TAMPA — On Wednesday, Special Operations troops from more than a dozen countries jumped out of helicopters, rappelled from buildings and expended hundreds of rounds of ammunition as they attempted to rescue the mayor of this Florida city.
The operation was, of course, an exercise, but it was also a public spectacle for a force that has tried desperately to remain in the shadows despite now being at the forefront of America’s wars.
Aside from U.S. Special Operations forces, including Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders and Army Green Berets, countries such as Ireland and Jordan also participated in the exercise. Many of the participants covered their faces, and only a select few were allowed to speak to the media afterward.
“A lot of what we do is a bit secretive, we don’t really advertise much of what we do and there is a reason for it,” U.S. Special Forces Lt. Col. Chris Robeshaw told reporters following the event. “I think … this is maybe a stark reminder that there are young men and women out there putting themselves at risk.”
The exercise is put on each year as a part of the Special Forces Industry Conference, a 12,000-strong, three-day meeting of Special Operations personnel and companies showcasing the latest technologies available to both U.S. troops and their international allies.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is captured by pirates and held ashore near the convention center here. Soon after, as thousands of spectators watched from nearby rooftops, party boats and bar patios, Black Hawk helicopters supported by smaller gunships and fast-moving riverine craft descended on the area.
In the background an announcer narrated the operation. “This type of mission would be undertaken during the cover of darkness,” the voice says with a tone that would be fitting for the master of ceremonies for a high school graduation. “The sniper overwatch team is equipped with high-powered rifles that can hit a target from more than a mile away.”
Role players, dressed in black and carrying Kalashnikovs, feigned gunshot wounds as the coalition of commandos swooped in. Luckily, no one had to throw a red smoke grenade to mark the landing zone for a MEDEVAC helicopter or improvise with black Hefty trash bags instead of using body bags; in fact, there were no U.S. or international casualties at all.
For the faux mission’s finale, a rescued Buckhorn was ferried back to shore, firing one of the riverine craft’s blank-shooting .50-caliber machine guns as if he were Rambo incarnate, a smile plastered on his face while being flanked by some of the United States’ most elite war fighters.
With the last blank round of ammunition expended and the clean-up crew quietly picking up shards of a fake rocket-propelled grenade explosion that went off near the deck of a waterfront bar, some of the Special Operations troops came ashore, disembarking from their rigid hull inflatable patrol craft to a throng of people eager to take pictures with them.
According to Special Operations Command officials, the entire 30-minute operation took four days to plan, rehearse and execute. The preparation, for what many in the U.S. military would call a “dog and pony show,” likely took time and resources from a community that is currently deploying at a rate not seen during the last 15 years of war.
“I would say there appears to be a heavy reliance on Special Operations forces, not just us but all of our international allies,” Robeshaw said of current operations around the globe. “I think the deployments really push people to their limits … and I’m always amazed at the perseverance that we all share.”