The United States joined its European NATO allies in conducting a large-scale defense drill on the border between Poland and Lithuania, simulating the possibility of a Russian invasion in the region, which if successful, would sever Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s access to other allied nations.

U.S. and British troops were joined by troops from Poland, Lithuania and Croatia in the training effort, which involved defending a band of land called the Suwalki Gap that runs for about 65 miles through farmland, woods and low hills.  That narrow stretch of territory could serve as a flash point in any potential future conflict with Russia in the area, as capturing it would cut off supply lines to the Baltic States from their Western partners.

“The gap is vulnerable because of the geography. It’s not inevitable that there’s going to be an attack, of course, but … if that was closed, then you have three allies that are north that are potentially isolated from the rest of the alliance,” U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges told Reuters.

U.S. Army Europe commander Ben Hodges speaks to U.S. soldiers on June 16th

“We have to practice, we have to demonstrate that we can support allies in keeping (the Gap) open, in maintaining that connection,” he said.

Soldiers from the Minnesota Army National Guard’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, British Royal Marines, and Polish soldiers joined together to conduct a ground assault on mock defensive forces, played by Lithuanian soldiers.  The ground assault exercise than transitioned into a mock casualty evacuation exercise.

Prior to the event, troops from America, England, and Poland trained as a platoon for two days, rehearsing movements and learning how best to coordinate with one another, before being flown to the site of the drill to put their plan into action.  The medevac training that followed used American aircraft and allowed allies to see how the process is executed.

“By us bringing in our aircraft, it exposes them to that type of process, radio calls [for support] and how to request it,” Army Lt. Col. Ryan Miedema, commander of Task Force Phoenix said.

“I’ve sat in meetings and our allies have not had the chance to talk to aircraft on the ground side. It’s mainly their air controllers that talk to aircraft, so bringing in the medevac gives other forces a chance to learn how to speak to the aircraft.”

U.S. CH-47 Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters take part in Suwalki Gap defence exercise in Mikyčiai, Lithuania, June 17, 2017.

That concept of learning how best to communicate with other allied forces during a potential Russian invasion permeated every level of the exercise, as leaders from each nation placed an emphasis on learning to coordinate to best utilize the defensive assets levied by each state.

“In this field exercise, we integrated different assets and had the opportunity to improve individual and collective skills,” said Lithuanian Land Forces Capt. Tomas Malakauskas, commander of 1st Company, Duke Vaidotas Mechanized Infantry Battalion.  “We focused on procedures and its [different] levels from the soldier to headquarters and commanders.”

NATO leaders see drills such as these as beneficial both in terms of preparation, and as a form of deterrent.  By demonstrating NATO’s ability to rapidly field a response in the region, it could discourage Russian forces from ever attempting such an invasion.

“The training helps present a credible defense force that hopefully will deter aggression, but if not, we’ll be prepared to move to defend the borders of NATO,” said Lt. Col. Steven Gventer, who leads the U.S. battle group in Orzysz.

 

Images courtesy of Reuters

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