Royal Anglians put to test in Africa
East Anglian soldiers are battling the punishing heat of the African bush in what their commander describes as the toughest training conditions of his 23-year army career.
The 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment is half-way through a six-week exercise in the withering temperatures and desolate terrain of Archer's Post in northern Kenya.
The programme is a mixture of simulated tactical battles and live-ammunition manoeuvres aimed at conditioning the troops for war.
The Vikings returned from their last operational tour of Afghanistan last March and are likely to be thrown into the ongoing conflict again 'within the foreseeable future'.
But while equatorial Africa replicates many of the conditions of Afghan battlegrounds, this 'hybrid foundation training' is not tailored to any specific threat.
Instead it draws on the experience of many recent conflicts to pitch troops against a fictional army, backed by an aggressive militia exploiting cultural differences among a local population in need of protection.
Lt Col Mick Aston, the Vikings' commanding officer, said the exercise built on core skills and gave vital experience to his troops to prepare them for any enemy which lay ahead.
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And he said the searing 40-degree heat and testing terrain of the firing ranges had created an extraordinary challenge of manpower, tactics and logistics.
'I have been a soldier for 23 years and I have never seen a range as hard as this,' he said. 'We have done some really hard things in training and even harder things in operations, but for many this will be the hardest thing they've ever done.
'What has stood out for me is that the real depth of operational experience in this battalion shines through when we do this demanding training.
'We have got soldiers who have been to Afghanistan three times, and to Iraq. What I see coming through at all levels is that those guys can make the link between this kind of training and their experience – making it something that the guys who have not been on operational tours can use.
'I can see that experience being passed through the battalion, because we have had some demanding tours recently – and we are a stronger battalion for that.'
The Vikings lost five men during their most recent Afghan deployment in 2009/10, and nine were killed during their 2007 tour.
Almost 900 servicemen and women from the Royal Anglians' extended battlegroup are involved in Exercise Askari Thunder in Kenya, across a training area spanning 600 square miles.
About 550 Vikings soldiers are backed by attached artillery units, engineers and medics, along with the reconnaissance expertise of 85 troops from the Light Dragoons, based at Swanton Morley.
'The value is immense,' said Lt Col Aston. 'We can really test the battlegroup in many different ways. The environment is harsh and demanding, the tempo is high and the expeditionary nature of sustaining the exercise gives everyone a good work out. I would certainly say that one day's training out here is worth three days' training at our barracks.'
The Vikings are undertaking a mixture of tactical exercises, using high-tech laser weapon attachments to register hits on their opponents, and live-firing drills to prepare them for the din of battle.
They are living in forward operations bases (FOBs), built in the same style as those which they will live in if the regiment is re-deployed to Afghanistan.
Soldiers may be battling a mock enemy, but there are still real dangers – they risk heat exhaustion and the threats from Africa's exotic wildlife and insects. And with the sheer isolation of Kenya's scorched, rocky wilderness, the lack of internet and mobile phone coverage has left many cut off from friends and family at home in East Anglia.
EDP reporter Chris Hill has spent a week with the Vikings in their desert training bases in Africa. A series of features on their training regime, life on camp and messages to families at home will begin in Monday's EDP.