By Tim Bryant, Western Sentinel newspaper with files from Army Public Affairs
Edmonton, Alberta — The latest edition of Canadian Army’s largest training exercise – Exercise MAPLE RESOLVE (Ex MR) – took place in May 2019, marking the end of the most recent three-year cycle of the CA’s Road to High Readiness.
Taking over the training area at 3rd Canadian Division Support Base Edmonton (Detachment Wainwright) from May 8 to 24, 2019, the exercise brought together more than 5,000 personnel from across 3rd Canadian Division to ensure the Division’s readiness to be deployed on operations in Canada and around the world.
Regular and Reserve Force members of the headquarters staff, infantry, armoured corps, engineers, artillery, combat logistics, mortars, and influence activities units enabling capabilities in any environment.
Ex MR serves many purposes for the Candian Armed Forces (CAF), but the primary objective is to prepare soldiers to operate in an ever-changing military world. To that end, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Pospolita, Deputy Commander Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) – the entity that runs Ex MR and other training exercises across Canada – explained he and his team try to give soldiers “the most realistic and most challenging training possible.”
Training so tough soldiers doubt deployment could be as bad
The training can be so tough and so demanding that soldiers have often doubted an actual combat situation can be as difficult and challenging as what CMTC provided in training.
LCol Pospolita recounted soldiers having told him, “There’s no way that’s going to happen.”
When they return from their deployments, their minds have been changed.
“However, they go into theatre and come back and say, ‘Thank you for preparing me for that day; we didn’t realize it was going to happen,’” LCol Pospolita said.
The shift to a more complex and challenging training experience is a relatively recent one, brought about by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and elsewhere in the United States, explained Brigadier-General Trevor Cadieu, Commander 3rd Canadian Division.
“It fundamentally changed the way we had to look at how we trained our troops,” he said.
Prior to September 11, the CAF trained in a “risk averse” manner, without a professional opposing force to force soldiers to think and react to changing situations.
Afghanistan saw rapid shifts from combat to humanitarian assistance and back
That meant that when BGen Cadieu was sent to Afghanistan in 2002, he didn’t feel he was prepared for an actual combat environment where he would be faced with enemy forces trying to kill him, whom he was also trying to kill, nor for the shifts in focus on a daily basis.
“I certainly was not equipped to go from a combat situation in one moment, to dealing with the local Afghan populace in another – distributing humanitarian assistance – to going back to a combat scenario immediately following it,” he explained.
All those lessons led to the present-day Ex MR.
This year, the primary training audience, 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (1 CMBG) was faced with “a living, breathing, thinking, well-equipped enemy,” BGen Cadieu explained.
Soldiers were placed in as realistic an environment as possible. They were out in the Wainwright training area for two weeks, in austere conditions, to simulate being on deployment. They had to eat, sleep and remain alert in the field.
Because the leaders, or any other soldiers, were not able to stay awake and alert for the whole exercise, they needed to plan out their sleep and activity cycles in greater detail.
“They are going straight for the next two weeks,” BGen Cadieu said. “They can't fake their way through that.”
It’s a stark departure from the 1990s when BGen Cadieu joined the military.
Deliberately taken to the point of failure
“Today we are deliberately taking them to the point of failure,” he said.
Working in the Wainwright training area is not easy, explained LCol Pospolita. It features changing terrain with deceiving undulating hills, a river runs through it, and there is a major hill feature to contend with. Troops can easily get lost or stuck in the training area, especially when they’re on day five or six with minimal sleep.
Add in an opposing force and insurgents hidden among the locals in the exercise scenario, and it’s an environment that aims to test every bit of a soldier’s training.
Current social media aspect ‘cannot be ignored’
Ex MR aims to be as realistic as possible, and that includes incorporating a social media component accessible to both 1 CMBG and the enemy forces.
“Knowing the way things are, you cannot ignore social media,” explained LCol Pospolita. “We have a closed social media network, which we bring in for Ex MR. In each of the various towns [in the training area], there are capabilities to have internet cafes, and we have our own ‘Fakebook’ where people can go.”
The ‘Fakebook’ allows the enemy forces to keep tabs on what 1 CMBG is doing, while 1 CMBG can use it to find out what is happening around the area. But since it’s a social media network and anyone can use it, it’s also a tool to spread information and misinformation from and about both sides.
In other words, it can be used as part of an ‘information operations’ campaign, explained Lieutenant-Colonel Ross Bonnell, Chief of Staff at CMTC.
“We're challenging the brigade to see how they respond to this, how they're going to respond, how they're going to try and influence how they're going to try and portray their message to influence the locals,” he said.
Beyond the Canadian training element of Ex MR, there is also a large international presence during the exercise.
Success of Ex MR brings increasing numbers of international players
There were approximately 1,000 foreign Allies in attendance, including more than 500 members of the U.S. military, a platoon of French soldiers, Britons and Australians.
LCol Pospolita explained the influx of Allies is a result of how successful Ex MR has been over the years.
“As everyone starts seeing the success of it, other nations want to participate,” he said. “And much the same way, we send personnel to their exercises as well, because there's always something we can learn on how to do something better.”
LCol Bonnell added that having Allied members in attendance and participating in Ex MR in various capacities, from acting as enemy forces to observing and helping run the exercise, benefits the relationships Canada has with its partners and increases interoperability.
“It's a good problem for the Brigade to navigate, because we know that wherever the Army or 1 CMBG deploys, it's going to be in a multinational context,” he said.
A training exercise is the best time to come to a mutual understanding when it comes to language and terminology differences, LCol Bonnell added.
1 CMBG now ready to deploy
At the end of Ex MR, 1 CMBG became ready for deployment from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020. Possible deployments may include:
Operation REASSURANCE – Poland;
Operation UNIFIER – Ukraine;
Operation IMPACT – Iraq;
Forward Group for High Readiness missions to places such as Afghanistan, Latvia, and Mali; and
Operation LENTUS – domestic operations support at home.
LCol Bonnell said there’s one outcome and piece of feedback he was especially looking for.
“What we want to hear from soldiers is that it was a real challenge,” he said.