Exercise Rattlesnake offers stern test for NATO’s support troops
Estonia, Afghanistan and Iraq may be the places that British personnel immediately associate with NATO operations, but there are opportunities to serve alongside our allies closer to home too.
The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) Support Battalion is a lesser known but vital cog in the alliance specifically geared up to enable its multinational parent unit to deploy on operations worldwide.
And with a stint as Nato's lead war-fighting headquarters looming (see page 43 of April edition of Soldier), members of the Gloucester-based outfit are making sure that their skills are on point.
Their latest tasking saw them head stateside to take part in Exercise Rattlesnake, a large-scale package staged at Louisiana's Joint Training Centre, Fort Polk.
A mix of Nepalese and British personnel - predominantly logisticians, sappers and infantry – the 100-strong group was split into three and embedded within the mobility, engineer and recce elements of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
For some of the Gurkhas the reconnaissance platoon, the visit was a chance to put trade skills on hold and get back to the business of soldiering.
Among them, and heading up the team, was SSgt Tilak Pun (QGE), who landed the role after a previous posting to Catterick's Infantry Training Centre.
"Coming from a corps unit and leading the platoon like this is a dream come true for me and being out in the field again is fantastic I'm loving it," he said.
"I've got members of the Queen's Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment and the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, as well as the Royal Gurkha Rifles," he explained.
"We all do nine months training as riflemen before we pick up our trade streams, so the boys have the basic knowledge but when they go to their units they might get rusty.
"The RGR guys are more experienced in terms of infantry exercises as it's their main job. They have the muscle memory and can guide the others if needed.
The team's assignment came with the high-profile job of hunting down the opposition.
Having cut their teeth in the jungles of Brunei, the Nepalese troops may have felt at home in the swampy Louisiana woodland, but outsmarting the foe at Fort Polk takes some doing.
The resident 'OPFOR' is the Geronimo battalion - or G-men whose sole purpose is to make life difficult for the 30,000 or so troops that train at the facility every year.
Coupled with a distinct home advantage, they are heavily armed with assets including tanks, aviation, anti- aircraft weapons and drones.
"They are a near-peer enemy which means they have similar kit to us." explained LCpl Julian Rice (RE) during a security serial.
"Starting in pairs they'll do a little recce to check the skills of the soldiers they're testing, and if they feel like they have the edge they will call in reinforcements to attack a position.
"They've been hitting us hard, especially at night, and then disappearing within minutes.
"They know a lot of hidden tracks and pathways that we haven't found yet. so we have to make sure we do proper patrols to try and catch them."
To prepare its personnel for the challenge, commanders at the Support Battalion instigated a series of testing packages as soon as they had confirmation in the autumn that Rattlesnake was on the cards.
However, even without the latest mission, troops are used to a fast-paced working environment.
Exercise 'Arrcade Fusion', the NATO headquarters' yearly showpiece, is the largest training serial of its kind in the UK and sees the troops setting up a mobile command post from which some 1,000 multinational personnel plan a simulated operation.
Meanwhile, elements of the battalion also deploy regularly alongside its higher formation, 1 Signal Brigade.
Sapper Matthew Makinson (RE), whose role in Power Troop is to set up and maintain generator facilities, said those posted to the unit can expect to be the move roughly every six weeks.
"There's always something new and challenging," he commented.
"You see a lot of the wider world with people going to places like Latvia, Estonia and Germany, and loads of adventurous training.
"It's so busy that you don't really get into the battle rhythm of a normal unit.
But Sapper Makinson, who celebrated his 26th birthday in the field, thinks opportunities afforded by the Support Battalion are not widely understood by Service personnel.
"No one really knows much about it, or specifically what Power Troop does," he continued.
"We are quite small so you have to know your trade and stand on your own two feet.
"When you're posted in the unit it's a quick change to learn how all the cogs fit together.
"It's amazing when we do Arrcade Fusion to see how big the organisation is and learning how to support that huge machine is a challenging experience."
And as NATO adapts to future threats, and the ARRC's readiness cycle ramps up, Spr Makinson was sure Exercise Rattlesnake would stand him and his colleagues in good stead.
"This is testing the skills of all the blokes new and old," he concluded.
"It's back to Cold War basics, living in a forward location in the forest, under a poncho with all your kit and no supply.
"It's really exciting."
Article originally published in April 2019 edition of British Army's 'Soldier' magazine.