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Global Response Force Acts as a 911 for the U.S.

As the core of the force, the Falcon Brigade in Fort Bragg, N.C., is constantly preparing for the unknown.

2nd Brigade Combat Team’s chemical and biological weapons entry team
Operation Steel Box 2 enhanced the 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s chemical and biological weapons entry team’s proficiency in mission planning, preparation and execution.
(82nd Airborne Division/Sgt. Eliverto V. Larios)
(TNS) — How do you prepare for the unknown?

With national leaders ticking off a seemingly never ending string of potential threats, that's what the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division is trying to do.

The Falcon Brigade is the core of the nation's current Global Response Force, a sort of 911 for the nation and its allies that largely falls to the 82nd Airborne and other Fort Bragg units.

It's an expansive, potentially daunting mission. The GRF has to be ready for natural disasters. Past missions involving the GRF or its predecessors have included Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, short-notice rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan and, historically, the opening salvos in several past conflicts.

Col. Joseph Ryan said he constantly monitors defense reports, newscasts and the front pages of newspapers across the globe because he knows that if something happens — if U.S. troops are needed — his soldiers are likely to be the ones called to action.

But the 2nd Brigade commander said he doesn't focus on the where or the when, because those answers are out of his hands.

"It's never going to be our decision to go or not, but it’s always our decision to be ready or not ready," Ryan said. "That's been the mantra in 2nd Brigade and really in the Division."

Since last year, the Falcons have flown far in their search for readiness.

The brigade's paratroopers have trained in at least six states and several locations in the United Kingdom.

They've parachuted into military installations in Virginia; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; Fort Stewart, Georgia; and Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Throughout the training, leaders said the 2nd Brigade has led the way in partnering with foreign forces, namely paratroopers from the United Kingdom.

And they've done it all while also trying new systems. The brigade is among the first to have fielded new communications equipment and all-terrain vehicles.

"There are a number of things that we have irons in the fire here. Some days it feels like a whirlwind, I will admit," Ryan said. "It is the way the Army is today. We've got to continue to look for ways to get ahead of the enemy in the future.

"We're not turning anything off. We embrace it. It's great," Ryan added. "Some people say juggling balls and some people say spinning plates. We have a lot of plates spinning."

As the metaphorical plates spin on and off Fort Bragg, military leaders continue to note growing and uncertain threats facing the United States.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted the hybrid threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression in Europe and extremist groups stretching from Asia to Europe to Africa.

Their list was far from complete.

At a community meeting last month, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the commanding general of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, said the post's unique mission had gotten no less complicated, even years removed from the peaks of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The nation's National Security Strategy reinforces Anderson's remarks.

The strategy document released by the White House earlier this year highlights the many threats facing the nation, including many scenarios 2nd Brigade has trained against.

"At this pivotal moment, we continue to face serious challenges to our national security, even as we are working to shape the opportunities of tomorrow. Violent extremism and an evolving terrorist threat raise a persistent risk of attacks on America and our allies," the strategy reads. "Escalating challenges to cybersecurity, aggression by Russia, the accelerating impacts of climate change, and the outbreak of infectious diseases all give rise to anxieties about global security. We must be clear-eyed about these and other challenges and recognize the United States has a unique capability to mobilize and lead the international community to meet them."

At Fort Bragg, paratroopers take pride in knowing that if anyone is called to meet those challenges, it will likely be them.

"The GRF is a capability that separates us from any other division in the Army," said Lt. Col. Damon Harris, whose battalion, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, is training to join the GRF mission this summer. "We take it seriously and it focuses us."

Ryan agreed.

He said the 82nd takes pride in being able to be among the first on the ground, deploying a battalion within 18 hours and a brigade in a matter of days.

"That's what we do. That's what makes the 82nd unique that's what makes it special," he said. "It's a niche capability, but an incredibly important niche to national security."

The GRF has been the "bread and butter" of the 82nd Airborne Division for decades, but leaders have renewed the mission's focus in recent years, after the mission took a back seat to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the peak of those wars and the steady deployments they created.

The new GRF is a beefed up version of its predecessor, strengthened by partnerships with foreign allies and special operations forces, leaders have said.

And Ryan said the GRF is about more than "response" now, too.

With a backdrop of budget cuts and worldwide turmoil, Falcon Brigade must be ready to respond quickly to any number of contingencies, from humanitarian missions to combat, Ryan said. But the GRF is more than a reactionary 911 force.

Ryan said it's also a deterrent to keep would-be aggressors at bay.

