Royal Engineers ready for Helmand

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Royal Engineers who will help develop road networks and canal and irrigation systems in Afghanistan have finished their final training exercise.

Around 60 soldiers from 64 Works Group Royal Engineers who are based at Chetwynd Barracks in Chilwell have just completed their final training exercise ahead of their deployment next month.

They are one of five Works Groups that together make up 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group, the organisation which provides an infrastructure service for Defence and other government departments.

The Works Groups rotate in and out of Afghanistan where their role is to manage the infrastructure occupied by British troops and help improve the lives of the Afghan people. 64 Works Group will replace 67 Works Group in Afghanistan.

One of the road projects the Royal Engineers will continue to work on is Route 611.

Soldiers from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (2 MERCIAN) who are currently deployed in Afghanistan have been tasked with maintaining freedom of movement for local Afghans along this route.

The road used to be a dirt track and it could take up to six hours to travel between Sangin and Gereshk; but after it was blacktopped in March 2011, journey times have dropped to 45 minutes. Major Matthew Smith, from 64 Works Group, said:

The building of the roads has made a massive difference not just to the Afghans themselves but our own soldiers. In the past year our engineers managed the building of over 80 kilometres of road.

The roads are opening up the areas so that Afghans from the smaller villages have access to the bigger towns and markets, but with an asphalt surface it also makes it difficult for the Taliban to lay their bombs and explosive devices, making it safer for our soldiers to travel.

The final training exercise for 64 Works Group took place on the Stanford Training Area in Norfolk and was led by members of 63 Works Group who returned from Afghanistan in late November last year.

Fictional scenarios saw the soldiers, who are a mix of professional civil, electrical and mechanical engineers, technical specialists and military engineers, practise standard operational procedures as well as attending ‘shuras’ and meeting ‘elders’ to discuss ongoing projects.

Major Smith added:

An important part of our remit is to work with the Afghan people to develop their own expertise so that they can plan, build and maintain their own infrastructure, so training such as this, where we are practising engaging with the local community, is invaluable.

Major Crispin Ellisdon, Officer Commanding 524 Specialist Team Royal Engineers, said:

This training enables us to exercise the processes we will be using when deployed. We can talk to the Works Group in Afghanistan on a daily basis and follow the ‘Task Tracker’, maintained in-theatre, to see the jobs we will be taking over.

This exercise has seen us working through scenarios that the Group has recently been dealing with in-theatre.

Based in Lashkar Gah, Major Ellisdon and his 25-man team will be working for the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team and with the Afghan Government’s Line Ministries supporting large and small infrastructure projects for various sectors, including education, health, rule of law and security, in identifying what their priorities are - for example which roads most need building.

Experts from within 524 Specialist Team will also work with the regional government to develop the power distribution infrastructure within Helmand and to return the critical irrigation systems to their original capacity - essential as over 90 per cent of the population are farmers.

Major Ellisdon continued:

For any project in Afghanistan to succeed, it must have the support and involvement of the Afghan people. And that idea is central to our work.

We provide the design expertise to help repair and rebuild the institutes that are central to everyday life in the region.

The work is carried out by local engineers, advised and guided by ourselves to help build and retain expertise at a local level.

And whilst Major Ellisdon and his team help to deliver infrastructure projects for the Afghan people, Major Liz Seymour’s team will be similarly ensuring fellow troops have suitable working facilities from which to operate.

527 Specialist Team Royal Engineers, lead by Major Seymour, will be responsible for providing infrastructure within the main operating bases, including Camp Bastion where she and her 20-man team will be based, and those at Kabul and Lashkar Gah.

In addition to advising other units on their infrastructure requirements, the team will also be responsible for undertaking all design, project and contract management of any future infrastructure required to support fellow troops.

A further part of the Works Group will also be responsible for the maintenance of all main and some forward operating bases.

The Facilities Management Team, lead by Major Rocco Giannandrea, will oversee the delivery of infrastructure inspections, maintenance and repairs, which are undertaken by civilian contractors on behalf of the military. He said:

It’s our job to ensure that all work carried out by the civilian contractors meets statutory regulations and MOD specifications as well as ensuring our bases continue to remain fit for use.

One of the soldiers deploying will be Lance Corporal James Dornan. A structural engineer in civilian life, Lance Corporal Dornan is a member of 65 Works Group and is looking forward to deploying alongside his regular colleagues:

I’m looking forward to the whole experience,” he said. “I’m looking forward to using my skills and knowledge in a totally different environment to what I am used to.

I will deploy the day after my birthday, but I’ll be home for Christmas, so it’s not too bad, and I’m working with a good bunch of blokes.

Halfway through his deployment he will sit Open University exams for his computing science degree:

I suppose the exams are an added pressure, but I’m prepared for that,” he said. “I’m coming to the end of what would be the second year of my degree if I was studying full-time.

I will take my JAVA exam on the 14th of July. I’ve packed my laptop, that’s the main thing; it’s got all my notes on there for revision.

I’ve already made contact with the education officer out on Op HERRICK, so they are up to speed about my exams. I’ll probably take a load of books with me as well.

I expect it to be a full on tour, I’ll just go out and get on with it.

The Commanding Officer of 64 Works Group, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Tait, said:

Much of what we will deliver over the next six months will directly impact on the operational effectiveness of our fellow soldiers and will leave a lasting legacy for the Afghan people.

For example helping the Afghan contractors rehabilitate the canals will help them to irrigate the farmland, thereby improving crops, which in turn will help the economy.