Kazakh peacekeepers excel at Steppe Eagle exercise so real it was sometimes scary10 december 2014, 21:36
The Kazakh peacekeepers were still tired from their long deployment flight when they got the word that townspeople in a sector where they’d been assigned had begun rioting.
The troops grabbed protective shields and other crowd-control gear and hustled to the site.
They found a hostile, screaming and cursing bunch that immediately took them on.
Amid the chaos, Molotov cocktails began flying. Some landed at the feet of the peacekeepers, the flames boiling up on the soldiers’ shields, boots and legs.
The Kazakhs weren’t wearing fireproof clothing, so their ability to avoid getting burned was all technique.
The scary photos of the Molotov-cocktail attacks showed the lengths to which the American and British planners of Steppe Eagle 2014 would go to make the military exercise in Germany as realistic as possible. Those overseers were from the U.S. Army Central Command, the Arizona National Guard and Britain’s Rifles Regiment.
This appeared to be the most realistic of the 12 Steppe Eagles, not only because of the scenarios the planners concocted but also because it required the Kazakhstan peacekeepers to make their first overseas deployment. They trained at a terrific U.S.-military-run facility known as the Joint Military Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany.
Kazakh soldiers leave one of two transport planes that took them to Germany for the Steppe Eagle 2014 exercise. Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers, U.S. Army Central Command
For dramatic pictures of the exercise, check out the work of Central Command’s Sgt. Tracy R. Myers, one of the best photographers I’ve ever seen, at the Steppe Eagle Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/steppe.eagle.
This Steppe Eagle involved 250 Kazakh, American, British, Moldovan, Tajik and Kyrgyz forces. A company of Americans – from the Arizona National Guard – and a platoon of Moldovans were attached to the Kazakh battalion.
Lt. Col. John Lobash of the U.S. Army Central Command said the Kazakhstan battalion, known affectionately at home as the KazBat, told his three-person exercise planning team what kind of training they wanted to master. The Steppe Eagle planners then chose scenarios “from a menu of different training opportunities that are available at the Joint Military Readiness Center,” Lobash said.
Kazakh soldiers use their shields to try to suppress rioters during the military exercise. Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers, U.S. Army Central Command.
The fact that a number of Central Asian countries participated in this year’s version of Steppe Eagle, which began a decade ago as an exercise of Kazakh and NATO forces only, indicates it’s become a regional rather than country-focused exercise, according to Brigadier General James Burk of the Arizona National Guard.
The Kazakh troops and their equipment flew from the Almaty area to Germany on two brand-new C-295 Airbus transport planes.
By the time the three-week-long exercise was over on October 14, KazBat had been tested time and again.
The Kazakhs’ assignment was to control a border area.
In addition to riot-suppression training, the soldiers trained in patrolling, searching buildings, establishing checkpoints to search vehicles for arms and drugs, dealing with improvised explosive devices – the nasty roadside bombs we always read about – administering first aid and other peacekeeping challenges.
Flames shoot up on a Kazakh soldier’s shield, boots and pants during a Molotov-cocktail attack that was part of Steppe Eagle. Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers, U.S. Army Central Command
How did KazBat do?
Just fine, said U.S. Army Major Justin Colbert, head of the American Embassy-based Office of Military Cooperation with Kazakhstan in Astana.
To start with, “they did a really good job of getting everything there” in the deployment, he said in a telephone interview from the Joint Multinational Readiness Training Center at Hohenfels.
They also performed their peacekeeping tasks well, he said.
In the case of the riot, there was “a brief moment of stunned surprise” because the situation was so realistic, Colbert said. But KazBat responded “the way you’d expect a real professional force to react,” quickly establishing control in the town.
From a broader perspective, the Kazakhs proved they could operate well with any United Nations or other multinational unit they might be asked to work with, Colbert said. In other words, they achieved what the American military calls “interoperability” with partner forces.
“Both their equipment and their systems (their communications, for example) are now interoperable” with NATO’s, Colbert said.
One reason exercise planners decided to attach American and Moldovan units to KazBat, and to assign Tajik and Kyrgyz officers to the KazBat staff team, was to see how the Kazakhs would work in a multinational-force environment.
That meant all communications had to be in English, the KazBat commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bakhytzhan Zhetpissov, said in a telephone interview from Hohenfels. The Kazakhs rose to the challenge with solid communications, the exercise overseers said.
“They showed they could share information and analyze information,” Lobash said in a telephone interview after the exercise from U.S. Army Central Command’s headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. They also learned they should decentralize decision-making – that is, let commanders in the field make decisions based on what was happening on the ground.
A Kazakh soldier uses his rifle to cover comrades evacuating the wounded during Steppe Eagle. Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers, U.S. Army Central Command
The Arizona National Guard, which has been a military partner of Kazakhstan for two decades, dispatched logistics experts to the Almaty area to help the Kazakhs prepare for the deployment, Burk said in a telephone interview from Phoenix before flying to the exercise. The Guard platoon that deployed to Germany as an auxiliary to KazBat was a separate group of Arizonans, he said.
It took two trips of two aircraft each to deliver the 150 Kazakhs and their equipment, Colbert said.
One hundred troops came on the first trip, 50 on the second, he said.
“They brought all their weapons, all their ammunition, all their communication gear,” he said.
The ammunition was not used because there was no live-fire component to Steppe Eagle 14. But it needed to be deployed because it would be necessary in a real peacekeeping mission.
From the training site’s name -- Joint Military Readiness Training Center – it’s not hard to figure out that it was set up partly to help NATO and its partner forces train together.
The Kazakhs praised the center, with KazBat commander Zhetpissov calling it a terrific training operation.
Burk said trainers shadowed the Kazakh and other units throughout, taking notes and giving the trainees daily feedback on their performance.
Members of the Kazakh peacekeeping battalion administer first aid to the wounded during the training exercise. Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers, U.S. Army Central Command
The deployment, the decision to hold the training at a “name” overseas facility and the decision to assign other countries’ forces to a KazBat commander for the exercise showed “we’re taking our cooperation (with NATO forces) to a new level,” Zhetpissov said.
He was thrilled with his new transport craft, explaining that they were part of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s promise in a State of the Nation address to upgrade Kazakhstan’s military equipment.
Burk, a former Arizona State University professor who has lectured at Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Education, said the partnership between the Arizona National Guard and Kazakhstan is an active one, involving several exchanges of troops a year.
In recent years, Kazakhs have come to Phoenix to learn such skills as air defense, refueling military aircraft and how to maintain Humvee armored personnel carriers.
The Arizona National Guard’s ties to Kazakhstan began in 1995 under the State Partnership Program. That program, an initiative of the U.S. Defense Department and the Guard, paired Guards in American states with militaries in former Soviet countries. The formula was one state Guard with one country.
The idea behind the program was for Guard units to mentor their partners in everything from tactics to logistics to maintenance and beyond.
Burk, who has traveled to Kazakhstan three times since 2011, enthused that the Arizona National Guard has found the Kazakhs to be “such professionals. We learn as much from them as they do from us.”
The Guard has also worked with Kazakhstan’s Emergency Situations Ministry, he said.
That’s because Arizona is one of a number of American states whose disaster preparedness and response efforts are part of their National Guards.
One of the disaster-response experts who visited Phoenix a few years ago was Kazakhstan’s then-Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhko.
Kazakhstan has been a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program since May of 1994.
The program was a NATO initiative in January of 1994 aimed at building trust between NATO and former Soviet countries.