The soldiers of the Nebraska National Guard’s Echo Company have spent the past few days camping in the wettest, greenest, mossiest forest most of them had ever seen.
Many of the 60 Guard members, from the 134th Infantry Regiment, are portraying “enemy” troops in the Swedish armed forces’ largest military exercise in more than 20 years, called Aurora 2017.
The exercise includes more than 20,000 troops. Most are from Sweden, but the militaries of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway also are participating. About 1,300 more are from the United States. It will run through Friday.
In six-member teams, the Nebraskans trucked into forests all across central Sweden last Friday in all-terrain vehicles. They couldn’t parachute in as planned because of heavy fog.
“We push them out to an outpost or location, then they watch and gather information,” said 1st Lt. Zackary Klapperich, 27, of Lincoln, the company’s executive officer.
Long-range surveillance teams like to rough it. They do not bring tents into the field. They find shelter in the environment.
“They’re pretty much created from the foliage and maybe a tarp or camo netting,” Klapperich said.
Aurora 2017 occurs at a time when relations between Russia and its European neighbors have frayed badly.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and infiltrated Ukraine with Russian troops who have kept up a rebellion against the pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev. That followed their 2008 invasion of parts of the Republic of Georgia, a former province of the Soviet Union that declared independence after the Cold War ended.
“This is just a very strong indication of heightened levels of tension,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Bruce McClintock, an adjunct policy analyst at the Rand Corp.
Also this month, the Russians put on Zapad 2017, a quadrennial military exercise held this year in neighboring Belarus.
Sweden is not a member of NATO, but many of the Aurora 2017 participants are NATO countries. Their presence is seen as underscoring the close ties between Sweden and the alliance. Putin has spoken out against closer ties, including Sweden’s possible addition to NATO.
“The security environment has changed in Europe,” said Maj. Gen. John Gronski, U.S. Army Europe’s deputy commanding general for the Army National Guard.
Gronski said Sweden cooperates with and drills with the United States and other NATO members. Their troops have participated alongside Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Last week, early in the exercise, U.S. and Swedish soldiers parachuted from airplanes together on the island of Gotland, then exchanged “jump wings” to note the event.
“We consider Sweden to be a partner,” Gronski said.
The Nebraska company is one of two National Guard units that are part of Aurora 2017.
Capt. Joshua Metcalf, 33, the company’s former commander, is working as a staff officer during the drills and has personally briefed the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland.
Metcalf said the Nebraskans are under no illusions that they will “win” the simulated battle against the Swedes, who wear the white hats in the battlefield scenario.
“It’s pretty fun,” Metcalf said. “But most of the exercises are designed (so that) the good guys win and the bad guys lose.”
Though there’s not a lot of time for sightseeing, the exercise has taken the Nebraskans to many parts of the country. They like what they’ve seen.
“It’s just rain and fog, all day, every day here. It’s what London is like, or Seattle,” Metcalf said. “It’s nothing like Nebraska.”