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Around 2,000 soldiers, mainly from 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, along with Apache attack helicopters, Chinook helicopters and artillery have been deployed to North Macedonia to provide vital reassurance to countries that are “more reliant on Nato for survival”.
Brigadier Nick Cowley, who commands 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, which is leading Nato exercises in North Macedonia, admitted he thinks “all the time” about how his troops could be ordered to defend Europe, also thanking them for their bravery.
Lieutenant Colonel Alex Harris, of the Army Air Corp, said British troops are “prepared for war”, adding the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of Nato and allies working together.
The Daily Express heard how precision-planning, tactical skill, flexibility, high levels of training coordination with allies are all key components of every British exercise and operation.
Brigadier Nick Cowley, commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, told the Daily Express of how his troops could be ordered to fight: “I think about that all the time. But also I try and remind our young soldiers of the decision they’ve made to serve in the army.
“My messages to them are thank you for what you are doing and to remind our young soldiers that we have a huge responsibility to make sure we are ready because we may need to go and fight for our freedom.
“It’s very present and I think it’s something we need to keep reminding ourselves about.
“This is definitely a really serious business. I think its something we have taken for granted outside of the defence community for a while.
“We have assumed the international order would remain or even that liberal democracy would spread. I think that’s being threatened and that’s really focusing our minds.”
Asked if British troops are ready if Britain became embroiled in a conflict, Brigadier Cowley said: “Absolutely. 16 Air Assault Brigade is all about readiness.
“The most important bit of readiness is the mindset.
“Our soldiers are physically very fit, mentally strong, their bergens are packed, they are fully jabbed up, their weapons are zeroed and that is 24/7.
“What we saw on the evacuation of Kabul is that even the troops that weren’t on orders were ready at very short notice and all arrived anyway and said we are packed and good to go.
“The second wave was all people who had beaten their readiness timelines and had everything green across the board. For me readiness is an obsession and everyone is focused on it. This, as Nato readiness, would be my number one message.”
Asked what signal the Kremlin would take from the exercise, Brigadier Cowley added: “We’ve got eight different nations here.
“I hope that that would show any adversary that we really can come together in a really complex environment, set up something that is credible and then go off and do operations.”
Training alongside troops from America, Italy, North Macedonia, France, Montenegro, Greece and Albania, in Operation Swift Response, 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team were among thousands of troops involved in a daring option combining fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, Chinooks, paratroopers jumping from 800 feet and artillery assaults.
The British troops landed in a poppy-field under the cover of air support to secure and defend territory before joining up with allies to take numerous targets across the simulated enemy area.
Lt Colonel Alex Harris, of the Army Air Corp, which was operating alongside British paratroopers, said: “It brings to the front of our focus the relevance of Nato and the relevance to our soldiers that we could be in a conflict in a very short period of time.
“On Monday, you could go to work as normal, by Saturday, you could be in a different country in a very different environment.
“Nobody is wishing for war. But you have to be prepared for it. And that is very much in everyone’s minds.”
And the biggest war in Europe since 1945 has made everyone realise conflict is on our doorstep, Lt Col Harris said: “I did Iraq and Afghanistan, it felt like to most people it was really far away, taking days to get there.
“When we went to Europe, we were there in a matter of hours in some cases.
“We flew the aircrafts ourselves over more familiar countries. People go on holiday to France and Germany and then you are almost there.
“Some people drove. Some people got on a civilian airline.
“When you go to the other side of the world, you have more time to reflect that you are going far away.
“Sometimes, when you are in a garrison town, people don’t take much notice of you.
“At the moment, people at the school gates are asking where I’ve gone. It is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“There’s a pride in Nato.”
Lt Col Harris said planned Nato military-exercises shows “resolve” to “those countries, perhaps in the Baltic, that are more reliant on Nato for survival.
“This shows it is more than just words.”
Warrant Officer John Willis, Regimental Sergeant Major of 2 Para, said: “If Nato, or the UK, decide to get involved, we are ready for that.
“Looking at the history of this regiment, the ethos – we’ve never failed at any challenge we’ve been given.
“We have always stepped up to the plate when it matters.
“There is a lot more training as things like drones are being introduced.
“It is not just about being able to fire a weapon. There’s a lot more technology. We need to keep up to date with that.
“We need to be on the cutting edge of what is going on in the battlefield.
“It sends a strong message. The UK is one of the lead nations, if not the lead nation for Europe, and we are a huge player and it just shows the support we have both in Nato and globally.”
Vladimir Putin abandoned plans to seize Kyiv after Russian Airborne Forces failed to secure the strategically important Antonov Airport and a huge column of tanks and armoured vehicles became bogged down, leading to them running out of fuel and food.
The invasion has also been plagued with chaos as Russian generals hide their losses from their commanders and troops on the ground refuse to take orders, with Moscow still yet to secure air superiority.
Western intelligence officials have also told of the Russians have been unable to secure air superiority to give their troops cover – forcing them to rely on artillery.
Warrant Officer Willis added: “I don’t think we would make the same mistakes.
“We are well rehearsed. Our formation lends itself to this and we have been doing this for years.
“Being a parachute regiment always has that issue of logistics. We have attachments with units we regularly drill with.”
They also revealed how they are horrified by the Russian use of artillery – the bombing hospitals, schools and shelters – and fear all soldiers could be tarred with the same brush.
Major Drew Houston, 37, from 2 Para, told the Daily Express: “What you see in real life, is that if you go alone, it won’t work out well.
“If you are integrated, with those capabilities, you are a more lethal and capable force.
“Artillery is extremely valuable.
“It is one of the things that will suppress an enemy, allow your troops to break contact and stay safe. It is the only one that is 24/7 365, no matter weather, it is the only capability that will always be there.
“It only takes a bit of weather and the air will switch off. They are old lessons that are being reinforced.
“The big difference between the UK and Russian doctrine is we will use fires [assets such as artillery, attack helicopters or fighter jets] to support the manoeuvre of infantry whereas the Russians, their doctrine is based on a lot more firepower and moving around that firepower, rather than the other way around. It is a different way of using artillery. It is hard to make a sweeping judgement, but absolutely, there are lessons there for both sides.”
Asked if discussions around the precision of artillery strikes have intensified since the Russian assault on Ukraine intensified, Major Houston said: “Absolutely, but it means how we exercise and train with very strict rules of engagement, making sure our battle damage assessments, everything has to be identifiable on ground targets.
“There is no just throwing artillery randomly.
“It is always very tightly controlled. We are still applying precision, but precision to an area layered with very precise weapons from the Apache and fast jets.”
Asked how he felt seeing the Russian use of artillery, Major Houston replied: “Frustrated.
“For me, when I say frustrated, it is because of how we apply it as a capability and our level of control. It is more of a frustration common understanding that it tarnishes you. People think ‘oh you are just guy on our side’. No.
“On a human level, it is tragic, horrendous, to see the use of artillery on shelters which have got civilians, shelters, schools, things which are just not options for us.
“As a person, horrified, as a professional, I don’t like the risk of being discredited by someone who doesn’t understand things saying ‘that’s what you do’.
“That is not the case”.
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