After Jumping, Battalion Learns to Crawl
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
SHIMKENT, Kazakhstan, Oct. 1, 1997 After 8,000 miles in the air and two aerial refuelings, the Central Asian Battalion arrived Sept. 15 from Fort Bragg, N.C., in clear skies above their homeland, aboard U.S. Air Force C-17s and accompanied by members of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Military and political officials from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan, as well as from the United States, Russia and other Asian nations, watched from the ground as the paratroopers leapt from their aircraft and descended through clear skies to the desert floor. The jump marked the beginning of CENTRAZBAT '97, the first in a series of multinational training exercises the battalion will use to learn other nations' tactics. This will help the unit as it aspires to become a full-fledged participant in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Forty soldiers from the three republics joined 500 maroon-bereted Americans on the exercise-opening jump. Just days before his retirement, Marine Gen. John Sheehan, then-commander in chief of the Atlantic Command, was first out. Shortly after hitting the turf, he stood for interviews with members of the international press, including the DoD press pool activated for the exercise. Sheehan praised the Central Asians and said the United States strongly supports the region's efforts to build a peacekeeping force.
"Three years ago, people said this type of operation was not possible," Sheehan said. "I say, look at what is happening today. It did happen, because the three presidents [of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan] wanted it to happen, and the three ministers [of defense] made it happen."
The United States is willing to assist with training for the Central Asian Battalion because it will help ensure regional stability, Sheehan said. He noted the Asians also participate in two major peacekeeping training exercises in the United States -- Cooperative Nugget and Cooperative Osprey -- and that other nations as well, including Russia and Turkey, are key participants. Following the U.S.-Central Asia jump, Russian and Turk paratroopers also parachuted to the high-desert Kazakhstan terrain.
"All of these nations realize the region's stability is very important," Sheehan said. "That's what the NATO enlargement process is about; that's what the enhanced Partnership for Peace program is all about; that's why we have exercises like this."
The United States' interest in Central Asia has much to do with vast oil and natural gas fields that by 2010 will make the region the world's third largest producer of petroleum products, said DoD's Katherine Kelleher. Militarily stronger neighbors, such as China and India, will likely want access to these resources, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia said. As such, she said, it's in the interests of the United States to help establish and maintain regional stability and security.
"The United States recognizes the need for the independence, sovereignty and stability of the area," Kelleher said. "The potential for major conflict may not be great, but the possibility for a conflict over energy resources ... is substantial."
Formerly ruled by the Soviet Union, the now-independent republics are building and structuring their militaries from scratch. CENTRAZBAT '97 inaugurates a series of training activities slated for the next three years. After the jump, members of the 82nd Airborne Division observed and assisted the Central Asian troops as they trained first in Kazakhstan, then in neighboring Uzbekistan. The training included checkpoint control, vehicle inspections, riot control, mine field clearing and humanitarian operations.
The fledgling militaries unabashedly proclaimed their lofty goal of becoming an international peacekeeping force. Tents, vehicles and helmets the soldiers wore all sported the white and blue motif of the United Nations, including the big, blue block letters, "UN." But Kelleher, who led a DoD delegation observing the exercise, and retired Army Lt. Gen. James Johnson, the secretary of defense's military representative to Central Asia, concurred it likely will be years before the battalion is a viable peacekeeping force.
"As far as it went, the training conducted for this exercise was good, but it didn't teach proficiency," said Johnson, a former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. "The 82nd's training doctrine is to teach soldiers to crawl, walk and run. Here, they are learning to crawl and beginning to walk, but they aren't learning to run. That's going to take a lot more time."
Before the dust settled following closing ceremonies Sept. 20 at Chirchik, Uzbekistan, officials from all the participating nations lauded the battalion's accomplishments but pondered an uncertain future.