Training the Army of tomorrow

The confirmation in late September of the second rotation of troops for the Afghanistan training mission was a timely reminder that the Canadian Forces are still engaged in a combat zone. Army training, however, is no longer about preparing for a specific theatre. As Major-General Steve Bowes, commander of Land Force Doctrine and Training System, explained in a recent interview, the focus has shifted to foundational training, both individual and collective, with a growing emphasis on specialized skill sets and complex problem-solving, all enhanced by the introduction of new technology.


Has army doctrine changed significantly as a result of recent conflicts?

I don’t think there are any radical changes in our doctrine because it is so broad-based. Our orientation and training have shifted. We’ve already run one version of Exercise Maple Resolve in which we used a contemporary common training scenario. We’re no longer preparing for the war, we’re preparing for a war, full spectrum, focusing on what might be described as the messy middle. The doctrine supporting that is excellent. So the training regime right now is really foundation training. We’re re-emphasizing some of the fundamentals of combined arms team operation, within a full spectrum context, fully recognizing that we need to be ready for the broadest range of tasks.

But Afghanistan has left its mark?

People sometimes assume that the moment a manual of doctrine hits the street it is the authoritative expression of a body of professional knowledge that is already existent within the organization. In fact, in some cases doctrine is catching up with practice. In the case of counter-insurgency operations, although we did not have doctrine, many of the skill sets were already resident in the army. So for stability operations, we’ve just formalized that in a way that helps us further teach the new generation.

Counter-IED and force protection will be key in any future scenario. So those will always be part of our training. We have also worked well with the air force advancing air-land integration so that we operate as one team. In today’s environment, we need to optimize our ability to work together. Next year during JOINTEX, we’ll bring together separate army, navy and air force exercises within one large joint exercise, conducting operations as we would fight in any future scenarios.

Training is certainly more joint; is doctrine becoming more joint?

I think it is in some areas. There may be gaps in others where we’re still developing understanding of capabilities that need to be reinforced: influence activities, intelligence architecture, etc.

Are you changing the way you teach?

We want to advance the use of collaborative technology to enhance our ability to do training closer to where soldiers live. We want to think of the CF and the army as a university or college. We can’t afford a structure that allows us to have centres of excellence everywhere. But if we can leverage technology to enable more learning to occur where soldiers reside, that can only advantage us. The infantry school is in Gagetown; wouldn’t it be great if a warrant officer in a reserve unit in Saskatchewan had access to the same course material as a warrant officer in Gagetown? That’s not possible the way we are structured now, but the Defence Learning Network will hopefully help us get there. There will always be parts of courses that must be delivered in centralized locations for reasons of safety, specialized training areas, equipment, but where we can devolve training and make the system learner-centric, I think there is tremendous opportunity.

You have a plan to emphasis specialized training – mountain, littoral, airmobile, desert, jungle, arctic – linked to geography. What kind of flexibility will this give you?

Specialized environment training is very much part of the way ahead. It’s a recognition that we are not going to be able to have everybody do everything all the time. So, with Chinook helicopters based in Petawawa, for example, air mobile expertise will be resident there; the East Coast is a natural for littoral operations, given proximity to the navy and our allies. As we make basing decisions for heavy pieces of equipment, those areas will then specialize in that particular element. It allows us to have an expertise so that if a particular mission leads us in a certain direction, we then have the individuals to call on.

But it is also about using resources in a way that caters to “train to excite.” We are a geographically-enriched country, so let’s take advantage of what we’ve got in each location. Train to excite is a philosophy. It’s about ensuring that soldiers come to work in the morning with fire in their belly because they are going to be challenged that day. It also allows us to focus a bit more. Last year when we had an opportunity to train with the U.S. Marine Corps in the largest amphibious exercise since before the Gulf War, we made the call to 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group and they put together a company group to participate. We now have officers and NCOs with experience in amphibious and littoral operations.

Are some of these still nascent?

Canada doesn’t have an amphibious platform. So in the sense that we have an operational capability that is based that way, it is certainly nascent. But in terms of having folks who are able to participate with our allies, we have developed a level of expertise that would allow Canada to participate in the broadest range of scenarios

Has there been any difficulty transitioning from theatre-specific training to more general purpose?

No. I think that has been overstated by some. If anything, it was a culture change as we moved from that road to high readiness training that was focused on the war. We simply stepped back to look at the scenario and made some changes. Last year a group from 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade was confronted with indigenous people who spoke Spanish. The language was irrelevant. The point was communication with people who did not speak their language, which forced them to work through interpreters to practice those skills – it was meant to be representative of any environment in the world. We have gone through some reductions in our budget and not all of the money that was there from the CF level is necessarily there to replicate the environment for the war.

Are exercises being geared to fit those areas of specialization?

In a sense. For example, JOINTEX next year will have a naval task group conducting an operation with a company group of infantry aboard under the command of the navy for that particular point of the operation. Within Exercise Maple Resolve, the land component, we’ll be working with close air support and tactical aviation, and tactical airlift will bring us in to replicate an immersive environment. Special Forces will be doing their thing. And the air force will be conducting operations and enabling everybody within that framework. The idea is to challenge everyone in complex scenarios and operating environments. We want to challenge people to work through the complexity of those environments.

