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Saturday, May 29, 1999 Published at 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK


Tough training for Kosovo troops

The crack troops will join their colleagues already in the Balkans

By the BBC's Joe Campbell

Soldiers from the three British army regiments earmarked for the expanded Nato force have undergone two weeks of intensive training.

The Parachute Regiment, Gurkhas and Royal Irish Regiment had already been due to go on exercises a fortnight ago when they were placed on stand-by for the Balkans.

Brits in Balkans
It was decided that the training should go ahead, but with changes. The Paras for example, had been due to jump into Corsica. Instead, the regiment's first battalion was dropped into West Freugh in Dumfries, Scotland.

That meant they were closer to their base if they had to be quickly recalled. The Scottish countryside was also thought to be more realistic for soldiers preparing for the possibility of being sent to the Balkans.

Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment were joined by more than 100 members of the Royal Gloucestershire Berkshire & Wiltshire Regiment to make sure they are at full strength for the deployment.

[ image: Scottish countryside: Like the Balkans?]
Scottish countryside: Like the Balkans?
They spent the fortnight training on Salisbury Plain, the army's biggest exercise area.

In the century since the army began exercising in Wiltshire, it has bought up more and more land to keep up with changes in the way wars are fought.

Horse-drawn guns like those still used by the Kings Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery on ceremonial occasions have given way to weapons like the AS90 used by the regiment today.

It can fire a salvo at a target nearly 20 miles away before racing off to a new firing position at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.

Infantry too, like the Royal Irish, are no longer foot sloggers, instead using vehicles like their Saxon personnel carriers as what the army calls "battlefield taxis" to deliver them to the fight.

Training has also become increasingly sophisticated. The Tessex system, for example, enables soldiers to practise fighting wars without bullets.

[ image: The Gurkhas helped defeat the
The Gurkhas helped defeat the "enemy" within hours
Instead, lasers are attached to guns and missile launchers, with the beams they shoot picked up by special sensors worn by soldiers and strapped to everything from tanks to Land Rovers.

The computerised system works out whether, for example, a missile fired at an enemy tank would have put it out of action or simply damaged it, depending on where it hit.

The enemy the Royal Irish faced in their training came from the Devon and Dorset Regiment.

Its soldiers wore desert camouflage to mark them out as the bad guys, with their vehicles painted green and brown rather than the standard green and black used normally by the British military.

Dawn raids on pretend villages

While technology has moved on for the rest of the army, the Paras, once they jump from their planes, still rely largely on their own legs to get around the battlefield, carrying their equipment on their backs.

[ image: Soldiers practise with lasers as well as bullets]
Soldiers practise with lasers as well as bullets
The army word for it - tabbing - entered the language after their famous march across the Falkland Islands in 1982, when they last saw action.

On Thursday afternoon they were picked up by the RAF from Scotland and jumped onto Salisbury Plain near the deserted village of Imber.

Its houses and streets have been empty except for training soldiers since the inhabitants were moved out during World War II to make way for troops practising for the D-day invasions.

They linked up with the Gurkhas and Royal Irish Regiment for the culmination of the exercise - a dawn attack on the so-called "German Village" at Copehill Down.

Enemy cleared in hours

Unlike Imber, which once had a thriving community, this cluster of houses has never been occupied.

It was built during the Cold War to look like a typical town in Germany where the army might expect to have to fight the Warsaw Pact armies.

[ image: Troops practised dawn raids in pretend Balkan villages]
Troops practised dawn raids in pretend Balkan villages
Inside the rooms are bare concrete. But otherwise the houses, churchyard and even the petrol station are realistic in every detail - so much so that a few years ago, the firm whose signs decorate the front of the refuelling pumps came back to update the site when their real-life service stations got a face-lift.

In recent years the village has doubled as a Bosnian village for troops training for the UN and other forces sent there, with street signs appearing in Serbian-style Cyrillic script.

By 0730BST, three hours after sunrise and rather faster than it might happen in real life, the fully-pitched battle was over and the enemy had been cleared from the village.

As the exercise finally ended on Friday afternoon, convoys of trucks began heading off, carrying men and equipment back to their bases; the Paras and Gurkhas just a short drive away in Aldershot, the Royal Irish facing a rather longer trip back to their barracks at Catterick in North Yorkshire.

While they had been away, their readiness to go to Kosovo had been stepped up a notch, so the Bank Holiday looks like being an eagerly snatched couple of days with families before the packing begins in earnest.

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