WARSAW, Poland – It took just one hour beyond a single day for the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division to round up 530 paratroopers and their gear and drop them into Poland on Tuesday. And 10 of those hours were on the flight over.
A total of 25 hours after it first received the alert that the 82nd needed to deploy, the paratroopers were jumping from C-17s into fields dotted with poppies, nestled in farmland just outside of the town of Torun, the birthplace of famed astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
Joining them in Exercise Swift Response were Polish aircraft and paratroopers as well as jumpers from the United Kingdom. The drill is happening in conjunction with the multinational land force exercise Anakonda.
Locals filled the nearby streets and fields to watch C-130s and C-17s fly overhead as they airdropped equipment and 2,000 paratroopers over the course of three hours.
The first paratrooper to hit Polish soil was Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of the 82nd. With sweat smearing his green face paint, he told a group of reporters at the exercise that coordinating a jump of this scale with paratroopers and equipment coming in from three different locations was no easy task.
"To put those three different trains together in midair is a tough thing to coordinate," he said.
But despite the speed and the seamlessness with which it all seemed to come together at the end, the exercise for the 82nd was not without challenges.
First, the 82nd had to leave behind three C-17s at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, because of failures that happened as the aircraft were attempting to deploy.
On any given mission, Clarke said, there's always the expectation that one C-17 will experience a glitch, preventing it from deploying with the rest of the fleet. The 82nd's job is to be prepared to deploy globally at a moment's notice.
The problem in the first aircraft was identified with enough time to move key personnel and equipment off the C-17 and put it on another plane, Clarke said. The 82nd normally has plans in place for such a scenario.
The second aircraft "upon takeoff had an engine mishap," he said. Since there is a 40-second separation between each aircraft during takeoff, the third aircraft came close to a near accident when it had to slam on its brakes and move out of formation in response to the aircraft in front of it braking.
"The bad news is that we lost three aircraft," Clarke said. "The good news is that we had a near accident that was prevented by some good work and we had no one injured."
One of the biggest challenges in coordinating a massive, multinational airdrop in less than a day is communicating with the other countries while in route, Clarke said.
"I personally had a laptop computer, I was on satellite communications and I had basically like instant messenger and voice — all secure — so I could talk during the entire flight," Clarke said.
However, Clarke had to mainly go through Fort Bragg communications to reach his Polish and British counterparts.
"The biggest gap was once [the other countries] took off in the air, ensuring: Did all the aircraft successfully take off? Did they have any maintenance problems? Did all the jumpers get loaded on?" Clarke said. "And getting the finite details that we need to ensure, if there is a loss in combat capability by any force, we need to make sure is it sufficient force to do what we are about to do here and how do we compensate if we don't."
It would be nice, for example, to have interoperable communications between the nations while on the flight over to more quickly and seamlessly communicate.
"Eventually, we have to figure out how do we bridge that," Clarke said. "We still have our own pieces to protect but we have to figure out how we get something that we can all share."
Clarke added there's no problem for the soldiers once they hit the ground because they can all speak over the same secure frequency.
"It's when you are talking long distances that we got to continue to work on, but that is why we do this exercise," he said.
The airborne drop was just the beginning of the exercise for the 82nd, Clarke noted. "It's not just about jumping," he said. "What is important now is the mission once we seize this. The mission here is for the Polish forces to move about 20 kilometers north to the town and seize the bridge so the 2nd Cavalry Regiment that is coming from the north here can cross that bridge. The airborne is for naught if we can't get that bridge secure."
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.