US, Britain jump into a new age of warfare

Exercise Purple Star: Attack ends with the largest parachute drop since Second World War. Christopher Bellamy reports
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British and US paratroops were due to make the biggest military parachute drop since the Second World War this morning, plunging from Hercules transport planes through 800ft of darkness to complete the defeat of the Koronan forces which invaded Kartuna earlier this year. Nearly 2,000 troops of the British 5th Airborne Brigade and 4,000 Americans from 82nd Airborne Division in 144 aircraft launched the massive assault at 2.30am.

There are no such places as Kartuna or Korona. The assault on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in this fictitious war was the climax of exercise "Purple Star", the biggest US-British combined deployment since the Gulf War. Although it is fictitious, the exercise more closely resembles the sort of operation which might take place than most military exercises over the past half-century.

The British component included the First and Second Battalions of the Parachute Regiment, parachute-trained artillery with eight 105mm guns, and some Gurkhas. The Gurkhas have been part of 5th Airborne Brigade for 20 years, but have recently been more closely integrated with the Paras to make up a shortfall in recruiting.

The airborne assault underlined the fact that military planners believe paratroops can be decisive in the new strategic environment. Although the continued need for paratroops has been questioned, the ability to seize an objective - particularly an airfield - out of range of land- or sea- based helicopters or where they cannot land safely has probably become more crucial.

A prime aim of Purple Star is to practise, and to prove the concept of a combined joint task force (CJTF) acting on behalf of the United Nations. "Combined" means international; "joint" means bringing together land, sea and air forces. For the British, the exercise is the final certification of the new joint rapid deployment force, which can draw on the 5th Airborne and 3rd Commando Brigades and other quick reaction forces.

In future, Nato member states could use the framework of CJTFs co-operate outside the alliance's formal structures, using Nato and US assets such as airlift, intelligence and communications without US participation. This could be done under the aegis of the Western European Union, a 10- nation defence grouping which has links both to nato and the European Union. But that is still in the future. The theory of CJTFs acting outside Nato may have been around for three years, but only yesterday did alliance ambasadors in Brussels clear the last procedural obstacles to allow them to go ahead in practice.

Purple Star gives a taste of the future. The exercise has been designed to mimic a typical CJTF mission. Under the scenario, Koronan forces have occupied the northern part of Kartuna, and the UN Security Council has authorised "all necessary means" to force Korona to terminate its aggression. On 15 April the joint task force began moving towards the area, assembling off the coast by the end of the month. Neighbouring Telari allowed the CJTF to base forces on its territory, but Sabanihas remained neutral.

Some of this might sound familiar to those who remember the Gulf War, and that is no coincidence. Kartuna has many of the characteristics of a small, oil-rich state. And Korona bears a striking resemblance to Iran. In the control room on board HMS Fearless last week, Commodore Paul Canter, head of the naval force which was assembling to put Brigadier Tony Milton's 3rd Commando Brigade ashore, outlined the "threat". Top of the list were "Boghammers" - fast motorboats like those used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iran- Iraq war. And there were also anti-ship missiles, mounted on trucks, like the Iranian Silkworms, and MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft. "And mines," said Brigadier Milton. "Remember Kuwait."

The amphibious landings took place on the night of 9 May, although reconnaissance parties were ashore well before. This part of the exercise also included an Entebbe-style tactical air landing operation, in which about 100 troops seized the airfield at Camp Davis. The idea is that Hercules transport planes land and disgorge commandos and light armoured vehicles, which seize the airfield ready for follow-on troops.

It was at this point that the the exercise was interrupted by tragedy, when 14 US servicemen were killed in a helicopter crash as the landings were taking place on the North Carolina coast. The landings continued, but air operations in the crash area were suspended.

The accident has acted as a grim reminder that even peacetime exercises are dangerous. However, to attempt such an operation for real without having practiced it would undoubtedly cause many more casualties.