore Airborne and the British 16 Air Assault squads prepared for the long trip to Germany aboard C-17s and C-130s.
Once there, the soldiers dropped onto fields around the town, opened up to the military by the German Defense Ministry, rather than the nearby Hohenfels training area. As the soldiers floated down, a cadre of military and German civilian dignitaries fielded questions from reporters as curious townsfolk looked on.
Such maneuvers outside U.S. Army training areas are unusual, said German Brig. Gen. Markus Laubenthal, the first non-U.S. USAREUR chief of staff.
“But it is important to ... get this kind of reality implemented and incorporated into our exercise,” he said. “But we rely heavily on the support of the local population.”
Col. Greg Anderson, the 173rd brigade commander, was among those who boarded a C-17 from Charleston Air Force Base at Aviano on Tuesday morning. His men had spent the morning — and several mornings before Tuesday’s jump — prepping an array of vehicles to be dropped alongside the paratroopers. The heaviest was a 40,000-pound bulldozer.
Before departing Aviano, Anderson called the air assault “a very exciting mission to execute, with a force of this size, all the equipment and all the other elements involved.”
At Aviano, more than a dozen C-130s were loaded with personnel, with names on the tails from places such as Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Dyess and Dobbins or designations such as “Flying Vikings.” They were piloted by Air Reserve or Air National Guard crews.
They then made the hourlong trip to Hoechensee, Germany, where Anderson was one of the first out the door.
On the ground, he packed up his parachute, dusted off his battle dress uniform and answered a few questions before heading off to begin the next phase of his mission.
“The airborne forces give us an advantage, to pick a place and time where we can come where the enemy is not prepared,” he said. “But we have a very short window to assemble rapidly … before the enemy can determine where we’re at and then prepare and counter us.”
That’s why exercises like Saber Junction are needed, he said. “A safe infiltration, a rapid assembly and quickly moving out is very, very important for any airborne force.”
Once on the ground, the combined force began a long march to the nearby Hohenfels training area. There they would begin an assault on a fictional town, defended partly by the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment’s opposing force.
F-15s based at RAF Lakenheath were set to provide close-air support over Hohenfels. American helicopters based in Germany and the 173rd Brigade’s own drones were to provide mobility, surveillance and more firepower. Forces from other countries were set to join the paratroopers on the ground over the next few days.
“We have to train as realistic as possible and do everything just as [if] it was for real,” Anderson said before leaving Aviano. “Hohenfels is a really tough enemy. We want to win, and they are going to give it to us hard.”
Kent Harris reported from Aviano, Italy.