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Keeping the Army on the move on Exercise Steadfast Defender

Petroleum Operators who keep the Army on the go worldwide are deployed in Germany for the first phase of a major NATO exercise. 

They are part of a team of 400 soldiers known as the Enabling Group South who are based at the NATO Forward Holding Base for Exercise Steadfast Defender in Normandy Barracks, Sennelager. 

Their job is to keep thousands of UK exercising troops and their vehicles on the move through the Forward Holding Base, ready to travel through Germany to Poland.

The 22 Petroleum operators, who serve with 66 Fuel and General Support Squadron, 9 Regiment RLC, are managing a fuel terminal containing over 1 million litres of fuel in above-ground collapsible bladders.

Fuel can be distributed to six vehicles at any one time at a rate of approximately 1000 to 1200 millilitres per minute. A large tanker can be filled in just 20-minutes.

The Bulk Fuel Installation Storage Squadron is always one of the first teams on the ground in a theatre of operation or during an exercise. The unsung military personnel play a vital role as fuel is essential to keep the Army operational on exercises to deployments and more. The longer an operation or exercise, the greater the dependency on the logistics and with this goes the reliance on fuels infrastructure.

The fuel capability consists of deployable storage tanks, pumps, hoses, pipelines, fuel safety systems, performance monitoring and quality control equipment.

It takes just 24 hours to set up the Bulk Fuel Petroleum Storage and fill it with the thousands of litres of fuel that keep the Army moving. Once the storage area is built, the Petroleum Operators pump fuel through all points to test the equipment and uncover any leaks in the hoses or faults in the equipment.

Petroleum Laboratory Technicians test the fuel daily to ensure there has been no cross-contamination and that it remains fit for purpose.

On operations, the site location is critical. It needs to be practical, have a good approach road, have a large flat area for construction and reasonable natural protection.

The Royal Engineers are responsible for creating roadways in and out of the site if required and building banks around the area to protect both the Petroleum Operators and the installation from enemy fire. The banks will also retain the contents of the tank should there be a burst.

Staff Sergeant Neil Seymour, 66 Fuel and General Support Squadron said: “A unit must be able to support itself logistically on operations in order to achieve its objective and, critical to any operation, is the provision of fuel which is the role of the petroleum operator.”

First to arrive at the Forward Holding Base to fuel their vehicles was the Headquarters of 7th Light Mechanised Brigade Combat Team. The Brigade HQ, also known as the Desert Rats, commands NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (Land) (VJTF(L)). 

They were quickly followed by the 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment’s 500 vehicles ranging from Foxhound protected patrol vehicles to Land Rovers to support vehicles. The 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment is a part of the VJTF land forces, NATO’s spearhead and the alliance’s highest-readiness element. It can deploy within days anywhere in the world in support of NATO allies.

The vehicles arrived in packets of nine or less and all the drivers were briefed on the process to ensure it all ran smoothly.

Petroleum Operator Private Daffydd Kitchining said: “Many people often ask what my role involves because they’ve never heard of it. So, I explain that we are trained in the receipt, storage and distribution of fuels and lubricants. We also learn how to build and operate the installation.

“It’s very hands-on, which I like, and it is a niche capability. Last night we had 88 vehicles pass through to fill up and tonight we are expecting 90.”

The team will remain at the NATO Forward Holding Base throughout the exercise. The next unit to stage through will be 12 Armoured Brigade Combat Team followed by units from 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Ex Steadfast Defender is NATO’s largest military exercise since the Cold War. It demonstrates the unbreakable bond between NATO allies in Europe and North America, who have kept over one billion people safe for 75 years.

Approximately 90,000 troops from all 31 NATO Allies as well as partner Sweden are participating on the Exercise that will test and refine NATO’s defence plans for reinforcing European defences against a near-peer adversary.

NATO exercises on this scale are planned years in advance and use a fictious scenario aimed at enhancing the Alliance’s collective defence.