BlogInnovation - DEF Australia

Idea Pitch – Cultural Training in the Army

Image courtesy of Department of Defence

The Chasm: Physical and Human Terrain, Training and Reality

We believe that Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is not a desirable capability – it is critical. Cultural training through Army’s force generation (FORGEN) system is (we believe) inadequate, providing a surface deep, ‘just-in-time’ approach that seeks to mitigate rather than exploit cultural agility. This proposal outlines an individual education and collective training framework in an effort to address this shortfall.

The Problem: a Physical and Human Terrain Chasm

The Army’s own ‘futures’ literature paints a daunting picture of the coming operating environment. The Future Land Warfare Report describes a world more crowded, connected and lethal; with militaries forced to operate within mosaic-coalitions of allies, indigenous actors, government agencies and various non-government stakeholders. For the Australian Army, this might be imagined as an intervention into a near-region city-slum, with a battlegroup deployed at short notice. The remit: to stabilise a failed government, and somehow remain at arms length from the gang violence that is intimately linked with government corruption and chaos on the streets. The adversary is not uniformed, has managed to obtain a quantity of credible anti-armour and GBAD weapons via smugglers, and has a broad in- and out-of-country support network (facilitated by personal electronic devices).

Even the casual observer of regional affairs will note that much of this picture isn’t a ‘futures’ one at all; it is already a reality. For Land Forces it paints an intimidating vision of a future fight; a web of the Clausewitzian dictums of a rapidly changing character of conflict, underpinned by an enduringly chaotic nature of war.

The gap between how we train and how we think we are going to fight is, we believe, substantial. Army has recognised this problem, and is seeking to balance it. Training developments such as the incorporation of a live non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) within EX HAMEL, cooperating with civilians in Whylla, SA, who volunteered to be evacuees, are clearly positive. Army is still a long way, however, from aligning force generation with our own stated vision of the future operating environment.

A small sample (163 members from across Corps and rank) taken from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment suggests a significant lag between our current skill-set and the complex physical and human terrain likely to face our soldiers. 57% of the surveyed population indicated they did not have a good understanding of any cultures other than their own. Further, only 58% of soldiers and junior non-commissioned officers are confident that they could effectively work with coalition forces and other local organisations from within our region. If our soldiers are not confident and feel underprepared then the chasm is real. We intend to present a solution to help cross it.

Training Design and Crossing the Chasm?

Army’s training methodology is fundamentally concerned with preparing our soldiers for the reality of war. In the pursuit of this endeavor, we expose our force to austerity through exposure to harsh ‘field’ environments, often against a thinking peer adversary. We seek to inoculate soldiers to battle through live-fire exercises, and we expose them to experiences of ‘fear’ through platforms such as Adventure Training. Yet, despite the likelihood of conflict emerging in different cultural environments, soldiers are often only exposed to other cultures through limited international engagement opportunities. Such opportunities are also more commonly associated with English-speaking militaries within a training environment where soldiers are not required to converse with foreign soldiers (less the exchange of basic pleasantries).

Herein lies the problem. The first time a soldier encounters a culture vastly different to their own should not be on operations. Any training focus centered on developing resilience needs to also consider the psychological toll of exposure to foreign cultures where the language, religion, political and ethical domains may all be at odds with their own experiences. Without exposure to these variables, ethnocentric biases can emerge that will degrade the effectiveness of the force and expose the individual soldier to psychological trauma. From ‘Green on Blue’ attacks to ‘moral injury’, the ADF’s recent operational experiences (and those of her partners) are replete with examples of these failings in CQ.

The Proposal

We propose that the answer to developing CQ lies in the combination of individual education and collective training. CQ should be developed through the same system that trains close combat skills; it cannot be an elective competency.

The characteristics of the system are:

  • participation and competence is incentivised
  • the training is owned and executed primarily by the leaders of the Combat Brigade
  • a series of graduated training steps occurs between Army Training Level (ATL) 1 and ATL 7

ATL-1: Individual immersion: building language and culture subject matter experts

The foundation of CQ lies in language; or more specifically the ability to converse in a language other than our own. While expanding the capacity of our School of Languages is one solution, we propose that learning a language, like most education, can and should be an individual responsibility and carried out in our own time. The benefit of such a methodology is that the ever-demanding training requirements within the Combat Brigades are not affected, and individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their education.  We see Army’s role in this as the provision of the education platform and incentivizing its use.

There are many avenues for language training that already exist. Online programs such as Rosetta Stone are in use with the US military, as well as more than 12,000 corporations globally. Alternatively, there are a variety of available courses through civilian companies, TAFEs and universities. At an individual cost ranging from $200-$2000, we anticipate that the annual cost of such a program for 1000 students would be in the range of $200,000 to $2 million.  Of course, such programs are unlikely to be successful without incentives. We propose two: a financial reward, and a program of foreign immersion. Financial incentive could either be linked to the existing language allowances or added separately, although we recommend a staged progression for allowances to encourage continued study and improvement.

