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The missing political dimension of military exercises

Heuser, B. and Simpson, H. (2017) The missing political dimension of military exercises. RUSI Journal, 162 (3). pp. 20-28. ISSN 1744-0378

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2017.1345118


Military exercises are rarely straightforward in either intention or outcome. Official policy and governance about exercises have not kept up with the complexity of the current national and international contexts. In addition to collective training, exercises are now used for a wide variety of purposes, such as fostering alliance cohesion and defence diplomacy. In this article, Beatrice Heuser and Harold Simpson argue that the diverse effects and outcomes of exercises merit further investigation, and future guidance for British practitioners will reflect this. The British Army’s in-house magazine, Soldier, provides a monthly summary of the army’s current activities, including military exercises – mainly field training exercises – at home and abroad.11 An ‘exercise’ is normally a time-bound and carefully orchestrated series of scripted activities that provides a structured scenario within which the principal ‘collective training’ activities can take place, in much the same way a school or university curriculum provides the structure within which student learning activities can take place. However, for the purposes of the themes discussed in this article, ‘collective training’ is analogous to ‘exercises’. The May 2016 summary included four exercises: Exercise Jebel Storm (in Oman); Exercise Shamal Storm (Jordan); exercises and training undertaken as part of Operation Newcombe (Mali); and Exercise Griffin Strike (Salisbury Plain, UK). The first three locations are all countries with which the UK has few, if any, formal military alliances that entail mutual defence obligations. The British public, therefore, may well ponder why its government is sending British soldiers to distant locations for training exercises, at considerable cost to the taxpayer, when perfectly adequate training facilities exist at home or, if hotter, arid environments are required, at the British Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. The examples of Jordan, Oman and Mali raise the following questions: who are the participants; who is the wider audience(s) for the exercises being undertaken; who is training whom and what are the stated objectives and wider outcomes of the activities being undertaken; do these exercises represent value for money to the British government and taxpayer; who benefits most from the exercises (the host nation or the visiting British Army units); and why do sovereign states in West Africa and the Middle East invite British military personnel on to their territory in the current politically sensitive context? American and British troops train together in Jordan during Exercise Shamal Storm. At first sight no such questions arise over Exercise Griffin Strike; after all the British Army has been carrying out exercises on the Salisbury Plain Training Area since the nineteenth century. Typical of these was a series of manoeuvres between Blandford and Pewsey in August and September 1872 that involved fourteen artillery batteries, twelve cavalry regiments and 24 infantry battalions. This particular exercise was captured on camera and in contemporary narrative by a local observer, Lady Antrobus, and her record survives to this day.22 Austin Kinsley, ‘Storm Clouds Gathering Over Salisbury Plain’, <>, accessed 4 April 2017. however, the modern-day Exercise Griffin Strike also included 2,000 French soldiers who underwent the same training and on the same side as their 3,500 British counterparts – an unlikely occurrence in either the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Today’s French public may similarly ask why it must incur the expense of its military personnel travelling to the Salisbury Plain Training Area to conduct training when equally suitable exercise areas and associated facilities already exist in France. The answers to all these questions lie in the multidimensional nature of exercises and the diverse range of outcomes and purposes served by the training that they facilitate. There are many more additional dimensions to exercises other than training; even training in and of itself has multiple purposes and is not simply about exercising the core military skills of one’s own troops.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Politics, Economics and International Relations > Politics and International Relations
ID Code:72261

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