On the cloudy, moonless night of March 26, paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force (Airborne), parachuted into northern Iraq to seize the airfield at Bashur in support of the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Commander (CFSOCC). Within 25 minutes, the Army and Air Force, epitomizing joint teamwork, put a thousand soldiers on the ground in order to deter Iraqi aggression against Kurds and factional fighting in northern Iraq. Airmen attached to the 173rd, about 20 of whom participated in the airborne jump, worked quickly to prepare the airfield for heavy follow-on traffic.
In the days following the jump, Air Force C-17s would bring in another 1,200 soldiers and vehicles of the brigade’s assigned and attached units. The Bashur airfield would also serve as a secure node to bring in tons of humanitarian relief supplies for distribution to Kurds and other displaced civilians in the region.
The airborne assault to seize the airfield represents a crowning achievement for the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Just 12 days before the jump, the brigade had officially achieved initial operating capability (IOC). This followed a three-year effort to create a second infantry battalion and implement other facets of the brigade’s reorganization into a more capable and deployable force. Unlike any other airborne brigade in the Army, the 173rd is organized to give the U.S. European Command a forward deployed forced entry capability.
Formerly known as the SETAF (Southern European Task Force) Infantry Brigade, the unit was redesignated as the 173rd Airborne Brigade in June 2000.
The brigade’s expansion was part of a larger U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) effort to increase the capabilities of the Southern European Task Force and provide the combatant commander with additional, strategically responsive forces.
Lessons learned from previous U.S. operations in the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa validated the need for highly deployable Army forces in southern Europe. In January 2001, the 173rd Airborne Brigade began fielding its second infantry battalion, the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment. Completed in March 2003, the 2-503rd, along with the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 508th Infantry Regiment and Delta Battery, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, form the core of the brigade’s combat power. In addition, the brigade is outfitted with an organic long-range surveillance company, a combat support company with engineer assets (including two light airfield repair packages and a sapper platoon), air defense, combat support, and the 501st Forward Support Company. The brigade can deploy an immediate ready company within 24 hours of notification, and major portions of an airborne infantry battalion within 36 hours of notification. The 173rd Airborne Brigade has an exceptional tooth to tail ratio.
With a ground line of communication through Turkey denied, the brigade was an obvious choice to establish a stabilizing conventional presence in northern Iraq. Based in Vicenza, Italy, it is close to Aviano Air Base, the major U.S. aerial port of embarkation in southern Europe. The brigade’s initial objective in northern Iraq, the Bashur airfield, was a relatively short four and a half hour flight from Aviano Air Base. This removed the need for in-flight refueling and reduced the fatigue of the paratroopers who would need to hit the ground running. The U.S. Transportation Command was able to allocate 17 C-17s for the initial airborne assault, along with the accompanying heavy drop package, and 12 C-17s per day to air land the remainder of the brigade’s soldiers and equipment. With shorter turn-around times because of the brigade’s location in Europe, the Air Force was able to move the brigade task force of 2,200 soldiers and almost 400 pieces of rolling stock in only 96 hours. This remarkable feat was accomplished with a total of 62 sorties of C-17 aircraft flown from Aviano to Bashur, led by the 62nd Air Wing from McChord Air Force Base.
Following the airborne insertion, as part of the build-up of U.S. forces, the brigade subsequently received elements of the USAREUR Immediate Ready Force (IRF). The IRF is a C-17 transportable unit that includes a heavy ready company of 5 Abrams tanks and 5 Bradley fighting vehicles, a M113-based medium ready company, organic fire support and elements of a forward support battalion. Command of the IRF is a rotational responsibility. For these operations the force was under the command of Task Force 1-63 Armor from the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Germany.
The deployment of the 173rd en masse would not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts put forth by U.S. Air Force, Europe’s 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base. Within a period of only a few days, the Wing’s 31st Mission Support Group orchestrated the transformation of this fighter base into a power projection platform capable of accommodating the 17 C-17s needed for the assault, as well as the total deploying force of nearly 2,200 soldiers and 400 vehicles and pieces of equipment. It was a superb example of joint force coordination at its very best.
At the time of this writing, the 173rd Airborne Brigade is continuing operations in northern Iraq. The brigade has helped secure the city of Kirkuk and is now poised with other U.S. forces to maintain stability in this potentially volatile area. The airborne assault by the Sky Soldiers, the result of several weeks of preparation at Central Command, CFSOCC, USAREUR and other commands, succeeded in placing a viable threat at the doorstep of the Iraqi regime and underscored the Army’s ability to project combat power decisively. The three-year effort to expand strategically responsive forces in southern Europe exemplifies the vital capabilities that the 173rd Airborne Brigade and SETAF provide to the combatant commander.
LT. COL. THOMAS W. COLLINS became the public affairs officer, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force (Airborne) in June 2002. Before that he served at headquarters, DA Public Affairs as an Army spokesman. He also served in Operation Desert Storm with the 1st Infantry Division and is a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officer Course.