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Story Last modified at 12:51 p.m. on Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Paratroopers practice in the outback

6th Engineer Battalion


Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Comstock, 6th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne), takes accountability of paratroopers in the assembly area during an airborne assault into the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Australia. U.S. Army Alaska Sappers took part in forced-entry training exercise with elements of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011, biennial training involving U.S. and Australian forces.
Courtesy photo

More than 80 paratroopers from the 6th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne) recently returned from Northeast Australia after participating in a forced-entry training exercise with elements of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

The forced entry training was part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011, a biennial training exercise involving both U.S. and Australian forces.

"Our airborne engineers were part of a larger force that was task organized for forced entry operations into a non-permissive environment through airborne assault," said Army Capt. Patrick Billmann, commander of the 23rd Engineer Company (Sapper) (Airborne) and overall commander of the airborne engineer task force.

The task force was augmented with jumpmasters from the Australian army, giving the paratroopers the added perk of earning their Australian jump wings.

"Being part of a combined task force with the Australians was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget," said Army 2nd Lt. Justin Smith, a Platoon Leader in the 23rd Engineer Company (Sapper) (Airborne). "It was exciting to be able to work with the infantry and our Australian counterparts in a realistic training event."

The training was merely a small part of a larger exercise that ultimately involved all branches of the U.S. military, civilians from various U.S. agencies, and the Australian Defense Forces.

For the Arctic Sappers, the exercise was a valuable opportunity to train on unique engineer capabilities essential to any real-world forced entry operation.

The airborne infantry-engineer task force's mission in Australia was to seize and clear an airfield to enable the air landing of additional forces for follow-on operations.

The first requirement immediately following an airborne assault is to defeat local threats and establish security.

While security was primarily the job of the 1-501st in this mission, a large portion of the airborne task force consisted of combat engineers who can fight as infantry until local security is established.

During the training exercise, 2nd Platoon, 84th Engineer Support Company (Airborne) engaged and defeated an attack by an enemy squad, role-played by Australian soldiers.

"Our engineers cannot conduct their mission without security," Billmann said.

"Depending on the nature of the threat, our engineers must be prepared to assist the infantry in securing the airfield and the surrounding areas."

Engineers play a key role in forced-entry operations, according to Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister, 6th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne) commander.

"Immediately upon securing an airfield, Sappers clear it of obstacles, such as mines, debris, or destroyed vehicles then conduct an assessment to ensure it is capable of landing fixed-wing aircraft," Hoffmeister said. "We airdrop key pieces of engineer equipment and conduct rapid repair of any damage to the runway in order to start air landing follow-on forces."

While the infantry established security on the notional flight landing strip in northeast Australia, Sappers from the 23rd Engineer Company (Combat)(Airborne) cleared both manmade and natural obstacles which could interfere with aircraft landings.

Engineers from the 84th ESC then conducted an airfield assessment and officially certified it capable of receiving aircraft.

Engineer support to forced entry operations are not limited to merely marking and clearing obstacles and assessing airfields. The 84th ESC can also conduct rapid runway repairs.

"Rapid runway repairs involve bringing the flight landing strip up to acceptable standards by filling craters, spalling (water damage to concrete, brick or similar surfaces), or other surface issues as quickly as possible in order to land aircraft," said Army Capt Bradley Pietzyk, commander of the 84th ESC.

After the runway is repaired, the 56th Engineer Company (Vertical) can land Soldiers and equipment and provide various vertical construction capabilities needed to sustain, house, or protect the increasing flow of additional forces. Although Talisman Sabre did not exercise the full capabilities of the 6th Engineers, the training was a milestone in testing the unit's forced entry capabilities, according to Hoffmeister.

"I am extremely proud of the leaders and Soldiers who were able to execute a mission of this scale," he said. "These Warriors took off from the United Sates, parachuted in to another continent on an opposed drop zone, defeated an enemy threat, executed their assigned missions then safely redeployed home. The performance of Task Force Geronimo gives me great confidence in U.S. Army Alaska's ability to rapidly deploy as part of a combined airborne task force to support forced entry operations in any part of the world."

Capt. Patrick Billmann contributed to this article.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 3, 2011.