Exclusive: Inside the 'Iron Union' as US and UAE troops train for combat

For the past fortnight the soldiers have been living side-by-side in a temporary Abu Dhabi camp

For the past fortnight, around 200 Emirati and American soldiers have been training alongside each other, deep in the Abu Dhabi desert.

The regular 'Iron Union' exercises allow the forces to practice communication and co-ordination, ensuring they are prepared if they find themselves on the battlefield together for real.

It culminated last week with a live-fire exercise, with US mortars and Bradley fighting vehicles lined up alongside Emirati armed reconnaissance units to unleash thousands of rounds at far away targets.

In a first, The National was invited to observe the exercise.

But while the drills prove valuable from a technical and tactical perspective – and allow US soldiers to gain experience of working in an unfamiliar terrain – this is only part of the point, Lt Col Jon Stewart, who is one of the senior military figures overseeing the training, observed.

He said the friendships and understanding developed between the US and Emirati soldiers, who have been living alongside each other in tents and trailers at a temporary camp, was also hugely important.

Soldiers manning an Emirati armed reconnaissance vehicle fire at their target. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Soldiers manning an Emirati armed reconnaissance vehicle fire at their target. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“It’s been great,” Lt Col Stewart said. “The hospitality, I couldn’t say enough about. They treat us as guests.

"It’s now at the point we bring out a football or they bring out something… we work together in downtime and it works out really well.

“Soldiers that are younger than me, who are still going to be in the military 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now, are going to remember this time.

"They’re going to run into somebody they saw here and that’s where the difference will be made.”

Earlier in the week, US soldiers drove into a nearby town to buy a birthday cake for one of their Emirati colleagues.

As well as performing military operations in dust storms and heat, American troops in the region have also grown used to hearing the call to prayer every morning, helping build a cultural understanding.

The bonds built are on display on the soldiers’ uniforms, with Americans and Emiratis having taken to swapping insignia, which are attached to their clothes with velcro.

Emirati troops observe the landscape. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Emirati troops observe the landscape. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“That was something that I didn’t direct as a commander, it’s just something in their normal conversations and interactions that they did,” Lt Col Stewart said.

“Especially our unit patches, we swapped out. So our soldiers are wearing the Emirati patches and I encouraged it, because it shows how we’re working together. Those types of things are wonderful.”

The live fire exercise was carried out without a hitch, with cannons from the Bradleys unloading into the firing range for over an hour.

Machine guns from the vehicles unleashed bullets into the medium-distance, with around two dozen soldiers prone alongside them, firing at close-range targets.

In total, 30 mortars were fired onto the range. The US troops burned through 7,000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition, their Bradley cannons unloading another 1,800 times.

US troops carry ammunition during the live-fire training drill. Wednesday, December 18th, 2019. Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
US troops carry ammunition during the live-fire training drill. Wednesday, December 18th, 2019. Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The Iron Union exercises take place twice a year, with the most recent being the 12th. A larger UAE/US exercise, Native Fury, is also coming up soon.

The exercises are aimed at developing "tactics, techniques and procedures" through joint operations, while also allowing personnel to practice maintenance of vehicles, and working at night, with both novice and experienced soldiers taking part.

“This is the foundation for anything we would do, if we were to go into combat together,” Lt Col Stewart said, following the live-fire exercise.

“We were communicating down the line, between Arabic and English, which is a little bit of a challenge but this was to show we could do this together, which we did, and I think it was a great success.

US soldiers survey the terrain during the Iron Union training drill. Chris Whiteoak / The National
US soldiers survey the terrain during the Iron Union training drill. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“The UAE is viewed as a strong ally and partner of the United States, that’s the reason we’re here and invest our time in going through all this.

“If we don’t do these types of events now, the first time we see each other - on the battlefield - is not the [best] time to meet. We have to meet here and now, and go through this and build a relationship.”

Updated: December 23, 2019 02:44 PM

SHARE

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:

* Please select one