by Chris Thatcher
Wainwright still looked like Wainwright, albeit with the conspicuous haze and smell of smoke from distant wildfires burning elsewhere in the province. But for the participants of Exercise Maple Resolve, the sprawling training area in eastern Alberta had the distinct feel of a proxy for Ukraine.
From the overarching scenario against a peer enemy in Eastern Europe, to the added strength and capability of the enemy force, and the critical points emphasized throughout the exercise, Russia’s war in Ukraine was a persistent presence for the units being validated for global deployment.
“We are incorporating significant amounts of lessons that we’re getting from the Donbass and the Ukraine-Russia conflict,” said Colonel Scott MacGregor, commander of the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) and the Army collective training authority.
To an observer of the ongoing war, the synchronization of effects, specifically indirect fires, the dispersion of forces after a fire mission, the disaggregation and movement of command posts, the reduction of electronic signatures, the significance of camouflage and concealment, and the importance of sustainment might seem self-evident. But for an Army that has over the past decade been gradually tailoring its tactics and capabilities to confront a peer enemy, the experience of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has underscored the consequences of failing to do these actions well.
“That’s one huge evolution in our collective training,” MacGregor observed.
Maple Resolve is one of several exercises CMTC conducts every year to validate Canadian Mechanized Brigade Groups, their battalions and other units ready to deploy. As with the rest of the Army, much of CMTC’s focus is on the Canadian-led multinational battle group in Latvia, and the lessons from Ukraine that must be incorporated into collective training.
This year, Maple Resolve, a live Level 6 training event, was the culminating exercise for the 1st and 2nd Battalions of 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (5 CBMG), and the headquarters of 12 Regiment blinde du Canada (12 RBC) on their build to high readiness. 12 RBC and its three armoured reconnaissance squadrons, augmented by a company from the 1st Battalion, troops from 5 Combat Engineer Regiment, and some Special Operations Forces, played the role of the opposition force (OPFOR).
The brigade headquarters was validated in February at Unified Resolve, a three-phased Level 7 computer-assisted exercise. The 3rd Battalion of 5 CBMG was validated through Global Resolve, an exercise for the light infantry battalions conducted each year at either the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana, or the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC) in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a rapid reaction task force.
CMTC also provides NATO-qualified observer-controller-trainers (OCTs) to validate the battle group in Latvia through a Level 6 event known as the Combat Readiness Evaluation (CREVAL).
To provide the most realistic scenario possible for the primary training audiences in each of those exercises, CMTC draws from a wide array of sources to inform its exercise design writing boards and the planning conferences with the divisions supporting each one. Those include the Army Lessons Learned Centre, Task Force Latvia, the lessons gathering cells of allies such as the British and Americans, and from CMTC’s own involvement in CREVAL validations that are conducted in Latvia twice each year.
“We’re thirsty,” MacGregor acknowledged.
The most direct source of major combat operations lessons, though, is the Ukrainians themselves. Through the training missions in the U.K and Poland under Operation Unifier, as well as the former training mission in Ukraine that began in 2014, Ukrainian soldiers and instructors have shared the latest from the frontlines of the fight.
“Ever since the Ukraine war started, we’ve had incredible opportunities to see the Russian army as they actually function compared to what their doctrinal function is,” said Trevor, a sergeant and senior intelligence operator supporting the intelligence picture for both the blue and red forces in Maple Resolve.
Much of that intelligence is synthesized by CMTC’s Operations Group and incorporated by its planning team into the exercise design, and then applied against the Army’s battle task standards.
“The lessons observed there are turned into lessons learned here in collective training,” MacGregor noted.
LESSONS FROM UKRAINE
Among the prominent themes of Maple Resolve was the importance of synchronizing effects, especially indirect fires, to reduce the sensor to shooter link. The wars in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh have highlighted the need to quickly and coherently gather information from any sensor — human and/or machine — on targets of interest, and then process, analyze, and distribute to the right shooter for prosecution, MacGregor said.
They have also underlined the criticality of dispersion. “A huge lesson we’re observing from the conflict in the Donbass is the requirement to be agile,” he said. “If you can’t move within three minutes of firing an indirect fire mission, we have learned that you will probably not exist anymore.”
That also goes for the command-and-control nodes coordinating those missions. Headquarters and command posts were frequently dispersed in multiple smaller formations to minimize concentration of force. Units were often well camouflaged, and the brigade headquarters was at least 10 feet underground, moving among a series of sea containers able to withstand some fires.
“One of the comments we got from some of the [reconnaissance] overflights was that this was the most dug in Maple Resolve that anyone had ever seen,” noted Major Andy Torrance, CMTC’s lead exercise planner.
“The [Army operating concept] of Adaptive Dispersed Operations – it’s doing it rather than just talking about it,” MacGregor said. Concealment has always been a vital component of warfare, but the proliferation of uncrewed aerial systems has added a “top-down piece [that] is a lot more difficult. With our instrumentation, we were able to see that and give [the training audience] an assessment on how they were doing, and … coach them on some better ways.”
