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The new training exercise with their Spanish airborne counterparts, called Exercise Iberian Eagle, marks a significant transition for the soldiers of B Company, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA), as they resume their role as part of the Army’s high-readiness Airborne Task Force (ABTF), having served their last operational tour in Afghanistan.
The change ends years of Afghanistan-specific training and three intense operational tours of Helmand.
The exercise, the first of its kind in Spain with the 1st Parachute Infantry Bandera ‘Roger de Flor’, is aimed at preparing the paratroopers to be deployed anywhere in the world as the first soldiers on the ground. As such, they will need to be able to operate without the logistical and world-class medical facilities that have been developed in Afghanistan over the last ten years, whilst still responding to the threats of modern operations. Sergeant Gaz McMahon explained:
I think of it as us being like a fire brigade, where something kicks off and we go there to sort it out in the short-term before handing it over to other units - that’s our bread and butter and is the way it always used to be.
Sergeant McMahon has served in Northern Ireland and Iraq, and has deployed on three operational tours of Afghanistan. He said:
People have got used to all the infrastructure a long-term operation brings, but that is not really what the Parachute Regiment is all about. We are the first ones there.
What this exercise is doing is reminding us of that, and that we need to be able to live out of our Bergen and sleep in whatever shelter we can find.
As part of the exercise scenario the soldiers were dropped onto the arid slopes around Zaragoza in Spain for five days with no respite from the bitter winds that howl across the plains and take the temperature down to below freezing.
Carrying weights of around 60kg, they then needed to patrol up to 25km a day to complete a series of clearance and training drills at purpose-built compounds before making camp each night using derelict buildings and sleeping under their ponchos.
The final stage of the Zaragoza exercise was a joint attack with 465 soldiers from the Spanish Parachute Regiment on an enemy compound before travelling to Madrid for a joint parachute jump. Major Geoff Hargreaves, the Officer Commanding B Company, 3 PARA, said:
Exercise Iberian Eagle has been a fantastic and rare opportunity for B Company to train overseas, conducting unilateral and bilateral training as part of La Bandera Battle Group during their annual validation exercise.
It has replicated the challenges, freedoms and opportunities that contingency and the post-HERRICK world offer whilst also highlighting skills and capabilities that must endure beyond Afghanistan whilst reinforcing and developing our core ABTF skills.
The semi-arid environment replicates potential flash points and the challenging weather conditions of Zaragoza have tested our endurance.
The short notice nature of the exercise has also tested our readiness, contingency planning, interoperability and ABTF capabilities as well as improved and rekindled defence relations at a tactical level with a key European and NATO partner and ISAF ally.
The Spanish have been excellent hosts with some first class facilities, but the highlight must be the integrated parachute descent and the shared bond of the airborne brotherhood. The hardships, unique challenges and adversity of a paratrooper do not change whatever your nationality.
Jumping alongside the PARAs, the Spanish paratroopers were given ‘British Wings’ for completing their jump using British parachutes, something the Spanish troops were very keen to achieve explained Captain Santiago Jimenez, the Officer Commanding 1st Company, 1st Bandera:
We are very excited about the jump, we are paratroopers so we love jumping anyway, but we are especially proud to wear British Wings on our chest as everybody wants to jump with the British.
But we have also learnt a lot from the joint exercise too, and I am sure that combining some of their procedures with our own will mean I will be able to improve the training of my soldiers.
In total 100 Spanish paratroopers lined up for the opportunity to leap from the RAF C-130 Hercules, including the Spanish Deputy Brigade Commander, Colonel Alejandro Escamez, who was joined by Brigadier Giles Hill, the Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade.