Main Image Credit Lightning course: Ukrainian volunteer military recruits take part in training exercises in the UK. Image: Reuters / Alamy
Without the galvanising effect of an imminent deployment, how can a military ensure that its soldiers are adequately prepared for battle?
Russia and Ukraine are rapidly fielding soldiers to backfill their units as they sustain heavy casualties. Both states have necessarily deployed troops after a lower volume of training than usually stipulated in military forces, and have moved them directly to kinetic operations within far shorter timescales than normal. As a case study, the conflict provides a useful lens through which to view the audiences of military training.
Ukrainian troops are receiving training from several partner states. One common feature of this training is its condensed duration. In the UK, soldiers are receiving ‘compressed’ infantry training. The US is delivering training on HIMARS, the multiple rocket launcher, in around three weeks. Analysis shows that Ukrainian soldiers have been assimilating knowledge quickly, and often ahead of expectations.
Military training often stretches on for much longer: in Finland, the duration is eight weeks; in France, basic training consists of a 12-week course; and in the UK it is 14 weeks. Part of the reason for Ukrainian troops’ condensed training is the need to learn the absolute basics and return to theatre without wasting time. With respect to HIMARS, there will likely be selection criteria requiring students to have previous knowledge of comparable systems like the BM-21 ‘Grad’ launcher. However, there is no question that Ukrainian troops are being brought up to a standard considered acceptable, within the timescales normally thought necessary.
The knowledge that training will be used immediately is a precursor to success. There is no time for skill to fade. At the same time, the students are motivated to learn. They know that a lesson might be the difference between success and failure, or worse. This puts a different spin on learning than simply trying to meet a training objective. Learning is not for a test or a certificate at the end of a course. Knowing it could keep one’s country from falling to an aggressor is the ultimate motivation, and changes the calculus of learning.
Soldiers kept busy by general duties such as vehicle maintenance and online learning, or being thrown into support tasks like those seen during the pandemic – while admirable – are not being sharpened for their core purpose
Without an imperative like an imminent deployment, this effect vanishes. This is problematic for forces lacking a similar reality. Western forces used to have one in the form of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers enlisted in the sure knowledge that within a year of finishing their basic training, they would be deployed abroad, with the associated risks. This immediacy had a similar galvanising effect in training to that seen in the Ukrainian forces. Counter-Improvised Explosive Device drills, marksmanship and battlefield first aid take on particular relevance when one is seeing coverage of casualties in the media and hearing stories from other units.
Without such an imperative, what other options do military forces have to prepare adequately for battle? One view is that military forces are able to carry corporate knowledge from previous conflicts, but that the utility subsides with time. It is eight years since the drawdown of major combat operations in Afghanistan, and 11 years in Iraq. Some NATO forces have retained smaller deployments elsewhere, but the scale and intensity are far reduced. As a result, more troops are fighting less.
Maintaining effective readiness becomes difficult in these situations. Corporate knowledge diminishes, and soldiers are often not motivated by the imminent requirement to utilise their skills. It is hard to emphasise how important this is. Soldiers kept busy by general duties such as vehicle maintenance and online learning, or being thrown into support tasks like those seen during the coronavirus pandemic – while admirable – are not being sharpened for their core purpose. Soldiers must be motivated to engage with training, rather than resent it. Without a clear objective, this key tenet can be lost.
They could train more. William F Owen offered the metric that battlegroups should conduct 90 days' field training a year. Or perhaps the solution lies in recruitment? If militaries have the ‘right’ type of soldier, it is easier to train them. Recruitment efforts should focus on those with a proven capacity to learn; however, this aspiration needs to be balanced with those who actually want to join. In the US, alarm has been raised over the background of recruits who come disproportionately from particular counties and military families. The focus of recruiting efforts often falls back to statistics. This is not the right question. Pursuing numbers without considering who people are, and the value they can add, is a losing strategy.
Deployments, even benign ones, clarify the objective and sharpen skills in a way that dry training cannot
The creation of an imperative is difficult to do in the abstract. The UK’s Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, made headlines at RUSI’s Land Warfare Conference in June 2022 with the announcement of Operation Mobilise, an effort to shape the Army appropriately to the threat in Europe. The speech got a lot of soldiers talking positively, but it remains to be seen whether it will be truly galvanising.
The purchase and use of advanced equipment is another line of inquiry. Perhaps a lack of training imperative can be compensated with other capabilities? There is a narrative that the future of warfare lies in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and automation. Such thinking has been undermined by the conflict in Ukraine, where the training and nous of Ukrainian soldiers has been critical to their fierce resistance against a more technologically advanced Russian military. Equally, much-touted simulation and virtual training offerings cannot close the gap, and risk a force which can perform in a digital world but not the real one.
Deployments, even benign ones, clarify the objective and sharpen skills in a way that dry training cannot. They provide a galvanising force. Opportunities to deploy must be balanced across the force to avoid creating a multi-tier organisation.
Military forces must be aware of, and motivated by, a clear and tangible objective. Without one, malaise sets in. No amount of internal motivation or traditional military encouragement will overcome this. Military planners and analysts should consider this when anticipating a fighting force’s utility.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Major Patrick Hinton
Former Chief of the General Staff’s Visiting Fellow