Armed Forces

Can virtual exercise replace traditional residential pre-deployment training?

generał Jozsef Szpisjak Photo: JFTC
generał Jozsef Szpisjak Photo: JFTC

Interview with Brigadier General Jozsef Szpisjak, JFTC Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff, and Training Director of the Resolute Support Training Event.

The Joint Force Training Centre in Bydgoszcz, Poland is now conducting the virtual Resolute Support training event. What is so special about this execution in comparison to previous ones?

JFTC has conducted Resolute Support (RS) training events for many years. Our compound, located in Bydgoszcz, Poland, is well prepared to train thousands of people every year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year is significantly different. Preparation process and execution of every training and exercise had to change, and this made our mission even more challenging than it used to be. The currently ongoing Resolute Support training event is a good example of changes we had to implement.

The most significant difference was that soldiers could not come to Bydgoszcz. All participants, future members of the allied mission in Afghanistan, were invited to join pre-deployment training on NATO online training platforms – to include the Joint Advanced Distributed Learning (JADL). All trainees participate in a five-day online training via open Internet, for many hours every day, from a number of places worldwide. Our state-of-the-art facility with modern simulation tools and training potential is not fully used. Instead, each day, participants use electronic individual work-through materials, tests, online discussion forums and live question & answers sessions with experts, also those who are currently working in Afghanistan.

All this means that for the currently ongoing Resolute Support event we had to shift to a completely new way of conducting pre-deployment training – from the type of execution we thoroughly knew, that had been worked-out, developed and brought close to perfection over the years, to, one could say, ‘terra incognita’, as fully distributed pre-deployment training was something new for us. But the decision we made in May, after the Resolute Support training event planned for April was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, was the only decision we could take. We had to do our best to offer future members of allied missions an alternative solution. And we did.

What were the main challenges you had to face while organising the extraordinary event?

170 trainees and 50 supporting staff, to include experts, are taking part in the training. We are hosting them all, but only virtually. Although we have already tested the NATO online training platform during another pre-deployment training earlier this year (NATO Mission Iraq Pre-Deployment Training; NMI in May), conducting full pre-deployment training online is still new for us and requires a lot of work behind the scene. In addition, the currently ongoing Resolute Support event is more challenging than the one for NMI in May – during the NMI training we trained one team, while at RS we have future members of three Headquarters on board – Resolute Support HQ, Train Advise Assist Command North, Train Advise Assist Command West. This means we have to coordinate three respective parts - especially, that some elements of the training programme are common for all.

Executing such a robust and complex training event is not easy – we have to gather people from 23 nations, from 10 time zones – and deliver all contents and data to our trainees. In addition, as everything is happening online, the contents provided need to be carefully screened and verified, sometimes adjusted – to make sure that no classified information is distributed.

What is more, some of the contents can be provided in presentations or course books, but we wanted to conduct the practical part as well. When it comes to culture, gestures and practicing advisory work with Afghan counterparts and interpreters, it is easier and more effective to take active action. The more you practise the more natural it becomes.

JFTC training team, together with our partners from Resolute Support Mission and Allied Command Transformation, have worked hard to mitigate this challenge. As a result, the training audience of the currently ongoing event receive a robust training package, supported with more than 80 virtual live sessions, to include remote advising simulations. Thanks to this solution our trainees can practice, ask questions and share knowledge, can use skills of those who used to serve or live in Afghanistan or who serve there at the moment.

We are very proud of what we achieved by now, however, I want to stress that although we implemented a lot of excellent mitigation measures to make the training as close to its original version as possible, nothing will fully replace a real training event with soldiers working hand in hand at JFTC in Bydgoszcz.

As the entire training event is conducted online, is it safe? What steps did NATO take to provide secure space for training entities?

Our task is to provide every possible solution to make this event safe. The NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) that supports JFTC during training execution, plays a very important role here. Together we have very broad experience. For example, in June this year, JFTC was a hub for the purely distributed Coalition Warrior Interoperability eXercise (CWIX). NCIA provided all needed net protection that allowed hundreds of people to conduct thousands of tests in a safe environment. During the currently ongoing Resolute Support training event, our main communications platform is JADL, administered by the Allied Command Transformation. NATO has worked on this platform for years and it is a safe space for NATO courses. JADL was also used during JFTC’s first online pre-deployment training – for future members of NATO Mission Iraq conducted in May this year, and it proved to be a very good and safe tool.

Why is the RS training event important? Does it have a real impact on the mission success?

It surely does. During NATO pre-deployment training events participants receive a full picture of their future assignments. Resolute Support training implements overall information about Afghan history, culture and tradition. The cooperation starts with mutual understanding. During the deployment, our trainees will represent their respective nations and NATO, they will be representatives of the allied mission for their Afghan counterparts and other Afghan citizens. Lack of cultural awareness of one member could potentially jeopardize the whole mission. Mission members with profound preparation received during pre-deployment training at JFTC, will be a huge contribution to the success of the mission.

Our responsibility is to keep the training and mission standards on a high level, and to minimalize the time soldiers need to accommodate – so they could start their work the very moment they put their boots on Afghan soil. The pre-deployment training gives the trainees a full picture of their future mission, its structure, tools and procedures they will use in theatre, and most of all, it gives them the opportunity to meet their colleagues and counterparts before they deploy to Afghanistan. Resolute Support is a multinational mission, therefore sometimes even communication between its members can be a challenge – be it for cultural reasons, but also due to linguistic barriers, as all nations speak English in a bit different way. Pre-deployment training is a good answer also to this challenge. It allows future mission partners to get to know each other before the deployment.

The team-building aspect of a pre-deployment training event, is one of the biggest challenges during COVID-19 restrictions.  We do everything we can to mitigate it, e.g. by the full spectrum of virtual live sessions. But let’s be honest here when we are talking about team-building, nothing compares to personal contact and interaction.

Do you think it would be possible, in the future, to replace residential training events and exercises in Bydgoszcz with online courses completely?

Definitely no. JFTC has conducted pre-deployment training events since its very beginning. During those years, we have improved our methods and added elements that are crucial in the training process. Work in small groups with subject matter experts and Afghan nationals is an excellent opportunity to experience challenges of teamwork.

Online training is a good solution for times of crisis such as COVID-19 pandemic. We are doing our best to mitigate the challenge we are facing. Some may say that such training saves time, some money or that having training materials available on online platforms is a chance to revise information and decide about the most relevant time to go through them. However, there are many very important areas, where the residential training event cannot be replaced.  I mentioned it earlier and I could not stress it more - personal contact and interaction cannot be overestimated in pre-deployment training. This is also the feedback we receive from soldiers – they prefer and profit more from residential training events.

On a more personal note I would like to add one thing. We are all aware at JFTC that soldiers coming to Bydgoszcz to take part in our training events and exercises have become an integral element of the local landscape. They are also an important part of the city’s cultural and social life. In addition, presence of our trainees in Bydgoszcz brings also significant profit to local economy – for example, over 5500 people visited JFTC in 2019, which gave an estimate number of 46 thousands hotel days, and almost 14 million PLN for hotels. And this is just the accommodation. Therefore, we want to assure the local community in Bydgoszcz, our dearest neighbours that we will be back with regular residential training events as soon as it is safe for all of us.

Thank you for conversation.

Questions asked by Ms Karolina Grzelska, JFTC Office of Public Affairs