Exercise Maple Guardian
LOUISE MERCIER-JOHNSON
© 2010 FrontLine Defence (Vol 7, No 1)

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Practice, practice, practice – this is what saves lives in the army. As 1 RCR Battle Group prepares for deployment to Afghanistan, practice is what they get at Fort Irwin’s National Training Centre in the Mojave Desert. Leaving deep snow and –30° degree temperatures back home, some 3500 Canadian soldiers head to the desert, as part of Exercise Maple Guardian 2010, to prepare for war.


Bird’s eye view of the ‘village’ of  Ertebat Shar.

The base is eerily like Afghanistan; rocky desert, mountainous terrain, hot days and surprisingly cold nights. With over 1000 square miles for tank manoeuvres and artillery ranges, it provides an ideal mission training environment.

1 RCR Battle Group is being taught to fight to survive, and fight to protect. With less than 4 months to go before the next Afghanistan deployment, Maple Guardian is designed to teach Canadian soldiers how to effectively deploy as one single entity – a lethal weapon comprised of 14 different Canadian Regiments.


Wounded civilians (actors) in the aftermath of a mock IED explosion.

Every soldier here in Fort Irwin will endure the most advanced and gruelling military training in the world. Until now, at least half the soldiers have not seen the real enemy, but they will need to be prepared the moment they land in theatre. This exercise includes hard core rehearsals that transition soldiers into warriors and strip all pretences of safety and normalcy.

For the first week the men and women are tested, as a platoon, with cutting edge counter insurgency drills – the training will then escalate into more complex scenarios with the larger battle group. To the uninitiated, these tests are violent and stunning.


Members of 1 RCR: Pte Zedic-Best, MCpl Baillie, and Cpl Dickin.

Violent in part, because they are crisply realistic in every detail. Within the mock village of Ertebat Shar there is a functioning hotel; the smell of cooking shish-kabob is in the air, and men and women (paid actors) are walking the streets of the ‘village,’ conducting their everyday business.
As the dismounted soldiers move deep into the village for their first mock encounter with the enemy, they have no idea where or when army trainers will spring their first trap. Within minutes it begins, a mock IED explodes and the platoon commander and his sections are thrown into immediate stress.


CLS Lieutenant-General Leslie thanks the FLG (forward logistics group) at RUBA.

Multiple bombs are exploding, women are screaming, the music continues to wail from the sound systems, and gun fire pollutes an already impossibly loud street corner that looks like the worst car accident you’ve ever seen. What is most piercing to the observer is the absolute calm of the soldiers as they rely on their training to maintain composure, wading through blown-off limbs and casualties as they focus on their mission.

Through the entire “stand” the soldiers are constantly monitored by a high fidelity computer monitoring system that will be part of their de-brief after the exercise. A backroom monitoring station tracks the movement of every soldier, allowing for precise assessment during the post-exercise instruction period. Most importantly, the evaluations, assisted with live video and the MILES system (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) allow soldiers to learn from their mistakes.


“Canada is our friend,” said BGen Abrams (left) Commander of the National Training Centre, after being thanked by LGen Andrew Leslie, “and we are lucky to have you as friends. ­Anything we can do to help prepare and protect your troops is our honor and pleasure.”

This intense training prepares soldiers both physically and emotionally. It teaches them to think through every conceivable catastrophic incident.

Each exercise or “stand” within these villages can be escalated into difficulty within a platoon, a section, a company, and eventually the entire battle group. The soldiers are taught, trained and evaluated and retrained again. Lessons are learned, practiced, and relearned.

When asked about the importance of this exercise, Chief of the Land Staff (Canada’s head of the Army), LGen Leslie is unequivocal: “every dollar we spend [on this training] is worth it as it’s a dollar spent saving lives.” After witnessing the fidelity of the training – guns firing, bombs exploding, women screaming, and the relentless confusion of noise, smoke and human drama, it is impossible to disagree.

Set in the Mojave Desert, Fort Irwin provides the necessary terrain to teach soldiers, in a team environment, how to detect insurgents without mistaking them for friendlies, and how to avoid getting killed in the process.
 
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Louise Mercier is president of FrontLineServices
© FrontLine Defence 2010

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