In total darkness, the lights of the twin-engine C-146A Wolfhound plane illuminated a small strip of tarmac, and out of the darkness, the special forces plane touched down with a dramatic and loud landing.

With a landing zone only twenty feet wide, for the pilots in command, there was no room for error.

A special forces team on the ground blocked a two-lane highway in rural Latvia, about two hours from the capital Riga, and turned it into a makeshift runway to airlift a simulated wounded soldier. British, American and Latvian soldiers were part of the drill aimed at improving battlefield medical procedures to treat casualties.

CLOCK | NATO special forces conduct training exercises in Eastern Europe:

NATO special forces conduct training exercises in Eastern Europe

In the shadow of the battle for Ukraine, NATO special forces are conducting training exercises in Eastern Europe, honing the ability of member states to work together against a common enemy.

In this scenario, the bombing and lack of air superiority were supposed to make immediate evacuation by helicopter impossible, so the “patient” had to be treated in the field and driven for several hours to the safest place for a plane to land. plane.

The exercise was one of three carried out by NATO special forces teams that CBC News was invited to observe last week. In addition to the aerial evacuation scenario in Latvia, CBC News also boarded a Romanian ship in the Black Sea to witness special forces board a ship from the water and rappel down from a helicopter.

In Lithuania, another exercise involved storming a building that had been taken over by hostile forces.

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‘That’s what we train for’

The drills were held as part of Trojan Footprint, a 30-nation exercise involving more than 3,300 special and conventional forces, which ended this weekend.

It was designed to test what NATO calls “interoperability” between different national special forces teams.

Lithuanian American, Finnish and British special forces prepare to storm a building as part of a training exercise in Lithuania. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

The drills come as the military alliance faces one of the biggest challenges of its 73-year existence in how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Thursday, Finland said it will formally apply to join NATO and Sweden is expected to do so next week.

Canadian Special Forces did not participate in the Footprint of Troy exercises, but the Romanian special forces teams task force commander said all NATO countries effectively act as one team.

“It’s not about the war that’s going on, [in Ukraine] it’s about being prepared all the time… that’s why we train and that’s why we focus on having a high level of interoperability,” said the commander, who cannot be identified.

NATO ‘improves its presence in the East’

Although the exercises were planned before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, they have taken on greater urgency and visibility.

“Right now there are a lot of exercises going on and NATO is really pushing how they are improving their presence in the East, and also their capabilities as a maximum deterrent to Russia,” said Ed Arnold, a European security researcher at the Royal United Services Institute with headquarters in London.

Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBS) approach a Romanian warship in the Black Sea as part of NATO special forces exercises this week. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

Special forces are among the most highly qualified and reserved soldiers in the NATO military. All interviews with SOF (Special Operations Forces) personnel were to be conducted anonymously, with faces covered and voices disguised for transmission.

They perform a wide variety of tasks, including intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, although to the public what often comes to mind are images of snipers or highly trained professionals descending from helicopters.

Arnold says that most of the recent deployments of special forces from countries like Britain and the United States have been to conflict zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, where their skills were aimed at fighting insurgencies or attacking elements of ISIS or al Qaeda.

A member of the Romanian special forces takes position aboard a naval ship as part of a drill in the Black Sea. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, involves a different kind of battlefield, with tanks, heavy artillery and air strikes, and NATO is trying to show Russia that its special forces are capable of pivoting.

“[These exercises] It will show a lot to Russia that it is targeting the Russian threat,” said Arnold, whose military career included service with the British Army in Afghanistan.

‘Our strength is made up of people who are willing to sacrifice’

While NATO countries, including Canada, have been pouring weapons, ammunition and money into Ukraine, the military alliance has made it clear that its troops will not be directly involved in the conflict.

However, NATO’s presence has been highly visible outside the conflict, including in Romania, which shares a land and sea border with Ukraine.

The exercise involving the boarding of the ship was carried out in the waters of the port of Constanta, some 150 kilometers from Ukraine’s Snake Island, one of the most disputed territories in the war.

Russian soldiers occupied it in the days immediately following the invasion, but Ukraine fought back, sinking the “Moskva” warship in April and carrying out frequent drone strikes against the Russian garrison there ever since.

Polish helicopters take part in a NATO exercise in Lithuania. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

“Our force is made up of people who are ready to sacrifice themselves,” a Latvian SOF soldier told CBC News.

“I personally have many friends in Ukraine, knowing what they are going through, we show all the support that we have in our hearts and we are ready to defend when we need it.”

Learning from Russian mistakes

Members of the NATO special forces team also told CBC News that they are watching carefully how their Ukrainian counterparts are using their skills against the Russians, and have been especially impressed with their use of small, store-bought drones to locate troops.

The drones helped uncover camouflaged Russian positions and then guided Ukrainian artillery strikes.

Arnold says NATO planners have also been learning from Russian mistakes.

Members of the Lithuanian special forces wait in an all-terrain vehicle on the sidelines during a training simulation near the city of Kaunas. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

“In the first 24 to 48 hours, much of the attention was focused on the Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) forces trying to take the Hostomel air base (near kyiv). Essentially, they were able to take the airport pretty quickly, but they didn’t.” reinforced.”

“So the main lesson for NATO forces is that special operations can do a wide variety of tasks, but if they’re isolated and not supported by conventional forces, they’re actually quite vulnerable,” Arnold said.

Victims must be treated in the field.

The exercise involving the landing of the Wolfhound plane on the road was also based in part on experiences from Ukraine, says one of the special forces medics involved in the planning.

“I’m impressed – your ability to create a trauma system on the fly from an unforeseen invasion is quite remarkable,” said the American.

In Ukraine, the absence of air cover has meant that victims have had to be treated in the field and then often travel long distances to reach a hospital or a place where it is safe to fly.

The Latvian training exercise involved the use of a robotic dummy that can simulate battlefield injuries. He also blinks, bleeds and urinates. (Jean Francois Bisson/CBC News)

That is what the exercise in Latvia was testing.

“In special operations medicine, one of our roles is to innovate,” he said.

The realism of the exercise was also aided by the use of a robotic patient that can be programmed to simulate specific wounds that medical staff must treat. The mannequin blinks, breathes, bleeds, and has other lifelike qualities that add to the urgency faced by medical personnel.

“Ukraine and everything that happens there is a threat,” said the commander of the Romanian Task Force. “Even if we are not involved in that conflict, we see it as lessons learned.”

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