The war in Ukraine has sent shockwaves across Europe and beyond, but what does it mean for the future of training and readiness among NATO military forces and partners? We spoke to David Paterson 4C Military Director, British Army Brigadier (Retd) to find out.
Training and the perception gap
In just a few weeks we’ve seen a superpower invade a country and then seemingly culminate. A possible cause of this, I believe, reflects the training readiness of the Russian troops. Or rather it’s a reflection of the gap between perceived and actual readiness whether in operational planning, manoeuvre, multi-domain synchronisation, logistical support or low-level training.
In western Europe, we might look at this and think it a sign of weakness. Perhaps it is; but do we know that we wouldn’t have similar issues? Do armies across Europe and beyond know exactly how battle-ready their units and formations are? Have armed forces analysed their own performance in training, at an appropriate scale, based on all the facts, and identified any weaknesses; and have they trained to improve those essential capabilities? Training can be very subjective; it must be objective and data-enabled to be assured in order to close the capability gap.
Exercises and deterrents
Unlike Russia, many European countries have progressively reduced investment in armed forces over the past decades and thereby limited their ability to make battle driven assessments of their own readiness. This is evident in the reduction in the numbers and scale of live exercises. Go back to the 1970s and 1980s, large-scale exercises were used to both train troops – in particular the ability to synchronise multi-domain operations at the operational and tactical levels – act as a visible deterrent through a show of strength, and demonstrate deployability and NATO resolve to potential adversaries. For example, Exercise Lionheart, held by the British Army in Germany in 1984 involved over 130,000 regular, reserve and territorial army personnel. Today, that’s all changed – at least for Allied Forces – and the bulk of NATO’s training, particularly at formation level and above is delivered through the medium of synthetic training. NATO’s largest exercise since the cold war, Trident Juncture 18 in Norway, involved 50,000 personnel from 31 NATO and partner countries and whilst there was a live exercise (LIVEX) component that exercised deployment and interoperability between partner nations, multi-domain operations were, to a large extent, command post exercise (CPX) driven. Russia, on the other hand, held Vostock-2018 which involved almost 300,000 troops and whilst we can argue that the true field training exercise (FTX) phase was largely a show of force, the deployment, coordination and sustainment was very powerful in terms of messaging and demonstrating a perceived capability.
Building battle readiness
In response to the recent Russian aggression in Ukraine, I believe we may now see an increase in the number of high-profile exercises, similar to Trident Juncture, performed by NATO forces and partners. These will be largely based around the Enhanced Forward Presence forces and other NATO Very High Readiness capabilities. They will act as a deterrent to aggressors, reassure the public that NATO has the necessary capabilities, and most importantly, build training readiness and interoperability. These will have to be multinational and multi-domain exercises that involve air, land, sea, cyber defence and space, as well as aid organisations and emergency services, among others. Whilst HQs will continue to use CPXs to generate the scale and synthetic wrap required, significantly greater numbers of deployed forces will be in the field at up to formation level, where they can practice deployment, synchronisation of manoeuvre and effects, overcome the issues of multinational interoperability and be seen and reported on by the media – building assurance among the general public that the military is there and ready to protect them; all based on objective training assessments and corrections.
Closing the gap with data-driven training
Holding live training for thousands of troops, of course, takes investment, time and effective planning. But governments have seen that the cost of not investing in this can be much higher. And, if we circle back to where we started, perceived vs actual readiness; closing the gap is critical. Using data to identify weaknesses, planning and conducting training to improve them at every level of command, using data to inform decisions regarding investments in capability and using lessons learned from every training to improve the next one, must become second nature. Effective and efficient training must be a mantra moving forward. We must train for the future.