Interview with Brigadier General Jozsef Szpisjak, JFTC Deputy Commander/ Chief of Staff and Resolute Support Training Director
Questions asked by JFTC Office of Public Affairs
It has been over six years since the beginning of the Resolute Support (RS) Mission in Afghanistan and thus also since the beginning of the pre-deployment training (PDT) the Joint Force Training Centre provided for its members. Now, the mission is winding down. What does it mean for JFTC?
Resolute Support pre-deployment training has been a key part of JFTC mission and programme of work since 2014, so we have been conducting this training for seven years. Throughout all these years, we have followed a routine of developing and executing 4 iterations of this event each year. These events were not only individual exercises, but also planning conferences, workshops, training refinement visits to Afghanistan, coordination with various NATO HQs, engagements with Afghan authorities, numerous meetings, informal discussions, and more. Therefore, this will be a significant change in JFTC programme of work.
The Resolute Support Training Event has been one of JFTC’s main highlights,
an endeavour we have been extremely proud of. Throughout the years of supporting the Allied mission in Afghanistan, the country itself, has become very close to our hearts. The situation in Afghanistan, the wellbeing of Afghan citizens – many of whom we know personally, some of them became our friends – really matters to us. Therefore, not only has the mission and training been important to us professionally, but they also have earned a special place in our minds.
I am sure many of JFTC staff members will miss this part of our mission. However, they will have a chance to use their experience related to RS training in other NATO training and exercises. The time that was previously devoted to RS PDT is quickly filling up with other training events and exercises. To name only one, we will, strengthen our foot print in NATO Mission Iraq Pre-Deployment Training. Therefore, not much will change for the Centre as far as the workload and JFTC’s main focus are concerned.
The Alliance keeps us busy, which we value very much as we consider as proof of trust and appreciation of JFTC’s work.
You mentioned that JFTC would strengthen its footprint in another PDT – for NATO Mission Iraq. How did training for Resolute Support Mission prepare JFTC for other endeavours of this type?
In this regard, the value Resolute Support Training and also training that JFTC had provided before, for members of ISAF mission, cannot be overestimated. The first steps that JFTC took in the area of pre-deployment training in its broad-sense date back to 2005 – which means to the very beginning of JFTC’s history. Our institutional memory, institutional experience, and knowledge in this area of training is unprecedented. As the years have gone by and JFTC has taken responsibility for new projects and endeavours – be it related to NATO exercises, innovation, interoperability or warfare development, pre-deployment training for Allied missions in Afghanistan was constant. It has been over fifteen years of gaining experience, building professional teams, developing skills and tools (to include modelling and simulation capabilities) that have been used to train future members of Allied missions.
I believe that stating that no other entity has a comparable set of capabilities and assets to provide high-level preparation for future missions is absolutely legitimate. The fact, that NATO chose JFTC to build, prepare and conduct the NMI PDT the best proof of this.
NMI, however, is a different mission than Resolute Support. Is the pattern established for the Allied mission in Afghanistan of universal value?
That is a very valid question. The answer is clear – you cannot transition solutions worked out for one training to another just like that. It requires careful adaptation, preceded by months of in-depth studies, reconnaissance visits, adjustments, building relationships with Subject Matter Experts that will augment the future training and many others.
Yet again, our past experience was of unique value for this transition. When International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission was coming to an end and was to be followed by the Resolute Support Mission, we had to make a similar effort. The two missions were significantly different. While the first of them was combat-oriented, the non-combat Resolute Support Mission focused on train-advise-assist aspect. Although JFTC experience in ISAF training was a solid foundation to build on while developing the training for future RS Headquarters and advisors, a completely new curriculum, entirely new pre-deployment training, had to be developed to respond to different requirements of the new mission.
The transition was gradual and smooth. JFTC implemented first elements devoted to the Resolute Support mission already in the last pre-deployment training for the d (ISAF) mission that took place in March 2014. In July 2014, the Centre conducted a Train Advise Assist Command-North/ Train Advise Assist Team Training Event. It was not Resolute Support Training in its final, target shape; however, it was designed for soldiers who were going to serve in the first structures of the new mission. The first fully-fledged PDT for the Resolute Support Mission took place in November 2014.
