British troops ‘ready to go and fight’ against Russia, says head of elite unit

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Brig Cowley's troops are leading the Nato Exercise Swift Response in North Macedonia - ROBERT ATANASOVSKI
Brig Cowley's troops are leading the Nato Exercise Swift Response in North Macedonia - ROBERT ATANASOVSKI

British troops are “ready to go and fight” Russia in a “lethal” way if called upon, the head of an elite unit has said.

Brigadier Nick Cowley, Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, admitted his soldiers bore a “huge responsibility to make sure we are ready because we may need to go and fight for our freedom”.

“It’s very present and I think it’s something we need to keep reminding ourselves about,” he said.

In an interview with The Telegraph from North Macedonia, where Brig Cowley’s troops are leading the Nato Exercise Swift Response, he warned that the war in Ukraine represented the absence of “freedom”, which he said the West had “taken for granted” in recent years.

Brigadier Nick Cowley, Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team - Steve Reigate
Brigadier Nick Cowley, Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team - Steve Reigate

“We have assumed the international order would remain or even that liberal democracy would spread,” he said. “I think that is being threatened and that is really focusing our minds.”

As part of the exercise 3,000 personnel from eight different nations, including 2,000 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, predominantly built around the 2 Para Battlegroup, will work together on North Macedonia’s rugged Krivolak training range to secure and defend a foothold in the simulated hostile territory, and then take the offensive. It is the first time such a mass joint exercise has been conducted in North Macedonia, which joined Nato in June 2020.

British soldiers prepare for swift response exercises alongside Nato allies in North Macedonia - REUTERS
British soldiers prepare for swift response exercises alongside Nato allies in North Macedonia - REUTERS

In the face of the conflict spreading out across Europe, Brig Cowley set out that he was currently ensuring he “can offer the Government options, with 16 Brigade, and other defence options”.

He said his priorities were “showing we are agile, showing that we are ready to go and fight, we can be lethal and responsive, which means that as and when discussions are going on at Nato, or in UK defence or in the Government, I’m giving them as many tools as they’ve got should they wish to change their policy.”

Brig Cowley added that “as long as I keep doing that to the best of my ability, I hope that if we do get tasked to do anything, be that in Europe or outside of Europe, I can deliver mission success on behalf of the Government.”

16 Brigade were last year involved in the operation to evacuate British nationals and Afghan allies from Kabul after the Taliban seized control. The next deployment may be closer to home.

Brig Cowley told The Telegraph the West had taken 'freedom' for granted over the past few years - Steve Reigate
Brig Cowley told The Telegraph the West had taken 'freedom' for granted over the past few years - Steve Reigate

Brig Cowley said: “Ever since we came out of Iraq and Afghanistan we viewed Russia as a pacing threat. We wanted, alongside our Nato allies, to make sure that we are ready to operate if required in a Nato context in Europe. I think this exercise has got more focus because of what’s happening in Ukraine.”

While Brig Cowley stressed the multi-nation exercise had long been planned before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the message that the Kremlin will take from it is one of “Nato unity”.

“I hope that that would show any adversary that we really can come together in a really complex environment, set up something that is credible and then go off and do operations,” he said.

While there is no intention to put British boots on the ground in Ukraine, if Russia were to press beyond Ukraine into a Nato territory, Article 5 of Nato's constitution states that “an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all allies.”

‘Readiness is an obsession’

Asked if Brig Cowley’s troops would be ready to fight the Russians in such an instance, he said: “Absolutely. 16 Air Assault Brigade is all about readiness. Our soldiers are physically very fit, mentally strong, their bergens are packed, they are fully jabbed up, their weapons are zeroed and that is 24/7.”

He added: “For me readiness is an obsession and everyone is focused on it. This, as Nato readiness, would be my number one message.”

British troops take part in a military exercise at Krivolak army base, North Macedonia - OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI
British troops take part in a military exercise at Krivolak army base, North Macedonia - OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI

Lieutenant Colonel David Middleton, 2 Para's Commanding Officer, added that exercise Swift Response was “the largest and most significant exercise we have done, based on the current situation which you can’t ignore”.

“It’s a timely activity based on what’s going on,” he said. “We are reassuring our partners and focusing on the Nato solidarity aspect, which is a by-product of the Russia situation. Nato has never been more important and never been more relevant for the security of Europe.”

Major Drew Houston, 7 Para’s G Battery Commander, added that due to the war in Ukraine Nato was in a “better place”. “The threat has been brought into sharp focus which focused the mind that this is a tangible threat,” he said. “We are training against an enemy that is understood, so it reinforces our tactics.”

Lieutenant Colonel Alex Harris, of 4 Regiment Army Air Corps, reiterated the war in Ukraine had brought into “the front of our focus the relevance of Nato and the relevance to our soldiers that we could be in a conflict in a very short period of time”.

“On Monday, you could go to work as normal, by Saturday, you could be in a different country in a very different environment,” he said.

“Nobody is wishing for war. But you have to be prepared for it. And that is very much in everyone’s minds.”

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