SZOLNOK, Hungary -- Cool air breezed on determined faces of Saber Guardian participants on the ground, while ambitious airborne paratroopers anticipated their jumpmaster's command 1,000 feet above ground level. Dark plumes of stratus clouds intermittently guarded a full moon as Paratroopers from 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade silhouetted the Hungarian night sky like black paint droplets on a charcoal canvas at approximately 1:00 a.m. on July 16, 2017.
The airborne operation, part of Exercise Black Swan, is one piece of Saber Guardian 17, an annual exercise spanning across the Black Sea region, with 23 allied and partner nations and more than 25,000 participating military personnel.
Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment's role in the exercise is to work together with Hungarian Army and Air Force assets and conduct a multifaceted, complex airborne operation specially geared to reflect realistic combat circumstances.
"They [the Hungarian Army] are treating the mission as a short-notice operation, so they only started their planning in earnest last night," said Lt. Col. Hugh Jones, Commander of 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment. "For that reason, their higher headquarters have deliberately not given them much information."
Short-term, short-notice planning scenarios are representative of current real-world combat situations. The mission given to Alpha Troop is comprised of multiple phases, said Jones.
First, paratroopers prepare for and conduct an Airborne Operation at night on a secured airfield, which houses a fleet of American UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and various Hungarian rotary-wing aircraft, said Jones.
"As a section leader and jumpmaster, I have been looking at everyone's equipment and making sure it's in proper configuration," said section leader and jumpmaster Sgt. Jacob Fink of Alpha Troop. "Then, later on in the day I'm going to inspect jumpers, put the parachutes on and make sure that all of their equipment is safe and ready to jump with."
Second, paratroopers move to the helicopters on the airfield and conduct an air assault on the first objective by way of both American and Hungarian helicopters. This is delving into the unknown because unlike the airfield they jump into, it is not secured.
Third, Paratroopers move in tactical formations on the ground to a viable location for the main body to stay while a smaller reconnaissance element detaches and sneaks over to the objective, later returning with valuable information to present their command.
"I will lead my recon section through the objective area along pre-planned checkpoints and routes," added Fink. "We will establish early-detection sensors and observation posts on areas of interest that we have already identified."
Finally, paratroopers perform the challenging task of linking up with Hungarian forces, relay the advantageous findings from the recon element to them, and guide them into the objective so the Hungarian soldiers can execute their part of the mission -- actioning the objective.
"That is going to be the biggest point of friction - making contact with the Hungarian forces and getting on the same page," said Fink. "There will be a lot of moving pieces so we need to make sure that everybody's synchronized."
Alpha Troop Commander Cpt. Doni Wong understands the high demands of this arduous task for his troop.
"I trust my non-commissioned officers to take care of the mission, and the job," said Wong. "To make the interoperability piece work."
Interoperability is at the core of Exercise Saber Guardian. To aid the natural process of developing chemistry among different countries, units and branches, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment and Hungarian forces have deliberately planned to spend time together after the three-day-long mission concludes in order to continue developing their dynamic working relationship through camaraderie.
"We'll sit down and have a big dinner with the Hungarian host nation forces and get to discuss how the mission went with them," said Fink. "We'll get some time to build relations, and it's always a lot of fun when we do these things."
While the downtime may be fun, the Sky Soldiers do not lose sight of the importance of the activity.
"We do things that you would never see or do anywhere else in the Army or world. The challenges are high and so are the rewards," said Wong. "Paratroopers are unlike any other soldiers you'll meet in the Army."
The Sky Soldiers continually go above and beyond the warrior's call, whether they are in combat or training while concurrently strengthening international alliances.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy is the U.S. Army Contingency Response Force in Europe, capable of projecting forces to conduct the full range of military operations across the United States European, Central and Africa Commands areas of responsibility.