Before Resolute Support, JFTC had been focused on the operational and tactical level. Taking over the responsibility of training for a strategic level headquarters, JFTC had to widen its understanding and enlarge its portfolio. The change in the construct of the training was significant. The experience JFTC gained while getting ready for Resolute Support training was of key importance for our capabilities in the area of pre-deployment training.
Developing training for a new mission is one thing, and adjusting the already existing curriculum and formula of a traditional, residential training to a virtual one is another challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic verified JFTC’s flexibility and professionalism. How do you assess the Centre’s performance in this regard?
A lot has already been said and written about our activities during the pandemic. I do not want to repeat it all. What I would like to stress is that although it was an extremely unexpected turn of events, we succeeded in fulfilling our mission. I am very proud of my staff, that despite the tremendous time pressure and all obstacles that COVID-19 brought, they were able to prepare and execute complex, high level virtual training – also for Resolute Support Mission members. Our participants conducted online training via open Internet, for many hours a day, from a number of places worldwide – often spanning more than 10 time zones! This was a challenge. Our experience, however, allowed us to pick up the gauntlet and win. Dozens of virtual / live sessions (to include remote advising simulations) enabled participants to practice, ask questions, share knowledge with their counterparts, and interact with their predecessors and leadership from Afghanistan.
Virtual Resolute Support pre-deployment training was an extraordinary solution for extraordinary times. It also gave us another, broader perspective on certain aspects of our work. Nothing will replace the residential training – this is a lesson we derived from the virtual Resolute Support training. Only direct interactions can assure maximum effectiveness in practical exercises, practicing with counterparts or interpreters. However, online solutions showed us that this type of training may be very useful in academic phases. It provided participants with more flexibility, so they could go back to topics they felt required more attention. It also allowed for more reasonable use of our Subject Matter Experts. During online courses they were not forced to leave their primary places of duty, which was extremely important for those who supported our events directly from the theatre.
We can firmly say that virtual Resolute Support training events proved that we are skilled, experienced and professional enough to find solutions for times of crisis. It also showed that finding the right balance between residential and online events may enhance the way we conducted training before the pandemic.
Resolute Support training was in many ways and in many cases a test bed for JFTC’s abilities. It allowed us to mature to such extent that now we can be sure that we will be able to support the Alliance’s current operations whatever future brings. In return, JFTC trained thousands of members of Resolute Support Mission, which contributed to the overall success of the mission.
Talking about numbers, the Resolute Support training has been one of JFTC’s biggest efforts.
Yes. Over 6 ½ years, we trained over 4000 Resolute Support staff members and advisors. Altogether close to 8000 people were involved in all iterations. 41 NATO and Partner Nations were represented – to include such geographically remote nations as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Sudan. It has been an extremely large and complex endeavour.
Those thousands of soldiers who trained here passed their knowledge along to further thousands of Afghan counterparts, which, in result, has translated – and we believe it will continue this way – into improvements for all of Afghanistan and all Afghan citizens. Out of feedback we have received from our participants and from the theatre, we know that training provided by JFTC was a vital part of their preparation process and highly influenced their performance in the theatre.
All these make us very proud of having played a relevant role in this paramount Allied endeavour.
Resolute Support pre-deployment training was also valuable for our Host City, Bydgoszcz, and its citizens. Participants of JFTC training events and their distinct uniforms have become an integral element of the local landscape, city’s cultural and social life. Not to mention the positive economic impact of their stays in Bydgoszcz. This applies to all JFTC training events and exercises, however, Resolute Support PDT was conducted most frequently – 24 iterations over 6 ½ years. We are pleased that our efforts also serve the local community.
Now, that the Resolute Support training has come to an end, what will be the JFTC’s main focus.
Our priorities remain unchanged – our first priority is pre-deployment training for current NATO operations. As I already mentioned, JFTC will strengthen its foot print in NATO Mission Iraq Pre-Deployment Training. We are expecting an increase in the number of iterations of this training up to three per year, but could go as high as four per year. As the NMI mission is gaining its momentum and the number of its members increases, we expect to remain very busy.
As NATO continues to evolve, we as well will continue developing the two other main areas of JFTC mission – support to future operations and support to warfare development of the Alliance. JFTC will continue living its motto - “Transformation Through Training” – as we believe this is the right direction to keep our Alliance ready to fulfil its mission and to enhance NATO’s ability to protect, unite and strengthen. I expect warfare development and future operations training will continue to grow closer as we learn best practices from each, but that’s another discussion.