WARSAW, Poland — Under the cover of dusk then darkness, the 173rd Airborne Brigade injected a battalion's worth of troops into the countryside in northern Poland so they could creep into a village held by enemy forces and retake it.
The scenario played out as part of a massive national exercise in Poland last week called Anakonda. The brigade, as part of a multinational task force, conducted airborne operations into the Polish training areas of Drawsko Pomorskie and Swidwin to secure the area in order to provide safe passage for the US Army's 2nd Cavalry Regiment on Dragoon Ride II on its way to Sabre Strike, two other exercises occurring simultaneously with Anakonda.
A total of 29 helicopters — mostly UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, along with CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopters and some Polish air assets — lifted off from a recently rain-drenched field in Swidwin as the clouds were parting and the sun was setting June 10.
Over the course of an hourlong ride, troops from the 173rd tried to get some shut-eye as their Black Hawk rumbled through the sky flanked most closely by a Chinook. But once they hit the ground along a dusty road in a tree-lined clearing, they snapped awake, hopped out of the helicopter and slipped into the thick woods as the bird that brought them there took off, disappearing into the clouds again.
Defense News had been along for the ride and followed the troops into the woods as they began to make their advance toward a Polish training ground designed to look like a village. Troops slid through the tall grass under the cover of trees, whispering into their comms and using hand signals to coordinate the movement.
A reconnaissance unit had already been watching the village overrun by the enemy — in this case they were Canadian troops — in preparation for two more waves of soldiers that would arrive to take the village a few days later.
Over the course of the night, the 173rd could be seen darting between buildings as artillery shots rang out and muzzle flashes appeared deep into the night sky.
The second wave of troops followed the first around midnight with Black Hawks landing much closer to the training site this time.
This type of operation is nothing new for the 173rd Sky Soldiers, according to unit spokesman Maj. Juan Martinez. The brigade is devoted to responding to contingencies in the European, African and Central Command areas of operation.
It is a contingency response force that is trained to respond to any crisis in the three COCOMs that it's assigned within 18 hours, whether it's to offer humanitarian and sustainment aid during a debilitating ice storm in Slovenia or to respond first to an act of Russian aggression.
The Anakonda air assault exercise was critical for the unit given it would likely be one of the first to respond to a crisis in Europe. Eastern European countries are seeking assurance from the US and allied armies that enough forces will come together in a time of crisis. Anakonda simulated much of how the US and other forces would together handle a possible crisis in the region, whether it's brought on by Russia or another threat.
The 173rd doesn't fall under a division but works directly for the three-star commands.
The unit also has experience helping to train Ukrainian forces following Russia's annexation of Crimea and has continued to partner with the Ukrainian army as well as help prepare a multinational brigade consisting of Lithuanian, Polish and Ukrainian soldiers. That unit was participating in Anakonda in Eastern Poland, according to Martinez.
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.