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THE DESERT KNIGHTS; The Record goes in with Scotland's cavalry as tanks and men get ready for war on dusty battlefields with live ammo.

Byline: Simon Houston in Northern Kuwait

THE night sky lit up around the Iraqi border as Scotland's cavalry showed why they've been chosen to lead the Desert Rats into war.

Late on Saturday night, the Daily Record was given astonishing close- up battlefield access to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards as they carried out their final training.

From our vantage point on a military high-mobility safety vehicle, we joined the flank of a mock battle manoeuvre and raced alongside a three- strong troop of Challenger 2 battle tanks as they fired on the move with live ammo.

It was their job to soften up the target and offer support to a company of Warrior armoured personnel carriers.

Then, guided by red glowing tracer fire, it was the turn of the troops of the Irish Guards, the infantry arm of the SDG battlegroup, to swing into action.

Through state-of-the-art night vision equipment, we were able to see them storm towards an imaginary Iraqi trench position, while firing live rounds from their SA80 assault rifles.

And every now and again, the entire battlefield - thousands of metres of desert sand - would be illuminated by a phosphorous flare.

Throughout the attack, which lasted almost an hour, our driver was careful not to stray into the line of fire, much to the relief of his wide-eyed crew.

This was the Desert Rats of 7th Armoured Brigade doing what they do best.

What we witnessed was CALFEX (combined arms live fire exercise), which brings together the tanks and Warriors of the battlegroup to make sure they work as a team.

The SG was the last of four battlegroups within the brigade to complete the exercise, following similar exercises by the Black Watch, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment.

Captain Jonnie Williamson said all the hard work 7th Armoured Brigade does during training exercises throughout the year in Germany, where they are currently stationed, come to fruition in moments like these.

He said: "There is no question that CALFEX helps to focus the mind.

"Any nerves the guys might have about firing live ammunition with moving vehicles around them are hopefully sorted out by the experience of doing so, particularly at night, when people do get jittery about firing extremely powerful weapons in close proximity to their allies and friends.

"It's so that if and when they are asked to do this in the coming weeks, it won't be the first time they've done it."

He added: "It also offers a chance to practise the inter-operability between the tanks and Warriors."

Earlier in the evening, I was invited to sit inside the Challenger 2 of SDG Second in Command Major Charlie Lambert, to watch part of the night- time exercise through his thermal- imaging night-sight screen.

Despite being hundreds of metres away, the infantry could be clearly seen storming across the ground, firing their SA80s and attacking a trench.

Between my knees was the head of the gunner, who will fire the 120mm rifled gun, capable of destroying all known armoured vehicles and tanks worldwide with a first round hit.

Somewhere down to my left was the operator, whose job it is to make sure all is running smoothly and at the front, in the hull, is the driver.

It's fully air-conditioned and the four-man crew are protected against chemical attack and enemy tank rounds by top-secret British-designed composite armour.

If the Challenger 2's battlefield capabilities got the thumbs-up during the CALFEX, the way it easily dealt with the tough desert terrain to get there in the first place left onlookers in little doubt about its mobility either.

Operation Telic was always going to be a critical test for the tank which was brought into service in 1998.

But what I witnessed in the dusty wilderness of northern Kuwait served as further proof that the tank - and the SA80 assault rifle - have answered the critics who claim both are prone to breaking down when the going gets tough.

Last year, during the Army's desert training operation in Oman, the Challenger 2 came in for stinging criticism after the sand caused air- filter blockages and subsequent breakdowns.

And troops serving in the Balkans and Afghanistan in recent years have made repeated complaints that the SA80 has jammed at key moments.

But both sailed through last week's critical tests in the hot, dusty conditions.

Another huge relief to the military is that the newly adapted version of the SA80 is performing brilliantly.

However, one experienced soldier explained that little, in his opinion, was wrong with the original rifle - as long as the squaddies looked after it properly.

He told me: "It has always been a decent rifle.

"Problems occur when soldiers don't keep it clean and fail to maintain it properly.

"It's the old story - look after your gun and your gun will look after you. It's like anything else with moving parts in these conditions - you can't clean it enough.

"Some of the guys smear it in oil and them just leave the oil to clog up and jam. Oiling the rifle just before firing is fine, as long as they remember to clean it afterwards."

He added: "Some Americans we spoke to asked for a shot of the SA80 and they were well impressed and said that it compared favourably with their standard issue M16 rifle.

"That's good enough for me."

With the live-fire exercises now at an end for the Desert Rats, the soldiers wait patiently for the order from their political masters.

But whether they are asked to go to war now or hang around for diplomacy to run its course, their state of readiness cannot be called into question.
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 17, 2003
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