They call themselves the masters of improvisation. They comb the mountainsides
on horseback, conducting humanitarian assistance missions, as well as search
and rescue at extreme heights.
The Romanian 21st Mountain Battalion, “Vânatorii de Munte,”
lacks much of the sophisticated equipment and logistics support available to
the wealthier NATO armies. But they tend to overcome those disadvantages with
old-fashioned survival skills and thorough training.
“We certainly have enough difficulties,” said Lt. Col. Cristinel
Cernea, the battalion commander. “But we always figure a way out.”
These mountain fighters, who have often been called “Mountain Hunters,”
or “Mountain Rifles” in direct translation, are trained to be independent
and to survive in an inclement mountain environment, while conducting covert
They are, by all intent and purpose, the elite forces of the Romanian Army.
But the fighters themselves do not easily accept that title.
“We do not call ourselves elite troops or special operations forces,
because we like other people to call us that,” Cernea said, half in jest.
The history of this mountain battalion goes back to World War II. It was set
up in 1940 to defend Romania’s northwestern border. Two years later, these
troops were deployed to the Crimean Peninsula. The battalion was dissolved in
1946 and reshaped in 1961.
Currently, the Romanian military, with 95,600 troops, does not have dedicated
special operations forces. However, Romanian officials—working on the
restructuring of the military as Romania assumes its new NATO member role—are
toying with the concept of creating a SOF component that will draw soldiers
from the mountain units.
So far, the 21st Battalion has stood up an operational company of 140 soldiers
that can be deployed for NATO commitments. The company can deploy in 12 hours
for search and rescue missions and in 30 days for collective defense or large-scale
combat, according to Cernea. Less than 25 percent of applicants have been accepted.
All officers and many of the soldiers speak English and have trained with the
British, U.S., Turkish, Greek and Italian special operations units. They are
all contract soldiers (professional) in their second or third tour of duty.
Since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001, the battalion has been waiting
for a combat assignment in that region, said the battalion’s deputy commander
Maj. Costel Ionescu.
Currently, other Romanian conventional troops are in Afghanistan, collaborating
with U.S. forces.
By September, the whole battalion will become operational within NATO, said
Cernea, together with the entire 2nd Mountain Brigade, to which this battalion
belongs. Brig. Gen. Ion Bucaciuc wrote in a recent article that Romania will
be able to send a complete battalion on NATO missions rather than a single company.
Most of the soldiers selected to become mountain troopers are from a rural
background and hail from areas around the Carpathian Mountains, where the base
is located. Many already have some experience in rock climbing and skiing.
The soldiers are selected from a pool of conscripts, as well as from the professional
military. Romania still has mandatory conscription, but the country has seen
a rise in the numbers of those who want to make a career out of the military.
Both types of applicants go through a selection process, and usually about four
people compete for a spot in the battalion.
“The professionals have to go through basic training, even though they
have been in the Army before, in a different unit or specialization,”
said Cernea. “They may have forgotten what they have learned, and so they
need this accommodation period to be modeled into what we want, and in a few
months, they get into the rhythm that we impose.”
About 65 percent of the battalion members come from the professional Army.
By 2004, Cernea said that he wants to see that number go up to 90 percent.
Physical endurance is of utmost importance, said Cernea. The trainees also
have to go though elaborate psychological testing.
The main areas of instruction are tactics and weapon use, rock climbing and
downhill skiing. The first period of combat training lasts for about seven months.
Each company of the Mountain Battalion deploys with 10 tracked armored vehicles
that can operate at altitudes of 2,500 meters, Cernea said.
“It has an inclination of 25 degrees. It is pretty useful.” It
also can cross over mountain rivers, he said.
The 10-ton vehicle has a limited nuclear biological and chemical defense system
and two guns, a 7.62 mm one and a 14.5 mm gun.
For the transportation of equipment and troops, the Mountain Battalion also
uses the equivalent of a jeep that can drive up mountain paths, but very often,
equipment is carried on horseback, said Cernea.
For the airlift of cannons and mortars, helicopters also are used, but the
battalion itself does not have any air assets at all. These come from the Romanian
Air Force and are mostly the IAR 990-Puma helicopters, of Romanian make. The
company “IAR Brasov S.A.” has signed a joint venture with Eurocopter,
a subsidiary of the EADS conglomerate.
