Conga line of C-17s spotted heading south over Europe from Norway (Update)

While the United States and the rest of NATO are still in the midst of Europe’s worst security crisis in decades surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, any unusual air activity by members of the alliance is sure to attract attention. Such was the case today when flight trackers using online tracking software suddenly showed at least eight US Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport planes rapidly departing a base in northern Norway, then flying south.

Several Air Force C-17As criss-cross Europe every day on various missions, but it’s unusual to see a massive formation heading for southern Norway. It turns out that these sorties – which used Reach call signs 741, 742, 743, 744, 745, 746, 747 and 748 – are linked to an annual US military-led exercise called Swift Response. This year’s iteration includes a huge airborne operations component that will see near-simultaneous paratrooper drops in four different countries on or around May 13. A total of 9,000 people from 17 countries, including 2,700 troops from the United States, will participate in Swift Response 2022.

The Norwegian Armed Forces, or Forsvaret, released images today showing eight US Air Force C-17As at Bardufoss Air Base in the far north of Norway. The aircraft brought elements of the U.S. Army’s 4th Brigade (Airborne) Combat Team based in Alaska, 25th Infantry Division (4/25th Infantry), with them for Swift Response . Transport planes flew directly from Alaska to Norway over the North Pole.

A U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III arrives at Bardufoss Air Base in Norway on May 10, 2022. Forsvaret
Paratroopers from the US Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division disembark from a US Air Force C-17A at Bardufoss Air Base. Forsvaret

Exactly where the plane went after that and why isn’t entirely clear. Online flight tracking software showed a plane appeared to be heading southwest through Norway and then into the North Sea, possibly heading for the UK. The other seven planes flew south over Norway and Sweden, then crossed the Baltic and continued their way through the airspace of various NATO members from Northern Europe and the Center. The fact that at least six of the carriers passed through Swedish airspace is remarkable given that the country is not a member of the alliance, but is now heading in that direction in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A number of C-17s disappeared from online flight-tracking software as they passed over Slovenia, but the final destination of at least some of them appears to have been in northern Europe. Italy.

Although we know that the initial arrival of these eight C-17s in Norway was directly related to Swift Response, The war zone cannot yet say with absolute certainty what we observed after the plane headed south. However, all of this, especially the arrival of at least some of the C-17s in Italy, makes sense in the context of a larger exercise.

“The exercise begins when the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division leaves Alaska and flies over the North Pole toward Norway, according to a May 2 press release from U.S. Army Europe and Africa, which oversees virtually all Army activity on both of those continents and leads the exercise.” The flight, followed by the air jump in Norway, will demonstrate the unit’s ability to conduct Arctic defense operations with Allies and partners in the Arctic Far North.”

Members of the 4/25th Infantry arriving in Norway. Forsvaret

“Around the same time, paratroopers from the 173rd Infantry Brigade (Airborne) and 82nd Airborne Division, along with several allied airborne units, will conduct separate JFEs. [Joint Forcible Entries] in Latvia, Lithuania and North Macedonia,” he continues. “Once the airborne assaults are complete, each brigade task force will conduct tactical ground operations and follow-up training, including rotary-wing deep attacks, assault operations, live-fire training and drills. field training.”

The 173rd is based at Caserma Ederle in the city of Vicenza in northern Italy. The 82nd Airborne Division is based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Pre-positioning the C-17s in Italy, as well as other locations in Europe, would set them up to load U.S. and Allied paratroopers for upcoming drops.

Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team set up a Humvee for an airdrop at Aviano Air Base in Italy on May 10, 2022, as part of preparations for Swift Response airdrops.

In addition to transporting the 4/25th Infantry contingent to Norway, these aircraft could have brought in additional support personnel and equipment which they must also distribute to various bases. As part of the exercise, the air carriers are also expected to perform aerial supply drops to airborne forces after they land.

US Army soldiers load an HH-60 Black Hawk helicopter onto a US Air Force C-17A transport aircraft at Clay Kaserne in Germany in April. The helicopter was then airlifted to Norway as part of Swift Response preparations.

It is also possible, but much less likely, that one or more aircraft were reassigned to other missions unrelated to Swift Response after dropping off the army paratroopers in Norway. We have contacted Air Mobility Command (AMC) and the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) for more information.

Regardless of how these C-17s will factor into the exercise, this year’s rapid response should be a major demonstration of US and NATO emergency response capabilities. Although planning for Swift Response began in 2021, before Russia invaded Ukraine, it is believed to have already happened amid heightened tensions between these two countries.

In particular, massive airborne operations, including a significant number of coordinated C-17 flights across Europe, will almost certainly be seen as a signal to Moscow no matter what. The Russian government regularly criticizes NATO support for the Ukrainian government and the alliance, and the US military in particular has made extensive use of airlifts to help deliver large amounts of military aid. Moreover, even before Russian troops arrived in Ukraine in February, NATO members were deploying additional forces to the alliance’s eastern borders to help deter any potential aggression further west.

For the U.S. military, Swift Response 2022 will be an important demonstration of airborne capabilities more generally, with elements of the Army’s three main conventional parachute units – 82nd Airborne, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and 4/25th Infantry – taking part in it. go. Although there is almost endless debate about the usefulness of airborne forces in future high-level conflicts, especially against close adversaries with large integrated air defense networks, such as Russia or China, the army continues to invest heavily in these units. . The 82nd Airborne remains the service’s go-to force to respond to all manner of major contingencies around the world and the 173rd provides a similar forward deployed component in Europe.

Just last week, the Army revealed it would take the 4/25th Infantry, one of the service’s main contingency response forces in the Pacific region, and combine it with other elements under a new Airborne Division Headquarters in Alaska. Many details have yet to emerge on the U.S. Army Alaska’s (USARAK) full transition plan to the revival of the 11th Airborne Division, but the decision clearly underscores the service’s continuing view that paratroopers have a important role to play in all kinds of future conflicts and other crises.

All told, no matter where the US Air Force C-17As supporting Swift Response end up flying from, or how many of them are involved, they should soon take part in a major demonstration of the Army’s capability. American. like that of NATO collectively, to insert a large number of troops and equipment on a broad front from the air.

UPDATE: 5:20 p.m.—

The US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) has now issued its own press release and confirmed that C-17As from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State and the 315th and 437th Airlift Wings at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina dispersed to various locations in Europe today in support of Exercise Swift Response.

“The C-17 cargo aircraft will support the Europe-wide exercise from locations in Italy, Slovenia and the United Kingdom to provide airlift and airdrop capabilities,” according to the press release.

Contact the author: [email protected]