Just beyond the battlefields of Ukraine, elite NATO forces are preparing for what may come next

In total darkness, the lights of the C-146A Wolfhound twin-engine aircraft illuminated a tiny strip of asphalt, and in the darkness the special forces aircraft touched down with a loud and dramatic landing.

With a landing zone just six meters wide, for the pilots in command, there was no room for error.

A special forces team on the ground had blocked a two-lane highway in rural Latvia, about two hours from the capital Riga, and converted it into an improvised runway to airlift a simulated wounded soldier. British, American and Latvian soldiers were all part of the exercise aimed at improving battlefield medical procedures for treating the wounded.

WATCH | NATO special forces conduct training exercises in Eastern Europe:

NATO special forces conduct training exercises in Eastern Europe

In the shadow of the battle for Ukraine, NATO special forces are conducting training exercises in Eastern Europe, honing member states’ ability to work in tandem against a common enemy.

In this scenario, the assumption was that the bombardment and lack of air superiority made an immediate evacuation by helicopter impossible, so that the “patient” had to be treated in the field and driven several hours to the nearest place. safer for a plane to land.

The exercise was one of three executed by NATO special forces teams that CBC News was asked to observe last week. In addition to the Latvian air evacuation scenario, CBC News also boarded a Romanian vessel in the Black Sea to see special forces boarding a vessel from the water and rappelling onto the vessel. from a helicopter.

In Lithuania, another exercise involved storming a building that had been seized by hostile forces.

“That’s why we train”

The exercises took place as part of Trojan Footprint, a 30-nation exercise involving more than 3,300 special and conventional forces, which concluded this weekend.

It was designed to test what NATO calls “interoperability” between the various national special forces teams.

Lithuanian, American, Finnish and British special forces prepare to storm a building as part of a training exercise in Lithuania. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

The drills come as the military alliance faces one of the biggest challenges in its 73-year existence in how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Thursday, Finland said it would formally apply to join NATO and Sweden is expected to follow next week.

Canadian special forces were not participating in the Trojan Footprint exercises, but the task force commander of the Romanian special forces teams said that all NATO countries were effectively acting as one team.

“It’s not about the war that’s going on, [in Ukraine] it’s about being prepared all the time…that’s why we train and why we focus on a high level of interoperability,” said the commander, who cannot be identified.

NATO “strengthens its presence in the East”

Although the drills were planned before Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, they have taken on increased urgency and visibility.

“Right now there are a lot of exercises going on and NATO is really pushing how they are building their presence in the East, as well as their capabilities as the maximum deterrent effect for Russia,” Ed Arnold said. , European security researcher at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Several Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBS) approach a Romanian warship in the Black Sea as part of NATO special forces exercises this week. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

Special Forces are among the most skilled – and secretive – soldiers in the NATO military. All interviews with SOF (Special Operations Forces) personnel had to be done anonymously, with their faces covered and their voices disguised for broadcast.

They perform a wide variety of tasks, including intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, although for the public, images of snipers or highly trained professionals rappelling from helicopters are what often come to mind. .

Arnold says most recent deployments of special forces by countries like Britain and the United States have been to conflict zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, where their skills have been aimed at fighting insurgencies or attacking civilians. elements of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.

A member of the Romanian special forces takes position aboard a warship as part of an exercise in the Black Sea. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, involves a different battlefield, with tanks, heavy artillery and air attacks, and NATO is trying to demonstrate to Russia that its special forces are capable of doing the job. pivot.

“[These exercises] will show Russia that it is moving towards the Russian threat,” said Arnold, whose military career included service with the British Army in Afghanistan.

“Our strength is made up of people ready to sacrifice themselves”

While NATO countries, including Canada, have dumped arms, ammunition and cash into Ukraine, the military alliance has made it clear that its troops will not be directly involved in the conflict.

Nevertheless, NATO’s presence has been extremely visible on the fringes of the conflict, including in Romania, which shares a land and sea border with Ukraine.

The exercise involving boarding the ship took place in the waters off the port of Constanta, about 150 kilometers from Snake Island in Ukraine, one of the most contested territories of the war.

Russian soldiers occupied it in the days immediately following the invasion, but Ukraine retaliated, sinking the warship “Moskva” in April and carrying out frequent drone attacks on the Russian garrison ever since.

Polish helicopters take part in a NATO exercise in Lithuania. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

“Our strength is made up of people willing to sacrifice themselves,” a Latvian SOF soldier told CBC News.

“I personally have a lot of friends in Ukraine, knowing what they are going through, we show all the support we have in our hearts and we are ready to defend whenever we need it.”

Learn from Russian Mistakes

Members of the NATO special forces team also told CBC News that they were carefully monitoring how their Ukrainian counterparts used their skills against the Russians and were particularly impressed with their use of small drones. store-bought to locate troops.

The drones helped uncover camouflaged Russian positions and then guided Ukrainian artillery strikes.

Arnold says NATO planners also learned from Russian mistakes.

Members of the Lithuanian special forces wait in an all-terrain vehicle out of the way during a mock training near the city of Kaunas. (Chris Brown/CBC News)

“In the first 24-48 hours, the focus was on Russian Spetsnaz forces (special forces) trying to take Hostomel airbase (near Kyiv). Basically, they were able to take the airport pretty quickly , but they have not been reinforced.”

“So the main lesson for NATO forces is actually that special operations can perform a wide variety of tasks, but if they’re isolated and not supported by conventional forces, they’re actually quite vulnerable,” he said. said Arnold.

The injured must be treated on the ground

The drill involving landing the Wolfhound plane on the highway was also drawn in part from experiences in Ukraine, said one of the special forces medics involved in the planning.

“I’m impressed – their ability to create an on-the-fly trauma system from an unplanned invasion is quite remarkable,” said the American.

In Ukraine, the lack of air cover has forced the injured to be treated in the field and then travel long distances to get to hospital or to scout where it is safe to airlift.

The Latvian training exercise involved the use of a robotic dummy capable of simulating battlefield injuries. He blinks, bleeds and also urinates. (Jean Francois Bisson/CBC News)

This is what the exercise in Latvia put to the test.

“In special operations medicine, one of our roles is to innovate,” he said.

Exercise realism has also been aided by the use of a robotic patient that can be programmed to simulate specific wounds that medical staff need to treat. The mannequin blinks, breathes, bleeds and has other realistic qualities that add to the urgency faced by medical personnel.

“Ukraine and everything going on there is a threat,” the Romanian task force commander said. “Even though we are not involved in this conflict, we see them as lessons learned.”