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Sky Soldiers Conduct Mountain, Arctic Warfare Training
by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Yountz
March 14, 2022

U.S. Army Reconnaissance platoons of the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted mountain and arctic warfare training with soldiers from the Italian Army's 3rd Alpini Regiment during Exercise Steel Blizzard at Pian dell’Alpe in Usseaux, Italy from January 24 to March 4, 2022.

Over the course of the exercise paratroopers from the 173rd, also known as Sky Soldiers, alongside the Alpini, have conducted three phases of training; basic ski course, force integration, and a combat-focused field training exercise to expand the brigade’s force capabilities.

February 15, 2022 - U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade ascend a mountain alongside Italian soldiers from the 3rd Alpini Regiment during an integrated field training exercise. This training is part of Exercise Steel Blizzard at Pian dell’Alpe in Usseaux, Italy. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. John Yountz)
February 15, 2022 - U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade ascend a mountain alongside Italian soldiers from the 3rd Alpini Regiment during an integrated field training exercise. This training is part of Exercise Steel Blizzard at Pian dell’Alpe in Usseaux, Italy. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. John Yountz)

“[We’re] learning the tactics and [standard operating procedures that] the Italians use," said Sgt. Jacob Hamann, a team leader from 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment (Airborne). “They are conducting battle drills with us to learn how we operate, so [that] we can come to a mutual understanding and merge our ways of working together.”

Steel Blizzard is an Italian Army-hosted, multinational mountain and arctic warfare training exercise. Over the course of the training, Sky Soldiers learned different methods of traversing mountains, engaging in combat while skiing, and operating alongside the Alpini, culminating in a validation exercise against opposing forces in a mountainous environment. This training played a key role in further developing the relationship, interoperability and mission capabilities of both forces.

The first phase of the exercise started with a three week basic ski course taught by Alpini Ski Masters in Corvara, Italy. During the course paratroopers learned methods for downhill and cross-country skiing. Of the 49 paratroopers who participated in this phase ... 40 had never even skied before.

“After taking this course I’d say all of these guys could pretty easily traverse an expert level [ski slope]," said 1st Lt. Jack Hanley, the recon platoon leader from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.

“It has been fun to learn how to ski and also come out to this kind of environment, [which] I've never trained in," Hamann said.

The second phase of the exercise took place in Usseaux, Italy, on a plateau known as Pian dell’Alpe. Three platoons were injected into an Alpini infantry company. To further develop the integration aspect of the exercise, the platoons were dispersed so that American soldiers would have to be in Italian squads and vice versa.

“[The] squad that I was attached to [consisted of only] Italian soldiers," said Sgt. Hunter Green, a team leader from 1-91 CAV. He was attached to an all Italian platoon as a squad leader during the second phase of the exercise. “They had me help in the planning and actually listened to my ideas. We ended up using that plan.”

The integrated force conducted a team-maneuver live-fire range and a combat-environment field training exercise. The company advanced steep elevation over three kilometers on foot to a point where deep snow and ice covered the remaining route.

“We ended up using their vehicles [that] they call the BV," said Hamann. The Bandvagn 206S is a Swedish-made tracked articulated vehicle that offers mobility over all terrain, but is specifically useful in arctic conditions.

Once the company had arrived at the plateau they loaded their weapons and conducted a team maneuver live fire exercise. The American and Italian soldiers temporarily exchanged weapons and fired them for familiarization purposes. The 173rd uses M4A1 Carbines whereas the Italian soldiers use the Berretta AR70/90, both fire 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition.

February 15, 2022 - U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Italian soldiers from the 3rd Alpini Regiment engage targets with one another's weapons for a weapon familiarization during an integrated bi-lateral marksmanship range. This training is part of Exercise Steel Blizzard at Pian dell’Alpe in Usseaux, Italy. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. John Yountz)
February 15, 2022 - U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Italian soldiers from the 3rd Alpini Regiment engage targets with one another's weapons for a weapon familiarization during an integrated bi-lateral marksmanship range. This training is part of Exercise Steel Blizzard at Pian dell’Alpe in Usseaux, Italy. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. John Yountz)

 After the group became familiar with each other's tactics and procedures the platoons split up, each with their own task. The overall goal was to neutralize enemy presence in the area of operation.

“It’s very important for us to understand our NATO allies and how they operate, so that when the time comes, if it does come, we can work together in an efficient manner on the battlefield to neutralize any enemy threats that stand in our way," said Green.

The platoons conducted tasks such as establishing patrol bases, observation posts, mortar firing points, and conducting patrols.

"We set up an observation post overlooking an objective [where] we created reports routinely and [disseminated] enemy activity," said Green. The data that was taken from these reports was used to construct a platoon assault on the objective by integrated squads. Other platoons simultaneously attacked other objectives resulting in completion of the company's mission.

“I am excited for this next phase of the training to go out and conduct our culminating exercise and apply everything that we’ve learned through this last month of training with the Alpini,” said Hamann.

During the third phase the company loaded onto Marine V-22 Ospreys and AH-64 Blackhawks to initiate an air assault onto a plateau. An additional company of Alpini with an integrated platoon of French soldiers from the 27E Chasseur Alpins Battalion participated in the mission.

"We inserted into the mountains up to an altitude of 2,500 meters. We [then] moved approximately nine kilometers on foot and conducted operations in waist-deep snow with snowshoes [equipped and] all of our equipment to include rucksacks, kits, radios and weapons," said Hanley.

Training in an arctic environment such as this one is not common for 173rd paratroopers, however the brigade is increasing Its capabilities similar to the 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, the Army’s only arctic airborne brigade based in Alaska.

“We [conducted] a recon on the objective looking for Stinger systems and enemy electronic warfare assets. We then conducted an attack with the French platoon," Hanley said. “We moved another four kilometers on foot to conduct another recon on an objective looking for enemy artillery. We then conducted [another] attack with the French [soldiers] with [a] real life close air support asset [which was] an Italian Typhon fighter jet. The Italian company commander called a close air support mission on a target by my scouts [then] the jet flew over and simulated dropping ordinance.”

The training was conducted in English. Every brief, instruction, and radio transmission was able to be understood by all concerned parties. Capt. Giacomo Brignone, the Italian company commander of the exercise, was adamant that the training be conducted in this way, since this is how they will execute real operations with NATO forces.

This exercise complements training which our recon platoons had participated in during October of last year. During that exercise, known as Alpine Star, the paratroopers trained in rock climbing and rappelling with Alpini soldiers in addition to the mountain warfare portion.

The Sky Soldiers left the mountains with new friends, a sense of accomplishment, and a new set of skills. This training has been beneficial for the brigade by creating a window of opportunity for future mountain warfare training with the Alpini and other allies and partners.

The 173rd is the U.S. Army's Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing rapidly deployable forces to the United States European, African, and Central Command areas of responsibility. Forward deployed across Italy and Germany, the brigade routinely trains alongside NATO allies and partners to build partnerships and strengthen the alliance.

The Italian Alpini Regiments are renowned for their expertise in mountain warfare. During both world wars their mission was to defend the Italian Alps, which serve as a natural barrier for the country's northern regions. In modern day times their mission remains the same and they take to the same specialty arctic training as their predecessors.

“This is a very unique opportunity that we’ve been afforded. It's not one that many would be able to understand the importance of," Green said. “We are all very happy to be here and train with our NATO allies so that one day when we have to work together we’ll be ready.”

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