Almost 1,000 British paratroopers are now packing up at Fort Bragg after nearly two months of training with their U.S. counterparts in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Multinational coalitions are a hallmark of modern conflict, in part because they give political legitimacy to military actions and spread the costs in both money and lives. But shrinking military budgets in both countries have made the ability to join forces more important.
The training, built around rapid-reaction units from both nations, was the largest multinational exercise at Fort Bragg in nearly two decades. Unlike the previous major joint exercise with the two armies, this time they tried to work as one seamless unit, rather than two fighting beside each other.
“What we’re trying to do is get ahead of the power curve of where we landed in about the 2001 and 2003 time frame in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Col. Joe Ryan, commander of the main American unit in the exercise, the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade Combat Team. “We knew intrinsically that those battlefields would be multinational. We knew that we wanted to build a coalition. But we didn’t do as much about it in advance as we are trying to do now.”
Underlining the geopolitical significance of “Combined Joint Operational Access Exercise 15-01” were busloads of VIPs who tracked the main parts of the exercise, watching the action and getting briefings from the officers involved. Among them were nearly two dozen generals from the U.S., British, and Canadian militaries. A TV crew from a British military channel covered the action live.
The high point of the joint exercise was a massive mock combat jump, involving 2,100 American and British paratroopers and more than two dozen pieces of heavy equipment and vehicles.
The paratroopers -- some dangling from unfamiliar parachutes borrowed from the other army -- floated through the night sky to seize an airfield in a fictitious country. Another group of Americans with machine guns firing blanks guest-starred as the enemy.
Pvt. Craig Corrigan of the Glasgow, Scotland based A Company, 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, said that in shorter training exercises leading up to the main one, his unit practiced entering buildings with American paratroopers. It’s a movement that has to be carefully choreographed.
“The things we were doing different were just little things and by the end of the training session we were able to adapt it and work with them on clearing buildings,” he said. “We went through it the whole day and got to know each other’s tactics.
“It actually did work a lot better than I thought it would,” he said. “I originally thought it would be hard to get to two completely different soldiers to work together smoothly, but it actually works pretty well.”
Communication issues, big and small
Making two armies fight like one, it turns out, is more about talking than shooting.
The morning after the jump, as their commanders planned the day’s missions, British Pvt. Joe Sturgess and American PFC Tiffany Davis leaned against a battered, Vietnam-era helicopter fuselage that Bragg uses as a training prop.
They were talking shop: how often they have to parachute, the best place in line coming out of the plane, and a perpetual soldier concern -- the weight of that pack they lug around.
But first they have to agree on what to call it and how to measure its weight.
Sturgess was baffled when Davis asked about the weight of his “ruck,” a common U.S. military term for a soldier’s backpack.
“How heavy was … my what?” Sturgess asked.
Davis was equally confused by Sturgess’ answer: “70 kilos.”
The language differences are more than just an impediment to soldiers’ small talk. When two armies are trying to fight like one, they need to be able to talk to each other at every level, using similar language to describe tactical maneuvers and equipment. They use those descriptions to work through differences in the way they fight.
A few yards from Davis and Sturgess, two front-line officers knelt on the edge of the night’s drop zone and sketched out plans for their soldiers with their fingers in the soft, sandy dirt.
More often, though, commanders move words back and forth by radio. At least, when they can.
Lt. Col. Andrew Liffring led the main American engineer outfit in the exercise. It was one of the most integrated with British troops, but that didn’t prevent communication problems.
“We’ve spent the last two weeks putting radios beside each other and keying the hand mics and actually making the system work and it’s been very difficult to do,” he said.
The paratroopers came up with a technological solution, but it wasn’t reliable in time for the big jump. So they had to stick in an American officer and an American radio with the British engineers.
A ‘major hurdle,’ but challenges remain
Radios that work. That’s basic stuff, the kind of thing you have to figure out before someone is shooting at you. But radios are just the bottom layer of a set of communication challenges that go all the way up to the massive digital systems that underpin modern warfare, pulling together and sharing things like live drone video feeds, the location of friendly troops on the battlefield and classified information about the enemy.
Finding and fixing such issues is exactly the kind of thing the massive exercise was about, said Col. Mike Shervington, who commanded the main British unit in the exercise, known as "3 Para."
“Stuff to work on is mission command, and us to be able to receive orders that the American chain of command wants me to receive, so we can all talk on the same net at the same time and understand each other,” he said. “That’s still a challenge so that I can go and prosecute that target you want me to.”
The lessons from the exercise, Shervington said, will be stitched into the standard training for both armies. That will make blending together easier, even for units that haven’t trained together. And the lessons also will help collaborations with other nations’ armies, too.
Mainly, though, commanders from both armies said the exercise went well. And Lt. Col. Liffring said things like the radio workaround can be refined until they work.
“I think we’ll get better and better and better every time we do exercises like this,” Liffring said. “We definitely crossed a major hurdle on this exercise to be able to talk with our British counterparts.”
By 2017, an even bigger British unit -- a full brigade of more than 5,000 -- is scheduled to meld into the 82nd Airborne Division.
They’ll get a chance to make sure those radios work during that exercise. Or the next time the two armies go to war together, whichever comes first.