"Not only do we want the American people to know we take it seriously and that we still remain ready, but we also want our adversaries to know," Ryan said. "There's no other nation on Earth that has the capability to do what we're talking about.

"And not only do we have the capabilities to do it, we routinely show it," he added. "We demonstrate it. We can do it. We will do it."

Perhaps the nation's biggest threat, at least according to military leaders, comes in the form of the nation's self-imposed budget cuts.

But deep cuts that have affected the force in other areas have largely skipped over the GRF.

Ryan said his brigade has been well-resourced for its broad mission, thanks to its strategic importance.

"The 82nd Airborne Division is well resourced, very well equipped and well trained. We've got no shortfalls," Ryan said. "Our input in this national security equation is not to choose where to go. It's to be ready. The Army has resourced us to do that."

Those resources go directly to readiness, a word that sums up the mission of the GRF, according to Ryan and Harris.

"Readiness is sort of our watchword," said Ryan, who noted that 2nd Brigade can't prepare for everything, but they can practice tasks that would come in handy in any number of scenarios.

"There is a band of preparedness where we'd be more prepared to do certain things than others," Ryan said. "We can't be prepared for everything, but we're always ready."

Harris agreed, but said soldier skills often translate to other scenarios, even those not involving combat.

"When paratroopers are trained to do their combat mission, they can easily transition to any mission," he said.

The Falcon Brigade assumed the GRF mission last fall, but the force itself continues to evolve.

Battalions within the brigade rotate through the "Ready Battalion" mission, each assuming the expectations of being the first off the ground if U.S. troops are needed.

And soon, the GRF will get re-enforcements of sorts.

Several units not long removed from deployments to Afghanistan are preparing to join the mission, including the 2nd Brigade's newest unit, Harris' battalion.

This spring, the battalion known as 2 Fury will drop in on the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, for intensive training meant to certify the unit as the GRF's lead battalion.

The training comes mere months after the last of 2 Fury returned from Afghanistan, where they spent most of 2014.

Adding to the challenge comes a change of location for the battalion, which was moved into 2nd Brigade as part of larger Army restructuring that took place while they were deployed.

Roughly two-thirds of 2 Fury deployed to Afghanistan. The others led the move into new barracks and offices and later helped introduce the returning paratroopers to their new brigade.

Ryan said he did not receive a higher directive to involve 2-508 in the GRF and likely could have allowed the unit to sit out the rotation with no issues.

But instead, he said he decided adding the unit to the GRF would help its transition to 2nd Brigade.

"2nd Brigade is the GRF. 2nd Brigade is their new home. I wanted to make them a part of the team," Ryan said. "The best way I could see to do that, organizationally, is to get them time on the same mission that we were on."

Harris said his soldiers are well rested from their deployment and ready to join the GRF this summer.

"We really got more than a normal unit would get," Harris said of down time following the deployment, which came in addition to holiday breaks. "They were very much ready to start training."

Ryan said he has faith in 2 Fury, which he called an outstanding unit with high standards.

He said he wanted to avoid a "culture of haves and have-nots" that could have been created by letting 2 Fury sit out the mission.

Instead, the GRF will help build stronger bonds and camaraderie, he said.

"It's a little bit of a challenge, a shot across the bow," Ryan said. "Paratroopers respond to mission. Without a mission, units can struggle with discipline."

Originally, 2 Fury was going to validate its training at Fort Bragg.

But leaders opted instead to send them to Fort Polk with the 1st Brigade Combat Team after a rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center came available upon the deployment of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team to Iraq.

"This is a better plan," Ryan said of the training at Fort Polk. "The opportunity to send them there is a phenomenal one."

The battalion will leave for Fort Polk in April, Harris said. Before that, they will conduct unit training at Fort Bragg.

"We're excited about it," Harris said. "The excitement of the paratroopers in 2 Fury basically let you know how big of an opportunity it is."

"Our paratroopers are in a good place right now. They're doing what they enlisted to do. They're shooting weapons, they're firing and maneuvering and they've got an end state in sight," Harris said. "As long as we've got that, we're in a good place."

Harris said he expects his paratroopers to take pride in becoming the lead battalion for the GRF.

"Everybody wants to be on the first team," he said. "That's a point of pride. Paratroopers understand it."

"That's how paratroopers think in general," Harris added. "Anywhere in18 hours, ready to operate. That's a paratrooper mindset. That's an 82nd Airborne Division mindset."

©2015 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.