The battalion has a battery of 76-mm cannons, specifically designed for mountain
operations. “Each battery has two sections, and each section has four
systems. So altogether there are eight pieces,” he said. The cannons have
a range of 5,600 meters, while the mortars can reach out to 8,000 meters. The
mortars use 82-mm caliber ammunition.
The mountain troops carry 5.45-mm automatic rifles, which are also of Romanian
make and are compatible with NATO equipment. The guns are resistant to cold
temperatures, soldiers said. The rifle butts have been designed so they can
lie flat on soldiers’ backs without hindering them on hiking missions.
The Mountain troops used to have AKM rifles, which are the Romanian upgrade
of the AK-47 Kalashnikov.
On one of the training ranges at the base, several soldiers go through basic
routines—climbing, rappelling and evacuating the injured. Donning bright
red helmets, from afar, they look like giant red ants scurry around on a massive
Training on this wall is more difficult than actually climbing a mountain,
said Capt. Adrian Buzea. “The wall has a 90-degree inclination and even
worse in areas where the wall is built with parts that stand out,” he
said. “On the mountain, you can climb as if you were climbing a set of
stairs. On a rock, you have the freedom to choose the route that may be easier,
but here, you do not have that choice.”
Since 1995, the 21st Mountain Battalion has rappelled from helicopters in joint
exercises with U.S. Special Forces, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, said Cernea.
Soldiers also read U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division manuals and the Ranger
handbook, among others, said Ionescu.
The first battalion of the 2nd brigade received approximately $122,000 (or
in Romanian currency—four billion Lei) to outfit troops with new equipment
over five years.
“The government has invested a lot into this battalion,” he said.
The sum is large when viewed in the context of Romanian military spending, which
is 2.38 percent of the GDP.
A pair of new skis, for example, can cost up to $400. Each soldier is receiving
a pair of Austrian “Fischer” skis. Soldiers are trained to hike
up the mountain with the skis on their feet by attaching what they call “seal
skin” on the bottom of the skis, explained Capt. Adrian Buzea.
The “seal skin,” a synthetic material, “allows the soldier
to slide in one direction,” said Buzea. “You can go up the hill
that is very steep because this skin compensates in traction. It has a special
Soldiers in basic training use old Romanian wood skis. “These skis are
still used in training, because the Fischer skis are too expensive,” said
The mountain battalion is also trying to replace the traditional pitons that
have to be hammered into the rocks, with new devices called pictogram keys.
The serrated edges of these keys can be pegged into the mountain wall, noted
In a storage room, equipment is neatly stacked in piles and rows: rifles, frontal
flash lights that can be attached to the helmet, Kevlar vests, altimeters, portable
heaters, tents, roll mats, ropes, boots, the seal skins and the skis.
Cernea said that soldiers could use sturdier, waterproof boots. The battalion
has received a new boot, but it has not yet been tested in harsh weather environments.
On a typical day, soldiers carry about 40 kg on their back, and depending on
the mission they can carry up to 50 kg, which equals about 110 pounds. But Ionescu
said that is not considered too heavy. “Look at the Americans, they carry
backpacks that are bigger than them,” he said.
“Mountain troops have a peculiar way of doing business,” said Ionescu.
Each soldier has to be able to operate independently. “If this independence
is not created, and the support for this independence is not there, then he
can’t accomplish his mission.”
He said that the soldiers are trained and outfitted to be self-sufficient.
Logistics support is more challenging in the mountains. Each soldier is equipped
with everything he may need to survive, including a medical kit.
In the four years he has been with the battalion, he has not witnessed any
serious or deadly injury. “We have scratches, bruises, strained muscles,”
Every company in the battalion has a medical group, which receives its training
and certificates from Romanian medical assistance services. Every unit has its
own doctor who keeps the medical groups up to speed.
To move the injured down from the mountain (or the wall), the soldiers use
a pulley that allows two men to bring down a casualty tied up in a stretcher.
A single soldier also can do that, or he can simply carry the injured on his
back if it is not a serious injury. When they lack any other means of transporting
a casualty, the soldiers have learned to use a sturdy wooden rod to transport
the injured. At the heights in which they operate it is often impossible to
carry a stretcher. Soldiers pointed out that despite advanced weaponry that
may be available their training lets them make the most of harsh and sometimes