BEZMER AIR BASE, Bulgaria — Minutes before hundreds of paratroopers landed in a drop zone at Bezmer Air Base in Bulgaria as part of a U.S. annual exercise called Swift Response, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the outgoing U.S. Army Europe commander, defended the need for airborne forces.
“Sometimes people will question: ‘Why do we have airborne forces? We aren’t going to do Normandy again,’ ” Hodges said. “I would challenge them on three different levels.”
Hodges said that people throughout history have declared they will never do something again, only to be wrong later. “They absolutely have zero appreciation or understanding of history. The last 300 years are full of examples of where people say we will never do this again or that will never happen; and, of course, 300 years of exactly the opposite happening,” he said.
From a strategic perspective, Hodges said, telling an opponent what you are never going to do is like telling the opposing football team that you are never going to throw the ball or run to the right side of the field.
“We would never take off the table, a capability that our opponents, potential adversaries would no longer have to worry about,” Hodges said. “And so retaining a joint force entry capability is vital to the strategic options for our political leaders; and, of course, for it to be a viable option, you have to practice it, you have to have the aircraft, you have to have the quality people, you have to do the training and have the equipment that makes it a viable option for our leaders.”
The third point, Hodges added, “is the human domain; and when people say we don’t need airborne forces, they absolutely don’t understand the human domain of warfare.”
He stressed that those with airborne backgrounds thrive elsewhere in the Army because they’ve trained as an elite formation and, as a result, are capable of contributing extensively to any unit.
Hodges also argued an airborne element played a recent, crucial role in the United States’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The president didn’t send an aircraft carrier to the Baltics, they didn’t send a squadron of F-35s, he sent one battalion of paratroopers from U.S. Army Europe out of the 173rd immediately to communicate that the U.S. was paying attention and that we were not going to let our allies be out there alone,” he said. “So having that kind of force, that he could launch immediately, was a strategic option for the president of the United States.”
And the paratroopers landing at Bezmer as the sun set on July 18 were from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based out of Vincenza, Italy, with a commander just 11 days into the job; they were there to conduct an airfield seizure exercise.
The exercise, Swift Response, is part of a larger exercise called Saber Guardian that involves 45,000 troops from 23 different nations designed to practice how countries would mass combat power into an area and how these countries would assemble multinational formations. The exercise took place across Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
A total of 11 C-130s and two C-17s that took off from Papa Air Base, Hungary, flew through Romanian airspace, and passed over Bezmer, depositing paratroopers into a small drop zone. Roughly 1,000 paratroopers participated in Swift Response as a whole.
The next morning at sunrise, C-17 aircraft came in and delivered four Stryker fighting vehicles for reinforcements, and C-130 aircraft followed suit, bringing Humvees and other equipment such as communications systems.
In this case, the 173rd engaged the enemy minutes after landing in the drop zone because it is still something that should be trained, Col. Jay Bartholomees, the new 173rd commander, told Defense News the morning after the jump.
While there were a dozen injuries as the result of a jump in Romania — also a part of Saber Guardian — that required temporary hospitalization, the Bezmer jump had minimal injuries and the unit was able to clear the airfield by 3 a.m., according to Bartholomees. Bulgarian troops played the opposition forces in the exercise.
The exercise does not fully simulate how paratroopers might be injected into a combat zone and wasn’t focused on that.
For instance, paratroopers would likely not jump straight into a contested area held by the enemy, but for observing the exercise, the drop zone was situated right by a set of enemy-occupied hangars. More than likely, in a real exercise, paratroopers would have jumped in farther away from the enemy and moved in to enemy territory once on the ground.
But the exercise was designed to train the entire process from setting the conditions and coordinating through mission command to ensuring legal passage from one country to another and interoperability between all participating nations.
For example, diplomatic clearances of the 13 aircraft were granted in the air from Hungary to Bulgaria.
Paratroopers from Portugal, Italy and Canada also jumped in with the 173rd. All paratroopers had to be trained to the same standard for the exercise regardless of country of origin.
Flying 13 aircraft from Hungary to Bulgaria was no simple task, and mastering airborne coordination was critical to the exercise, Maj. Gen. Timothy McGuire, the deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Europe, noted on a UH-60 Black Hawk flight from Bulgaria to Romania.
“We worked through several contingencies that are standard with these types of operations when you have this many aircraft flying through multiple countries. It’s a very complex operation, but all the planning and rehearsals, joint and allied training and preparation paid off in the end getting the jump off,” the 173rd’s Bartholomees said.
“Saber Guardian is about our scope, scale and intensity,” Col. Jeff Shoemaker told Defense News at Bezmer. “While last night, we did do an airborne assault here, coupled with that was a battalion air assault at [Novo Selo, Bulgaria], and an air defense artillery live fire” at Capu Midia, Romania.
“When you zoom out from the event where we are standing, this looks like a division acting very tactically or a corps acting operationally,” he said. “Our units are acting with a lot of simultaneity and working across the multi-domain spectrum.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.