“50m, axis of advance, two enemy, base of tree!”

The above is a target indication that anyone who has been through ab-initio training will surely recognise and recoil at. Not because it recalls images of battle sombreros and H-harness webbing, but because the memory is undoubtedly associated with an F88 operating at bolt-action and an Opposition Force (OPFOR) who seems to be wearing a next-generation ballistic ‘flanny’ which is both stylish and resistant to all munitions, including the dreaded notional 155mm bombardment.

This is symptomatic of an issue in training methodology that is service-wide: blank ammunition. Whilst useful to a point, these dirty, stoppage-inducing cartridges not only increase the rate of initial action drill rehearsals, they fundamentally fail to provide the requisite feedback to both firer and OPFOR needed to appropriately simulate the fight that both are training for.

LWP-G 7-7-3 Train the Battle Shot outlines the centrality and necessity of kinetic feedback in training. Chapter 6, in outlining this doctrine, provides that without consequence for failure to force adherence to skills, knowledge, attributes, and behaviours – there is likely to be a substantial deficiency in the proficiency of trainees on their completion of the activity.

Blank ammunition provides little to no feedback beyond firers becoming frustrated by continuous stoppages. Whilst effective at contributing towards the 10,000 repetitions required for mastery of the initial action drill, the Australian Army has long since retired the .303 Lee Enfield and the Battle of the Bolt Actions has decisively concluded.

To this end, three key steps forward are proposed for the Australian Army to escape the quagmire that is blank-fire reliant training. First is related to shifting the mindset through amendments to the discipline system where negligent and unauthorised discharges are concerned.

The second is the future relegation of blanks to the same sphere as battle noise simulations (BNS) – atmospherics and environmental enhancement. Finally, it is proposed that the proliferation and availability of non-live training ammunition (NLTA) and blanks are circumstantial reversed. Overall, a theme of bias for action is core to these proposals. This will be addressed throughout in its relevance to each individual step.

Discipline over decisiveness

Too many officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and soldiers have stood before a subordinate summary authority (SUBSA), pleading guilty to a negligent or unauthorised discharge of a blank round in the field. In training, unlike in actual conflict, it is far more important that behaviours are trained, and cause and effect exercised where safe, than to enforce carte blanche, a disciplinary framework designed to prevent deaths in training and on operations.

Though understandable, the lines between actual risk and perceived risk have been blurred. Whilst it is true that one doesn’t rise to the occasion, they fall to the standard of their training, the question needs to be asked – does the army need nervous, trigger averse soldiers or does it need soldiers who are not afraid to engage when they perceive as a threat?

The charging of members under the Defence Force Discipline Act for negligent and unauthorised discharges pertaining to blank ammunition does not prevent re-occurrences, it leads to self-induced friction the next time the trigger needs to be pulled. If the thinking of a soldier becomes “I don’t want to be charged again, so I’ll just wait for someone else to fire first” we risk not only tactical failure, but death against a peer force who isn’t waiting for the enemy to make the choice for them.

The ADF’s extensive range doctrine provides more than adequate protection against safety risks with live and NLTA munitions. The army does not need to conduct a rehearsal of concept for negligent discharge of live ammunition every time a soldier fails to carry out individual safety precautions – the lesson there is self-evident and likely never repeated out of professional shame.

Over-zealous application of the discipline serves only to establish trigger hesitancy and serves no end but to trivialise actual negligence. If the drill was conducted as instructed, even if a mistake is made, there is no reason to impose a declarable discipline incident on a member of the Australian Army. Instead, as per the ADF’s standard assessment policy: retrain, re-assess, and re-engage.

Setting the mood

Despite what may be perceived as condemnation of the munition, there is a place for blank ammunition. It serves an excellent introduction to ab-initio trainees and as a means of establishing the environmental conditions and tone for opposed training.

Much like BNS, blanks can be used to establish uncertainty, stress, and enhance the overall “story” of the training. Humans have historically built civilisations around storytelling and its general absence from routine training is indicative of the need to enhance the realism of training. This is where blanks can shine. Through their use as an atmosphere builder and an aid to the story – sensory immersion makes real the make-believe and provides enough uncertainty to place participants on the edge of stress and overload – is where the best benefits are found. This transition provides the space for the next step: the replacement of blanks with NLTA for all training post ab-initio activities.

Paint and pellets

The recent raising of the close quarters battle training course, compounded with the normalisation of the Brigade Combatives Centre structure demonstrates that Army understands the value of reality based training. The lethality dividend from these training resources is immense and the continued rollout and enhancement of both has undoubtedly increased the capability and efficacy of the Australian soldier, but sadly remains fundamentally garrison-locked.

As can be attested to by operations officers and resource managers everywhere, it is infinitely easier to acquire blanks than NLTA. Often requiring supplementary bids (SUPBIDs) and extensive justification, NLTA is inherently difficult to order and expend. This isn’t due to issues of production or a lack of availability – it is due to comfort with the status quo.

It is proposed that this be shaken up and the paradigm shifted. In flipping the allocation quantities, planners and commanders enable their soldiers to engage in meaningful training. So meaningful is this training, as per many previous articles by this author, that training effects can be achieved on reduced timelines and with increased efficiency.

Employing blanks to introduce further uncertainty into such training is a step towards even deeper immersion and “making real” the training environment. To draw on the work of Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley in Left of Bang; the establishment and extension of condition yellow – being aware of one’s surrounding and remaining alert as a regular state of being – is exercised by such immersion and, like a muscle, grows in strength and capacity.

With this growth, the cloudy nature of positive identification is cleared up, and decision paralysis or reactive thinking is trained out through the imposition of consequence.

NLTA, be it paint or airsoft, is a critical tool in achieving this clarity. Whilst an argument around their effective distance may be made to counter this proposal, it is critical to remember that the effective consequential range of blank ammunition is approximately zero metres, as short of a bad smell and a muffled pop, there is absolutely no repercussion to being targeted by blanks.

The implication here for bias for action is that a pain consequence, atmospherically enhanced by the transition of blanks to classification as BNS, yields a net positive with minimal negative repercussion. The back-of-mind acknowledgement that failure to win is going to hurt not only builds a proactive mindset where a soldier looks for work, it psychologically hardens the soldier to the reality of combat and demystifies the concept of pain.

Moving forward

Bias for action must be instilled and reinforced through real-time feedback (both physical and psychological), consequence (pain), and reward. The human is best conditioned through the exploitation of the brain’s reward system and the reality is that blank training does not enable this.

As much as war is an infinite game, the use of finite win/lose training and the associated dump of dopamine we experience when victorious is critical to building a soldier who can thrive on the battlefield.

To call once again on our international partners, the United States Marine Corps Combat Hunter program – amongst critical field skills such as tracking and human behaviour – teaches, demands, and rewards bias for action. So much so is bias for action considered critical, that response to stimuli is more important than the outcome in training.

If the outcome that Australian soldiers expect from training isn’t grounded in reality, it is folly to expect that when reality hits, the soldier in combat will adapt immediately.