Have the roles of the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre and the Combat Training Centre changed as a result of this new emphasis?

CMTC has picked up more responsibilities. It now runs the army collective training detachment. It also runs the centre of excellence which helps put together the exercise. When we started CMTC it had to focus by necessity on the road to high readiness to Afghanistan, but now the commander really is the foundation training leader in the army. CMTC is a capability, not a place. But it’s one of the only locations where we can bring all of this together and it offers many advantages over other locations.

CTC will continue to evolve. We will have to react to difficult resource pressures while making sure we put the priority on the most important elements of training, but I see opportunities here for the army going forward.

One of those is urban operation training centres?

There is a specific project within Directorate of Land Requirements that will deliver capability down the road. We already have an iterative capability, but we will do more in the way of simulation. Nothing would be better than having a sergeant in a platoon, having done a building clearance, be able to go back and see on video how they did so he can debrief his soldiers on the spot. It’s an important project because it’s really training leadership in any scenario. It’s developing the cognitive capacity of soldiers to make and take rapid decisions in stressful situations.

Is difficult problem-solving a key to keeping your young leaders engaged? Do you face a challenge on that front?

It is going to be a challenge, no doubt about it. There’s a generational shift and we need to be aware of that and adapt. I think we understand this reality. Every generation has a trademark and some of the young folk coming in are fearless. They talk openly about doing something for a while, gaining experience – they are not the generation that joins a company for 30 to 35 years. So we will have to find ways of challenging young people to develop that leadership.

We have done a great job grooming junior leaders. We have a warrant officer and sergeant cadre, the heart of our army, that doesn’t walk in the shadow of any of our allies. And we’ve done that by giving them a lot of responsibility and challenging them day in and day out.

The introduction of more technology in training might help with that. Do you have the resources at the moment to do that?

People sometimes think you default to simulation when you shrink budgets. In fact, the paradigm is the reverse: you want to make sure you have the money to invest in simulation because it enables you to be so much more efficient and effective. Simulation allows us to use resources in a much smarter way. With simulation, we’ve seen the lines between live and virtual training blur. We do that in command post exercises but we may bring it down a notch where battle group and brigade commanders in the field don’t necessarily see that the group they are interacting with over the Internet and in video teleconferences isn’t actually there on the ground; rather, it’s a virtual representation of the operating environment. Those are tremendous opportunities to inject complexity into scenarios in ways that are not easy replicated in a live environment.

It has to be integrated, though. It has to become that true system of systems. Maybe in the past we have acquired things on an ad hoc basis. We need to integrate that into a strategy and we need to think beyond the army as just land combat power, to think about it in the air-land environment and also littoral work with the navy.

Does that strategy exist today?

Elements of the strategy exist. I can’t predict how things will unfold but from an army perspective we’re certainly moving that way.

Is the longer-term virtual training strategy joint?

I think so. A lot of JOINTEX is going to be virtual. We’re going to have enabling us the naval task group off the coast of B.C., the air force working out of Cold Lake, army folk in Maple Resolve but also in other parts of the country. But we’ll all be “virtually” in the same environment. So it’s there and we will only get better.

As you update professional development, are you identifying necessary skills sets that need to be incorporated or enhanced, such as cyber?

I’m less involved on the cyber side but I would argue that in 2005 our approach to intelligence structures, influence activities and counter IED didn’t exist. I sent the first engineer to a neighbouring province in Afghanistan to look at the route clearance package that the Americans were deploying to inform us back in Canada. We didn’t have heavy lift helicopters and all the tactics, techniques and procedures that go along with those. We still have work to do in terms of integrating those, and we’re still going through lessons learned and ensuring that we instil some of those, but we have demonstrated an ability to quickly deploy new skills.

The staff college program hasn’t really changed. The army operations course is one of our successes. Our ability to plan and work through problems is very important but that’s been an iterative process; it started 10 years ago when we created an army learning process and a culture that allows us to question ourselves more openly with our subordinates. That culture of recognizing we always have something to learn and therefore we always have reason to review what we have done and work to become better as a team, that’s so important. Staff College plays a big role in that.

You are working toward a larger concept of Army 2021. Is that hampered by current budget reductions?

There are so many phenomenal technological capabilities young people will expect that we need to incorporate into our system. We need a collaborative environment that leverages technology that exploits greater use of simulation. It may seem counterintuitive, what with budget reductions, but now is precisely the time to modernize. We need to do that. We need to be able to accept risk. Some of that is counter to prevailing ways of thinking. But as operating environments become more complex, we have to continue to improve our soldiers’ cognitive capacity and ability to react. Generations change. Today’s teenagers are wired differently, their brains are tuned to multitasking and if we are going to leverage the capacity they bring, we need to look at different ways to train. And that means you have to invest. We don’t man systems, we train soldiers and the most important weapon system they’ve got is the space between their ears; we need to be able to develop that, wherever they are.

An interview with MGen Steve Bowes

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