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Fundamentals of Mutual Training Support

When counter-insurgency operations were at their height in the Twenty-First Century there was no shortage of studies or doctrine.  Stuffed within every rucksack was a copy of their army’s “Countering Insurgency” Field Manual, a paperback from Kilcullen or Galula, plus the latest wisdom from Petraeus and McChrystal.  In their wallet was a handy credit card-size primer covering the principles of COIN.  Although counter insurgency was not easy, it was clear what it meant. So where is Mutual Training Support?

The concept of mutual training support is less well defined.  When a NATO organisation is allocated one of these tasks, it can range from sending a handful of staff officers to another established unit for a seminar, to a medium-scale deployment to integrate with a new headquarters to help reach operational capability.  An example of this is the recent the experience of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) training alongside the Multinational Corps Southeast in Romania.

The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps on Exercise DEFENDER. Credit: NATO.

This article offers counsel on the fundamentals of mutual training support.  It is centred upon a NATO context, but is of equal relevance to military teams with regionally focused tasks.  The style reflects Kilkullen’s ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’, and is written at the tactical level – in case you are sat alongside a recently met counterpart and wondering whether you are a mentor, player, shadow or just plain outsider.

 What is mutual training support?

If you are not familiar with the term mutual training support, the first thing to note is that it is a journey, not a destination.  It can start off slow, through staff talks and academic programmes.  It can escalate in commitment to supporting a team being assessed for combat operations, a process in NATO known as a combat readiness evaluation.  While traditionally a peacetime activity, this distinction is blurred in an era of constant competition.  

An underlying principle must be, however, that the relationship between those involved is enduring; if it does not endure it is simply one-off augmentation.  What can be challenging, though, is that the concept lacks a commonly understood definition with clear parameters, objectives and end states. While mutual training support may not yet be an exact science, it is a task that NATO members can expect to continue with international partners, part of persistent engagement across the Alliance as outlined by a previous Chief of Staff to the ARRC.  The process is likely to feature similar stages wherever it takes place: preparation, deployment and the post-script assessment.  The Ten Articles below come from the lived experience.


The mutual training support task handed down from commanders may be a gradual slow-burner, or alternatively a quick-fire effect, but it will inevitably have a preparation phase.

  1. Mutual: the clue is in the title If you think that you are preparing to deploy as a recruit instructor, then think again.  The people who you will support are professional soldiers, perhaps already part of NATO, specialists in their field and may be a damn sight better qualified than you are.  You have something to add to the party, probably based on your recent experience, but that special skill is finite and should not be overplayed.  The relationship that will be formed is of mutual benefit; peer mentoring.  Most likely the group being supported have regional expertise to impart to those who may be defined as mentors.  Get this right in the preparation phase or get ready to have an uncomfortable experience.  An obvious way to set this in place is through early, agreed mutual training objectives.  Include in these key milestones to be achieved together.  A good place to start is to use Tuckman’s stages of group development as a framework: forming, storming, norming and performing.1
  2. Don’t try to recreate you.  Their headquarters will not be your headquarters; their structure will not be the same as your ‘perfect’ structure.  It can come as a surprise to a new military mentor, but almost every unit does things a little differently, even if their task is the same.  That can be in battle rhythm, organisation of subordinate formations, interaction with the commander, responsibilities in the host nation etc.  And that is not to mention culture, which is partly (but not uniquely) defined by the largest contributing nation.  Trying to get a supported headquarters to mirror yours means starting off on the wrong foot.
  3. Get to know the ground.  In this respect you are at a disadvantage.  Most likely you will be operating (in a scenario or for real) on unfamiliar ground, and this is what you will hope to learn during deployment.  However, just like before any operational tour, map recces and preparatory work can pay huge dividends; spend as much time as possible to get up to speed on ground and enemy.  At the very least, a little bit of local knowledge will stop you from looking a fool as you confuse the names of key bridges with canals, rivers and mountains.  As Kilcullen said of counter insurgency: “Know your turf.”2


The day will come when you have to dig out your black Gorilla box from storage, stack-up files of doctrine amongst packs of nicotine/vapes and coffee (plus gizzits and gifts) and deploy.

