Army

BATUS: Is it still needed?

British soldiers have been training on the huge area since 1972 – but is now the time for troops to be exercising elsewhere?

It's the British Army's biggest training base in the world but doubt has been cast over its future.

British Army Training Unit Suffield, known more simply as BATUS, in Alberta, Canada, is approximately 2,700 square kilometres with more than 400 permanent staff and 1,000 temporary deployed staff based there. 

The huge training area has a number of benefits but the Army's use of it, according to a former commander, has already "diminished".

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Defence Secretary denied reports the base was closing with troops set to move to Oman in the Gulf.

But Ben Wallace admitted to Forces News that BATUS will see "change" as "some of those forces we might use elsewhere".

Retired Lieutenant General James Bashall, former Commander, Home Command, says BATUS still has its uses but that training in the Middle East would offer "more realistic environments".

"I think it [BATUS] already has diminished in terms of the size and the usage the military has given to it but it does remain a very important training area.

Watch: Lt Gen Bashall speaks to Forces News.

"It's served us extremely well in preparing for operational service in Iraq and Afghanistan and I think it provides a very useful training area for certain types of training, particularly live fire.

"The advantage of going to somewhere like Oman is it's more likely you're going to operate in the Middle East and therefore for you're training in much more realistic environments.

"The prairie [in BATUS] is a wonderful training area, but it doesn't look like many other places we've operated in around the world. 

"And training in the region where you may have to fight is much more realistic."

Defence expert Professor Michael Clarke echoed Lt Gen's Bashall's views.

He said while the Army might miss being able to carry out "division-level operations" at BATUS, moving troops to Oman could make sense.

"There is nothing like Suffield in terms of the sheer size of the area," Mr Clarke said.

Watch: In 2019, we were given special access to BATUS to find out more about the training ground.

"It would be nice if we can hold on to it [BATUS], but with the Army shrinking, that will be very difficult to do.

"So if you have to make tough decisions, then a move to Duqm [in Oman] makes sense, certainly for the next five to 10 years.

"Whether it will still make sense in the next 20-30 years rather depends on what happens to defence and our security environment in general."

On Thursday, Mr Wallace confirmed to MPs in the House of Commons that Oman would be home to one of the UK's "new network of regional hubs", which will see more personnel deployed for longer.

It's thought by moving to the Gulf, the UK can position hardware and personnel closer to key allies in the region such as Bahrain, as well as nearer to adversaries such as Iran.

"Operating in Oman is a very good geographical location and it means that the Army can operate with the other two services fairly easily," Mr Clarke said.

"Of course the downside to that is we do have a lot of eggs in one basket and in terms of intelligence, the penetration of what we're doing is all a bit easier for our opponents, they'll be able to see what we're doing a bit more easily."

Anonymous service person looking over British Army Training Unit Suffield BATUS battlefield
Aerial view of BATUS.

British troops have been training at BATUS since 1972, with its remote location making large-scale exercises easier.

The centre is home to more than 1,000 Army vehicles, including Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior infantry fight vehicles. 

Armoured battlegroups, each containing about 1,400 soldiers, conduct live firing and manoeuvred exercises at BATUS every year.

Exercises run for about 30 days and are split into two phases – Live Fire and Tactical Effects Simulation (TES), then a second phase with a live enemy.

The TES system identifies when vehicles have been fired at and damaged or destroyed and also informs soldiers when they are being fired at and if hit what injuries they have sustained.

British Army Training Unit Suffield BATUS battlefield
BATUS is approximately 2,700 square kilometres and has been used by UK troops since 1972.

Former Royal Household soldier and BFBS writer James Wharton wrote about what it was like being deployed to BATUS, describing his four months there in 2008 as a "tremendous experience".

"The uniqueness offered by BATUS is its sheer size.

"When you're out there, on the prairies, there is so much more opportunity to push the limits of military training, allowing troops to have a taste of what a proper war against a conventional enemy might feel like.

"I recall having some incredible tank battles with other units for a few weeks at a time; it felt like we really went to war with those guys in our role as the enemy."

For now, the MOD and Defence Secretary have yet to confirm what the exact future holds for BATUS but it seems clear "change", as Mr Wallace said, is coming.

He reiterated to Forces News the need to be "present where it matters" and that "the Middle East matters".

"There's no good sitting back in a British base – if you want influence, if you want to deter, if you want to provide resilience, you need to be out and around in parts of the world that matters.

"The Middle East is one of those parts of the world, Oman and Qatar, for example, would be one of those areas."