No human experience is more stressful than combat. The adrenaline rush, the senses are overwhelmed by harsh noise as bullets crack nearby, each carrying the threat of death or serious injury.
For two world wars, the Australian Army conducted weapons training mostly unrelated to what soldiers would experience the first time they actually came under enemy fire, by practicing shooting at large stationary bullseye targets at known distances, and with no-one shooting back.
Through World War 2, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, the Army improved how it prepared soldiers for combat. Australian troops went off to Timor Leste, Iraq and Afghanistan well prepared and mostly well equipped.
Now, with the experience of two decades of deployments, the Army is looking to do even better.
“What we are looking at is an optimal system of training enablers to develop what’s called a pre-combat veteran,” LTCOL Dan Harrison, capability manager for land training support systems in Army headquarters told ADBR.
“It focuses on building experience. It works on building people’s confidence by delivering experience. The idea is once you have gone through all this you will end up here as a pre-combat veteran. A pre-combat veteran is someone whose experiential learning is indistinguishable from combat.”
Although other militaries may have similar training concepts, the term ‘pre-combat veteran’ appears uniquely Australian. A Google search produced only references to the Australian Army, and not too many at that, while some literature refers to pre-battle veterans.
During his time as Chief of Army, now Chief of the Defence Force GEN Angus Campbell said the Army should unashamedly aspire to be one of the best in the world, albeit not the biggest. And the new approach to training is delivering on that, producing combatants who are not only better shooters, but overall better soldiers as well.
“All soldiers – regardless of their corps – need to be competent in small team tactics in complex terrain. All soldiers need to be expert in the use of personal weapons and in unarmed combat,” says the Army’s ‘Land Warfare Doctrine 1-0 Personnel’ released last year.
LTCOL Harrison said combat placed the ultimate demand on the human mind, and the more the soldier’s mind can be prepared through experience and familiarity, the greater the capacity to deal with the unexpected.
“We are making an assumption that we will not put someone in harm’s way who is not prepared to be there,” he said. “That’s something that Army has always done. We have certainly tried to prepare people for combat as well as possible.
“What we are doing now is better understanding what it takes to prepare someone for combat by starting to delve into the preparation of the mind by knowing enough about combat psychology to know what we don’t know, and to start to focus on what are the training requirements we are delivering.”
This isn’t just for the psychologists, although they have certainly been engaged. It’s drawn much from the experience of two decades of deployments in Timor Leste, Iraq and Afghanistan. Lessons learned by Australian special forces – some of the finest exponents of close quarters combat in the world – have been consciously translated across the Army.
LTCOL Harrison said the new training techniques had already been adopted by some of Army’s brigades with very positive results. “They started to look at the feedback and the soldiers were saying, ‘I have learned more in five days than in five years’,” he said. “That is now the consistent feedback from a number of soldiers. That is not their instructors asking them – this is scientists from the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group.”
There’s been a very substantial investment in training facilities, capability and technology, with much more to come. Major Army acquisition projects include requirements for specific target and training capabilities. These include Projects LAND 400 Phases 2 CRV and 3 IFV, LAND 125 Phase 4 Soldier Systems, LAND 159 refresh of small arms and other lethal systems, and LAND 4108 heavy weapons refresh.
But there’s more. Both the rotation of US Marine Corps elements through the Northern Territory and the training of the Singaporean military at Shoalwater Bay require substantial infrastructure development, including target systems and ranges.
In mid-May, Defence opened a $300m tender for managing contractor services for upgrading of training infrastructure to support the US NT Force Posture Initiative. That includes a large range of works, including new weapons ranges and all required targetry for the Robertson Barracks close training area and also for training areas at Kangaroo Flats, Mount Bundey and Bradshaw. The tender closed on June 25.
LTCOL Harrison told us that, while previously target systems had been the responsibility of the Defence Estate and Infrastructure Group, that mode of delivery was changing. “CASG has not done ranges before, but there is a whole bunch of stuff we have asked them to do,” he said.
“CASG is now going to be the acquisition agency for the integrated land target system. We went to CASG and said we want you to be the ones who deliver everything that a soldier, sailor or airman reacts against in a live training environment. We said we needed a one stop shop, and CASG is going to be that one stop shop.”
LTCOL Harrison said the capability manager would continue to be the Army Simulation Program. “In the future training environment there are going to be so many overlaps between the synthetic and live representations of operational actors, it makes more sense to have the one agency delivering the whole thing.
“You are now going to start to see an integration of your target systems and live simulation systems,” he added. “We never had that before, but we now have that written into requirements and fully funded it.”
