MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania — As Russian attack helicopters hovered menacingly near NATO’s eastern border in late spring, it became clearer to the American pilots at the Romanian base known as “MK” why they were stationed at this far-flung location on the Black Sea.
The Russian troop buildup in Crimea and on the eastern border of Ukraine in late March reached 100,000 troops. Tanks, rocket systems, fighter jets, and attack helicopters were also positioned. Vladimir Putin’s first test of President Joe Biden led to a phone call promise of withdrawal, followed by a summit in Geneva last week that included compliments of the American leader from the former KGB officer.
However, Russian attack helicopters remain, as do most of the troops. But America’s Blackhawks, Chinooks, and Apaches were already preparing to exercise nearby.
RUSSIA WARNS OF ‘A REAL CONFLICT’ WITH NATO OVER BLACK SEA NAVAL EXERCISES
In May, American helicopter pilots conducted joint exercises with Romanian Puma pilots, quickly moving 300 ground troops from the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, where several hundred American troops are stationed, to a nearby training area.
“We’re no longer isolated nation-states or countries,” U.S. Army Capt. Erin Caverly, 27, told the Washington Examiner while standing in front of one of the Blackhawk helicopters she flies. “We’re here to build that kind of ability to work with all our NATO allies.”
Romania, a former communist dictatorship and Warsaw Pact country, became a democracy in 1991 and joined NATO in 2004.
The Annapolis native played a key planning role in the complex operation to integrate 10 Romanian Pumas, eight American Blackhawks, and three Chinooks for the combined air assault exercise.
U.S. Army Capt. Erin Caverly, 27, of Annapolis, poses in front of one of the Blackhawk helicopters she flies while on a nine-month rotation in Romania. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/Washington Examiner
“We are here as part of the European Deterrence Initiative,” Lt. Col. Brad Gates, commander of the Army’s 3-1 Assault Helicopter Battalion, said.
The American program known as EDI has beefed up the military infrastructure of NATO members in Eastern Europe to the tune of $20 billion since 2014. That’s when Russia invaded Crimea and redrew European borders for the first time in a half-century.
Putin’s aggression in the region is seen as an ever-present threat by NATO partners on the eastern flank.
“It doesn’t necessarily change the course of what we do,” Gates said of the exercises. “What we need to do is focus on improving our own readiness and improving our ability to have interoperability with our host and partner nations.”
Putin’s actions do change the course for NATO allies in the region, an official said.
Both Bulgaria and Romania spend 3% of their GDP on defense, with Romania posting the region’s only AEGIS Ashore missile-defense system and buying a range of American military hardware, such as Patriot missile batteries.
Romanian Defense Minister Nicolae Ciuca told the Washington Examiner that an additional $135 million is dedicated to military infrastructure investments at the MK base and premier training facilities meant in part to attract more American presence. MK has already played a vital role in assisting U.S. deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are supporting very much the rotational presence of the U.S. troops in our country,” Ciuca said at a meeting in Bucharest. “We also have a program to develop the MK air base. So, that’s a very, very ambitious commitment of our country to develop the infrastructure within the base.”
Training ‘harder, better, and more safely’
American soldiers serving on a nine-month rotation on the base told the Washington Examiner the Romanians are flexible and eager to learn, and the base and nearby training facilities offer opportunities not found at some American installations.
“Our ability to have an aviation task force that is able to operate out of here safely is pretty critical,” said Gates. “From an infrastructure standpoint, from a space available to the aircraft standpoint, it’s certainly helpful to be able to train harder, better, and more safely.”
Army Lt. Col. Brad Gates, commander of the 3-1 Assault Helicopter Brigade, describes the joint air assault exercise Swift Response 21 in May with Romanian helicopter pilots at the “MK” Air Base in Romania. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/Washington Examiner
Year-over-year training is more than the upkeep of skills, American pilots said. It’s about building new capabilities for the NATO partners.
“We’re definitely getting good training over here, which is our main goal is to build that interoperability and train as best as we can so that we can do our mission when called upon,” said Maj. Justin Lock, a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot.
Lock said American pilots with fewer than 500 hours of flight time can work alongside Romanians who have 3,000 to 4,000 hours of flight time. With each rotation, the joint exercises are getting more complex.
“What we’re looking to do is building a training plan to make sure that what build upon our lessons learned,” he explained. “So, start with maybe one Puma and one UH-60 flying together, see how that goes, kind of talk about what went well, what could be better, and build upon that. Then it’s two Pumas, two UH-60s, and get it to the point where we’re doing the most complex mission with the most amount of aircraft.”
When these pilots rotate out at the end of the year, the next rotation will pick up at an advanced level with their Romanian partners.
“We have to further develop the full range of forces and capabilities necessary to ensure critical deterrence and defense,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu told the Washington Examiner recently by phone from Bucharest, underscoring the importance of strengthening NATO’s alliance on the eastern flank.
“It’s obvious that what we need to consolidate this posture of the Alliance in face of the multiple challenges created by Russia in order to project its force in the region,” he said.
The foreign minister acknowledged the NATO command-and-control units, NATO, and U.S. joint exercises but emphasized that U.S. troop presence is the strongest deterrence to Russia.
“A lot has been done as far as the Allied presence on land, on sea, and in the air. I think we need more in order to effectively deter Russia in the region,” he said.
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For Caverly and others, the quality of the training in the sense of mission rings clear.
“I’ve really, truly enjoyed my experience here, and I’ve learned a lot from everybody we’ve worked with,” she said. “EDI is defensive in nature, so it is just, [we’re] here to train and truly build that positive working relationship.”
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Tags: News, National Security, Department of Defense, Pentagon, Russia, Black Sea, Romania, Army, military training
Original Author: Abraham Mahshie
Original Location: US Blackhawks and Apaches train with Russian attack helicopters nearby