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16 Air Assault Brigade are ready for Helmand

Personnel from 16 Air Assault Brigade will be the next to deploy to the heart of Helmand province and every effort has been made to ensure one of the UK's prime rapid reaction forces is ready for the challenge ahead. Report by Richard Long.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Troops from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment board a Chinook support helicopter during 16 Air Assault Brigade's final pre-deployment training exercise on Salisbury Plain

Troops from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment board a Chinook support helicopter during 16 Air Assault Brigade's final pre-deployment training exercise on Salisbury Plain [Picture: Sgt Adrian Harlen RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]

As the British Army maintains its commitment to creating stability across Afghanistan, operational commitments for soldiers on the ground come thick and fast.

But heading to the area is far from a trip into the unknown for this brigade as October 2010 marks the start of their fourth deployment since 2002.

With such vast experience behind them, these soldiers have a fair idea of what to expect. But nothing has been left to chance with regard to their preparations and training for Operation HERRICK 13.

The cycle began with four separate exercises in Kenya and the mission specific training that followed has had an obvious focus on the challenge posed by Afghanistan.

Soldiers have been drilled in driving and patrol skills and have engaged in exercises that saw them interacting with Afghan nationals in a similar way to how they will when they deploy.

A strong emphasis has also been placed on learning languages, with 540 troops being taught Pashto and others taking up Dari:

I would say it is coming together very well,” Brigade Commander, Brigadier James Chiswell, said during the final training exercise on Salisbury Plain.

My sense is that we have a force which is respectful for the challenges that lie ahead, has a professional resolve, and, at the end of the training, is feeling confident about what it has to do.

As we expected, the training gets better and better, the facilities are better and the understanding about how to train is improving.

The brigade returned from Afghanistan in October 2008 and the time between tours has been spent wrapping up the final details of the previous deployment as well as offering sport, adventurous training and career courses.

With the operational focus now returning, the Brigade Commander has clear aims and objectives for the six-month tour:

Continuity is the key thing,” he said. “We are taking on the mantle from 4th Mechanized Brigade and we want to carry on the fantastic progress they are making.

We are engaged in a contest of wills in terms of the extreme ideology being pushed by the insurgents and the more stable opportunity being pushed by the Government of Afghanistan.

The key battle is in the minds of the people in the middle ground, whichever way they go determines who will prevail.

Protecting the people is not an end in itself, it is about giving them the confidence to support the Afghan Government.

Brigadier Chiswell stressed the importance of operating with a collaborative mindset in which troops will work in partnership with the Afghan National Army and Police, provincial reconstruction teams and non-governmental organisations based in the country:

There is a professional resolve,” he said. “The security situation is difficult but we do difficult, that is why we are there.

There is a healthy respect for the challenges that lie ahead. The guys have got a sense of confidence from the training provided and I think there is an understanding of the importance of this enterprise.

Great care has been taken to ensure that all elements of the brigade receive the relevant training needed and Sergeant Mark Blayney, from Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, said nothing has been ignored ahead of the latest deployment:

We have gone through every aspect of medical care from advanced trauma to environmental health issues and tropical medicine courses,” he explained.

Having completed two previous HERRICK tours, the non-commissioned officer is well aware of what to expect and, although he will be performing a new role this time around, the core aim remains the same:

It will be a different tour but the fundamental principle is the same - to give the very best medical care to anyone who requires it,” he said.

One of the main motivating factors for any young soldier leaving a forward operating base and going out on the ground is the knowledge that that support is there.

It is nothing short of an absolute privilege to be a small part of the medical chain. We give 100 per cent to the guys who need it and that can only be a good thing.

Another aspect of training has seen soldiers from Op HERRICK 11 briefing colleagues about their experiences and imparting words of wisdom that could ultimately prove vital.

Lance Corporal ‘Wee G’ Parsons, from the Royal Corps of Signals, part of the Counter-IED Task Force, was on hand to offer expert advice on one of the most important jobs in Helmand and believes returning personnel play a key role for those about to deploy:

A lot of the guys are apprehensive ahead of their first tour but everyone wants to go as it is an opportunity to put the training into practice,” he said.

Before I deployed it was quite unnerving but a lot of the guys who came back put my mind at ease, like I am doing now. It gave me the confidence to go and do my job in some quite arduous circumstances.

This is one of the most valuable parts of the training process.

I am here to pass on my experience of the tour. I am trying to keep them all aware of the latest threats in theatre and give them the heads up of what to expect when they are out there.

As the operational cycle keeps turning, it is clear that troops have never been better prepared for life in Afghanistan.

That certainly applies to the personnel of 16 Air Assault Brigade. They know what to expect and the intensive training they have received means they are ready to meet the upcoming challenges head on.

Published 3 September 2010