US Army Warrant Officer Benjamin Lee assembles with members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade after a nighttime airborne assault from Hungary into Cheshnegirovo Air Base, Bulgaria, as part of Swift Response 21, May 11, 2021. US Army photo by Kevin Sterling Payne, courtesy of DVIDS.
Don’t worry Europe, Team America is here to help.
Soldiers with the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade were simulating an airfield seizure at the decommissioned Cheshnegirovo Air Base in Bulgaria on May 11 when they accidentally stormed a civilian factory, sparking a low-grade diplomatic snafu.
“It is inadmissible to have the lives of Bulgarian citizens disturbed and put at risk by military formations, whether Bulgarian or belonging to a foreign army,” Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said of the incident, according to the Novinite news outlet.
During the course of the exercise, US soldiers simulated clearing multiple bunkers and structures across Cheshnegirovo Air Base. The paratroopers mistakenly believed the civilian factory, which reportedly makes machinery for olive oil production, was involved in the exercise. At least one civilian worker was inside at the time. The factory owner has subsequently filed a lawsuit, the DailyMail.com reported.
“Soldiers entered and cleared a building next to the airfield that they believed was part of the training area, but that was occupied by Bulgarian civilians operating a private business. No weapons were fired at any time during this interaction,” US Army Europe and Africa said in a release.
— Dilyana Gaytandzhieva (@dgaytandzhieva) May 30, 2021
Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva released a security camera video of the incident to Twitter. In the footage, seven US soldiers enter the facility with weapons raised — the rifles were reportedly loaded with blanks. The only civilian visible in the footage is a factory worker wearing a white baseball cap. While the American soldiers enter through a bay door with their weapons drawn, the worker remains seated and hardly budges while the Americans pass by.
The US Embassy in Bulgaria issued a statement Friday apologizing for the incident. A representative from the 173rd Airborne Brigade told Coffee or Die Magazine that the incident is still under investigation.
“The U.S. Army takes training seriously and prioritizes the safety of our soldiers, our allies, and civilians,” US Army Europe and Africa said in a statement. “We sincerely apologize to the business and its employees. We always learn from these exercises and are fully investigating the cause of this mistake.”
The airfield seizure drill was part of an exercise last month called Swift Response 21. The exercise, which took place in Romania, Estonia, and Bulgaria, comprised some 7,000 paratroopers from 10 different countries. Swift Response 21 was part of the broader Defender-Europe 21 series of exercises ongoing in Europe.
The largest NATO military war games in Europe in decades, Defender-Europe 21 is intended to deter Russia and reassure allies that the Western alliance is ready to defend its territory. A former member of the Soviet-led, Cold War-era Warsaw Pact alliance, Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.
As the US ramps up the pace of its military exercises in Europe amid rising Russian military aggression in the region, American units are increasingly operating at unfamiliar locations, and interacting with foreign military partners that do not speak English as their primary language.
Military exercises such as Swift Response 21 are by their very nature designed to simulate the inherent stresses of combat — and expose what a unit needs to improve prior to actually going to war.
“We will implement rigorous procedures to clearly define our training areas and prevent this type of incident in the future,” US Army Europe and Africa said in a release.