Al Hamra // The boom of a rocket-propelled grenade echoes over the training ground as teams of Emirati and British Marines practise assault manoeuvres in the sand-swept desert.
A team of four UAE Marines rush to the sandbags arranged in the shape of a window, train their rifles on targets and fire. Four British Royal Marine commandos follow. These are "fire-team tactics", an essential part of the training for Marines. Later, they performed a cliff assault. Zodiac skiffs filled with Marines landed on a beach next to a cliffy outcrop near Al Hamra, in Al Gharbia, and 60 Marines surged forward from the turquoise water.
Almost 250 Marines in total, half from Britain and half from the UAE, took part in Operation Sea Khanjar, more than a fortnight of largely amphibious training exercises that ended on Thursday. For the British, it was a chance to train in a desert climate similar to that which its forces may face in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Emiratis, whose amphibious force is still relatively young, the focus was on developing skills and capacity.
"These kind of exercises are extremely important," said Cmdr Mike Paterson, commander of the amphibious task force. "There's a lot both sides can gain. The UAE is a key ally in the region and it's important we train together. A lot of their equipment is the same and our tactics and procedures are the same so we can work very closely together." Both British and Emirati Marine forces are part of the countries' navies, but they are trained to fight in any terrain, are highly manoeuvrable and quick to deploy. Their speciality is in amphibious operations.
"The exercise is part of a pre-set plan aimed at boosting the level of joint amphibious exercises and enhancing the combat preparedness of the two navies," the UAE armed forces said in a statement, adding that it "embodies genuine military collaboration". As the wind whipped over the training ground, picking up dust and sand, the importance of such training for the British Marines became clear. Some were fresh from training in Lympstone in Devon, where many exercises are carried out on the rugged and often wet granite uplands of Dartmoor.
"Operating in this type of climate is very useful for the Marines," Cmdr Paterson said. "From the frozen waters of Norway to very hot climates, they need to experience these extremes, to learn about drinking enough water or having sand in your rifle." For the troops on both sides it can open their eyes to other problems that may occur when operating with each other in the field. "It's certainly useful for the lads to get used to working with different people, to see the frustrations and difficulties that might come up," said Lt Will Searight, a troop commander.
"The language barrier can make things difficult. We do have some interpreters, but a lot of the time you have to rely on hand gestures." Over the two weeks, the training built up from one-on-one individual training and examining each other's weapons, to large-scale team activities. In the most ambitious exercise of Sea Khanjar, after staying the night on RFA Lyme Bay, a British amphibious landing ship, the Marines launched a D-Day-style landing on a small island just off the coast.
The ship tipped its stern into the water to create a dock at its rear from which the 250 Marines left in waves for the assault. Landing troops on a beachhead is one of the most complex military manoeuvres, and requires meticulous training and planning. "In these two weeks they've started from almost zero, because it's been almost two years since we have been here, and we built up to the beach assault," said Major Steve Melbourne, a media operations officer with the Royal Marines.
"With our major allies in the region we need to understand each other's tactics." The use of live ammunition in the "fire-team" exercises shows the confidence that the two armed forces had in each other, he said. The UK's 1996 defence co-operation agreement with the UAE is its largest commitment outside Nato, and the joint-training exercises span all sectors of the armed forces. The Royal Air Force comes to the UAE twice a year for a Top Gun-style advanced tactical leadership course.
The UAE Navy is keen to build its capacity but does not yet have any amphibious vessels. Its marine force is less than a decade old and made up of one battalion. Brig Gen Ibrahim al Mashrakh, who took over as commander of the UAE Navy this month, toured RFA Lyme Bay on Thursday to examine the capabilities of the craft from which his troops had been training. The 176-metre-long ship, which has been in service for two and a half years, can carry 356 Marines and their landing vehicles - up to 24 Challenger tanks or 150 lightweight lorries.
Indicative of its growing capabilities, the UAE recently took over command of Combined Task Force 152, one of the biggest undertakings in the Navy's history. The multinational maritime force patrols the Gulf to secure against illicit activities such as smuggling, the proceeds of which often fund terrorist networks. The UAE command was extended for an additional three months on February 9. @Email:email@example.com