AVIANO AIRBASE, Italy -- Over 400 paratroopers from 12 NATO countries conducted simultaneous parachute assaults into Balchik and Tenevo Airfields in Bulgaria Aug. 24, 2015 led by the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade to start Exercise Swift Response 15.

Swift Response is the largest U.S.-led airborne exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War. The exercise features approximately 4500 paratroopers from 11 NATO nations including Bulgaria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United States.

Follow-on airborne operations are scheduled to take place in Romania as well as Germany. The exercise brings a large contingent of U.S.-based airborne forces to Europe, including the 18th Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and 75th Ranger Regiment.

"Swift Response 15 is a joint and combined certification training event that takes place at multiple locations across the U.S. Army Europe area of operations," said Capt. Rich Thomas, the 173rd Airborne Brigade's lead planner for the exercise. "Just the sheer size and scope of the exercise makes it different than previous exercises."

A combined force of approximately 300 multinational paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne seized an airfield in Balchik, within sight of the Black Sea. Further South and West, the brigade heavy-dropped artillery and other heavy equipment at Tenevo Airfield along with 140 paratroopers, including paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne.

Included in the combined force were paratroopers from the Italian Army's Folgore Regiment, the Bulgarian 68th Special Forces Brigade and Israeli Defense Forces.

Italian Lt. Col. Vicenzo Zampello, commander of 5th Battalion, 186th Folgore Parachute Regiment, explained that Swift Response is a great opportunity to strengthen interoperability within the airborne community and between NATO allies.

"I think it's very important for us to work with our NATO allies to strengthen our interoperability and military procedures," said Zampello. "We have many elements that are participating in this exercise that will support by providing maneuver elements."

Swift Response marks the first large-scale airborne in Europe the 82nd Airborne has participated in since the Cold War.

"Our part in this exercise is not only relationship building with our sister service units within the Army but it's also about building interoperability with our NATO allies," said U.S. Army Cpt. Chris Carlson, commander of Company C, 2nd Bn., 501st Parachute Inf. Regt., 82nd Airborne Div. "Part of building that ongoing relationship is through the joint forcible entry. After completing the airborne operations in Tenevo our main objective is to clear and prevent the enemy from assembling and controlling key infrastructure during this exercise."

Following the parachute assault, elements from Tenevo boarded U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Battalion, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade to conduct raids at the Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria, supported by the artillery dropped in.

This is one of the largest exercise since the Second World War that involves many different countries, said Zampello. He believes that as a high readiness force the Folgore and its NATO allies must be ready to support and be flexible from the top down.

During the exercise, paratroopers jumping in each location, including the 173rd Airborne in Bulgaria, fall under the higher command of the 18th Airborne Corps. The exercise validates the ground component of the Global Response Force to mobilize and deploy rapidly.

"Taking part in Swift Response 15 not only allows us to operate in an austere environment but to plan exercises and work with our partnered nations," said Carlson. "It allows us the ability to really understand [our partners] more in depth as far as their tactics, techniques and procedures as well as how they operate, how we can best integrate them as force multipliers verses using them as a peripheral asset."

The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the Army's Contingency in Europe, ready to deploy forces anywhere in the U.S. European, Africa or Central Commands areas of responsibility within 18 hours of notification. As the Army's only forward-stationed airborne brigade, paratroopers from the 173rd live and train alongside NATO allies daily.