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Fail to train or train to fail


The British Army’s inability to train at scale seriously challenges the credibility of 3(UK) Division as the Army’s ‘warfighting’ division.  If we were asked to fight, we’d struggle.  This is rather stark given current circumstances, but we are running the same risks to manoeuvre that have been realised by the Russian Army in Ukraine.

The British Army does not train divisions and brigades as a ‘whole force’ in the field, which we define as ‘training at scale’.  3 (UK) Division’s contribution to the US Army’s Exercise WARFIGHTER, albeit sizeable at 1,300 soldiers, was fundamentally a ‘command post’ exercise.1 Training at scale would see that level of commitment increase by tenfold, at least.  Given the Army does not train at scale, our people are not experiencing the full breadth of frictions and dilemmas associated with warfighting in the 21st Century.

Without being able to physically practice the co-ordination required for large-scale manoeuvre, and experience the friction of war, our understanding of warfare is becoming increasingly theoretical, without the practical grounding necessary to test our doctrine.  The consequences are stark; it calls into question the credibility of the land component’s ability to deter our adversaries and the extent to which we are truly interoperable with our allies.  It also means our equipment programmes are increasingly based on concepts and assumptions, rather than evidence deduced from ‘the reps and sets’ of training.

This article will examine the second and third order implications that are a consequence of our inability to train at scale and will make three recommendations: first, that the Field Army should seize the opportunity to send combat-support, and combat service support units to participate in planned French army field training exercises ‘at scale’.  Second, we recommend that a UK Brigade Combat Team (BCT) seizes any future opportunity to exercise alongside a US BCT, so that a critical and comparative analysis can be used to challenge assumptions about the UK BCT’s capabilities and employability.  Finally, we recommend that the Army needs a credible mechanism for capturing reliable lessons.  These lessons would inform our force and capability development for the day that we do have to deploy into the field at scale, and the frictions are real.

Resources, Resources, Resources

We are understandably constrained in our aspirations to manoeuvre at the largest scale.  The root cause is, unsurprisingly, resourcing.  Quality training and maintaining defence estates do not come cheap, neither does keeping an ageing vehicle fleet on the road.  Our people are also a precious and dwindling commodity, exemplified by an Integrated Operating Framework that envisages a British Army engaged in a broader range of operational tasks that all fall short of high intensity warfighting.2 Finally, there is a near constant demand on the intellectual horsepower of our divisional and brigade staff; the majority of whom are fixed by tasks that, whilst important, eat up capacity.3

The result is an Army that both struggles to define and prioritise its core outputs, as well as apply the necessary focus to do the most important things exceptionally well.  We accept that a constraint on resources is the root cause of the Army’s inability to hold full UK divisional exercises.  This article will therefore focus on the second and third order implications of our inability to train at scale and how this shapes our force and capability development – for better and for worse.

Localised optimisation and a drive for training efficiency

If the root cause limiting training at scale is our constrained finances and workforce, then the second order consequences involve a phenomenon of localised optimisation and a drive for training efficiency, as displayed in Figure 1.4

Train at scale
Figure 1 – Graphical depiction of the British Army’s inability to train at scale

There exists an organisational phenomenon whereby discrete teams within a broader structure naturally find the optimal way of working in isolation.  This article describes this as localised optimisation.5 This phenomenon is applicable to the British Army, as most units tend to conduct most of their training at battalion level and below.  The competitive nature of training at every level means that military leaders tend to drive their organisation to achieve results equal to or better than their peers.  This competition has its advantages, but it also inculcates a culture whereby teams seek to constantly evolve and improve their working practices.  This may sound like a good thing, but these ‘evolutions’ lead to divergence in the practices and procedures of individual units, which in turn creates friction and a lack of mutual understanding when they train with others.  The longer units train in isolation, the greater the divergence in working practices.

It is rather odd that the divergence sits within the sub-tactical procedures; the activities that should be within the scope of special-to-arm pamphlets that are infrequently updated, and all too often go unused.  Consider an artillery regiment that routinely task-organises individual batteries to individual brigades which all rely upon different communications plans.  For example, on Ex CERBERUS (a UK collective training command post exercise exercise), 16 Air Assault Brigade and 20 Brigade used materially different systems of communicating and transmitting data with their subordinate artillery units.6 If each individual battery uses different methods of communications and orders to satisfy their formation command, then incoherence reigns when individual batteries are brought together under the command of a Divisional Artillery Group in a divisional command post exercise, such as Ex WARFIGHTER.