The Integrated Land Target System group has identified a budget of $7 to $13m a year over the next 10 years which is expected to grow. The next step is to build the evidence bases.
“At the moment it’s all qualitative data,” LTCOL Harrison said. “Now we are starting to put biometric sensors on soldiers and putting them in a free roam immersive simulator and mapping those responses.
“We are also getting the psychologists involved. We have just announced a contract with the University of Newcastle for free roam immersive combat simulation and biometrics analysis, and we will start to build that bell-curve of what combat resilience looks like.“We have also started to understand what it takes to prepare the mind for combat, and the target systems and ranges and other technology enablers and simulation required to support that.”
LTCOL Harrison said the development of the combat mindset in Australian soldiers begins in initial training. Traditionally, recruit basic weapons training featured emphatic and repeated warnings that firearms were dangerous, that they were only for killing, and that training in their use was a serious business.
“But what you are doing from the outset is frontloading that training with fear,” he said. “The trainee was learning from the outset to be afraid of the weapon, instead of comfortable with the weapon. By improving that mindset, you are able to free up the mind to improve learning which then translates to more advanced training, resulting in better decisions when faced with uncertainty.”
The Army will continue to use its Weapons Training Simulation System (WTSS), a virtual and immersive weapons capability as a “no consequence” training enabler using laser beams rather than live ammunition.
But no consequence means participants gain no sense of lethal consequence from their use of weapons. LTCOL Harrison said the Army was well aware of this effect, which was why troops deploying on operations always underwent live fire training before departing.
That has led to some interesting innovations. One is greater use of frangible training ammunition, less powerful than conventional ammunition, but still able to cycle the weapon and be effective out to about 100 metres.
“It delivers lethal consequence,” he said. “In the mind of the combatant there is still an association between pulling a trigger and having a lethal consequence at the other end. But it’s much less damaging to targetry and range infrastructure.
“We wanted it as an indoor training round. It’s lead-free which now brings indoor training ranges within the financial grasp of conventional forces. You can start to come up with some really interesting engineering solutions for training.”
One of those is the Live Fire Range in a Box, developed by Australian Target Systems which is run by former special forces officer Paul Burns. This is a 40 foot armoured shipping container, with a video screen and bullet trap at one end, and places for two shooters firing live ammunition out of genuine EF88 rifles at the other.
The system detects the heat of bullet strike on the polymer rubber screen, and can be configured to display almost any scenario in high definition video. LTCOL Harrison said good training enablers delivered flexibility, variety and realism.
A routine grumble of office-bound Defence personnel is that they seldom get to shoot often enough to maintain currency. Additionally, ranges are often distant and heavily committed. But the containerised Range in Box can go where it’s needed. It comes with its own weapons and ammunition which means users don’t have to undertake the hassle of drawing a rifle and ammo from an armoury.
Range in a Box is now on a capability demonstration tour to Enoggera, Shoalwater Bay and Townsville.
During the risk reduction activity at Majura outside Canberra, some SF soldiers spent their downtime practising shooting. “We had two instructors in that box for nearly a whole day,” LTCOL Harrison said. “They never got sick of it.”
This particularly allows soldiers to train on dealing with the multiple fleeting targets they will likely encounter in real combat.
Then there’s Australian company Marathon Targets’ robotic targets which are revolutionising live-fire field training in the Australian Army and also in the US Marine Corps. Each of their products unit comprises an armoured four-wheel all-terrain base unit, topped by a plastic mannequin which lowers when shot. Significantly, these operate autonomously and don’t require an operator.
They can zip backwards and forwards across a range, providing soldiers with practice in shooting at moving targets. Or they can be used in urban or bushland environments, as fleeting moving targets. Groups of the robots will scatter when one is shot, providing a far more realistic reaction.
The US Marine Corps found that practicing with these robots dramatically improved ability to hit moving targets. In earlier days, the first time soldiers actually encountered moving targets was on the battlefield.
LTCOL Harrison said it was quite a big deal to have an Australian company exporting into the US defence market. “We identified this as a training requirement some 20 years ago and invested in the engineering. They ended up developing a unique product, and there was enough here to keep them in business.
“We have them at school of infantry at Singleton, use them for combat shooting training and sniper training,” he added. “The feedback we’ve got is fantastic – they are unique. There is no other way to train a sniper to do all the functions without a realistic human target at the other end.
“And as we started to better understand the training requirements, we now have ‘big army’ looking at this and saying we really do need this – it’s not just a luxury for special forces.”
This does raise some complex issues, and LTCOL Harrison is cognisant that this is aimed at turning young men and women into better soldiers, not more effective killers.
