News story

UK troops train for Balkans role

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

Soldiers of the Irish Guards have taken part in a multinational peacekeeping exercise in Bosnia.

Twenty years after UK personnel first deployed to Bosnia as part of the United Nations Protection Force, some 85 soldiers from Number 1 Company (No 1 Coy), 1st Battalion Irish Guards, travelled to the country to rehearse their potential call-up as one of the intermediate reserve units of the European Union Force (EUFOR).

Restructured in 2012 as a result of improving security in the region, EUFOR’s primary role is to build the capacity of the Bosnian armed forces.

A 600-strong contingent is based permanently in theatre, with 600 additional troops held on standby in 6 EU nations to react to potential unrest.

Soldiers close in on their objective
Soldiers close in on their objective [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown copyright]

Exercise Quick Response was the first test of the emergency troop surge and saw the guardsmen training alongside their counterparts from the Austrian, Turkish and Hungarian armies.

Commander of No 1 Coy, Major Tom Oakley, explained that because his soldiers were already part of the UK Operations Battalion, they were well prepared for the European mission.

We were committed to British contingency ops last June and that has an element of public order and disaster relief so a lot of the tasks overlap with the job here,” the officer said.

We also had the equipment and the vehicles so it seemed an obvious choice that we should take on this role.

This serial is a good opportunity to do something different and there seems to be a real appetite among the countries to do multinational operations, which is encouraging.

Given the way the British Army is going in the future, exercises like this will become more common, so this provides a good test-bed for us, for EUFOR and for the Service as a whole.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards plan their mission
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards plan their mission [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown copyright]

For Guardsman Warren Myles, one of the Irish Guards’ newest members, the prospect of similar missions in the years to come was welcome news.

It’s a great experience working with different nations and seeing how their armies roll,” said the 18-year-old.

We’ve been doing riot control and fighting in built-up areas, as well as vehicle checkpoints and rehearsing different scenarios.

Everyone has their different approaches and perspectives so it’s a good way to learn.

The final phase of the training exercise culminated in an assault on a collection of buildings, with each nation responsible for a separate objective.

Soldiers close in on their objective
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion Irish Guards close in on their objective [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown copyright]

Along with the obvious language barrier, one of the main challenges to effective integration was the distinct operating procedures between the armies.

We’re completely different forces,” said 31-year-old Sergeant Andy Devlin.

The pace is slower than we are used to and they think of us as being too aggressive, while we class that as being firm.

We’ve done it for years on all the tours we’ve been on and it’s worked.

But everyone has stayed professional and has put 100% into the tasks they’ve been given.

A soldier moves in to clear and secure a compound
A soldier moves in to clear and secure a compound [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown copyright]

Collectively known as the EUFOR Multinational Battalion, the standby units and 2 companies permanently stationed in Bosnia are commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Steingressz of the Austrian Army.

Speaking after a crowd control demonstration to show how the international elements would conduct a joint operation, the officer said he was impressed by the way the troops had pulled together:

I was confident that the challenges could be overcome,” he added. “At company-level the units function a little differently but they can co-operate very well, especially at battalion-level.

The biggest task during the exercise phase was communications because of the language but, as we demonstrated, if the orders are clear then it works, regardless of which companies are involved.

Soldiers of the Irish Guards wearing protective equipment
Soldiers of the Irish Guards wearing protective equipment for a public order exercise [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown copyright]

Having witnessed the display, operation commander General Sir Richard Shirreff said it was clear what all sides would gain from the package:

Functioning in any multinational environment is an enriching experience from a military perspective,” he explained.

The Irish Guards will pick up tactics, tricks and procedures from the other forces but I have to say I think most of the learning will probably go the other way.

For European armies to be able to operate alongside these veterans of Helmand with their quality and capability will be of huge value.

The senior officer was also in no doubt of the long-term benefit of such serials as the mission in Afghanistan begins to draw down:

Security is not only about being able to respond to the unexpected in a contingent capability but also about reaching out to parts of the world that are inherently unstable to prevent a problem becoming a crisis,” he commented.

This kind of exercise is genuine conflict and crisis prevention and that is what the British Army is so well-suited for.

It’s the sort of thing we’ll be doing in Afghanistan post-2014 and I can see it applying across other parts of the world as well.

EUFOR facts

Guardsman Mark Hughes provides top cover
Guardsman Mark Hughes provides top cover through the hatch in the rear of a Snatch Land Rover [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown copyright]
  • NATO handed over its peacekeeping mission to the 7,000-strong European Union Force in 2004, 9 years after the war in the Western Balkans ended. Personnel were split between 3 main locations, Tuzla, Banja Luka and Mostar, with the headquarters in Sarajevo.

  • In 2007 the security situation had improved sufficiently to allow troop levels to be reduced to 1,600.

  • Further restructuring in 2012 decreased this strength to a multinational battalion of 600 soldiers based permanently in Bosnia, with an additional 600 held at readiness in 6 contributing countries.

  • The EU mission is named Operation Althea, after the Greek goddess of healing. The British contribution is known as Op Elgin.

  • While neighbouring Croatia will join the EU this summer and Serbia and Kosovo have reached an accord that should make accession talks possible, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains politically stagnant. Considerable reforms are necessary before the country can join.

This report by Becky Clark features in the June 2013 issue of Soldier - magazine of the British Army.