This year’s “Trident Juncture” is the biggest NATO exercise since 2002. Poles took part in this great test of the defensive capabilities of the Alliance.
The first edition of “Trident Juncture” that had taken place three ago proved that exercises of such momentum are needed. For the first time in many years, the soldiers of all NATO nations and allied states were able to test their readiness to react in the event of an open, full-scale conflict. The scenario included operations in Spain, Portugal and Italy, as well as in the Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, which required not only unprecedented coordination but also a powerful logistical base.
It was when a decision was made that further exercises of a similar scale would take place in 2018. This time they were to be hosted by Norway, with the main emphasis on testing the ability to operate in Arctic conditions and testing communication at the operational level. At the same time, Norway, as one of the NATO members directly exposed to aggression from the East, was able to test its defence strategies and infrastructure. Finally, over 50 thousand soldiers from 31 countries, 10 thousand vehicles, 250 aircraft and 65 ships took part in the exercises.
Poles also took part in the exercises, including a motorised company from the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade. Over a hundred Polish soldiers were assigned to the international component based on the British 4th Infantry Brigade and the Danish Jutland Dragoon Regiment. “Our participation in “Trident Juncture” was divided into three phases. In the first one, we were supposed to delay the opponent’s attack. Then, in the reserve formation, we reconstructed our combat capabilities and at the same time protected the back of our troops against a possible landing. In the final stage, we moved on to the counter-attack. First, we waited in readiness to support the first-choice units; then, we found ourselves on the first line of fighting”, explains Captain Krystian Terlikowski, the commander of the company of the motorised 1st Podhale Rifles Battalion. The officer points out that his charges are accustomed to carrying out operations in winter and difficult terrain conditions. It was a novelty for the Podhale Rifles soldier that “Trident Juncture” took place mainly in non-military areas. This was associated with action in huge areas, as well as with various restrictions.
The main responsibility of Poles spanned between the cities of Åkrestrømmen and Tynset. In practice, this meant that in order to reach the fighting area, they had to travel distances exceeding 100 km multiple times. The mountain conditions and unfavourable aura were additional factors adding to the difficulty. As it turned out, they complicated operations on a general scale, not only the operations of the incoming armies. “From the very beginning, we saw that the roads were covered with snow and ice, which forced us to change our plans. This applied not only to us but also to the Danish, English and even Norwegian subdivisions, which operated at home,” stresses Captain Terlikowski.
The Polish company had both T-72 tanks and BWP-1 carriers at its disposal. In fact, the drivers of those vehicles were the ones responsible not only for the execution of the order but also for the safety of the outsiders. “We moved mainly in vehicles, so the drivers had to be careful not to let a civilian get in the way by car or run under the wheel”, says Lieutenant Grzegorz Malinowski. Master Corporal Mariusz Wojdon adds that, at some point, there was an incident in which a carrier almost collided with a civilian car failing to yield. Nobody got hurt thanks to the quick reaction of the BWP driver.
There were also situations in which, due to the snow or dense forest, the soldiers had to leave the carriers and cross the area on foot. In many cases, this meant climbing almost upright. In the main phase of the exercise, the temperature at night fell to over -10 degrees Celsius, on top of which there were heavy snowfall and thick fog. Although the Podhale Rifles spent all nights in an off-road area, those conditions did not surprise them. “Personally, I expected lower temperatures. As far as field issues are concerned, we are a unit that is mechanised yet prepared to operate in mountain conditions. Perhaps the training ground in Trzcianiec does not have the same elevations as in Norway, but we are able to move around in such conditions. We were well prepared,” says PFC Rafał Stępień.
Exercises lasted 24 hours a day, which forced continuous readiness with limited sleeping time. According to the procedures, after the seizure of a given area, the soldiers set posts to seize enemy reconnaissance groups and moving civilians. “I was on the 13th turn in Afghanistan. Over there we had to be prepared for contact with the opponent, and it could happen from practically any side. We did not sleep much in Norway; in fact, we slept in tents or outdoors, but nobody fired live ammunition. It was not as hard as it could have been in a real war,” stresses Master Corporal Wojdon.
