Heavy duty ahead for Light Dragoons

The Swanton Morley-based Light Dragoons are set to become the latest contingent representing East Anglia in the bloody war in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

The Swanton Morley-based Light Dragoons are set to become the latest contingent representing East Anglia in the bloody war in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Defence correspondent BEN KENDALL joined them during their final exercise before taking up the fight against the Taliban.

When they arrive in Kandahar in April at the start of their latest detachment in Operation Herrick, the 350 men from Swanton Morley's Light Dragoons will find themselves fighting in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees centigrade.

Yesterday, as they carried out their final preparations on Salisbury Plain, it was an altogether different picture as the thermometer read minus five. Men in desert fatigues and vehicles more accustomed to sand than snow painted a surreal picture against a blanket of white.

But as Brigadier Tim Radford, who will lead units from all corners of the UK, pointed out, while the challenges may be different, the unusually harsh Wiltshire winter would help the troops focus on the hardship that lies ahead.

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Speaking to the fighters themselves, the tough Afghan conditions are the least of their worries. The name Helmand is one etched on the East Anglian consciousness - nine Royal Anglians were killed and more than a hundred injured during their last tour.

The Dragoons themselves fought in Helmand as recently as 2007, although their tour was a less tragic one with no fatalities.

This time around they are part of what the Army claims is the best equipped brigade in British history. Criticism of previous equipment levels has been high profile - not least from the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannett, but it seems the government's multi-million pound investment is beginning to trickle through.

As well as the greater protection, manoeuvrability and fighting capacity offered by armoured vehicles including the Viking, Panther and Mastiff 2, each individual will be carrying improved kit. This ranges from enhanced body armour and new rifles to personally tailored ear plugs which can block out the loudest of blasts.

Trooper Lee Dobbs, based at Swanton Morley for the last four years, said: 'We're told it's the best equipment the Army has ever had and we've no reason to question that.

'I'm at the bottom of the food chain but I can see the improvements there have been and it gives us a lot more confidence that we can go out their and do our job knowing we're as well protected as we can be.

'I was in Afghanistan in 2007 as a gunner and this time I will be commanding the troops out in the field. It will be interesting to see what progress has been made since we were last there and the progress that is made in our six-month detachment.'

According to commanding officer Lt Col Gus Fair, the changes in Afghan stability have been far greater over the last two years than has been widely reflected back home.

He recently visited the Garmsir district, where the Dragoons will once again be in action, with outgoing commander Lt Col Angus Watson. A buffer zone has been established inside which the Afghan army, police and civil bodies are able to operate in relative normality.

'We visited an area which would have been deserted in 2007 and it was vibrant, thronging with people,' he said.

'A local governor has been installed, there is a chief of police and a board of police. Our role this time will be much more centred on allowing the people of Afghanistan to run things themselves.

'A key part of that will be the upcoming elections. We hope our involvement in that will be indirect, by allowing additional movement or protection for example, although there is always potential for the situation to become volatile.

'There are also a number of initiatives such as distributing thousands of tonnes of wheat seed to the local population of subsistence farmers to replace their poppy crop. We hope this will help in the anti-narcotics fight but, at the very least, it should help them feed themselves at a time of soaring wheat prices.'

The Dragoons are well aware of the challenges that lie ahead. About 80pc of them have previously served in Helmand and those that have not are well briefed by their colleagues.

Much of their time will be spent in Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicles which have had extra armour added for this tour.

Crews can spend days in the field in these cramped tin cans, fighting targets at a variety of ranges. But the confidence in the Scimitar among the Dragoons is clear as the men speak with passion about it capabilities.

The training process began early last year. Salisbury Plain has now been mapped out to match Helmand and troops have dealt with an escalation in simulated incidents, rising to 14 major events each day this week as an approximation of the fighting that lies ahead.

On arrival there will be a two-week acclimatisation process. This will undoubtedly coincide with an upsurge in insurgent activity as the enemy is well aware of the Army's change-over schedule and the potential weaknesses that come with it.

A potential bright spot in the tour will be the promised uplift in the American presence. Lt Col Fair stresses that this has not been confirmed but adds that, if it materialises, it will allow 'deeper' activity among British troops.

Until now the 'butter has been spread thinly' whereas increased troops numbers would allow each unit to focus more thoroughly on establishing security and in turn allow the Afghan public to go about their lives.