NIš, Serbia - Skybridge 21 established a common ground between U.S. and Serbian forces during airborne operations and rapid response missions such as the humanitarian aid training. The completion of the operation opened more joint force capabilities for real world situations that mirror this type of training, should they arise in the future.
"The overall goal of this exercise is to build the relationship, to build confidence in each other, to establish better interoperability, and to develop Serbia [Armed Forces] as a partner that we're going to be able to work with when the going gets tough," said Anthony F. Godfrey, the U.S. Ambassador to Serbia.
The bi-lateral training exercise took place in Serbia from Sept. 13 - 17. Paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the Serbian Armed Forces' 63rd Parachute Brigade, worked alongside supporting components in order to conduct a joint force airborne operation with a training humanitarian aid aerial package delivery. This exercise enhanced the interoperability of allied and partner nations by demonstrating the units’ ability to readily respond to any crisis.
The training event began with the paratroopers donning their parachutes and moving into formation for a visit from Nebojša Stefanović, the Serbian Minister of Defense, General Milan Mojsilović, the Serbian Chief of the General Staff, and Ambassador Godfrey. Both the minister and the ambassador had the chance to meet and speak with several paratroopers from the jumping units, 5th Quartermaster Theater Aerial Delivery Company, and 1st Combat Aviation Brigade about their specific duties and how the training would increase capabilities.
"The initial task is to assemble. Once the unit has 100 percent accountability, we're gonna secure our objective while integrating with the Serbian Army to allow humanitarian assistance to reach that second drop zone," said 54th BEB Commander Lt. Col. Jefferson Burges.
The execution of the mission started off with a high altitude low opening jump conducted by approximately 30 special operations paratroopers from the 63rd BDE who established initial security on the drop zone for the main force of U.S. and Serbian static line jumpers to seize. Once all forces were on ground they rapidly assembled and moved to another drop zone in order to receive both the U.S. and Serbian humanitarian aid packages. Once the packages were recovered and ready for distribution the mission was complete.
"It's different compared to a normal airborne operation in that the air crews have to deconflict and coordinate the airspace between the U.S. drop and the Serbian drop," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Benjamin Lee from 54th BEB.
Both U.S. and Serbian planners worked together to devise a plan to rapidly deploy approximately 180 paratroopers and 10 humanitarian aid packages by air from one air strip and two aircraft onto two drop zones within three hours.
"I've never seen a heavy drop or anything other than just paratroopers falling out of the sky," said Spc. Nicholas Shill, a machine gun team leader from Bastion Company, 54th BEB. “Through this training I really hope my guys are able to take away the importance of working with our allies. We are building amazing relations with the Serbians and we haven’t done so in many years.”
Most of the U.S. paratroopers who participated in the exercise had never taken part in a humanitarian aid mission or training. This exercise was also the largest joint airborne training that U.S. forces have conducted with the Serbian Armed Forces. Paratroopers from both sides experienced invaluable training.
“This training is a great experience," said the Special Operations Deputy Parachute Training Officer of the 63rd. “Our parachute riggers from the Serbian Armed Forces can learn what equipment is used by American parachute riggers. They can exchange experiences and see what specific methods can be used for cargo delivery.”
Capt. Robert Smith, a 54th BEB staff officer said, “I got to execute my functions as a battle staff officer in the [assault command post] while our Paratroopers in Bastion Company and Havoc Company were able to gain experience, not just jumping out of an airplane, but by providing security, moving tactically, and really just honing in the skills that we as a brigade exist for; which is ready and combat lethal paratroopers.”
This exercise was extremely valuable and increased both forces’ capabilities to react to a humanitarian aid mission, or any crisis, even when things don't go according to the plan. After unplanned changes to aircraft support, the 54th BEB staff was quickly able to activate a contingency plan in order to deploy 100 percent of their force in a timely manner.
“I expect my soldiers to take away from this training today that everything changes on the fly and that we have to be ready in a moment's notice to do anything," said Sgt. Jefonte Taylor, a squad leader assigned to Bastion Company, 54th BEB. "That’s what it takes to be a 173rd Sky Soldier.”
The 173d Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army's Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing rapidly deployable forces to the United States European, Africa and Central Command areas of responsibility. Forward deployed across Italy and Germany, the brigade routinely trains alongside NATO allies and partners to build partnerships and strengthen the alliance.