UK — Iron Fist Brigade in huge Canada army exercise

20th Armoured Brigade (The Iron Fist) is cur­rent­ly tak­ing part in a huge army exer­cise in Cana­da, to help pre­pare them for their deploy­ment to Afghanistan next year.

Soldiers from 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, part of 20th Armoured Brigade, taking part in Exercise Prairie Thunder in Canada
Sol­diers from 1st Bat­tal­ion The Princess of Wales’s Roy­al Reg­i­ment, part of 20th Armoured Brigade, tak­ing part in Exer­cise Prairie Thun­der in Cana­da
Source: Cpl James Williams, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The three-month-long Exer­cise Prairie Thun­der is held at the British Army Train­ing Unit Suffield (BATUS), locat­ed in the heart of the vast plains of Alber­ta in the west of Canada. 

The brigade is due to deploy to Afghanistan next year and Exer­cise Prairie Thun­der forms part of their prepa­ra­tions lead­ing up to their mis­sion spe­cif­ic training. 

Sur­round­ed by end­less bar­ren prairieland it’s not hard for the 1,200 sol­diers tak­ing part to imag­ine they are actu­al­ly in the mid­dle of a gru­elling tour in Helmand. 

They make up a bat­tle group head­ed by 1st Bat­tal­ion The Princess of Wales’s Roy­al Reg­i­ment (1 PWRR) — the first of three bat­tle groups from the Ger­many-based brigade to be put through their paces in the exercise’s fic­tion­al state of Pokharistan. 

Includ­ing Pash­tu-speak­ing Afghan actors who live local­ly in Cana­da, the sce­nario is incred­i­bly real­is­tic, with mocked-up vil­lages com­plete with shops, eater­ies and schools. 

The bat­tle group is able to train in the kind of envi­ron­ment they will face in Afghanistan, con­duct­ing counter-insur­gency oper­a­tions, patrols and deal­ing with locals. 

The con­di­tions are also harsh and change­able, with tor­ren­tial rain turn­ing the prairie into a mud­dy swamp on one day and then swel­ter­ing sun and high winds the next. 

The con­di­tions have been par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult for the Army mechan­ics and engi­neers who have to keep the armoured vehi­cles, trans­porters and tanks going no mat­ter what. 

Lieu­tenant Han­nah Adams, aged 23, com­mands a recov­ery vehi­cle pla­toon with 3 (Close Sup­port) Bat­tal­ion, Roy­al Elec­tri­cal and Mechan­i­cal Engi­neers, who are sup­port­ing the bat­tle group. She said: 

“The recov­ery assets are used to recov­er, unbog and reroll vehi­cles as they move through harsh ter­rain,” she explained. 

“It’s a tough job but our role is so impor­tant — with­out us the exer­cise would grind to a halt. As an Engi­neer­ing Offi­cer it is quite dif­fi­cult to make those engi­neer­ing deci­sions with­out a real sce­nario, so this train­ing is excellent.” 

The exer­cise includes a live fire stage fea­tur­ing mul­ti-pur­pose machine guns, heavy artillery AS90 guns, Chal­lenger 2 tanks and War­rior armoured vehi­cles, before switch­ing to a dry phase in which sol­diers use a state-of-the-art com­put­er-backed sys­tem where their weapons and vehi­cles are fit­ted with the tac­ti­cal engage­ment system. 

The laser-quest-style sys­tem records every detail of an attack, show­ing sim­u­lat­ed injuries from gun­fire, shrap­nel or mor­tar attack dur­ing a mis­sion. Any­one des­ig­nat­ed a casu­al­ty has to be car­ried out of the com­bat zone by their comrades. 

At the end of each day exer­cise plan­ners based at the head­quar­ters are giv­en an after-exer­cise review, often fea­tur­ing video footage to pass on to sol­diers so they can learn from any mistakes. 

Per­son­al admin­is­tra­tion in the field over extend­ed peri­ods also tests the sol­diers’ hygiene and abil­i­ty to live and oper­ate with lit­tle access to the lux­u­ries of home. 

Sleep­ing bags, pon­chos, a bowl to wash and shave in, and ration packs are just some of the hard­ships the sol­diers face. Added to this is the con­stant main­te­nance of kit, equip­ment and vehicles. 

Com­mand­ing Offi­cer of 1 PWRR, Lieu­tenant Colonel Char­lie Sykes, spent some of the exer­cise also liv­ing on the prairie, shar­ing the hard­ships of his men. He said: 

“It’s tough out here and will only get tougher when we deploy to Afghanistan, but it’s excel­lent prepa­ra­tion and I am enor­mous­ly proud with the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of my reg­i­ment and how well they have faced the chal­lenges of the exercise. 

“We are lucky as a bat­tal­ion that we have a chance to come to Cana­da and do this. There are only five bat­tle groups that come out here each year and to be one of them is very fortunate. 

“We have the free­dom out here because of the space and resources — it’s very dif­fi­cult to repli­cate this any­where else. 

“There is no doubt that we are expe­ri­enc­ing the best of British Army train­ing and at the end when we sit down for our first beer, there will be a lot of rem­i­nisc­ing about high points as well as the chal­leng­ing moments — which is what peo­ple join the Army for.” 

In pre­vi­ous years mil­i­tary exer­cis­es in Cana­da have been con­duct­ed with a cold war men­tal­i­ty, deal­ing main­ly in con­ven­tion­al heavy artillery war­fare. Exer­cise Prairie Thun­der has evolved train­ing to also take account of mod­ern war­fare and mod­ern oper­a­tions, includ­ing engag­ing with locals and fight­ing an ene­my in the shape of insur­gents which can often blend in with communities. 

Lieu­tenant Colonel Kev Copsey, Com­mand­ing Offi­cer of 35 Engi­neer Reg­i­ment, who are sup­port­ing the bat­tle group, said: 

“I am extreme­ly envi­ous of the train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties the sol­diers get now. 

“I have done BATUS eleven times at dif­fer­ent stages — from troop com­man­der up to being on the brigade staff. This is the first time I have come back as a com­mand­ing offi­cer since it’s changed. It now reflects how we real­ly do busi­ness in Afghanistan and oth­er oper­a­tional theatres. 

“The sol­diers and offi­cers are bet­ter men­tored, bet­ter equipped and bet­ter ser­viced from the per­spec­tive of range infra­struc­ture and tech­nol­o­gy that sup­ports an indi­vid­ual sol­dier that can be analysed, assessed and approved by using remote elec­tron­ic sys­tems. It is cer­tain­ly very hum­bling to see how quick­ly they learn in a very short peri­od of time.” 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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