“What we are doing is taking the approach that we want our young men and women to be the best possibly prepared for a lethal force encounter, and to know they have had the training and experience and confidence to deal with that situation,” he said.
He said a soldier with the tools, training and experience went to a place of confidence in their first experience of combat. “If the answer is, ‘no, I’m not prepared for this’, you go to anxiety and anxiety is exactly the last place you want to be in a firefight.
“We have always done the best we can do with the knowledge we had at the time. We have learned more about the human brain in the last 20 years and the way to prepare it for combat. We are better at understanding this and the training technologies we can use to deliver that training experience.”
When it comes to weapons system training, Army armoured vehicles, Tiger ARH helicopters and RAAF fast jets also need realistic targets, but too often what has previously been used bore little or no resemblance to real-world systems.
As an officer in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps and an M1A1 Abrams tank commander, Steen Bisgaard found himself shooting at shipping containers, half-sized wooden cut-outs, and relic friendly vehicle hulks, then producing fictional after-action reports describing what they had hit. “Simply put, everyone could see the targetry problem, but no one had solved it,” he told ADBR.
His company GaardTech was launched in 2018, and now makes realistic 2D and 3D replica armoured vehicle targets, including T-80, BMP-3, BRDM-4 and SA-6 in 3D, and T-80, T-90, BMP-3, BRDM and BTR-80 in 2D.
These are all common Eastern Bloc systems likely to be encountered anywhere Australian troops are deployed, but GaardTech says it will produce any 2D or 3D target type a customer may request for mission-specific and emergent-threat training.
GaardTech’s targets also come with systems to create realistic thermal, RF, WIFi and GSM signatures to enable night training using thermal sensors and long range detection systems, along with conventional targeting systems.
“All our systems are steel so they have exceptional durability – they can take many many rounds,” Bisgaard said. “We have seen more than 25 Abrams main battle tank rounds go into a 3D target and it’s still standing, and more than 1,000 25mm rounds into 2D targets and they are still standing.”
During Exercise Chong Ju 2019, the Army’s live fire demonstration at Puckapunyal, one 2D target was engaged simultaneously by multiple ASLAV 25mm guns and then Tiger ARH 30mm guns, and still stood to enable training for another day.
“We try and make them at a cost point so that once you have destroyed them, you can recycle them and receive a new fresh set,” Bisgaard said. “That also enables people to know exactly where they have hit the clean targets, so scoring and shot placement is enabled, plus it supports the ADF’s clean range policy, increasing environmental sustainability.”
Next from GaardTech is a demonstration to Army and the RAAF of their robotic 3D full size steel T-80 targets which are powered by electric motors and are able to be controlled remotely or with a semi-autonomous capability. A group of tanks could appear in the distance and then conduct a series of manoeuvres – a far more realistic training scenario for Australian forces than one employing just static targets.
So far the RAAF has just used these targets for aerial observation training. “RAAF has completed two orders in the first half of 2019,” Bisgaard said, adding that, “GaardTech anticipates we will see ordnance dropped on these in one of their next activities.” Any target hit by live RAAF ordnance likely won’t be reusable, but GaardTech says that’s still cost effective given the high cost of flight hours and ordnance.
GaardTech 3D targets are also set to be used at Shoalwater Bay Training Area for July’s Exercise Talisman Saber in an activity involving the US Marine Corps’ multiple launch rocket system (MLRS).
Bisgaard said their targets had great potential for artillery training. “Long range fires and critical asset targeting is extremely important for how a networked force will want to fight,” he said. “You want to be able to find the high value systems and then destroy them from as far away as possible with minimal expose to your assets.
“A UAV can now go and find the enemy high value targets, however they will not be just sitting in the open waiting to die. They will have to be identified using multiple sensors and then they have to be struck within the limited strike window.”
GaardTech targets are manufactured in Brisbane and shipped as flat packs. A single shipping container can fit 10 full-sized 3D T-80 tanks, and each can be assembled in an hour using hand tools. Bisgaard said this method works out much cheaper than target systems the Army has traditionally used which required large boxes, and silhouettes which required heavy vehicles and cranes to place and remove them.
“We are highly competitive on cost and we can reduce the logistics burden immensely. We estimate that we are about 50 per cent cheaper than what has traditionally been used,” Bisgaard said. “When you look at logistics in Australia, the true cost of doing an activity is extremely high due to the distances to the training areas. With GaardTech Targets you remove all the craneage, trucking and MHE costs.“You might spend a little more on the systems than large steel plates, but getting it there and setting it up will cost far less and result in a far superior and highly realistic training scenario which will test and educate the forces beyond anything historically conducted.”
This feature appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of ADBR.