Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery

By 1st Lt. Kristina-Noel N. DonohueDecember 10, 2015

Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
1 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kristina-Noel N. Donahue, jumpmaster of the 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, inspects Sgt. Gabriel C. Michaud's equipment before an airborne operation at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Dec. 2, 2015. The 173rd Airbor... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
2 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – First Lt. Kristina-Noel N. Donohue, aerial delivery officer, 173rd Brigade Support Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, begins to recover her parachute after an airborne operation from a U.S. Air Force 86th Air Wing C-130 Hercules aircraft at Juliet Dr... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
3 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
4 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
5 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
6 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sky Soldiers strengthen European partnerships through aerial delivery
7 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

VICENZA, Italy - As part of the only airborne brigade operating in Europe, the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion, aerial delivery section is unlike any other aerial delivery section in the U.S. Army. The aerial delivery section has the mission to create and execute logistic support plans for all airborne operations for the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

The section's success has profound implications for the overall capability of U.S. Army Europe and NATO. In Fiscal Year 15 alone, the 173rd conducted airborne operations, shared knowledge and trained in 17 countries in the USAREUR area of responsibility. The 173rd Aerial Delivery Section supported the brigade in all of these events, constantly adapting to the geographic and threat environment to continually increase the brigade's lethality and capacity to operate in austere locations.

Operating in Europe comes with unique challenges that test the organization of the aerial delivery section and its leaders, but also exposes the unit to outstanding multinational opportunities.

The aerial delivery section, consisting of the brigade aerial delivery officer and the aerial delivery support platoon, is structured similarly to other aerial delivery sections in the Army. The ADO is a first lieutenant qualified through the U.S. Army quartermaster school and Center's aerial delivery material officer course.

The ADO, along with the brigade's senior airdrop systems technician, have responsibility for providing for aerial delivery operations and support across the brigade. The ADS platoon, consisting of 68 parachute riggers, operates out of Aviano Air Base, Italy. These personnel are often geographically dispersed as they divide into sections to cover multiple missions throughout Europe: parachute packing, rigging airdrops, technical rigger inspections, airdrop recovery supervision and the of maintenance of airdrop equipment.

Likewise, the brigade's aerial delivery facilities are fairly standard. The facilities are located at Aviano Air Base and include the aerial equipment / parachute repair shop, the heavy drop rigging site and the personnel alert holding area.

The repair shop provides a secure, climate-controlled location for packing, shaking, storing and maintaining the T-11 Advanced Tactical Parachutist System and the T-11 Reserve Parachute. The HDRS is where the aerial delivery section packs G-11B, G-12, and T-10 cargo parachutes and rigs all platforms and containerized delivery systems for airdrop.

Lastly, the PAHA provides a location to hold and deploy approximately 800 paratroopers, roughly one infantry battalion. At the PAHA, the brigade conducts sustained airborne training and prepares paratroopers for airborne operations in Italy and across USAREUR.

The challenges of working in Europe begin with the geographic dispersion of our battalions between Italy and Germany. The 173rd has two battalions: 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment and 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, located in Grafenwoehr, Germany.

In order to maintain airborne currency, the aerial delivery section must support more than 1,000 paratroopers exiting a high-performance or rotary wing aircraft at a minimum of once a quarter. As a result, a seemingly simple currency jump in the 173rd, requires close cooperation between the aerial delivery section and multinational partners, multiple movement control teams, and national movement control centers.

While intimidating at first, this complex process has become the norm for the brigade. It has also allowed us to grow as an organization and for me to grow as an officer by building relations with our allies and navigating in a complex geopolitical environment.

For example, in July of 2015, the brigade successfully airdropped a M777 Howitzer from a Heavy Airlift Wing C-17 for the first time in Europe. Issues with diplomatic clearances nearly forced the cancellation and the howitzer almost didn't make it physically to the HDRS from Germany for rigging. Overcoming this near failure made us quickly realize that regardless of the internal capabilities we have as a brigade, we depend heavily on the external support and good will of the many countries in which we plan, execute and operate. Communicating with them early and often is the only way to fully engage our capabilities.

The geographic dispersion of operations has also forced the brigade's rigger platoon to become more expeditionary in nature. From December 2014 to December 2015, the brigade has conducted airborne operations in 17 countries across Europe with participants from more than 20 countries in Europe and North America.

Due to mission requirements and when the departure airfield is outside of Aviano, Italy, the ADS platoon has adapted to the mission by developing nonstandard facilities and systems. These modifications has allowed the riggers to create expeditionary rigging and packing facilities in Latvia on two occasions in support of Atlantic Resolve. The platoon's adaptability also allowed it to pack parachutes in Romania, Norway, Germany, Israel, and rig eight-foot heavy drop platforms in Estonia.

