Establishing and maintaining solid working relationships with partner nations is a key mission element in the special operations community. This sometimes takes the form of providing needed training opportunities in order to level the 'playing field' and ensure better interoperability and capability with partner forces.
One such need recently came in the form of night vision goggle training for NATO member countries Hungary and Croatia. As NATO members, these countries contribute to International Security Assistance Force operations in Afghanistan where much of their work involves supporting special operations forces.
About a year ago, Special Operations Command Europe conducted an aviation assessment which pinpointed this need, so planning began to develop and implement an NVG training program.
As planners for the Joint Special Operations Air Component -Europe here, Maj. Mollie McCarthy and her staff were intimately involved with the planning of the training program to fulfill this requirement.
According to Major McCarthy, the plan was to travel to Zadar Air Base, Croatia, and train Croatian and Hungarian aircrew to use NVGs in their respective helicopters. With the plan in place, a private contractor was secured to provide hands-on training.
The first phase of that training began in March of this year.
"Unfortunately, the Hungarians were unable to attend the first phase," said Major McCarthy, "but the Croatians participated and we trained four Bell 206 helicopter pilots, four Mi-171 helicopter pilots, and eight Mi-171 flight engineers and crew chiefs."
The training proved very successful. According to Major McCarthy, by the completion of the three-week exercise, all the participants were qualified to United States Army standards to fly using NVGs. Additionally, they were provided a week of advanced training to include NVG-aided low-level navigation and formation flying.
A few months later, a second phase of training was conducted at Zadar Air Base that included not only the Croatians, but Latvian and Lithuanian forces as well. This second exercise was also expanded to include ground and medical training. Additionally, at Papa Air Base, Hungary, the Hungarians received training during the second phase exercise.
"During the second phase we not only trained the Croatians in NVG flight operations, but we also included the Latvians, Lithuanians and some United States personnel in ground training as well as some medical training," said Major McCarthy.
To tie the flight, ground and medical training together, the second phase culminated with a mission exercise.
"We ran a counternarcotics scenario where they had to intercept a drug delivery, try to arrest the perpetrators, and extract them via helicopters using night vision goggles," said U.S. Army Master Sgt. Robert Boggs, JSOAC-E. "The scenario was also driven by someone getting injured to tie all the training together."
For Master Sgt. William Ward, 352nd Special Operations Group independent medical technician and one of the planners for the medical piece, seeing the exercise play out successfully was highly gratifying.
"After all the planning, having the helicopter land when it was supposed to, seeing the appropriate number of 'patients' get on board and receive treatment the way they should, and watching the helicopter leave was complete satisfaction," he said.
While delivering the training was a primary goal, it was also important that once the training was completed, the new capabilities could be locally maintained by the partner nations.
"The intent behind the training was obviously giving them night-vision-goggle capability, but we also wanted them trained well enough to go back to their units and teach the others," said Major McCarthy.
Furthermore, being able to keep the equipment in good working order was integral.
"We wanted to emphasize that while training them how to fly with night vision goggles is important, if they don't know how to properly maintain the goggles, they may not be able to fly," said U.S. Army Capt. Jonathan Nadler, JSOAC-E.
"We relied on the 352nd Special Operations Group life support shop to provide night vision goggles as well as night vision goggle maintenance," said Maj. McCarthy. "They sent two of their life support Airmen to not only take care of the night vision goggles we brought with us, but also train the Hungarians and Croatians on how to maintain their own night vision goggles. The success of the night vision goggle training really hinged on those guys being able to keep those night vision goggles in workable condition."
The joint planning and execution effort between the JSOAC-E and the 352nd SOG resulted in 16 Hungarian and 24 Croatian aircrew trained. Fifty-nine Croatians, two Lithuanians and three Latvians received medical training during phase two.
The training has been such a success that other countries are quickly getting on board. Similar training programs are currently scheduled for at least two other NATO partner nations.
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