The foreign immersion opportunities could be enabled through soldiers’ eligibility for funding after achieving milestones in their study. Rather than embedding soldiers with foreign militaries, we contend that there are more valuable experiences to be gained through in-country experience with NGOs, foreign immersion schools, and Peace or Civil Corps equivalents. Detachments could range from two weeks to three months and should be seen as an opportunity for total immersion in the language and culture of the host country. Funding could be administered at unit level and does not necessarily need to extend outside of the provision of flights and accommodation. Immersion programs could also easily be negotiated with respective NGOs or training schools.

ATL-2-3: Broadening the corporate knowledge and increasing the exposure

Closer to home, there are many opportunities for our soldiers to experience a differing culture through greater exposure to indigenous communities. Existing training opportunities such as NORFORCE patrols and the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP) already provide the mechanism for this to occur. Such opportunities, however, are often limited to specialist positions. By increasing the access to these training opportunities, we may not only create a more culturally aware force, but also increase awareness of indigenous affairs.

Other opportunities exist with exposure to the Peace Operations Training Centre (POTC) and the inclusion of small teams on activities such as Exercise Garuda Kookaburra. The negotiation and conflict resolution/management skill sets that are taught and practiced can be highly contextualised.  The role players that are employed as part of this activity enable the training of particular cross cultural skills and are executed incredibly well with a level of realism that is often confronting for some students. This is the type of inoculation that prepares our soldiers for future operations.

Image courtesy of US Army NTC (click to visit website)

Similar to the Whyalla NEO training, we also see value in more collective training being conducted within existing Australian towns. Despite experiences such as this being considered widely popular by both the training audience and the local communities, such training serials have not become the norm. While there is only limited exposure to cultural training within our own communities, the opportunity to operate within a functioning urban environment and interacting with real people (not role players) is invaluable for our soldiers and may help to bridge the knowledge gap between the military and society. Conducting training in indigenous communities would further combine the cultural, environmental and public relations outcomes that enhance the capability of the force to operate internationally.

ATL5-7 – Centre of Excellence for Military Operations Other than War

At Combat Team and above, we contend that an immersive cultural training centre is required. While conceptual in nature, we draw our observations from the US and UK militaries and their use of large numbers of ethnic role players within a made-for-purpose urban facility. Such methods were employed specifically for the purpose of Mission Specific and Mission Rehearsal Training; however, we see value in such centres being employed on a permanent basis. While the ethnicity of the role players and the construction of the urban dwellings would typically need to be adjusted to reflect the likely or existing operational requirements, there is still value in creating a fictitious cultural environment that embodies aspects of multiple ethnic and societal groups.

Image courtesy of Calytrix (click to visit website)

Such a Centre would emulate the mantra of the Jungle Warfare Training Centre in Tully, where a high intensity, highly specific and highly focused training package can be developed  in the jungle environment for Company/Combat Team groups. The training would focus on the urban/fringe/littoral environment, have realistic integration with the “white space” population and community groups (not ADF role players with a preconceived bias of how they need to act), and prepare soldiers to plan and execute mission profiles that are not offensive or defensive in nature like the status quo. A particular aspect of the program would also expose trainees to Joint and NGO/OGA interagency interaction; an almost certain feature of modern deployments, but very rarely trained and rehearsed.

We understand that our pitch is very similar to the concepts presented by James Haw in his idea pitch ‘A Cultural and Regional Training Continuum. We have engaged with James and have decided to be more entrepreneurial and commit to a joint venture. We intend to combine our research and present our pitch to the DEFx board in December under a united banner.

About the author:

This pitch has been developed by a Team from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment:

LTCOL James Davis – CO 2 Cav Regt

MAJ Gareth Rice – OPSO 2 Cav Regt

CAPT Lewis Crothers – Sqn 2IC 2 Cav Regt

CAPT Jace Ford – Ops Captain 2 Cav Regt

LT Will Leben – Tank Tp Ldr 2 Cav Regt

WO2 Ben Horton – Ops WO 2 Cav Regt

Story behind the pitch:

The Team from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment came together after hearing about DEFAUS through social media. They formed a discussion group which met periodically to discuss a wide variety of PME topics, with the desired end state to generate an idea to present at the DEFx Forum. The discussion topics varied from Army training institutions, to cognitive combat profiling and an array of other interesting professional discussions.  Each contributor conducted in depth research and challenged one another’s understanding. Finally through these discussions a root cause of a lot of the identified shortfalls was identified which led to the concept pitch above.


