ORLANDO, Fla. — American and European military officials are taking a harder look at allied training, prompted by the lessons of Russia’s nearly yearlong assault on Ukraine.
Leaders have long stressed the need for international cooperation in combat training. But the war in Ukraine has added a new urgency, which was on display at the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference here this week.
“This war is not only a war against Ukraine,” said Maj. Gen. Serhii Salkutsan, its military representative to NATO. “This is a war against the democratic and civilized world.”
Watching the conflict unfold has reinforced for leaders the idea that troops must train in the same way as they fight. That means preparing as a group, with enough weapons and information to avoid surprises on the battlefield.
“There’s no individual service that is going to own the next fight. Neither will a single country,” said Caroline Baxter, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force education and training. “Just look at what’s happening in Ukraine: the coalition of countries that are sharing weapons and tools and training tactics and techniques.”
“It’s a really striking example of why we, as the training community, need to improve our interoperability — and fast,” she added.
About 150 military exercises take place across Europe every day, ranging from those as small as “five soldiers and a Jeep” to those requiring thousands of personnel and their equipment, said Maj. Gen. Jessica Meyeraan, U.S. European Command’s director of exercises and assessment.
Only 15 or so count as large joint force exercises. Military officials argued it’s important to make the most of that time in person, but that countries should also pursue compatible technology so forces can train together in the digital realm.
“I would like to see a high degree of simulator interoperability between allies and partners, built on code,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Claesson, Sweden’s chief of joint operations.
In some cases, that will mean lowering the security and design standards for combat systems to level the playing field for more countries, he said.
The objectives of those wargames and training exercises are evolving, too.
Meyeraan said that in the last two years, allied forces have acknowledged that training needs to “focus on a real-world threat” to better understand how a conflict might unfold.
Another lesson learned so far: Western wargaming must include the roles and institutions of civil society. That’s proven crucial as Russian airstrikes have targeted Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and interrupted public utilities.
“We have been using terms like ‘hybrid warfare,’” Claesson said. “We’ve tended to forget that ‘hybrid’ also contains aspects like weapons of mass destruction, aspects of conventional war, together with the asymmetric parts in the information environment, etc. We are watching in Ukraine a material war that we haven’t probably seen since the First World War.”
For Ukraine’s part, Salkutsan praised the country’s concerted effort to build up its senior enlisted corps since Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014.
Professional military education at the National Defence University in Kyiv has ground to a halt as all troops have been called to defend the front. That’s shown the need for a more universal curriculum that can be taught in war or peace, regardless of whether the formal schoolhouse is in use, Salkutsan said.
He would also like to see the Ukrainian military offer lessons in basic combat skills to members of the public. Everyday Ukrainians, from accountants to cooks, have fought off Russian troops despite having no military training to form human blockades, attack Russians with their own weapons and track incoming missiles using a cell phone application.
Ukrainian troops have benefited from yearslong formal training partnerships with U.S. National Guard units and combat exercises alongside other European nations.
Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Ukraine has pushed its partner nations for a steady stream of weapons and gear but has sometimes struggled without in-depth instructions on how to use assets like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, a surface-to-air missile launcher.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the Pentagon is considering a major expansion of its training assistance to Ukrainian troops.
“The plan — under discussion for weeks, according to senior U.S. defense officials — would build on the billions of dollars in weaponry and other aid Washington has provided Ukraine by showing its military how to wage a more sophisticated campaign against the struggling Russian army,” the Post wrote.
“It would see Ukrainian combat units with hundreds, or possibly even thousands of troops, training together in Grafenwoehr, Germany, where the U.S. military has instructed Ukrainian forces in smaller numbers for years.”
Russian aggression has spurred other European countries to pour more funding into their national defense as well.
Claesson noted that Nordic countries that border Russia are hustling to meet a growing set of daily mission demands on top of trying to rapidly scale up their militaries.
“We barely woke up in 2008 when Russia attacked Georgia,” he said. “We woke up when Russia attacked and occupied Crimea. However, there was no flow of resources. In 2020, when things were starting to go south again … the resources started coming.”
Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said Tuesday that while much of the service’s future budget planning revolves around military competition with China, Russia is still in the mix.
“Current events would indicate that Russia may be more of a concern than we thought,” he said. “There’s also the other side of that coin that says, ‘It’s going to be a long time before we have to worry about them doing anything.’”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.