'When he looked at a map, Zhukov did not just reproduce the picture of the past engagement; he could foresee the nature of the future encounter and in a matter of minutes 'play out', as it were, the various scenarios first for himself and then for the enemy. He could put himself in the enemy's place for a while so that when he became himself again he could evaluate the intentions of the enemy.'
– A. Chakovskly, 'The Blockade'

The Combat Training Centre (CTC) routinely identifies weaknesses in the planning of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and ground combat operations. These trends are universal; they have been observed in every Combat Brigade. An example of a common observation is: 'Many staff appear unable to visualise the battle unfolding in the battlespace during planning. They are therefore unable to see the relevance of the products they are producing.'

Coup d'Oeil

The ability to appreciate the enemy, friendly forces and the terrain has long been valued by soldiers. When executed at a glance, Frederick the Great, Antonie Jomini and Clausewitz articulated visualisation as the Coup d’Oeil. Clausewitz, for example, describes the Coup d’Oeil as 'the idea of a rapid and accurate decision... based on an evaluation of time and space'. In the past two decades, the US Army has referred to this skill as visualisation and included it in capstone doctrine.

Field Manual 5-0, The Operations Process places visualisation at the centre of effective command and control:

'Commander's visualisation—the mental process of developing situational understanding, determining a desired end state, and envisioning an operational approach by which the force will achieve that end state. Commander’s visualisation begins in planning and continues throughout the operations process until the force accomplishes the mission. During planning, commander’s visualisation provides the basis for developing plans and orders.'
– FM 5.0

Improving Visualisation

Whilst the Australian Army does not specifically train visualisation, other Armies do. Analysing international approaches to visualisation training reveals two broad schools of thought. The first of these divides visualisation into sub-skills and focuses on training each component individually. An example of this approach was the short-lived US Army program called Endstate. which identified focus areas for visualisation training through interviews with Battalion and Brigade commanders returning from the Second Gulf War. The Endstate program trained Officers in each of these skill-sets through interactive scenarios, vignettes and practical demonstrations. Endstate was not widely adopted as a training methodology.

The second approach supposes that, through repetitive exposure to decision making, commanders and staff will develop the capacity to rapidly and accurately understand the possibilities of friendly and enemy manoeuvre. In this approach, visualisation is trained as a whole skill rather than a set of components. This is consistent with the view of noted design author Dietrich Dorner, who says: 'Geniuses are geniuses by birth, whereas the wise gain their wisdom through experience. We need to learn to deal with different situations that place different demands on us. And we can teach this skill, too—by putting people into one situation, then into another, and discussing with them their behaviour and, most important, their mistakes.'

Wargames as Visualisation Training 

Implementing Dorner’s model is potentially expensive; military training and mistakes are costly. For this reason, Armies have long sought means to practice decision making at less than full scale field training. Wargames do this and provide opportunities that full scale exercises cannot. Peter Perla, a faculty member at United States Naval War College says: 'The need to explore, repeat, and reflect on decisions made in the context of games is critical to what we must do to learn better how to cope with a world rapidly moving beyond our range of real experiences.' Wargames also support modernisation. German wargaming and exercises between the wars employed equipment that their Army did not have. The famous Rainbow Plans gamed at the US Naval War College in the 1930s were entirely constructed activities that set the doctrinal and organisational basis for US operations in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Whilst practical examples of wargaming are common, it is useful to examine why they work and provide a markedly different tool to computer simulation for training visualisation. Perla contends that because wargames are a form of prose they create meanings for the participants beyond the data presented. The participants become story tellers in their own right which in turns leads to greater understanding: 'Wargames, particularly what we call high-engagement games, extend the imaginative work of art or literature into the physical world and place the participants in control of some portion of the narratives. Players are participants, not merely spectators.” We need high-engagement role-playing games to help decision makers experience interactions with other humans and also the emotional and psychological effects of those interactions.' (Perla & McGrady 2011)

Is the Australian Army training Visualisation?

