British troops are soon deploying to Mali, meet their commanding officer

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Robinson will be commanding British troops as they embark on their part of the United Nations mission in Mali. He told us all about it during their latest training exercise

At first glance, the site just looks like an old farm building but on closer inspection, it’s a hive of military activity with armoured vehicles, a pop-up field hospital and over 200 soldiers.

These men and women make up the Long-Range Reconnaissance Group, who will soon deploy to Mali to support the UN.

The man tasked with commanding this unique deployment is Lieutenant Colonel Tom Robinson.

Can you introduce yourself for us?

“My name’s Lieutenant Colonel Tom Robinson and I'm the Commanding Officer of the Light Dragoons, we’re a cavalry regiment based in the north of England but soon will be deploying to West Africa. I’ll be commanding the Task Group who are deploying in support of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation known as MINUSMA.”

What is going on here on Salisbury Plain?

“This week is the first preparations for our deployment later this year to Mali. We’ve bought together the Task Group for the first time. The Task Group is a selection of soldiers from both my regiment, The Light Dragoons and 2 Royal Anglian.”

“But also soldiers from across the army including UAV pilots Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialists who defeat IED (Improvised Explosive Device’s) and also a medical capability which delivers a hospital into the field.”

Light Dragoon soldiers in their Jackal
The soldiers rapidly transformed this derelict barn into a field hospital in under an hour.

Tell us about your Task Group ?

“We’re a reconnaissance regiment. That means that our role is not to go in and fight, it’s to go and find information, to try to understand what’s going on, to enable other people to make better decisions.”

“In conventional warfare that would be about how we best fight, but in this sort of operation it's about what is the best option that the United Nations and the Malian leadership might be able to take, to potentially diffuse the situation.”

“This will be a very different mission but one we’re well set for.”

So what is the UN’s mission in Mali?

“The UN operation Mali has two objectives. The first one is to protect the people and keep them safe from the violence that is endemic in parts of Mali and is daily costing innocent people’s lives.”

“The second is about implementing the Algiers Peace Agreement, which is looking to deliver a political reconciliation between the northern elements of the country and the southern elements. Our role in that plan is really to go out on long-range patrols and find out information and intelligence on what’s going on and then we can pass that back up to force to the mission headquarters to ensure they can best serve responsively reacts to those two requirements.”

“So the UN mission is all about stabilising Mali, attempting to deliver that political reconciliation and protecting the people from the consequences of violence.”

“No one in Africa or indeed Europe wants a failed states in North Africa, spreading instability throughout the region, so our mission is just a part of that wider mission in order to prevent that from happening.”

What is the purpose of this exercise?

“This exercise sees us integrating the different parts of the Task Group together. Previously we have trained separately and here we’re trying to make sure that we absolutely understand in detail how the infantry will work with the cavalry.”

“So, this will also be ensuring we are kept safe by our IED disarming capability but also it’s about making sure that we’ve got things like our medical pathways, so in the event of whether there were casualties both from us, other nations or even civilians, we can evacuate them through our Task Group and then back to the hospital capability we have, then finally back to the UN hospital later.”

The task force stop to check for IEDs on a patrol.

Earlier we saw some ‘casualties’ being brought in, what happened there?

“This morning we practised what would happen if some civilians got injured by a blast nearby and how we respond to that. In this scenario we were able to take them in and provide immediate first aid, we then found a safe route back to our field hospital where they would undergo damage control surgery.”

“They would then would be taken and evacuated back to a proper hospital in a town or city. So it is a good example of how this Task Group could directly save lives of Malian people.”

Mali is a dangerous country, what about casualties?

“We’ll have a field hospital with us at all times. This will be able to go from being in the back of a truck to receiving a casualty in 25 minutes. At 45 minutes it would have a full operating theatre set up ready to conduct surgery.”

“This is a hugely impressive capability, manned from surgeons who work in the NHS normally and who will be deploying alongside us to ensure that we get the best possible medical care.”

“We are well prepared and experienced in protecting ourselves from threats.”

That’s quite impressive, is that a new concept for the Army?

“The army has traditionally had large field hospitals which would sit behind a brigade and we’re a much smaller force than that and will be operating in a much more mobile way than we would usually, so whilst we’ve always had surgeons and hospitals who are able to deploy on the field, this is very different. It’s a smaller, its lighter and it’s much more mobile and for us that’s really important as it means it’ll be closer to where we needed when we needed.”

Medics from the Royal Army Medical Corps receive simulated casualties at their pop-up field hospital on Salisbury Plain.

Why Mali?

“There are horrible crimes being committed in Mali, on some of the weakest and less least able people. We read reports of women and children being subjected to conflict-related sexual violence and we are training for the ability to be able to intervene in that and be able to find and bring to justice those people who are responsible.”

“One of the things is most important for us to do is to be able to go out there and speak to the population and so we are taking military specialists who have studied the culture and the ethnicity of Mali to enable us to be able to break down some of those barriers that come from being a European operating in an African state.”

“Being able to speak and engage with the local nationals we hope that we’ll be able to better understand their needs and once we’ve been able to do that we would then be able to ensure that humanitarian actors will be able to at least be aware and work out where they can respond to those needs.”

Major Black engaging with a local leader (simulated scenario using actors).
Major Black engaging with a local leader (simulated scenario using actors).

Will you be fighting these extremist groups?

“The UN mission is there to protect the people. What that means we are not there to do is fight an insurgency. The French have a separate mission, operation BARKANE, in which it is all about combating terrorism in the region. That’s not within our remit.”

“We are not looking for a fight. Our role is really more about understanding how the violence is affecting the local population and what we can do to counter that.”

“We are not in some way trying to go toe-to-toe with the enemy and getting in a scrap that’s not what we’re about.”

How will the UK Task Group use the information that they gather?

“The long-range recce group will be working directly to the UN Force Headquarters which is currently commanded by a Swedish general down in Bamako, which is about 1000 kilometres to the southwest of where we’ll be based.”

“We’ll be operating in a camp that we share with the Germans, the Swedish, El Salvadorans and just on the other side of the camp is the UN uper-camp which has contingents from Egypt, China and Senegal. It’s a huge multinational effort and is something personally I have never experienced before, I've only ever done it on NATO operations. I’m sure it’s gonna be very different but I think it’s going to be hugely challenging and rewarding.”

British soldier engages with a local during a local leader engagement (simulated scenario using actors).
British soldier engages with a local during a local leader engagement (simulated scenario using actors).

What does this success look like for you?

“So, for us what success looks like is going to a remote part of Mali, it is speaking to all the various groups, different ethnicities, different villages, different political factions and understanding what it is driving disorder and disunity in that area.”

Then with that information, we are then able to queue up NGO (non-governmental organisation) responses to potentially come in and to conduct projects which could improve the lives of people in Mali.”

Any final thoughts?

This tour is gonna be hard there’s no question about that.”

“The environment in Mali is tough, it is the foothills of the Sahara desert it can get up to 40 degrees in the summer, you can have sand storms coming out nowhere and catching you unaware.”

“There is also Malaria areas, all sorts of snakes, scorpions, elephants. You’re in the bush in Africa, so it is going to be hard work but you know, soldiers love a challenge and we’re all pretty excited to get out there and see what is actually really like.”

Robinson and his group of soldiers will continue to hone their skills throughout the next few months before they deploy later this year.

Hear from Lt Col Robinson here: 👇

Find out where else the UK Armed Forces are deployed here 👇

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