ARCHIVED - It takes a village, or six: the Canadian Army Urban operations training system

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Article / August 11, 2015 / Project number: 15-0075

Kingston, Ontario — Sometimes it takes a village to train the Canadian Army in close-combat urban warfare – and as a matter of fact, the Army has six.

The Canadian Army (CA) is continuing to prepare the Army of Tomorrow by constructing urban warfighting training villages on some of its military bases – complete with special effects like the intense flash of a detonation, the nerve-wracking sound of artillery fire and the acrid smell of spent explosives.

War takes the soldier wherever the enemy may be, and that means close-quarters combat in cities and towns has been and will continue to be common in many conflicts. Practise makes perfect, or at the very least, it increases soldiers’ competence and confidence levels when faced with the realities of actual urban combat.

With the intent to polish up its urban tactics, techniques and procedures, the CA is building urban landscapes out of concrete and enhancing them with special effects such as realistic sights, sounds and smells.

Called the Urban Operations Training System (UOTS), it consists of six life-sized villages on Canadian military bases including Edmonton, Shilo, Petawawa, Valcartier, Gagetown and Wainwright.

UOTS facilities are designed for use by opposing teams totalling up to 250 soldiers with their vehicles and equipment at a time.

The largest UOTS installation is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2017 in Wainwright, representing 50 per cent of the basic infrastructure budget, not including special effects equipment. When completed, it will have between 18 and 23 full-scale buildings.

In May 2012, $140M was approved for the implementation of the new system. Local contractors have been constructing the buildings on the bases, but the special effects sensors and simulators are the domain of Cubic Defense Application (CDA). UOTS is part of a larger simulation system known as Weapons Effects System (WES), parts of which are also delivered by CDA.

Training facilities for urban operations have existed for some time on Canadian bases. Prior to UOTS, the CA used a mix of simple plywood or cinderblock structures, metal shipping containers and surplus buildings that had no instrumentation or sensors. On many of the sites, most of the new UOTS buildings have been completed and only await the instrumentation phase to achieve final operational capability. Some pre-existing buildings were renovated and upgraded to become part of UOTS as well.

To my knowledge, this is the first time the Army has had sites that are dedicated to training that are purposely built for urban combat,” said Major S.J. (Sam) Pollock of the Simulation Policy section of the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre in Kingston, Ontario. “The electronic instrumentation is something new to the CA.

Sensors, whether tripped by soldiers during a scenario or remotely triggered by operators, set off effects such as smoke or the flash and sound of weapons fire. “There is a generator that will produce a smell as required, so if there has been a simulated artillery barrage, it will produce the smoke and sound that will give you that sense that you have just been subjected to an artillery barrage. That’s the idea,” he said.

The instrumentation inside the buildings create a more realistic environment and also captures lessons learned – we can actually review how the soldiers conducted themselves and whether they were properly employing the tactics they’d been taught,” said Maj Pollock. “That really brings a tremendous capability to the CA.

Complex scenarios have been developed to hone soldiers’ ability to respond to difficult missions within complex urban environments. More than just about engaging the enemy, the scenarios contain true-to-life human and cultural elements with challenges such as securing clean drinking water for the local population or overseeing food delivery under dangerous conditions.

If the commander chooses, they can even stop the play, talk about what just happened and then carry on,” he noted. “Or they may not want to stop the momentum and wait until the end. It’s flexible that way and there is no one way to do it. It’s up to the commander who is actually conducting the training.

The purpose-built structures are from one to three storeys tall, are outfitted with a variety of electronic instrumentation and include a town hall, a government building, townhouses, a school, warehouses, a police station, a bank, a religious structure, a service station, apartment houses and factories.

So there’s a whole gambit of types of buildings, and depending on the size of the site, there would be a selection of those buildings,” Maj Pollock explained.  “The instrumentation part of the system is almost as big, as far as costs go, as the infrastructure.” 

UOTS training involves two opposing forces, with the soldiers outfitted in basic military gear that has been enhanced with sensors that indicate when a soldier is deemed a casualty, including what the nature of the injury is, allowing teammates to practice their medical skills. Vehicle simulation is also intended to be integrated into UOTS, rounding out the experience and ensuring that the tactics are tested in as realistic an environment as possible.

When people are training, the adrenaline – without a doubt – is very high. It’s not like they are just walking through this. We see simulation as a means of placing soldiers in as real an experience as possible, and if they are really into it, it can be a very physical thing with high levels of stress and high levels of activity. As a result, when they encounter the real thing, they are better prepared mentally and physically,” he said.

Modern-day training in urban operations continues to benefit from Canadian innovation, and may well owe its roots to urban warfare tactics invented by Canadian soldiers during the Second World War.

Fighting in the streets is nothing new, and urban operations have, by necessity, been a component of training for a long, long time,” said Maj Pollock.

For example, Ortona was a famous battle of the Second World War where Canadians actually initiated some tactics that were basically new ways of fighting from building to building,” said Maj Pollock. He noted that there is a display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa that depicts this very battle.

One such tactic was “mouse-holing,” first used by the Canadian Army in Ortona in late December 1943. To avoid the enemy on the treacherous streets of the Italian town, members of the Canadian 1st Infantry Division broke or blasted holes through the walls of buildings, enabling them to move safely under cover. Since many buildings in Ortona had connecting walls, the Canadians could move quite far within the buildings without stepping outside and being targeted by their German adversaries.

Urban warfare may be nothing new, but the Army’s methods of training for it have certainly taken advantage of present-day technology and Canadian innovation.

It’s definitely one of those environments in which we can expect to be required to operate and therefore, the sites will give us that ability to train in the most realistic environment possible. The instrumentation enhances the experience and ensures that people are able to get trained to the best way they possibly can,” he said. “And who knows how it might develop in the future.

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

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