SMARDAN, Romania (March 24, 2015) -- Paratroopers, from U.S. Army Europe's 173rd Airborne Brigade, and Soldiers, from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, conducted an early-entry training exercise together with Romanian allies, March 24, to mark the expansion of Operation Atlantic Resolve, or OAR, into Romania and Bulgaria.

"The Smardan [Romania] portion of [Exercise] Saber Junction is an early entry exercise," said Capt. Patrick Leen, a plans officer assigned to 173rd Airborne Brigade. "It takes place in advance of the majority of the events [in Germany]."

The early-entry portion in Smardan, also phase 1 of Exercise Saber Junction, began with an airborne operation of approximately 200 paratroopers and heavy equipment such as 105mm Howitzer artillery from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Once on the ground, the paratroopers linked up with allies from the Romanian army's 280th Brigade and assaulted enemy positions while supported by artillery fire.

This set the conditions for 2nd Cavalry Regiment to move forward from Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase, conduct a forward passage of lines with the paratroopers and assault further objectives alongside Romanian troops.

"The exercise will also build upon the individual and collective training the brigade conducted last year with Saber Junction 14," Leen said.

To launch the airborne operation, paratroopers from the 173rd's Comanche Troop, 1st 91st Cavalry Regiment, were alerted March 22 in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and deployed to Aviano Airbase, Italy, in less than 12 hours to link up with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Special Troops Battalion to plan the mission.

"We received an alert Sunday at 4 p.m. to be at our headquarters by 6 p.m.," said Staff Sgt. Johnathan Huff, a squad leader with Comanche Troop. "We got there, assembled, got all of our equipment ready and then received the mission to deploy to Italy [to] conduct an airborne operation into Romania."

Additionally, paratroopers in Vicenza, Italy, from the brigade's Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, were alerted for a second, simultaneous emergency deployment readiness exercise, or EDRE, from Aviano into Grafenwoehr to conduct a freedom shock exercise as part of Exercise Saber Junction.

"Originally, our unit was planning on going to Grafenwoehr to conduct different training," said 1st Lt. John Fernandez, a platoon leader in Chosen Company. "But we got the call late at 2 a.m. [and] we were alerted for an EDRE so now we're going into condensed planning for an airborne operation into Grafenwoehr."

Fernandez said that the brigade's readiness culture helps keep paratroopers ready to adapt.

"We're always ready to deploy within 18 hours," he said. "That's bags packed, administrative and medical data up to dateā€¦it really keeps us in the sense of being ready."

As the Army's contingency response in Europe, the 173rd Airborne Brigade maintains ready forces to deploy within 18 hours anywhere throughout the U.S. European, Africa and Central Command areas of responsibility.

The action in Smardan also signified the official start of Operation Atlantic Resolve's training rotations in Romania and Bulgaria - an expansion of the ongoing series of exercises in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which begun last April to demonstrate U.S. commitment to NATO allies under mounting regional tension following Russia's illegal actions in Ukraine.

Following their forward passage of lines with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, approximately 600 troops from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, stayed to conduct combined exercises with Romanian allies, while troops from the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, will do the same in Bulgaria as the Army's current regionally-aligned brigade force for Europe.

Unlike the continuous OAR training rotations in the Baltics and Poland, where one U.S. unit is replaced by another before departing, the training rotations to Romania and Bulgaria will not be continuous, but will occur periodically as units surge into the area for major exercises.

The U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, which deployed a contingent of its headquarters from Fort Carson, Colorado, in February to serve as the OAR land forces mission command element, serves as the command and control headquarters for the operation. As the regionally-aligned, division-level headquarters for U.S. Army Europe, it has the capability to synchronize ground and air operations and to allocate and deliver resources across all the participating allied nations.

These events occur as the U.S. Army's 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, based on Fort Stewart, Georgia, assumes responsibility for OAR land force training and security cooperation activities in eastern Europe, and while Army Europe's 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, conducts its road march, named Dragoon Ride, which sees 3rd Squadron drive its Stryker vehicles more than 1,100 miles across six allied countries in a capstone event to its Atlantic Resolve training rotation in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

"Think of Operation Atlantic Resolve as a yearlong, continuous series of exercises from Estonia to Bulgaria," said Lt. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, in a February 20 interview with Army Times.

Saber Junction Phase 2 begins in April and will see nearly 5,000 participants from 17 nations train at Army Europe's Joint Multinational Training Command Hohenfels Training Area Germany and at distributed locations in Italy, Lithuania and Romania.