Radio discipline, too, might be a staple of conflict, but CMTC now has the means to count and time transmission bursts, he said. “Because of the electronic signature that we push out, we know we’re going to be noticed in the electronic spectrum. Now, we count how many transmission bursts they do by attack, and the length, to get that down to an acceptable level where they can send the information that they need in a very limited amount of time, and then move, so that by the time it’s homed in on, they’re gone.”
For the first time, Maple Resolve also featured the use of a mesh tactical network used by the enemy force, further reducing the need for voice communication. Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force 7 Space Operations Squadron brought some jamming capabilities to further test the blue force’s ability to minimize its use of the electronic spectrum.
“This [was] a bit of a first step in incorporating space-based effects into an Army training exercise,” said Torrance. “It’s helping to inform the primary training audience that that threat is out there.”
The rate at which ammunition and other equipment has been consumed in Ukraine has put a spotlight on sustainment. “To feed that capability, specifically for indirect fires and even direct fires, to be able to sustain major combat operations for let’s just four days, takes an inordinate amount of logistics” that reaches all the way back to national support elements, MacGregor noted.
During Maple Resolve, the blue force was presented with the problem of potentially running out of ammo as it conducted defensive operations. To go on the offensive, in an urban environment, for the final phase of the exercise, “they are going to have to think that problem through to regain the momentum,” he said. “We want to teach that hard lesson or maybe even avoid it beforehand.”
The rapid depletion of ammunition, fuel and other supplies also carried a human toll. “One thing that we’re relearning, unfortunately, on the backs of Ukrainians is the industrial rate of death that occurs in major combat operations,” he said. “The average death toll was trending on both sides [of the Russian-Ukraine war] between 150 and 200 a day.”
Reconstituting units that have been hit hard by direct or indirect fires was a talking point in the exercise. So, too, was the challenge for a Role 2 medical facility that could quickly be overwhelmed in a mass casualty event, MacGregor noted. A medical system shaped by the conflict of Afghanistan and the “golden hour” of responding to and treating the severely injured, “would be tested beyond its capacity, but we would have to triage that.”
METRICS PAINT A PICTURE
While the broad themes of synchronized effects, rapid dispersing of forces, and sustainment are understood, this year CMTC was able to provide the training audience with a much clearer picture of exactly how each was affecting performance.
Rather than after-action reviews midway or at the end of the exercise — where few recall the exact sequence of events from seven or 13 days prior — CMTC is now employing CATS Metrix, a data collecting and replay feature of Cubic Defense’s exercise control software that is part of the Weapons Effects Simulation (WES) system administered by Cubic Field Services Canada in Wainwright.
CATS Matrix provides units with what MacGregor called a “mirror” with which to look at themselves in hot washes. More than a review of battlefield statistics such as ammo expended and personnel wounded or killed, it offers a visual playback of battle procedures and manoeuvre analysis, answering some of the questions of why something happened.
During the first day of Maple Resolve, the blue force came into contact with the enemy and then conducted a delaying action, buying time to build defensive positions and the space to plan a counteroffensive. Rather than hit and retreat, they “were seduced by the contact, and they stuck around and kept engaging,” said MacGregor. “They were buying time, but losing a lot of people.”
After the delay had culminated, the exercise controllers called a pause, brought in the commanders, and asked them to evaluate their combat effectiveness and that of their enemy. They then pushed play.
“We saw the enemy completely envelop [the two battalions] — they had no idea,” he said. Of note, the blue force had made limited use of indirect fires. “The CATS Metrix system provides that [detailed data]. The hot washes provide an opportunity to use these products, but at the leadership level so they can see what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and arm them with themes [they can take back] to their units to do their own after-action reviews (AARs).
“The next day was amazing,” he said. “On Day 2 of the delay, [the blue force] quadrupled their fire missions, they were tighter in terms of the sensor-shooter link, more accurate.”
“The OPFOR did a great job in exploiting some of the seams and using some terrain to approach from unexpected axes that offered some really challenging situations for those battle groups to react to,” said Torrance. “The feedback we’ve been getting through the AARs has been really positive. They’ve been able to challenge each other.”
MacGregor credited the combination of the WES system and its metrics, the Cubic manoeuvre analyst, and the OCTs on the ground with helping the training audience see the complete picture and adapt. It’s a capability the Army has had but did not fully appreciate until members of CMTC saw it being utilized by allies, especially the U.S. Army at JRTC and JPMRC. “We have this Lamborghini, and we were driving it like a Chevette, we just weren’t using it,” he said. “What we have is good, let’s use it to its fullest capacity.”
Over the next year, Maple Resolve and Unified Resolve will undergo substantial change as the Army shifts even more of its focus to the battle group in Latvia as that force becomes Forward Land Forces Multinational Brigade Latvia. The Army has revised its Manage Readiness System (MRS) to align the build to high readiness training with that mission, and will transfer more of the collective training validation to Latvia.
As a result, MacGregor is adopting a model that would make the training support system far more mobile. Wainwright and its massive training area and highly instrumented urban operations facility will continue to see plenty of action, but he envisions a model along the lines of Australia’s that would allow the Army to “deliver collective training at a point of need, [and] not just in Latvia, but in Gagetown, Valcartier, Petawawa and elsewhere.”