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16 Air Assault Brigade, the first UK troops to enter Helmand province in 2002 and support the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF's) efforts to create stability in Afghanistan, are preparing to travel back for their fourth Afghan deployment. Report by Leigh Hamilton.
16 Air Assault Brigade last returned to the UK from Afghanistan in October 2008. They are currently taking part in a tough mission rehearsal exercise on Salisbury Plain to ensure that they’re ready for Operation HERRICK 13.
The 7,500-person brigade consists of four infantry battalions, two parachute battalions and most of the Army’s aviation, including all the UK’s attack helicopters and a regiment of Lynx aircraft, as well as the service support such as gunners, logisticians and engineers.
16 Air Assault Brigade will take over from 4th Mechanized Brigade in Afghanistan in October this year to continue the work to create a stable Afghanistan for the civilians living there, as well as supporting the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police.
With months of training under their belts, the troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade are well prepared for the challenging situation that they will encounter when they deploy in October 2010, but they also know that it won’t be easy.
The Brigade Commander, Brigadier James Chiswell, said:
There is a professional resolve. The security situation is difficult, but we do difficult and that’s why we’re there.
There’s a healthy respect for the challenges that lie ahead. I sense confidence from the training that we’ve been provided and I think there’s an understanding of the importance of this enterprise and that they wish to be part of it.
There is a sense of progress out there. Although the security situation remains difficult, it is easier in some places than it has been before.
Last time we were in Nad ‘Ali it was a no-go area, but now the Governor can drive from Lashkar Gah to Nad ‘Ali DC [District Centre], so some areas are easier in security terms, but other areas remain as difficult as they always were.
With two years in between deployments, 16 Air Assault Brigade has taken time to catch its breath and take care of business back home, as well as taking part in adventurous training and sporting activities.
They took part in four battalion-level exercises in Kenya and for the first six months of this year have concentrated on foundation training to get all aspects of the brigade up to battle group level.
Brigadier Chiswell said:
From January of this year we’ve clicked into mission specific training. It has been a genuinely excellent build up. The preparation for the brigade has been steadier and more fulsome than we have experienced in the past.
We’ve had a lot of input from Sir James Cowan’s 11 Brigade team, they’ve come in to make sure they’re feeding into the training and we’ve had a significant tranche of people coming back from 4 Brigade, from HERRICK 12, to support our training, and we’ve really felt it’s given us a good sense in terms of where the priorities are.
Deploying to Afghanistan with the brigade in October for her first deployment to this operational theatre is Corporal Emma Dudson from the Royal Army Medical Corps. She said:
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly apprehensive, but overall I’m looking forward to going on tour and doing my job. We’ve been doing lots of medical exercises and been on exercise with The Parachute Regiment, supporting them in our medical role.
I’m feeling really confident. We’ve been given the best training possible and we’ve all done so much and are fully prepared now.
For Lance Corporal Robin McDowell, from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, this will be his third deployment to Afghanistan, but he expects the situation there to be rather different from his previous tours:
My tour in 2006 was more of a kinetic type of operation, the IED [improvised explosive device] threat was more or less non-existent,” he said. “On HERRICK 8 in 2008 I was with the OMLT [Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team] and the ANA, and the IED threat was pretty high and we were still getting attacked quite often.
This time again the IED threat is still through the roof, but what I’ve been told from Nad ‘Ali is that the Taliban are doing a lot of shooting, so there’ll be a mixture of what we’re going to come across.
Having previously worked closely with the ANA, Lance Corporal McDowell is looking forward to returning and maintaining that relationship:
Last time I worked with the ANA we had a really good relationship with them. I got in amongst them and took part in Ramadan with them for a week, and they really appreciated me doing that, learning about their culture and the way they do things. The ANA last time were gleaming, every single one of them.
With the relationship between ISAF troops and those within the ANA being in the spotlight recently after the deaths of Major Josh Bowman, Lieutenant Neal Turkington and Corporal Arjun Purja Pun from 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, Brigadier Chiswell believes the work to strengthen the relationship with the Afghan security forces remains of the utmost importance.
From our perspective, they are absolutely critical to the campaign. A central strand, and even perhaps the core campaign strand, is about Afghan self-sufficiency and they play such a central part of that.
The subject of trust is a really important one, it is one which we place an enormous amount of emphasis on in terms of the nature of our partnership, in terms of their trust of us, and our trust of them has to be fulsome in terms of the nature of the operations, and in fact we are dying for each other in a battlefield context, and that bond of trust is very close.
Brigadier Chiswell believes that with the correct mindset in place before entering theatre, the soldiers within 16 Air Assault Brigade will continue the progress which has already been made by UK troops.
It is about deploying with empathy and seeing situations from another person’s point of view. My advice to the soldiers is that if you get your professionalism, you get your collaborative mindset, and if you’re empathetic I think that gives you intuition to play what’s in front of you and play it correctly.
4th Mechanized Brigade deployed to Afghanistan in April 2010 and will return to the UK in October. During their tour they have continued to build on the work carried out by ISAF forces and have significantly improved relations with the local Afghan population.