To meet the 24 hour drying threshold for a wet T-11 parachute, the ADS platoon was initially limited by having only two U.S. Army-owned drying facilities in Europe. In response, we reached out to our partners and allies to coordinate the use of parachute drying facilities in Lithuania, Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Israel, Poland and Romania. As with host nation relationships, developing and refining expeditionary systems has been critical to mission accomplishment across the USAREUR AOR.

These improved expeditionary systems were critical to the deployment to, and subsequent rigger support of, 173rd paratroopers in the Baltics and Poland, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The ADS platoon supported more than 1,000 jumpers per month by establishing a forward packing facility to pack parachutes and support rigger checks and malfunctions coverage across the Baltic countries and Poland.

Utilizing the basements of barracks in Adazi, Latvia, we created a facility to pack and store 500 T-11 main and reserve parachutes. The teams of six were we deployed to Latvia enabled more than 15 airborne operations throughout the Baltic countries from June to November 2015. As part of Atlantic Resolve, Exercise Noble Thunder-a mission to increase interoperability and maintain rapid deployment capability of heavy equipment-allowed the ADS platoon to further increase deployed capabilities outside of Italy.

We partnered with the Estonians and Germans to conduct partner rigging of heavy equipment, conducting 173rd's first heavy rigging operations in a forward environment. Although the heavy equipment was not dropped from the aircraft due to the weather, this was a great opportunity to provide training for our riggers to rig in a forwardly-deployed location, familiarize non-rigger paratroopers from throughout the brigade with rigging and recovery procedures, and improve interoperability and strength of our alliance.

Operating in Europe allows for special training opportunities for the Sky Soldiers and our foreign partners. We were able to cross train partnered and allied militaries on the use and packing of U.S. parachute systems as well as the art and science of how the U.S. Army conducts airborne operations. Most European countries use a T-10 variant of the personnel parachute system and have never had the opportunity to use the T-11 so the exchange is especially unique for them.

For operations anywhere in the European AOR that utilize the parachutes that our parachute riggers pack, we send teams that vary in size from four to 10 (depending on the size and type of airborne operation and the number of aircraft) to perform rigger checks and provide malfunctions coverage. While on these missions, our paratroopers inspect the host nations' security, storage, transportation, packing and repairing of parachute systems to certify them for U.S. use. If their parachute systems pass all requirements that our airdrop systems technicians have specified in accordance with AR 750-32, the brigade's paratroopers will gain the knowledge, training, and once-in-a-life time experiences of jumping with foreign parachutes.

Perhaps the most memorable multinational event was Exercise Swift Response 15, the U.S. Army's largest combined airborne training event in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Swift Response 15 encompassed more than 5,000 service members from 11 NATO nations. Including the successful drop of more than 500 paratroopers, heavy platforms, and containerized delivery systems from 10 aircraft onto two separate drop zones in Bulgaria, this was our most complicated airborne operation of FY15. This operation was successful due to detailed and creative planning, and effective training by all nations involved in this exercise and provided our paratroopers with an experience unrivaled by training missions anywhere else in the world.

The last exercise of FY15 that truly demonstrated how the ADS section is strengthening our NATO alliance, commemorated the 71st anniversary of Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, the largest airborne operation in history. Paratroopers from the U.S., Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom gathered to remember the valued sacrifice by paratroopers in this operation and demonstrated how far we have developed not only airborne operations but also our relationships with allied and partnered nations.

I was personally assigned as part of a jumpmaster team to conduct the training and execution of this commemorative jump into the same drop zones used 71 years ago. We trained German and Belgian soldiers on the use of 173rd-packed T-11 and breaking through language barriers, we were able to train these paratroopers on the proper wear and use of our systems and prepared them to safely exit from a U.S. C-17 aircraft.

Although I was teaching American standards and practices, I walked away from this experience with unexpected knowledge through the interaction I had with these paratroopers from allied nations. On the following day, our roles in the two-way exchange of airborne techniques and tactics were reversed and I found myself as the jumper learning from the German paratroopers whom I had been teaching the day before.

Over the past 12 months, the efforts of the 173rd aerial delivery section have demonstrated our commitment to ensuring an ever deepening and strengthening of the United States' alliance with its allied nations in Europe. Effective and robust airborne capabilities provide NATO with a highly-professional force multiplier capable of rapid, sudden and impactful operations. This has forced the brigade to evolve and improve, while also allowing for exceptional experiences that last a lifetime.