Most of us know it as the wing. Some of us know it as work and others as school but to all combat signallers or CIS Operators in the Royal Engineers it is more or less home. According to the song, that’s where you hang your hat. Nowadays it is called the Command Support Branch (CSB) of the RE Warfare Wing at Gibraltar Barracks, Near Camberley in Surrey.
On Friday 21st April 2017 the REA radio branch were lucky enough to be hosted by Captain John Woolley RE who is the current AI, for our annual get together and AGM.
Our mission was mainly to do with developing our branch of the REA and you can see the full details of the meetings here.
The main outcome of the meeting was the committee who attended, Tom Milne, Mac MacDonald and me caught up, gaining a little insight into the lives of the RE signallers today. (We are getting on a bit, and we sensed things had changed), (but we aren’t so sure now).
Itinerary for the day
After some preliminary work and the AGM which was held in the officers mess, Capt Woolley then gave us a tour of the CSB and an overview.
His talk gave us a pretty good view of the pressures the corps were under as the army re-organises post Afghanistan and Iraq, and with the expectations of recent accommodation reviews. Several layers of change were in progress and this included a much closer reliance on reserve forces.
Army Accommodation Review
There was some pressure to amalgamate signals training into one school, however standards were a concern. The corps has its own unique training standards which it does not see available elsewhere.
Capt Woolley explained that in the Royal Engineers signalling is very tightly knitted to command and control and linked to all aspects of the corps engineering and logistics work. The corps unique training requirements and its leadership give it a certain amount of supremacy within the army and these are major factors in determining the type of training CSB gives.
As everywhere the corps comes under pressure to save money and often technology is widely believed at a senior level and by the other arms as a means to achieve economy.
Consequently there is a surfeit of technology and training solutions which don’t always fit the corps requirement.
The CSB aims to retain realism within its programmes. This tends to get lost in current simulations and computer based coursework. CSB sees the type of training it delivers as highly necessary experience it gives to familiarises the soldier with operating equipment under the conditions he or she would expect to find on deployment. The wing has found no substitute for field exercises, from operating and carrying man-packs to vehicle operation. Screen based systems just don’t provide that, nor are there any simulators that can.
The same pressures on manpower exist today as they have in previous generations – Signallers and CIS operators are dual roled as drivers, armourers and logistics, etc which override their comms role.
The increased reliance on reserves has meant that to get them to the required standard has meant drawing the courses into the annual programme at the CSB instead of relying on unit training. A departure from the traditional method of training to class 2 level in units.
Training and Development
As Captain Woolley outlined the current state of training and development, we noted the differences between the various generations of technology and training. These were remarkably few, thanks mainly to a change in the threat. However the technology was obviously more advanced, as were the simulators.
The classrooms and training aids were familiar to the ex-instructors from the radio branch as we walked through. Capt Woolley outlined the pitfalls inherent in the design of the computer based training classroom and the proposed improvements to the conference room. This had dilapidated and was due to be upgraded.
BOWMAN Simulator. The vehicle based BOWMAN System simulator is an impressive high tech design able to provide operators with practice using scenario based simulations. Combined VHF\HF and UHF network configurations were available. The built in electronic countermeasures were explained as well as the various devices in each vehicle – a land rover chassis suitably racked with the various BOWMAN system components.
Capt Woolley explained the changing threat had meant that training had also changed. As it went through the last twenty years of conflict the scenarios demanded different techniques due to the distance between HQ and Troops. Recently little or no long range communications were used and the local UHF Network was prominent.
More recently the threats of the previous cold war conflicts had returned. The branch was deeply involved in restoring the skills it requires in extending its range, with an increased reliance on HF. The newer equipment still had the HF Voice Modes available for example – Antenna and propagation theory remain on the syllabus.
These techniques required a different training experience and they had to bring in some senior instructors to provide those skills. (Radio Branch said it had helped in the past with this and has the resources to exercise and develop HF training. The message about (old) technology was brought home as we visited the training area surrounding the CSB. Here were simulators to practice Line laying and obstacle crossing much of which has been the case since the telephone was invented.
Capt Woolley explained that, where we thought by now digital secure systems might have been expected to phase this out, it was very much part of the modern syllabus, moreover Telephone and Line equipment hadn’t changed much, the unit level switchboard (ULS) which came into service in the 70s, for example, was still in service.
Wherever I hang my hat….
It was obvious to us that CSB retains our history in many forms. For a fleeting moment we were able to go back in time as the names and photographs of many friends, students and instructors are emblazoned on the corridor walls and in the instructors and conference room. There was a plan to digitise, retain and refresh some of this which was a work in progress.
As we said goodbye to Capt Woolley and thanked him, we could not help reflect where home would be if some of the changes being mooted happened.
It was a very useful day and interesting to hear that the corps has our legacy and heritage in mind as we develop our part of the REA.