While the negatives appear relatively stark, ‘localised optimisation’ does have its benefits. We recognise that innovation and a drive for excellence are objectively good things.  Units with a creative approach to problem solving tend to capitalise on their strengths.  However, unharnessed innovation has negative implications and can lead to false assumptions without effective validation and assurance.  False lessons lead to false assumptions which in turn disrupt the equipment procurement cycle as well as creating command and control frictions.  The result? A stifling of the overall preparedness of a force for combat.

There is an obvious requirement for the British Army to assure and validate the benefits of localised optimisation, whilst guarding against its risks.  The Army is doing the right thing by re-rolling 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment as an innovation and trials unit, but it risks developing expertise that will almost certainly be anchored on infantry-centric capabilities, rather than those relevant to the wider force.

Exploiting digital technology

A key area of innovation relevant to the whole force is that of exploiting digital technology.  It is vital that we have a common understanding of how best to employ and exploit digital technology in the information age is to help win wars.  Localised optimisation challenges our ability to develop this common understanding.  Moreover, if there is a divergence in understanding in how to employ digital technology across the Field Army, then requirements managers in Army Headquarters will struggle to hold industry to account in delivering technology that is fit for purpose.  If we consider that the latest update to the Royal Artillery’s Fire Control Battlefield Information System Application, a digital artillery fire control application, cost £20m.  There is a clear impact to getting this wrong in financial as well as practical terms.

The process of capturing the user experiences of the army’s digital battlefield technology is limited; there is only a small team in army headquarters responsible for understanding the frictions and translating them for industry to rectify.  Even then, the frictions and observations that are captured are coloured by locally optimised perspectives of users at the unit level.  There is clearly a requirement for objective, reliable understanding on the way the army is fielding and training with digital technology.  Resourcing unit and formation level training with an independent team focussed on capturing these ‘digital frictions’ is arguably as important as observers who focus on the performance of commanders and staff.

Optimism and the perils of efficiency

It is important to consider how the effects of localised optimisation are compounded when taken alongside another key facet of the British Army’s training culture – the necessity for training efficiency.  Defence’s publicly available accounts show how the thinly the resources are spread; a relatively taut £2bn of the overall Defence budget (across all three services) is allocated to travel, subsistence and training.  For the Field Army, exercising and validating a warfighting division is a prohibitively expensive business.   It has been reported that the US Army requested $364m to conduct a divisional exercise in the Indo-Pacific region in 2021.  If this figure is taken as a yardstick, a similar one-off divisional training event for a British division would account for roughly 10% of the Ministry of Defence’s entire training budget.

Because resources are taut, there is an imbalance between training that places primacy on mission planning and training that practices the execution of tactical actions on the ground.  Where training is held at brigade or divisional level, they are most often delivered as ‘command post exercises’, where subordinate units exercise with only a smaller or representational level of their force.  For those subordinate units participating in brigade or divisional level exercises, there is also an inequity between training opportunities.  These range across the quality and quantity of equipment, the amount of ammunition a unit can use, through to the available exercise infrastructure.  The prioritisation of resources tends to be based upon a unit’s function as a combat, combat support or combat service support arm.

Validating Combat Arms over Combat Services?

The author’s personal experience, which is reinforced by the experiences of our peers, is that the prioritisation of collective training and command post training is loaded towards exercising battlegroups.  This demonstrates a system that prioritises the validation of combat arms over other arms and services. This has four significant, interrelated implications:

  • A focus on field training at the battlegroup level means that training objectives (and the attention of the  higher headquarters validating them) is skewed towards critiquing battlegroup commanders, their staff,    and then the way in which their sub-units execute tactical actions, rather than on the integration of that      battlegroup with a wider force. It is also the case that, ‘lessons’ data collected as part of this process is    unconsciously filtered in favour of that which is relevant to command, fire, and manoeuvre, rather than      other tactical functions such as sustainment.
  • Supporting arms are placed in a position where they are critical to enabling the training of fighting units.    These supporting units are not encouraged to exercise to failure, given that this would hold the primary      training audience’s exercise at risk.
  • The increased use of synthetic training tends to gloss over the constraints and frictions that emerge          when supporting units are properly tested. Exercises at the Army’s Combined Arms Staff Trainer, a              synthetic training facility, regularly see instances of artillery units afforded unlimited ammunition; or real-  time reconstitution of casualties which undermines the utility of exercising the medical support chain.
  • The focus on validation and certification presents narrow, limited opportunities for a commander, their      staff and sub-units to achieve the requisite training objectives.  Put simply, there are limited opportunities to succeed, so by design there are limited opportunities to train to failure.  An aversion to failure instils a    reluctance to expand the scope of field training exercises to include the concurrent validation of combat  and enabling units.  There is inequity between combat units and enablers; an inequity that exacerbates      the tendency for organisations to diverge their working practices, transferring risk from training to              operations.

The French Approach

The authors recognise that the challenges described in this paper are systemic, and the proposed resolution very modest.  But, as a counter to cynicism, we would encourage readers to consider the approach of our closest qualitatively comparable ally, the French Armed Forces.

In the past year, the French General Staff have stressed the importance of change and preparedness for high-intensity conflict against peer level hostile-state threats.  Exercise ORION 23, scheduled for Spring 2023, should see some 10,000 French troops deployed in a divisional level exercise.  While the projection of ‘mass’ is a test in its own right, the real challenge and value of Ex ORION 23 should rest with the exercising divisional headquarters’ ability to orchestrate multi-domain operations and work through the inherent frictions associated with exercising a full division in the field.

The French recognise that effective preparation for high-intensity conflict is more than just a matter of developing institutional experience of exercising at scale: it also involves using that experience to drive a credible equipment programme.  At the Forum Entreprise Défense, Gen. Eric Laval, the commander of the French Army’s logistics and support school (Ecoles Militaires de Bourges et Ecole du Matériel), described the multifaceted challenge of delivering battlefield equipment support in a high-intensity conflict against the constraints of increasingly dense, complicated supply chains.  He emphasised the importance of inculcating a realistic military appreciation of these challenges through training and innovation, which in turn drives future equipment programmes.

Given that the French armed forces are mid-way through an ambitious refresh of their equipment programme, we can assume that the exercises like ORION 23 are designed to provide the scale, mass, and complexity necessary to inform decisions on how to design their force structures both now and into the future.

What about the United States?

The French approach provides a perspective on how a similarly resourced army intends tackling the challenge of high intensity warfighting.  It would be remiss of us not to consider our other like-minded and arguably most interoperable ally, the United States military.  The US Army acknowledges the challenges inherent in training a force to fight at scale.  As H R McMaster, the former US National Security Advisor and 3* General recognised in 2013, the campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan focussed on delivering ‘wide area security’ operations as opposed to combined arms manoeuvre.  McMaster recognised key deficiencies in the US’s intellectual and training approach because of these campaigns.  After a period of conceptual and intellectual refocus, the US Army is once again training leaders and soldiers to have an ‘understanding of capabilities and employment methods that go beyond individual branch competencies with a particular emphasis on joint surveillance, intelligence, and fires capabilities.’

What impact is this intellectual refocus having on US Army doctrine, training, and overall preparedness for warfighting? Doctrinally, the refocus is most obvious in the 2018 doctrine of Multi-Domain Operations, which emphasises converging precision effects across different domains, thereby ‘blurring’ the distinction between combat, combat support and combat service support arms.  This has led to the rise of ‘collective training objectives’ such that units are validated based on the performance of the whole force against broad objectives, rather than a discrete component like C2, conducting intelligence collection or ground manoeuvre.  Successful validation is dependent on each component of the force synchronising their activity and everyone in the force is tested.

At a recent Modern Warfare Institute dialogue with the UK Defence Academy’s Army Division, US officers described how, at exercises in the US’s National Training Centre, brigade logisticians were ‘under fire’ from the moment they off-loaded equipment in their brigade support area…that there had been a sharp revision as to the most safe, efficient, and protected methods of establishing rear echelon supply chains.  Similarly, US officers at the Combined Arms General Staff College spend weeks planning how to project and sustain a division from the United States over to a European Theatre before they even begin planning for a close battle.