Before the start of the main phase of the exercises, the soldiers had had about two weeks to acclimatise and to get along with their foreign allies. The Polish company reported directly to the Danish battalion, thus Poles spent the most time with the Jutland Dragoon Regiment. Although that unit is armoured, and its procedures and tactics differ from the native ones in several respects, the cooperation was brilliant. “At the beginning, we explained to each other how we perform individual tasks. During the exercises, we met in the field and analysed the orders received. If something had to be changed, it was enough to have a quick talk: we were creating new concepts together on an ongoing basis”, emphasises Lieutenant Grzegorz Malinowski.
The Podhale Rifles got a few interesting solutions from their foreign colleagues. One of them concerned sleeping “lightly”, only in sleeping bags and tarpaulins protecting against snowfall. Thanks to this, the allied units could immediately roll up the camp and start moving. It also turned out that some of the patents used by Poles proved their worth in Western armies. Danes have Leopards that are equipped with modern optical systems. Earlier, however, in order to eliminate the advantage of thermal imagining or night vision, they used illuminating cartridges. It is a method known to soldiers serving on BWPs.
According to the Podhale Rifles, one of the biggest challenges they had to face during the exercises was to maintain communication in an international environment. This involved hardware differences and different procedures. PFC Rafał Stępień, who serves as a radio operator in a command car, points out that all the difficulties were overcome, though. “Our radio stations were not fully compatible with the Danish ones. At the same time, it was necessary to become familiar with the regulations concerning the way of communication; the patterns of reports and tables of radio data looked different. The Danes themselves came to the aid, and we created a communication system together. After all, everything worked just fine,” says PFC Stępień.
Effective communication was necessary to deal with the attacking enemy. This role was played by Norwegian and German forces, which outnumbered the allied forces and knew the area well. Captain Krystian Terlikowski claims that the opponent’s forces often behaved unpredictably, but the fight took place according to his ideas. “Sometimes the enemy occupied very unusual fire stations and protected them with mines and dams. At such moments, we had to ask for air support or artillery fire. The entire operation was supervised by the peacekeepers who decided on the outcome of the clash.” The officer points out that soldiers and vehicles were not equipped with laser systems to verify the effectiveness of the fire. The core of the exercises, however, was the ability to make the right decisions and check the manoeuvrability of the troops. The destruction of enemy forces was of secondary importance.
Prepared for new threats
Polish soldiers are aware that sometimes their equipment is different from that of their foreign colleagues. BWP-1 carriers can perform well in difficult terrain, and the low profile of the armour will make it difficult to detect them, but the heyday and glory of the design have long been over. The Podhale Rifles compensate for these inconveniences thanks to their experience and ingenuity. “Trident Juncture ‘18” has proved that, owing to the qualities in question, Polish soldiers not only do not fall behind their foreign colleagues but can also take the initiative in many domains.
“Drivers and gunmen worked wonders to make everything work as it should, and we poured out some sweat during the preparations. In the end, we all made it. Hats off here to our soldiers. Some have a great deal of experience; some have been on a few missions; others have recently started service and want to catch up with the senior soldiers. They did their best during the exercises, and we acted on the same, very high level together with our allies”, recollects Lieutenant Grzegorz Malinowski.
In recent years, NATO has re-evaluated its approach to defence and is gradually preparing for new threats. For soldiers, this means that the experience gained from missions in the Middle East must be adapted to the conditions of an open war with elements of unconventional operations. It is a complex process that requires continuous training and the development of new habits. However, the Podhale Rifles admit that they have nothing to be ashamed of in this field. “Our persistence makes us stand out. If we get a target, we do everything in our power to accomplish the set task. This is what we did during ‘Trident Juncture’ - it was a 100-percent success. This does not mean, however, that we can stop training. The opponent is unpredictable, and we must always be one step ahead of him,” concludes Master Corporal Mariusz Wojdon.
autor zdjęć: Arkadiusz Czernicki / 1 BSP