UK — 16 Air Assault Brigade prepare for Afghanistan

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.

Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade during their final training exercise on the Salisbury Plain Training Area
Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade dur­ing their final train­ing exer­cise on the Sal­is­bury Plain Train­ing Area
Source: Sergeant Adri­an Harlen, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

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.

Brigadier James Chiswell
Brigadier James Chiswell
Source: Richard Watt, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“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.

Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade board a Chinook during their final training exercise on the Salisbury Plain Training Area
Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade board a Chi­nook dur­ing their final train­ing exer­cise on the Sal­is­bury Plain Train­ing Area
Source: Sergeant Adri­an Harlen, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“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.

Private James Nelson from 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment during 16 Air Assault Brigade's final training exercise on the Salisbury Plain Training Area
Pri­vate James Nel­son from 3rd Bat­tal­ion The Para­chute Reg­i­ment dur­ing 16 Air Assault Brigade’s final train­ing exer­cise on the Sal­is­bury Plain Train­ing Area
Source: Sergeant Adri­an Harlen, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“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.

He said:

“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.

A Gurkha plays the part of an Afghan soldier during 16 Air Assault Brigade's final training exercise on Salisbury Plain Training Area
A Gurkha plays the part of an Afghan sol­dier dur­ing 16 Air Assault Brigade’s final train­ing exer­cise on Sal­is­bury Plain Train­ing Area
Source: Cor­po­ral Rupert Frere RLC, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“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.

He said:

“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.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK