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New Alberta facilities prepare Brit troops for IRQ, AFG

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New facilities on the Prairies prepare troops for Iraq and Afghanistan
In the vast openness of the Albertan Prairies, new training facilities are allowing battalions of British troops to get ready for the built-up combat environments they will face in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stephen Tyler, UK Ministry of Defence feature article, 5 Sept 08
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Stepping out of the airport in the western Canadian city of Calgary, one of the first things to strike you is the sheer size of everything.

From the 4x4s heading out on mile after mile of the country's huge highways to the sky that stretches as far as the eye can see, things seem to be that much bigger on the other side of the Atlantic.

The trend continues at British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS), the 2,690 square kilometre expanse of prairie near Medicine Hat in Alberta that has helped hone the skills of visiting soldiers every year since 1972.

Even the combined firepower of the Royal Artillery's biggest guns and the almighty punch packed by Challenger 2 tanks fails to make more than an insignificant fleck on the surface of such an immense proving ground.

Previous graduates of the 24-day Exercise Medicine Man will be familiar with the ISO container villages, but a new live-fire area, power station, water treatment plant and underground tunnel complex have brought the training bang up-to-date with the realities of today's operational theatres:
Exercising troops lay bar mines

"The prairie is unique in that it is in the middle of nowhere in this natural wide open space that can make us feel that we are somehow disconnected from reality," explained BATUS commander Colonel Ben Edwards.

"Having said that, there are operational realities that we face elsewhere in the world and we are installing new infrastructure to try and pull those realities onto the block.

"The world is undergoing constant urbanisation and something like 60 per cent of its population lives in cities.

"It's something of a truism to say that we will inevitably find ourselves fighting in more urban environments and we want to replicate that here with more visual stimulation."

The newest and most striking addition to the BATUS toolbox is a combined arms live-fire (CALF) village rivaling anything used elsewhere by the British Army. The settlement's wooden shacks, concrete barriers and depth targets allow infantry, engineers, gunners and armoured vehicles, including Challenger 2 tanks, to conduct simultaneous attacks.

CALF training gives dismounted troops the chance to launch an assault while stood alongside a tank firing its main weapon, as engineers perfect demolition techniques using mousehole charges
and Bangalore torpedoes.

The extra space afforded by the prairie means that two companies of infantrymen can clear separate parts of the village at the same time without putting themselves at risk.

The live-fire package is ideal for developing the core abilities that troops are increasingly relying on in Iraq and Afghanistan:

"It all comes down to getting back to the good basic soldiering skills that have always allowed the British Army to win through in the end," said Col Edwards. "On top of that, teams at BATUS develop a real strength because of the frictions they have to overcome here.

"The training is absolutely invaluable to contemporary operations. You don't need to have the Taliban attacking you constantly because there are a hundred other things that can go wrong, whether it's people getting lost or getting stuck.

"I was here in 2005 before a deployment to Iraq the following year and what we learned gave us the skills we needed to achieve success at a low cost. For a section leader or company of soldiers, fighting is fighting and those skills are as well learned here as they are anywhere else."

One of the huts in the combined arms live-fire village

Buried underneath an innocuous-looking wooden shack, the 400 metre network of tunnels has also proven to be a challenging but popular method of  Fighting in Built Up Areas (FIBUA) training on Exercise Medicine Man.

The underground warren is accessed through a single trapdoor. It provides an unforgiving test of close-quarter combat with its low ceiling, dusty atmosphere and tight corners.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Tony Burke believed the tunnel system helps reinforce the FIBUA training's emphasis on mastering low-level soldiering combat skills:

"It's a good addition to what this package offers," he explained. "You have all the big stuff that happens on the prairie and this adds another element to it.

"I know that the feedback has been good and that the guys who have been through here have enjoyed it. It's one-on-one in the tunnels so it really helps to focus their minds on soldiering as individuals or in pairs."

With further topical improvements such as an oil refinery planned for the FIBUA, BATUS is set to continue its proud reputation as the perfect preparation ground for an operational tour.

This article by Stephen Tyler first appeared in the September 2008 edition of Soldier - magazine of the British Army.