In times when a revival of the Cold War is closer than ever, and NATO and its allied countries are put under pressure as never before, the Belgian Defence organized the yearly Storm Tide 2022 exercise from September 5 to 16, 2022.
Around 800 soldiers from a different land, air, and medical components participated in this large-scale special operations exercise covering the entire Belgium area. Key operating areas for this year’s exercise were Koksijde, Weelde, Mol, and Geel. During this exercise, soldiers of the Special Operations Regiment and their supporting units train in procedures and techniques to secure and repatriate fellow countrymen in crisis areas. This role will be fulfilled by schools, civilians, and reservists.
The main deliverable of this exercise is to train the realistic execution of a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO) by using the specialties of the Special Operations Regiment based on the new strategic vision of the Special Operations Forces (SOF). At the same time, guaranteeing the participating forces’ impeccable behavior with respect to local authorities and population is another important success criterion.
This exercise also fits perfectly within the general mindset of the Special Operations Regiment, which focuses on the following:
- Interoperability: the execution of joint operations through cooperation between the headquarter and its units, the air component, the medical component, and its international partners.
- Adaptability: Initial entry operations via air (parachute jumps and tactical landings), securing and holding of an airfield, special techniques for insertion and extraction via the air, evacuation operations, guiding ex-pats, and special recon operations.
An important new element introduced in the exercise is that participating soldiers are informed on how to identify ‘fake news.’ Another important factor that plays a vital role in modern warfare.
This 2-week training exercise can be separated into two parts. The 1st week focuses mainly on planning and mission briefings. Next, there is extra focus on repeating the more practical elements like tactics, fast rope, and amphibious (boat) techniques. All this is called ‘In Theatre’ training.
In the 2nd week focus is 100% on applying all the techniques and tactics learned in practice.
On Monday, all the action kicked off with a mass parachute drop supported by 3 A-400M military transport aircraft operated by the 15th Air Transport Wing, based in Melsbroek, which dropped in a total of 160 paratroopers over the airfield of Weelde. Of these 160 paratroopers, 125 came from 3 Para based in Tielen, and the other 35 came from 2Cdo operating out of Flawinne. The A400M transport aircraft were guided towards their drop zone by Pathfinders of the 21st Special Reconnaissance Detachment – ‘First in, Last out.’
The main task of a Pathfinder Task Unit is to enable Initial Entry Operations (IEO). This means that they will insert into any area of operations to conduct Special Reconnaissance and provide a Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) with actionable information on terrain, enemy, and the local population. Next, they will shape the battlefield by setting up strikes on High-Value Targets (HVT) or Infrastructure. And finally, they will execute Combat Control tasks to enable Air-Land and Aerial delivery operations by setting up Tactical Landing Zones or Drop Zones and providing air assets with basic air traffic control until Air Force TAC ATC can arrive in the area of operations. All this will facilitate the theatre entry of Para-commandos.
Once the para commandos reached their rendezvous point and were able to secure the complete airfield, it was time for the A-400 M’s to deliver the rest of the equipment, including the FOX Rapid Reaction vehicles (RRV) through a Tactical Assault Landing Operation (TALO).
The next step in operation was ensuring that the Para-commandos could reach and secure the different reception centers where fellow countrymen needed to gather to be extracted to the airfield. This was done by both vehicles and helicopters. Flying in support of the operation were 2 NH-90TTH helicopters and 1 A-109 Agusta helicopter from the 1 Wing, based in Beauvechain. When the evacuated people were safe at the airfield of Weelde, they had to be screened and processed to ensure that the correct people were picked up and prepared for extraction. During this exercise, the screening process was performed by the Belgian Foreign Affairs department. After having completed the extraction of all civilians, the military assets gathered back at the airfield before being extracted, and the exercise could be completed.
The training purpose of this type of exercise can not be underestimated in the current geopolitical environment where one never knows what tomorrow will bring, and the soldiers of the Special Operations Regiment are required to deploy at a moment’s notice with little or no time to prepare. I want to thank the PAO of 3 Para for his hospitality and support in the creation of this article.