In the German Army from 1920-1945, various forms of wargames were the preferred means to train visualisation. Australian Army doctrine has not codified visualisation, however, Land Warfare Procedures 7-3-1 reveals an array of war-game like exercises that compare favourably with the assessed historical best practice of the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht. The only German interwar wargame that does not have a reasonable equivalent in Australian Doctrine is the Exercise Ride. The Exercise Ride should not be mistaken for a US Army Staff ride, which is a historical walk through of a campaign, but rather a combination of a Command Post Exercise (CPX), Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) and a Field Training Exercise. In the German Army Training Rides were conducted for several days and mostly in the field. At the operational level, they were used to explore problems in national defence. At the tactical level, they were used to educate commanders and their staff in combat and logistic operations.

In 2016, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment conducted a number of variations of the Exercise Ride involving battle group and combat team headquarters. These exercises occur in much the same way as any field training exercise, however, only the Battlegroup and Combat Team Headquarters deploy to the field. The execution phase is driven by a lower control (normally the drivers of Tactical Headquarters), providing reporting to stimulate decision making and analysis at Combat Team and Battle Group level. The lower and higher control are manipulated by the exercise director, normally the Commanding officer, through face to face communication or written note. Leaders are required to develop plans, deliver orders, conduct rehearsal of concept drills, move and establish command posts, and transition from their main to tactical headquarters and back again.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that the Exercise Ride is superior to CPX and TEWT for training visualisation. Perla suggests this advantage arises because the participants 'suspend their disbelief' and become immersed in the activity. The exercise ride offers unique opportunities to create suspended disbelief because there are fewer unrealities than other training. Officers plan and execute in their actual headquarters; and the weather and terrain, and human factors are real. Because the activity is in a field environment the exercise director can provide additional 'cues' to participants. These could include: a small actual Red force opposed to the Blue Headquarters or simulated artillery and Electronic Warfare (EW). Command posts can also suffer exercise casualties and the myriad of friction points that field operations induce. These cues are not available in CPX and TEWT and compound the lack of reality in the exercise environment.

The Exercise Ride is superior to CPX because it continually invokes the requirement to analyse ground. Every military theorist of significance confirms that the ability to interpret the effects of terrain is fundamental to visualisation. As Clausewitz says: 'Of the attributes that a great commander needs in war, there is only one which is not related to temperament, and involves merely the intellect, I mean the relationship between warfare and terrain.' In the exercise ride, the enemy and own troops are simulated; the terrain is not. Participants drive the terrain as they would in an actual operation and this either validates or invalidates their terrain analysis. Actual terrain allows for tactical leader reconnaissance, which unlike a TEWT includes the compounding difficulty of avoiding compromise and moving on foot or in AFV.

The design of the Exercise Ride rests in the hands of the Commander and is more flexible than computer based simulations. Once a core general and special idea has been generated, endless tactical permutations can be created through fragmentary orders or Intelligence reports from higher control. For example, in 2016 the 2nd Cavalry Regiment conducted an Exercise Ride in which Officers fought as Musorian Armed Forces Battalions against Australian Forces and employed equipment not currently or readily available; such as AFV mounted Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, Tactical EW and a wider array of radars. Exercise Rides are inexpensive in time; upfront computer training is not required, and in fact lower control operators (normally soldiers) practice using radios and Battle Management System (BMS) rather than bespoke communications in a simulation centre.

The German Army habitually conducted Exercise rides during the interwar years outside of major exercise areas. Whilst this approach limits access to some terrain it can enhance the realism of the training because the actual problems caused by cities, rail networks and civilian populations need to be overcome. Creating operational scenarios outside of major training areas focuses commanders and staff on lines of supply and civilian infrastructure to sustain Logistic and Aviation support to a campaign. These operational tests cannot be realistically executed within Army’s training areas and it is not feasible to conduct a full scale field exercise outside of a training area. The Exercise Ride offers an opportunity to address this problem.


The inability to visualise operations in relation to the terrain and enemy is the root cause of the deficiencies in ISR and ground combat operations planning observed by CTC. Visualisation is a skill of synthesis rather than disaggregation and for this reason it has historically been trained through repetitive practice in war-games and exercises. The Exercise Ride is, at least in the experience of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a highly effective means to train visualisation. The participants give the exercise 'life' which in turn leads to deep understanding and tacit knowledge. Exercise Rides are inexpensive, simple to plan and flexible: this means they can be easily repeated which is a significant factor in successful training.

As always, history signposts the way forward; between 1920 and the Second World War the German Army trained visualisation with intelligently constructed but well worn training methods. These methods are still valid and leaders can bring them to life in the Australian Army’s Brigades and Training Centres.