  1. Recognise that you are an administrative burden.  Hopefully you will have enjoyed a reception and integration package, been shown around the ground, have decent accommodation and be as well looked after as conditions and budget allow.  Don’t forget, however, that you being here is an additional task for someone else.  If you have deployed en-masse with most of your military colleagues, that administrative burden will multiply.  Do your very best to accept the food, weather, working environment, computer and IT failings, leaking tents or lack of air con.  The main effort here is you supporting them, not the other way around.  Pride and reputation may well mean that the supported unit doubles-up its efforts in looking after its guests, to the potential detriment of its own efficiency and people.
  2. Get stuck in: learning by doing.  The routine way of working will mean you have already exchanged hundreds of slides of PowerPoint and dozens of standard operating procedures.  Deployment is a different stage.  Go old school: get the team around the map; if there isn’t a map, get the team around the map model.  Label the enemy, friendly forces and boundaries, ensure mutual understanding of the basics, and start planning.  If it isn’t raining, take the team outside for briefings or a terrain walk; if it is raining, take the team outside and get to know the local conditions.  This is your shared environment as soldiers.  Learning by doing alongside multinational partners will beat a thousand presentations.
  3. Reputation trumps rank.  Rank brings with it privileges.  From the off, those of higher rank will be granted respect due to the number of stripes or stars on their chest.  It will not take long, however, for an informal hierarchy, built on newfound reputation, to develop.  In newly formed teams, what you deliver in front of people and in person will define your reputation.  Those who are prepared to roll their sleeves up, and fight the hard yards with their counterparts, will end the deployment with respect and effective seniority.  These are the people who will be listened to and called back again, not the most senior officer in the room.
  4. Coffee, cake (and Palinka).  There will be hard times in the deployment: boredom, frustration, misunderstandings and bad tempers.  If you train as you fight, you should be under stress.  Frictions are inevitable.  This will be exacerbated if it is a brand-new team in place, and one that will always be temporary.  Take the opportunity to break free from the operation or the scenario and find time together with counterparts; this usually involves coffee (tea with the British) and cake.  If you are lucky, and in Romania, you might even share some Palinka.  These are the moments when real friendships are formed.  These are the times that you will remember.


ENDEX is announced, the enemy is defeated, and you are printing off boarding passes for your flight home while preparing notes for a hot wash-up.  The key point to note is that the journey is not over; for the home team, it has only just begun.

  1. Success: it’s not about winning.  As long as there was no real enemy fighting at the gates, the tactical battle did not matter.  Who cares if you beat the simulator (or better, a real, thinking adversary)?  What is most important is learning.  The mark of a leading military unit is one that can reflect and signpost improvements.  This process should have commenced before your deployment, but perhaps lessons Identified got side-tracked in the turmoil of just getting enough people in the right place, with the right equipment at the right time.  Perhaps the lessons learned officer is tripled-hatted with no formal training.  Now this new process must be ingrained in the culture through an honest self-appraisal that identifies areas for improvement across all aspects of capability, including personnel, equipment, training and funding.  These capability improvements need to be mapped against appropriate milestones; potentially from initial to full operating capability some years down the line.  And the lessons process should not end with the supported unit or headquarters; the supporting team will return home with plenty of insights.
  2. Monogamy, polygamy or just special friends.  While it is tempting to see your team’s redeployment as the end, that sounds too much like a one-night stand.  If mutual training support is to endure, it will be helpful to be clear on the nature of the relationship before this moment – are there defined events in the next 6-12 months where lessons identified can be developed and retested, or best practice observed and implemented?  There are plenty of other well-qualified military mentors who might also add value to a developing team – who can you recommend?  Diversity is to be encouraged to some degree, but it can also bring confusion.  As mentioned, all nations and units do things in their own way and it may not be the moment for military speed dating.  Both sides will benefit from knowing in advance where the boundaries lie in the future relationship, and whether this is to be monogamy, polygamy or just special friends.
  3. Plot stepping stones across the river.  The most important point is to have plotted steppingstones across the river, to know where the journey begins and ends.  Again, this should have been a shared process from the off, but reality means that when running hot there will have been little opportunity to pause and reflect.  This stage will likely be at commander level, following input from the staff.  It requires leadership to push back against all the institutional and organisational constraints and plot new mutual training support touchpoints beyond those first envisaged potentially many months ago.  Without this, there is a danger of meandering down the river without a clear pathway to the other side.


Mutual training support, done right, will be one of the most rewarding things you do. It is rare to get the chance, outside the chain of command, for prolonged peer mentoring.  The experience should be better than a dozen command post exercises against an invisible enemy.  You already have the aptitude, skills, background and knowledge to make a real difference.  What matters now is having the right attitude.  Some of the articles above may help steer a pathway; some may be contradictory.  They are not gospel.  Supported and supporting organisations, and their teams within teams, will plot their own destiny.  As with most things in the military, in mutual training support you get out what you put in.

Gary Allen

Gary Allen is a British Army Officer in the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.  He has served in operations in the Middle East and Europe and has 20 years of experience in single and joint environments as well as with NATO and the UN.

The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.


  1. Tuckman, Bruce W (1965). “Developmental sequence in small groups”. Psychological Bulletin. 63 (6): 384–399.
  2. Kilcullen, David, ‘Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency,’ Military Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, 2006, 103.

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