For two weeks during February, 4 Mechanised Brigade and its deploying elements took part in their pre-deployment mission rehearsal exercise on Salisbury Plain Training Area. AeroResource visited throughout the exercise to view the military operations taking place in readiness for Afghanistan.

4 Mechanised Brigade are based at Catterick Garrison in Yorkshire and are famous for being part of the very successful ‘Desert Rats’ in North Africa and Italy during World War II. Formerly an Armoured brigade of the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) they were reclassified into a mechanised brigade as part of the 1st Armoured Division in 2006.

Previously named “Kush Dragon”, the pre-deployment Mission Rehearsal Exercises (MRX) are now named relevant to the brigade leading the tour which takes place twice a year upon the vast expanse of Salisbury Plain Training Area. This particular exercise “Pashtun Rat” was named after the emblem of 4 Mechanised Brigade (A Black Desert Rat).

Salisbury Plain Training Area

Salisbury Plain Training Area, otherwise known as SPTA to many is the United Kingdom’s largest training area, measuring a total of twenty five miles east to west and ten miles from north to south, featuring everything a brigade level exercise can imagine, from hundreds of static armoured and un-armoured targets to moving tank targets on rails for use by the main battle tanks and Apache gunships. The plain boasts very large live firing ranges known as Impact Areas, the various targets of which crews of the Royal Artillery and other units can fire live rounds, using every type of warhead available.

Over on the dry side, targets come in the form of inflatable armour such as T-72 tanks which are placed around the training area to simulate hard targets for blank firing. Pyrotechnics are used in the training to simulate tank firing and artillery barrages which then come in the form of smoke to simulate direct hits.

Since the conflict in Afghanistan, SPTA has had a vast upgrade in facilities taken on by Landmarc and several other local civilian companies, which has seen many of the barn areas transformed into fortified Forward Operating Bases (FOB) and Patrol Bases (PB). The Copehill Down FIBUA village was partly transformed into a large Afghan village, with an additional advanced indoor battle training simulator nearby, enabling every type of exercise to be conducted inside a building but simulating outside scenarios. The training area can hold brigade sized exercises easily which can take up to several days just to cross the plain.

With four drop zones (DZ), two airstrips (One for C-130 Hercules) and two military urban training villages located in various areas of the plain, it offers everything the forces can wish for in training for such diverse scenarios found in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The village of Copehill Down was constructed by the MoD to simulate a typical village found in Germany at the height of the Cold War. It has since grown in size and features around ninety European buildings including a pub, shop and various other amenities that you would find in a standard village.

Still undergoing continuous upgrade is a village beside Copehill, originally built to simulate the layout of an Iraqi village but has since been updated to provide the forces with a decent Afghanistan type village made out of ISO containers painted white and purpose built concrete compounds based on those found in Helmand.

The village of Copehill also boasts a miniature railway which has several train carriages in place for Special Forces to use as a training aid.

To the North of Copehill is the village of Imber, located within the impact areas it is the second village available to the forces. It was taken over by the War Office in the Great War with the residents being moved out so it could be used to simulate a village within Europe. It has all the buildings you would find in a normal small typical English village including a church, in which a service is held every Easter and Christmas by local residents.

The village is the main focal point of the MRX exercises which take place every year and is the location where the majority of action takes place.

The Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRX)

Although the leading brigade and the embedded elements train for months for their deployment separately in various exercises around the UK and overseas, the Mission Rehearsal Exercises are designed to have all the units placed together in the same area of operations (AO) to simulate Helmand Province as a whole, complete with Close Air Support (CAS), Artillery, UAV’s and all types of support you would find in combat from helicopters to road convoys.

This particular MRX consisted of around 3,500 troops and several hundred vehicles which are a little less than we usually see on the Plain for these types of exercises.

For the exercise, SPTA was turned into a mini Helmand with all the villages, barn areas and  various camps being assigned Helmand Province names such as Lashkar Gar, Sangin, Nad-e-Ali and all of the various Patrol Bases and FOB’s were given names such as Jackson, Edinburgh,Shawkat, Dwyer and of course Camp Bastion and Kandahar Airfield.

As usual, a Forward Refuelling Point (FRP) was set up within the confines of the plain and used extensively throughout the exercise.  Helicopters would conduct their mission profiles from the airfield at Netheravon and once completed would land at the FRP for a rotors running hot refuel before going back to Netheravon or Camp Bastion to shut down.

Convoys were seen around the whole of the plain and were conducting the same mission profiles as the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC) conducts in Afghanistan. With convoys comprising of up to 60 vehicles, they would take hours to drive a few miles due to the number of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) encountered and simulating the vehicles being bogged down in the sand and canal areas of the Green Zone in Helmand. The convoys came under attack by simulated suicide bombers too with the Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC’s) calling in Apache gunships to take out various threats along the way and to provide additional over watch in certain areas. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) were used also for convoy protection in the form of the Desert Hawk.

RAF Chinook ZD575 was taking part in the exercise, and already has battle scars after being flown home from Afghanistan severely damaged by the Taliban. The Chinook was hit by an RPG and numerous AK-47 rounds which holed the rotors and blew a hole in the gearbox housing, the result of the RPG-7 rocket.

It was patched up and returned to service and  took part in the second week of the exercise.

What was not apparent for this particular MRX was the use of Wales during the different phases. Previous MRX’s have seen Sennybridge and Beachley Barracks near Chepstow used heavily by the helicopters going back and forth under Apache escort, however for the mid stages of the exercise, RMB Chivenor and the surrounding burrows in North Devon were used by several Lynx and Apaches from the MRX for conducting long range missions.

A media event was held as usual, this time at Copehill Down and provided media with the ins and outs of what goes on during a deployment including a Field Hospital and Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) mission by Chinook.

The British Army now have a very realistic Military Emergency Response Team (MERT) and Field Hospital simulation embedded into the exercises which sees former soldiers who have been severely injured acting as patients. These ‘patients’ are a valuable aid to the hospital teams because they have experienced horrific injuries themselves in the past which are what our forces are experiencing now in Afghanistan, with injuries such as limbs being blown off by IED’s or amputations conducted after severe injury to legs and arms. It is all extremely realistic for the soldiers to experience before their tour starts.

For this winters MRX, the deployment consisted of 17 various types of helicopters which included the following:

  • Six Apache AH.1 from 4 Regiment AAC Wattisham
  • Four Lynx AH.9 from 9 Regiment AAC Dishforth
  • Two Chinook HC.2 from 18 Squadron RAF Odiham
  • Two Merlin HC.3/A from 28/78 Squadron RAF Benson
  • Two Seaking HC.4 “Commando”  from 845 NAS RNAS Yeovilton
  • One Gazelle AH.1 from 5 Regiment, SHF Aldergrove providing ISTAR

Fixed wing support came in the way of:

  • One Dornier 228 from Cobham (G-MAFI) providing ISTAR
  • One Sentinel R.1 from 5 Squadron providing ISTAR
  • Two C-130 Hercules from Lyneham Transport Wing conducting drops
  • Numerous ‘Fast Air’ attack aircraft (Tornado GR4, F-15E, Typhoon, Harrier and Hawk).

Aero Resource wishes to thank the Tactical Supply Wing for their help and patience at the FRP for the duration of the exercise and also wish the elements being deployed soon, a successful tour and to come home safely.

The author (Richard Cliff) also wishes to thank Michael Buckle, Mick Holland and Tony Hoare for help in this article and Adam Cutler for the lift over two days of the exercise and Dave Allan for the use of his lens.