It’s always a spectacle for drivers on the M4 who casually notice the King’s Royal Hussars (KRH) roll towards West Wales from their base in Tidworth.
That’s because the Challenger 2 main battle tank looks vastly different to the average four-wheeled car pulling a caravan towards the Pembrokeshire coastline and catches the attention.
The route from Wiltshire to the Castlemartin firing ranges, however, is a well-worn path for the tank regiment which relies on the world-class Welsh training area to conduct the business of readying its soldiers for operations across the globe.
The KRH is currently leading a battlegroup on Exercise Iron Cyclone on the ranges, which presents a new concept that integrates training packages for new tank commanders with Regular Battle Craft Syllabus trade training.
Captain William Howlett, Intelligence Officer for the KRH, said the exercise was all about streamlining an approach for the benefit of advancing junior soldiers.
“Exercise Iron Cyclone allows us to make better use of our time, to be more efficient and get more people trained with less effort,” he said.
“The size and the width of the arcs we have at Castlemartin make it the best range for armoured fighting training, anywhere in the UK, taking into account the number of weapon systems, the number of platforms and allowing a progression of training to get our troops up to the competency levels they need to be.”
Exercise Iron Cyclone allows us to make better use of our time, to be more efficient and get more people trained with less effort. Captain William Howlett, Intelligence Officer, King's Royal Hussars
The Challenger 2 Tank squadrons have been training with a Warrior Armoured Infantry Company from 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, with support from an armoured engineer squadron from 26 Engineer Regiment and an artillery battery from 127 Battery Royal Artillery.
“This is about the battlegroup coming together to practice low-level skills and to build that up to operating as squadrons, as companies and then as combined-arms teams within the battlegroup,” said Captain Howlett, who has served with the KRH for four years.
The KRH recently returned from Operation Cabrit in Estonia, helping to guard Europe’s eastern flank and demonstrating NATO’s armoured fighting capability.
It is not lost on the unit how important Castlemartin, the largest live-firing range in the UK, is to their training cycle and as an asset Wales offers to Defence in providing the capability for live-firing and tactical battlegroup-level exercises involving multiple Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV).
“We’ve got quite a number of junior soldiers who have not been to Castlemartin before to conduct this kind of activity, which is a core part of our training and which is why West Wales is very well known to the unit,” said Captain Howlett.
“As a tank regiment our function is to conduct shock action against the enemy to punch through their defences and formations.”
“The soldiers have been practicing all of that with shooting static and moving targets, day and night, with multiple tanks firing up and down the ranges.”
As the Army has been moving quickly into Operation Mobilise, it is the most vital field firing area that can facilitate zero to hero training for all arms battlegroups preparing for operations Major John Poole, Pembrokeshire Senior Training Safety Officer for UK Defence Training Estate, Wales and West Midlands
Major John Poole is the Pembrokeshire Senior Training Safety Officer for UK Defence Training Estate, Wales and West Midlands.
He said the Castlemartin ranges have a wide scope of utility, and not just for Armoured troops.
“As the Army has been moving quickly into Operation Mobilise, it is the most vital field firing area that can facilitate zero to hero training for all-arms battlegroups preparing for operations,” he said.
“Castlemartin supplies the ability for units to start at a very basic level of training and carry out mandated operational training objectives. Over several weeks, they progress to the highest required standard, having live fired their weapon systems and been tested as Fit to Deploy on All Arms Operations.
Castlemartin Range Complex has been in use since 1938, when it was requisitioned by the War Office.
Since its inception it has been in constant use by the British Army predominantly, but both the RAF and Navy have utilised the ranges, as have the German Army, from 1956 through to 1996.
The Defence Training Estate across Wales is vast, measuring nearly 20,000 hectares with more than 1,000 military exercises taking place annually and around £1billion contributing to the Welsh economy in terms of jobs and investment.
The Defence Training Estate across Wales is vast, measuring nearly 20,000 hectares with more than 1,000 military exercises taking place annually and around £1billion contributing to the Welsh economy in terms of jobs and investment
South East Wales will also see an additional £320million invested into Caerwent Training Station with new barracks accommodating 1st Battalion The Rifles and 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards towards the end of the decade.
Major Poole said: “Unlike Lulworth, where officers and soldiers are trained to become armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) crewmen, Castlemartin supports the continuation training of AFV crews to keep them at the high standard required to deploy on operations worldwide.
“The range is in use 44 weeks a year with battlegroups carrying out firing camps for up to six weeks at a time.
“This is pivotal training and takes the officers and soldiers from a base level, up to integrated firing with Challenger 2, Warrior AFVs, Royal Artillery, dismounted infantry and all the other elements of a battlegroup.”
Castlemartin is the largest AFV range in the UK and with the loss of training in Canada, the West Wales site has become hugely popular and in high demand from 1 Division and 3 Divisions units.
It is also situated within a site of special scientific interest and a national park, so firing times and exercise plans have to be carefully monitored and controlled to ensure compliance with the maintenance protocol for the range and the wishes of the unit.
Major Poole said: “This is quite a complex juggling act to keep all parties happy.
“However, there is constant ongoing liaison with the local community at all times and three months’ notice of firing is published in the local paper and online, as well as face-to-face briefings taking place in camp before and after large exercises.
“A huge amount of investment has also recently taken place at Castlemartin, including new accommodation blocks and a new range tower, as well as down-range targetry, which has also seen improvements, all of which are essential to ensuring troops have a safe environment in which to train.
“The result is, visiting units have a much more modern environment to operate within and, alongside all the technical advances the British Army is seeing, troops bring lots of extra equipment with them, so this needs space.”
If you want to know more about being a a member of a tank crew in the British Army, click here.