U.S. parachutes into Central Asia Nonstop air mission sets record, shows U.S. can protect far areas

September 16, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHYMKENT, Kazakstan -- While Americans slept early yesterday, hundreds of paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, led by a four-star Marine general, dropped into this remote but potentially critical part of the world almost 8,000 miles from their base in North Carolina.

The U.S. airborne troops' landing on this dusty stretch of Central Asia yesterday marked the first military exercise ever with Russia and troops of former Soviet republics.

Five hundred troops from the 82nd Airborne Division joined 40 members of the Central Asian Battalion -- made up of forces from, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- in the paratroop drop to begin a six-day training exercise to prepare for future peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

In addition to vast natural resources, the three republics share their southern borders with more unstable and powerful neighbors: Iran, Iraq, Tajikistan, China and Afghanistan.

Marine Gen. John J. Sheehan, retiring head of the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va., who led the paratroopers, first denied the operation was sending a message to other countries. But then, he said, "The message I guess I would leave is that there is no nation on the face of the earth that we cannot get to."

With the towering Tien Shan Mountains serving as a backdrop, the troops spilled out of lumbering C-17 jets that flew nonstop from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, a 7,700-mile flight that was the longest airborne expedition in history, Pentagon officials said. The planes refueled three times during the 20-hour flight.

Six female U.S. soldiers were among those who jumped, including Cpl. Tanya Housekencht, 25, of Miami. "Excellent jump, a very soft landing," said the corporal, a Russian linguist, as she moved across a field with her squad to set up a command post.

"Thanks very much for the invitation," said Sheehan, who greeted the defense ministers of the three former Soviet republics with bear hugs.

Sheehan, overall commander of the exercise, was the first soldier to parachute. "It's a great a way to arrive," he said.

"We can say that the battalion will be able to conduct its operations anywhere in the world," said Mukhtar Altynbayev, the Kazakstan defense minister.

Forty Russian airborne soldiers followed soon after, and then another 40 Turkish paratroopers. They will link up with Latvian and Georgian ground forces in the coming days.

About 1,400 soldiers are taking part in the exercise, named Centrazbat 97, after the battalion formed last year by Kazakstan , Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as a peacekeeping unit of the United Nations.

This month's exercise is being held in the spirit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's "Partnership for Peace," but is not formally part of the Western military alliance's training program.

L The second phase will be held in Uzbekistan later this week.

The three former Soviet Asian republics are being hosts for the exercise to hone their skills and and develop Western military standards. The three-country battalion was formed last year.

U.S. Navy Capt. Craig Quigley, a spokesman for the exercise, said the American troops benefit from learning how to communicate and operate with the Central Asian Battalion in the field.

The exercise scenario supposes a U.N.-sponsored truce between two fictitious nations. But anti-truce factions and renegade bands within the two countries are threatening the peace. The multinational troops -- led by the United States in this case -- have been sent to restore order.

The host nations provided the fictitious nations' troops as well as renegade factions.

U.S. trainers will offer instruction in convoy protection, check- point control and land mine clearing. There will also be urban warfare training, dealing with everything from snipers to battlefield refugees.

L "You're really practicing small-unit tactics," said Quigley.

The Asian republic troops were trained in the old Soviet model, a hierarchical mode that requires senior officers to be informed before any decisions are made.

"Nobody does anything until the boss tells them to," said Quigley, explaining that Western forces allow sergeants and junior officers to exercise more authority in a combat situation.

U.S. military planners said it would likely take another generation before Kazakstan troops can shake their Soviet habits.

"The skill level is very basic," said Army Maj. Kirk Burton, a Green Beret trainer who has been working with the three countries for the past year, along with a dozen Special Forces soldiers from Fort Lewis in Washington. But, he added, "a couple of the officers are standouts."

Burton and other Green Berets said initially there were tensions between the former Cold War enemies. Members of the battalion told them of Soviet-era propaganda: pamphlets that purported to show Ku Klux Klan rallies at U.S. military bases and American doctrine that no prisoners would be taken alive.

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