The four heavy machine guns rained fire down into the valley, the 7.62mm rounds ripping up the soft earth or spinning off at unpredictable angles; tracer rounds lighting up as they arced into the sky. Low down in the crook of the defile – below the sheet of metal flying overhead – the small heavily armed rifle company snuck through the undergrowth, following the course of the river, heavy white acrid smoke masking their movements. Every so often their progress would be stalled by an encounter with the enemy dug into their positions.
The response from the attackers was murderous. A cascade of ordnance unleashed from their arsenal of rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, followed by high explosive grenades at close quarters to clear the enemy and allow momentum to be regained. And so it went on.
Variously crawling, running, jumping and yelling their way across the landscape the soldiers all wore masks of grim determination. More than once the cry of ‘casualty, casualty’ reverberated down the line as each man passed back the message that a comrade had been hit. Next would come the wounded man himself, dragged towards the company axis and safety, ready for the company sergeant major to retrieve him and deliver him to the aid post.
Yet the scene is not one from the heat of the arid Afghan desert, nor the suffocating green zone that straddles the Helmand river. This is the lush, moist, mist covered Brecon Beacons and the men under fire and returning fire are training. They all wear the distinctive flash of the UK’s premier 16 Air Assault Brigade but these are not regular soldiers. They are members of A Company 2 Royal Irish, a Territorial Army Unit recently grouped with 16 Brigade.
The work-out in the Welsh countryside is the culmination of a two-week exercise which has already seen the soldiers spend many days being tested to their limits in Cyprus.
The territorial infantry are clearly part-timers, but anyone who wants to use the term dismissively to belittle the professionalism and commitment of the soldiers need only see how they have performed over the past fortnight to realise their judgement is flawed.
In recent months and years there has been much to say on the purpose and positioning of the TA in the overall UK defence and security plan, but it is worth remembering that many of the 38,000 TA troops have played a major part in military activity over the past decade with many of them fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, and often both.
I have been fortunate enough to serve alongside the TA as a regular soldier, and also – on my last tour of Afghanistan – mobilise as a TA officer, and I can vouch that the training and preparation for operations is identical whether you are a full-timer or territorial.
Yet still perceptions of a two-tier system remain and it is undeniable that there are those in the TA – and indeed those who run the TA – who suffer from a crisis of confidence, their perceived second-class citizenship not just fostered by those outside the armed forces but also amongst some regulars propping up the mess bars. But looking at our reserve forces as something to enhance our overall defence plan could elevate the TA’s status to that which it deserves to be. As an increasingly integral and numerically significant part of the larger UK defence strategy they will soon find themselves resourced to a far higher level than ever before. They will be expected to do more as a cohesive unit instead of supplying individual reinforcements who are cast far and wide to make up the numbers amongst regular units.
The TA should be encouraged to have ambition; a drive to do more and achieve more than traditionalists might believe possible or warrant as desirable. To see them in the model of the US National Guard in the future may not be far off the mark
Earlier this year six esteemed military men and commentators on soldiering matters wrote to the Daily Telegraph, Colonel Richard Kemp and my old boss Colonel Tim Collins amongst them. Decrying the cutbacks in the numbers of regular troops they said:
“We urge the Ministry of Defence to halt further cuts in regular Army manpower and to review its current redundancy programme. The Government should re-examine this aspect of the Strategic Defence and Security Review and recognise that the primary role of the TA and other reserve forces is as a vital support to the full-time professionals, not as an alternative to them.”
They have a point. But only up to a point. I regard things slightly differently, taking a view based more on what challenges the future holds for the armed forces than on what has gone before. Off course we must be realistic in what the TA can achieve and I think this is the question we should be asking, not dwelling on their perceived failings. It is not difficult to see the TA taking on the role of the Falklands reinforcement company for example, or conducting operation TOSCA, the UN policing role in Cyprus. It is also easy to see short-term training teams from the TA taking up roles in places like Uganda, Botswana, Kenya or the Baltic states. In fact 2 Royal Irish have already conducted three of these training missions in Uganda readying the Ugandan People’s Defence Force for their mission in Somalia. Watching those young men of 2 R IRISH fight, not fumble, their way up the Welsh valley as a disciplined force, it was impossible to tell they all had ‘real jobs’ to get back to. There was no doubt in my mind that they are ready to meet the challenges thrown up by the SDSR. All they need is the nod of approval from on high and an ongoing commitment to appropriate equipment and instruction, for if there is one thing the TA cannot do is train themselves, for that they need regular support. It would be foolish to deny them either the resources they need or the respect they deserve, because in the short to medium-term it might well be the TA who hold the line while the regular army re-cocks, adjusting from the full-on campaigning role in Afghanistan, to a go anywhere, do anything contingency function. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9m5YB8GGa0