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

10 thoughts on “Idea Pitch – Cultural Training in the Army

  1. A progressive project that I see many benefits. 2nd. Language Training whilst you say the responsibility of the individual, the individual must be able to access same. Remote or distance learning may be great for many subjects but language needs more face to face learning and this should be taken into consideration. A combination of both would be good but the individual can’t do this on their own. Not meant to be a negative comment as this is all positive and progressive.

  2. An interesting read with some very achievable proposals. Perhaps the use of the up and coming resource, the Cove, could enhance cultural training. The design of some MOOC type courses would generate some solid discussion as well as provide a level of understanding on different cultures. These courses will also promote the desire to learn and even encourage some to progress onto further, more detailed study.

  3. When Clausewitz sought to understand war through the lens of the French military’s ability to fight so successfully and continuously under Napoleon, he arrived at the conclusion that the French military success was produced by changes in French society and culture; French culture, produced French fighting. He therefore demonstrated the requirement to understand culture’s effect on military operations. In our own operational experience, the last two decades have shown us that no matter where on the spectrum of violence that operations are conducted, they are fundamentally about people. Consequently I commend the 2 Cav Regt Team for seeking to address this perceived problem.
    However, I disagree with Mitch Watson about the strength of this proposal. I see having soldiers undertake language training under their own steam, as a weakness in the proposal. When I seek to understand the proposal using this philosophy I find it hard to operationalise how to advance an organisation up the training levels. Can an organisation be advanced to ATL 5-7 with a group of soldiers that are not ATL 1, or even 2/3? (The comparison of a Centre of Excellence for Military Operations Other than War to Tully leads me to believe this is possible. i.e . we don’t require soldiers to do an online course in jungle warfare before they go to Tully, and yet we arguably produce competent jungle warriors via this training)
    If the answer to the question is that progression can bypass ATL 1, is then the foundation of this proposal actually necessary? If ATL 1 is a prerequisite, how then does a commander achieve these graduated TLs in a realistic timeframe?
    Furthermore is language training actually required for equipping our soldiers with enhanced CQ? As a small force this proposal may be too ambitious. As James Haw’s proposal points out, the USMC seeks to have only at least one person per MEU with necessary language skills that cover the globe. Perhaps it is wiser for us to invest in Operational Culture Training – focussing on the operationally relevant aspects of cultural training – as the basis for enhancing soldier CQ. Operational Culture for the Warfighter Principles and Applications, Barak A. Salmoni Paula Holmes-Eber. USMC University Press 2008, offers a good resource for this training. Focussing on Operational Culture enables a more generic training continuum that provides flexibility and graduation, and can be readily enhanced with the specific training already undertaken when deployment location is known.
    Furthermore, this proposal is retrofitting to our current force; nothing inherently wrong with this, but it is conventional thinking. Is there another way? Australia is one of the most successful multicultural nations on earth. Consequently, there is resident in our country linguists for every language on earth. If each CO could recruit just one person that is fluent in a language and culture outside of the Anglosphere, then not only could they increase capability in a deployed setting, and achieve the cultural coverage as envisioned by the USMC, but they could also expose the 57% of pers with no concept of other cultures to someone not like them. Perhaps even more importantly such action could provide a tangible demonstration to a sceptical audience that diversity increases capability. Sure, current HR policies don’t allow CO’s to directly recruit the people they want, but previously HR policy stated that females couldn’t serve in combat corps.
    I haven’t thought about this as much as the 2 Cav team, and offer the above as food for thought in an effort to support any development.

  4. I am an edjo LT at RED–NT. To offer another perspective on self-initiated language studies, I wish to relate my experiences in Darwin this year.

    In late July, I enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Yolngu Studies at Charles Darwin University. I am an external or online student, however as I am posted to Robertson Barracks, I attend F2F lectures out-of-core hours.

    I enrolled in the course, because I am keen to work in the ESL and indigenous capacity-building space at a later phase in my career. While I do not expect to develop verbal fluency, I believe that completing the course of study will deliver a thorough grounding in Yolngu language structures and a deep immersion in Yolngu culture and education.

    My studies, however, delivered immediate, unforeseen opportunities. In early September, I was lucky enough to participate in a cultural awareness training activity hosted by 8/12 REGT at a remote community in Arnhem Land. While the local people spoke Barada, they understood many Yolngu words and phrases. They shared the same culture and spirituality as the Yolngu tribes and had many family connections with them.

    As a result of my language studies, I was able to develop quite intimate ties with the community. The local people were very surprised to discover that one of the 50 visiting military members was studying Arnhem Land languages and culture. As the week progressed, the elders asked me to act as an informal cultural liaison officer. They asked me to explain abstract spiritual concepts to the soldiers as they lacked confidence with their English language proficiency. Coincidentally my malk or ‘skin’ name was shared by the tribal daughters, so the community adopted me as one of their own.

