Since the 1970s, Britain has been using the Canadian Prairies as its largest training area.
Over seven times the size of the Salisbury Plain Training Area, the British Army can deploy up to six battle groups to Canada every year to practice large-scale exercises with realistic live firing training.
In Suffield, Alberta, Canada, there is a vast military training area for the Canadian and British forces. Situated on one of the most sparsely populated areas of the Canadian Prairies, the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) has been part of the local landscape since the early 1970s. However, the current British presence in the form of BATUS is just the latest arrangement made between Canada and Britain.
Before the first 10-year lease was agreed in 1971, the UK was already familiar to Suffield and its usefulness.
Thirty-one years earlier, in 1940, Britain possessed a chemical weapons testing facility in French Algeria. The fall of France in the same year implicated in the loss of the British facilities in the French territory. After several failures to find a suitable location in Britain, the British Government reached an agreement with Canada to allow Suffield in Alberta to become a testing site for British scientists.
In the following five years, Canadian and British forces used the area for a variety of tests and experiments. In 1941 Suffield Station was the largest research and training facility in North America and the British Empire. As the Second World War reached its end, the British left Suffield to the Canadian Defence Research Board in 1946.
During the early years of the Cold War, the UK established vast military installations at El Adem and Tobruk in Libya. The North-African country offered large areas for military exercises and war games for Britain and the United States; the American installation was situated near Tripoli. In 1969, Colonel Gaddafi took advantage of the fragility of the Libyan government and led a coup, seizing control of the country. Shortly afterwards, he negotiated the closure of the British and American installations.
Effectively, the UK was facing a significant problem, as there were no other suitable areas to allow the British Army to launch large-scale armoured warfare exercises; possible locations in Africa and Asia were gone, as the decolonisation process was almost complete.
Once again, the Canadian Government agreed to lease the Suffield area to Britain. The 1971 deal between London and Ottawa put Suffield under a 10-year lease period, which could be renewed periodically. In January 1972, the British Army Training Unit was created and later in the same year the first British regiment to fire live rounds was the 4th Royal Tank Regiment Battle Group.
The lease for Suffield was renewed in the 1980s and 1990s; in the 2000s, the British and Canadian governments agreed that it would be more practical to review the 1971 agreement. The result was a new deal that allowed British forces to continue their training exercises in Suffield without renewing their presence every decade. In short, since 2006 the BATUS is permitted to maintain their training routine indefinitely.
The training area at Suffield is roughly 19% the size of Northern Ireland with its 2,700 square kilometres; this is Britain’s largest armoured warfare training base. The base offers the British forces the ability to conduct large exercises that military installations in Britain face difficulties to accommodate.
According to the British Army, BATUS is home to ‘more than 400 permanent staff and 1000 temporary deployed staff’ providing ‘highly demanding combined arms manoeuvre training for the armoured forces of the British Army and our allies’. Moreover, Suffield is home to a significant contingent of British Army vehicles, including the Challenger 2 main battle tank and Warrior tracked armoured vehicle.
In spite of its usefulness as Britain’s largest training area, BATUS conducts training during six months each year from May to October, the warm period. The months between October and May are known for hostile winters and challenging weather. Some specialist Arctic Warfare units of the Canadian Forces use this period of the year as a training season.
Meanwhile, the British vehicles are prepared for the next year of activities. Every training season four to six British Battle Groups pass through Suffield, each group exercise for roughly 30 days.
The usual British presence is around 80 Warrior tracked armoured vehicles, 22 Challenger 2 tanks, roughly 80 ‘Bulldog’ Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), Engineer vehicles including the Trojan AVRE and Titan Armoured Vehicle Launcher Bridge (Titan AVLB). The Titan is an armoured engineer vehicle ‘based on the Challenger 2 chassis’, and the Trojan is a combat engineering vehicle used to breach minefields and for other tasks.
The air component is represented through the No. 29 (BATUS) Flight Army Air Corps with Gazelle helicopters providing support for the training units. Its roles include casualty evacuation, reconnaissance, supervision and limited lift of passengers and equipment.
According to the British Army ‘BATUS is equipped with in excess of 1000 vehicles including a full complement of Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles’. During the annual exercises of 2017, the numbers reached 350 armoured vehicles plus 1,000 support vehicles and 1,400 British soldiers.
Every armoured battle group conducts a two-phase training exercise. Firstly, Live Fire and Tactical Simulation (TES), then the second phase with a live enemy.
The TES system is capable of identifying ‘when vehicles have been fired at and damaged or destroyed’ and informs soldiers when they are under fire and if hit what injuries they may have suffered. Annual training also includes battlefields filled with different kinds of fake bunkers and minefields, not rarely a false village full of actors playing French-speaking inhabitants is present. The use of a foreign language during a battle simulation occurs as a way to let soldiers get used to non-English speaking civilians while in a foreign country.
The size of the training area and duration of the exercises allow all elements of a proper battle group: armour, infantry, artillery, air defence, logistics, engineers and equipment support.
These elements can conduct large-scale live exercises with realistic live firing training and sustain this activity for long periods. Suffield’s tactics and manoeuvres are tested into far-away battlefields. From the Falklands War, passing by the British military intervention in Sierra Leone and deployment to Kosovo, the BATUS played its role as the British Army main training base.
When the Libyan facilities were negated to Britain in 1969, the British Government looked for a ‘suitable alternative’ with significant size and preferably not populated. The Suffield area was ideal. The land area available for the UK in Suffield is equivalent to the combined area of all the main training fields used by the British forces in Britain and Europe. The emphasis on size is reflected when comparing BATUS to the Salisbury Plain Training Area; the former is more than seven times larger than the latter. The county of Dorset would fit into it comfortably.
The British Army Training Unit Suffield is part of the long-standing relationship between Canada and Britain.
It is an example of co-operation between two allied nations that have been fighting and training together for over 150 years. The two countries share the same Head of State, parliamentary institutions, similar legal arrangements and English as an official language.
Moreover, relations between Canada and Britain are warm, and their citizens regard each other’s countries as one of their nations’ closest allies and friends in the world stage.
Therefore, BATUS is part of a greater picture. Canada shares many defence initiatives with Britain, including the Five Eyes, ABCANZ Armies and AUSCANNZUKUS for greater military and naval co-operation.
Lastly, the UK and Canada are allied through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Canada is the only member-state of the Organisation of American States (OAS) that supported the British position over the Falkland Islands while the United States abstained from voting in the last 2015 Declaration ‘urging negotiations’ between the UK and Argentina. Canada’s position was clear: ‘the Canadian delegation does not wish to associate to the text’ a display of how strong are the bonds between Britain and Canada.
Canada is a member of the Commonwealth, shares a long military history, a system of government and same monarch and Head of State with Britain. Traditionally, both countries support each other during times of need as seen in the position of Canadian Government over the Falklands in 2015. A ‘special relationship’ across the North Atlantic.