This holistic approach, which emphases integrated, end-to-end planning instils a mindset that improves the overall preparedness of the force.  The US Army is on something of a journey here.  Like the UK, they are not yet training whole divisions in the field, but they are on a trajectory to do so after mastering integration, at scale, at the brigade level.

What about us then?

The British Army’s ‘Future Soldier’ structure sees traditional brigades task organised into BCTs with greater capability to operate independently.  The design of these BCTs is unashamedly modelled on the US approach to task organising at the brigade level.  This new structure is likely based on the assumption that each component unit has a level of common interoperability and can integrate into a larger divisional structure, including a US armoured division.  However, localised optimisation suggests that the UK’s doctrine and practice is diverging.  The British Army should explore methods to test assumptions as to what a UK BCT can achieve and where there are gaps in our level of interoperability both internally, and with partners.  Integrating a UK BCT into a US divisional exercise may provide the opportunity to generate the qualitative evidence needed to compare the US and UK BCT’s, in turn informing our own force and capability development requirements.


The French and US approaches provide a valuable perspective on how the British Army might resolve the twin challenges of using training to inform procurement and as a means of preparing the force for high-intensity conflict.  We should also consider how these approaches compare to the UK’s direction of travel.  The Integrated Operating Concept places a lot of competing demands on the British Army, particularly when it comes to the tension between operating abroad and training to fight.  We should recognise that, aside from a counter-terrorism operation in West Africa, the French have a relatively bounded approach to employing their military instrument.  Meanwhile, the US has the resources to both train to fight and remain persistently deployed overseas sustainably.

The British Army’s approach to preparing for contemporary and future threats is comparatively ambitious, especially given its relatively limited resources.  That level of ambition makes it harder to find the time, resource and capacity needed to address the implications of setting our collective field training ceiling at the battlegroup level.  The recommendations that follow are relatively modest.  As the dust settles on ‘Future Soldier’ in the coming years, it would be worth revisiting the implications of the British Army’s collective training ceiling so that bolder decisions might be taken to align precious resource against 21st century land forces with a clearer sense of purpose.

The opportunity for land forces to participate on large-scale exercises like Ex ORION 23 are afforded through the UK and France’s Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) construct. Even if the British Army cannot afford to deploy full formations in the field, it can afford to send select groups of staff and smaller units as augmentees to larger scale French exercises.  Typically, the likes of 16 Air Assault Brigade contribute to CJEF activity.  However, 16 Brigade are relatively unique in that their extreme level of readiness demands a level of interoperability that would be unfamiliar to other formations in the British Army’s order of battle.  Therefore, whilst perhaps going against the grain, the Army should prioritise CJEF opportunities for those combat service and combat service support units that typically enable armoured BCTs.

The British Army should closely track how the US Army trains for Multi Domain Operations.  Opportunities to integrate a UK BCT within an ‘at scale’ US field exercise should be actively pursued, so that a ‘like for like’ comparison between the UK and US formations can be achieved.  This would have the bonus of generating an evidence base to inform our own training and force development requirements.  This too would provide an evidential basis to underwrite the credibility, or otherwise, of the UK’s new BCTs.  We have got to be honest with ourselves.

The Field Army should invest in a means of capturing reliable lessons from major exercises to inform equipment programmes and capability development.  There is a particular absence of reliable lessons informing future C4I and digital programmes.  An independent, objective team of subject matter experts should be empowered to observe and understand the frictions that only occur when unfamiliar units operate alongside one another to achieve complicated tasks.  These observations, when processed into specific lessons by arm and service, would help build the evidence base to ensure that new equipment is delivered closer to time, closer to budget and against the accurate requirements of a force designed to fight the most challenging of conflicts.



  1. So too was Exercise CERBERUS, at 2,700 soldiers.
  2. Such as defence engagement, preparing units for deployment on routine operations as well as force generating soldiers for short notice tasks.
  3. The Integrated Operating Framework frames ‘Warfighting’ as a high intensity activity, along with operations other than war, including operations that seek to Protect, Engage and Constrain across a range of actors, audiences, adversaries, and enemies.
  4. Localised optimisation as coined by Bulmer, Christopher and the Land Deployable Applications Team, Army Headquarters. Interview with authors, Nov 2021.
  5. ibid
  6. Operational CIS and Tactical CIS respectively.

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