    While I had only studied 6 weeks of an introductory language unit, the cultural insights and basic language skills delivered very powerful ‘hearts and minds’ effects. The authentic experiences with the community enriched my language learning, so both the formal language studies and the Army training mutually supported diverse training and education outcomes.

    I share this anecdote to demonstrate the value of language learning. I have no idea whether my experiences with Yolngu language will ever be anything more than a bit of part-time study while I was in Darwin and one very rich cultural training experience. Yet it may lead to further engagement with Norforce or AACAP.

    This is why I think informal, self-directed study is so valuable. You can choose a language you are interested in, and make use of immersion opportunities in your posting location. It does not matter how ‘good’ you are at languages or how highly you score on the LAT. You just learn at your own pace, applying whatever language learning methodologies suits you.

    There may be no immediate capability-building outcomes, but you may find indirect outcomes such as:
    a deeper understanding of linguistics (which will improve your English language proficiency)
    deeper cultural awareness
    more highly developed emotional intelligence
    sharper memory recall and mental agility.

    1. Hi Linda,

      I am an LT based in Darwin, and will be beginning a 2 year posting at NORFORCE next year. I am keen to get in contact to discuss further your experience in the cultural opportunities you experienced this year, as well as further discuss the impact of cultural training in the ADF. The source article was well written and I agree for the most part, but I sense that the ADF as a whole leans to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when it comes to cultural training, as there is already a plethora of organisations out there that offer expertise in both domestic and international cultural training experience. For those interested in further reading to gain insight into working with indigenous Australians and effective community engagement I have found the following resources/articles beneficial:
      – Why Warriors Lie Down And Die (Trudgeon, R., 2000)

      – Effective Development Practice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait
      Islander Communities 2014,

      – Companion Document to Effective Development Practice with Aboriginal and
      Torres Strait Islander Communities,

      I look forward to chatting further.


      1. Hi Nick,

        I have just read your response. Apologies for not replying sooner, but I have not checked this thread for several months.

        Please feel free to contact me on green tree. I understand that RED-NT will be working more closely with Norforce in the near future, so I am keen to find out more about your work.

        Thank you for the links. They are an interesting read.

        Kind regards,


  5. I offer the following as a counter argument for discussion. The US model is close to the gold plated solution, and whilst I understand that is not what is being proposed, there is different reasoning behind their use of specialists in this area beyond engagement in LIC. The US Forces have regional commands, which can see service personnel pend several years of their career in foreign countries. The cultural and language training eases the service personnel’s understanding and ability to live in another country for the long term as well as allowing those personnel to contribute to planning. The US Forces are also a large force that retains many specialists, whose particular skills and training can be afforded on the scale of a force of that size. This is far more difficult to maintain in a smaller generalist army.

    Whilst LIC will no doubt be our reality for a time, is this sort of training necessary to make the force more effective in a LIC? Recent operational experience will lead people to believe that a better understanding of a culture will aid in tasks such as mentoring and it will to a point. After a decade in Afghanistan, I would argue that soldiers are very well versed in afghan culture and generally the Army’s understanding of that culture is quite good. But at the end of the day we are not Afghans. No matter how well we understand or how observant of their culture, there will always be friction. The fact is we are different. This will stand for any other culture that is different to our own. I argue that the current pre deployment training is sufficient to inform soldiers and allow them to do their job.

    Is LIC the focus of our training as a collective? Whilst it is prudent to train for multiple scenarios; I posit that training for LIC and incorporating extra time on focused language and cultural skills is training for the last conflict.

    What cultures and languages do we focus on? Prior to Iraq and Afghanistan most people who studied languages most likely focused on Indonesian, then we deployed to the Middle East. What language/languages do we expect soldiers to learn? Which culture do we focus on? Cultures and sub cultures are so varied, even within the one region or country. To allow soldiers to focus on their primary roles and carry out their jobs effectively most of the important information should be distilled during the IPB and disseminated in country briefs and orders for focused training prior to deployment.

    I hope this sparks some debate and helps to generate discussion on what is an interesting topic.

  6. The Alelo Language and Cultural training computer based earning / simulation products were available through the Battle Simulation Sites. They covered language and culture for various parts of the world. Designed to meet the needs of soldiers they are more focused than a civilian generic language training product.

    The VRP product, when combined with VBS, allows scenarios where you can examine non kinetic and kinetic approaches, and practice ROE.

    Now if Army would properly resource these centres…

    1. Thanks for your feedback Rob. Great opportunities along the Education and Training lines of effort. I think immersion however is absolutely critical too. There is no doubt that these e-learning tools support developing cultural intelligence, but I really see absolute value in face to face immersion. A cultural Imersion Course (CIC) in conjunction with Allen training is certainly worth the investment!

Comments are closed.