‘Countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.’
– Barack Obama (2011)

The transformation of land power is something that is often discussed with many interesting ideas raised, especially regarding new technologies and equipment. What always strikes me as interesting is that in many ways the most important asset always seems to be given a backseat. I see the transformation of land power being about our people, and our focus needs to be in upskilling the boots on the ground as our main capability. Without fit, capable, and highly literate soldiers our force multipliers will fail to maintain any competitive strategic edge.

What I do want to stress at this point is not that I want to turn all soldiers into linguists or academics, but what we should be trying to do is make them better thinkers and more prepared for the complex challenges of contemporary operations. What I do not plan on doing in this article is giving away all my training ideas either, but rather highlight where and why we can take training in this direction.

In this ever-changing world, it has become apparent that there are training gaps that exist at all levels. It is highly concerning that soldiers often lack the ability to think critically when it comes to training design and implementation. And those that do, often struggle to maintain their cognitive abilities when challenged or placed under unusual stresses. I believe this to be the case because I have been fortunate enough to trial several activities with trainees and trained soldiers, and always see similar results.

These results ranged from soldiers forgetting basic skills or panicking and making mistakes. My concerns in this area are also mapped out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which presented in a parliamentary inquiry in 2021 that 40-50% of adults in Australia are below world literacy levels.[1] This statistic raises huge concerns given that this is our future, and possibly even our current, workforce. What is also worrying for the future is the way Australia has fallen in numeracy and literacy standards across our schools when compared to other nations across the world.

As of 2019, Australia had dropped to 16th in reading, 17th in science, and alarmingly 29th in maths.[2] This places the future of Army in a precarious position, and requires additional upskilling of our workforce both current and future to ensure we do not lose the intellectual and cognitive edge in our fighting force.

The Army has a variety of programs that are delivering professional military education (PME) and training; however, these systems do not link together – or are reliant on the individual to be motivated for self-improvement. PME as a generalisation requires commitment to additional studies outside of core work hours, hindering the work-life balance the ADF has set out to achieve. Whilst I do believe our soldiers are trained well in their baseline trade, upskilling and diversification of skills, knowledge, and cognitive processes along with the training required to make complex decisions under fatigue should be a priority to enable all-rounded, intellectual, and ethically proficient soldiers.

The ADF has a strong Combat Behaviours mindset but I believe we again have another gap in this capability that can be exploited to enhance the soldier’s cognitive ability. Introducing cognitive challenges associated with combat into everyday activities such as during the conduct of physical conditioning is just one example. There are a few simplistic options that can be taken by leaders that have the potential to radically improve the capability of our force, but also minimise the impacts on other outcomes – especially in our time-poor society.

As discussed, most PME is self-directed or reliant on the individual to invest their own time. Many soldiers (especially those in non-combative roles) have limited time available to invest in this alongside everyday governance. Where time does exist is in PT and in the basic everyday tasks. Improving cognitive behaviours and intellectual edge can be alleviated by better time management and implementing more information-rich training within small windows amongst everyday tasks.

The first should be a move away from PT being a purely physical training space and into the realm of ‘Human Performance Optimisation’. This emphasis is about putting the focus onto the individuals and how to maximise each person’s potential to deliver capability to the ADF. Currently, many areas of Army are behind the game and there are constantly missed opportunities to conduct capability development and real time enhancement of skills. From areas such as mission-based rehearsals through to medical and weapon training, there is potential to tap into the human performance sphere and accelerate training methodologies.

A simple example would be turning what would be a simple swimming session in the pool into a greater, more rounded physical and mentally challenging activity. Most ADF members are well accustomed to obstacle lanes and KIMs games, but what if they were able to conduct these subconsciously? Trainees would run into the pool, swim up and down the lanes with pictures and equipment submerged at the bottom and with no one being told about this prior and/or during the activity.

On completion, each member is tasked with writing down what they saw, adding an extra dimension to training by having to become observant and cognisant of their surroundings. This provides a more relevant outcome for all ADF members and enables rapid decision making. This would achieve two outcomes in the one lesson and whilst the focus remains on PT, the mind becomes open to growth.

On another level, it would be relatively easy to prepare soldiers for overseas deployment where English is not the primary language and the reliance of working and training with foreign militaries is likely. Good planning and preparation by Physical Training Instructors and Combat Fitness Leaders is one potential avenue. After all, how many buzzwords do you hear during a PT session? Introductions, repetition counting, and more. Well, what if this was all to be conducted in Arabic for the weeks leading up to deployment to the Middle East?

What this requires is some practice and scripting by the instructor, which in turn helps ensure soldiers are comfortable while gradually being exposed to a new language and environment. Again this will not make them a translator, but what it will mean is that they can understand and potentially make simple interactions with the local population. This could also help create much better collection and intelligence gathering capabilities because a soldier is responsive to certain words and has the ability to spark further curiosity whilst on patrol and overhearing native conversations.

The other missing part is the real-time applications to training and in particular, service writing. Rather than getting soldiers to write Defence correspondence that doesn’t go anywhere, we could get soldiers to do some of the options above as a training activity. This could see a soldier having to design and plan an outside-the-box resilience activity or a section training activity that can be brought back to the unit for implementation. This will give substance to training, inspiring soldiers to design and create new ideas while in turn, developing the literacy skills required with a meaningful outcome and improved buy in by the soldiers. Numeracy skills could be taught in a way that they are used within everyday training, a component of PT within a rest station, or even a simple daily exercise to be completed at any point.

As discussed, training design in the ADF must evolve to deal with the societal trends of reduced literacy and numeracy. Additionally, efforts must be made to upskill our most important asset – our people – to maintain our competitive edge. This does not require the wholesale submission of our training design to academic principles, but really calls on the creativity and ingenuity of junior commanders and the support and time given by senior commanders. Through this we can evolve our people capability and meet future warfighting needs.