The Price of Training: A Thought Exercise

Consider a hypothetical situation. You’re tasked with standing up a company-level military unit – building it from scratch (in fact, this isn’t that much of a hypothetical – this has happened effectively dozens of times in Ukraine). You have all the soldiers and all the equipment. Now all you have to do is train it to readiness. How much does this cost? 

We can break this question down into its component parts. First: how much would you pay for a good trainer? What’s a fair rate per day for a person who knows what they’re doing, to walk your unit through each step of their preparation, up to company level (or higher)? $500 per day? $1000 on day/night days? Double that? $60,000 – $120,000 for subject matter experts capable of ensuring the highest level of readiness?

Second: how long do you have? In the shortest possible time frame, to train competence (not to drill it until the unit is competent — merely to install in its leaders and soldiers at a unit level the means necessary to achieve competence and evaluate that ability) probably takes a week to two weeks. This involves crawl-walk-run dry fires, blank fires, and live fires, day and night. This is probably sufficient in the most basic sense for a unit heading into combat, which is the situation one encounters in Ukraine. Any less than that and you’re taking a terrible risk with the soldiers — not “setting them up for failure,” but almost guaranteeing that failure. On the defense, this is still probably an acceptable risk — on the offense, not so much.

I believe that the planning and walking (and then running) through such an exercise depends on each “week” including 6 days; that a unit will require a day for rest and refit, but is pushing hard to achieve this minimum competence in the fastest amount of time possible. 1-2 weeks, then, is 6-12 days.

Next: how many trainers are needed? In another post, we wrote about the span of control a trainer can reasonably expect to enjoy — how many soldiers a single trainer can handle. We estimated that number is probably somewhere between 8-16. Less, you’re not making the best use of those trainers; more, and the trainers become overwhelmed, leading to a loss in training value. This is especially true while “walking” or evaluating units in a maneuver exercise at platoon level or higher; the distance between teams could be 50-100m, and the distance between squads, even greater. How does one evaluate a squad that’s pulling security on a building while another squad’s inside clearing it? The task requires more than 1 trainer for some of that training. 

A full infantry company consists of ~120 soldiers give or take; adding attached enablers for deployment to combat, it can swell to perhaps ~150 personnel. Three line platoons plus an HQ element, or 9-12 line squads depending on how a weapons squad gets assigned, plus three platoon-level leadership teams, plus one company-level leadership team. That means you probably need at least nine trainers (one for each squad) capable of training and evaluating standard infantry skills, as well as three with specialized qualifications. Those specialized trainers include at least one medical trainer, at least one trainer who mentors and evaluates the officers, and one trainer for the mortarmen / FISTers. This totals to a minimum of 12 trainers to train and evaluate a company-level formation during collective training.

To train a rifle company properly, a good wet-finger estimate for a budget of 12 trainers for 6-12 days runs from $36,000, if each trainer’s cost is $500 per day to train six days (one week), at the short end, to $144,000, if their cost is $1000 per day each for 12 days (two weeks), at the long end.

To train a rifle company, *from scratch*, with all new soldiers and sergeants and officers — the situation in which Ukrainian units found themselves assembled before the counteroffensive — requires more than one to two six-day weeks. To train competency with basic company-level offensive operations in that context probably required four weeks at a minimum; with 12 trainers at $500 per day for 24 days (four six-day weeks) the total is $144,000; for the same number of people for the same amount of time at $1000 per day, it’s $288,000 – and that’s just to compensate the trainers. On top of this one requires food, quarters, and transportation. Therefore, we’re looking at more than a quarter million dollars to train one company!

In the U.S. military, which benefits from the most extensive institutional capacity of any military in the world, most of the actual training is done by soldiers, sergeants, and officers with experience — the senior leadership of that unit. A unit doesn’t pay extra for services that salaried service members provide as part of their jobs and duties. 

However, as this exercise shows, for a defense force looking to supplement its training capacity with outside professionals (whether provided by a private contractor, or the state militaries of its partners), the cost can be very high indeed, just for salaries. In the Ukrainian case, much of that training is now being subsidized by the U.S. and its NATO allies. Identifying the total value of the U.S. training provided to Ukraine thus far, out of the $43 billion in military assistance provided since February 2022, would be a research project out of scope of this humble blog post, but as this back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests, it’s certainly a lot of money. However, it’s ultimately a small portion of the overall assistance budget. Good training is disproportionately impactful to the amount invested in it – the best kit in the world doesn’t matter if formations and their formations aren’t capable of employing it effectively at the technical, tactical, and operational levels.   

These estimates suggest the level of impact volunteer training efforts can have. Entities able to mobilize volunteer trainers at lower cost – e.g., for stipends rather than full-day rates – may provide similar training value at considerable savings. So long as they are compliant with U.S., international, and local national law, professionally run, contextually relevant, effectively risk-managed, conflict-sensitive, and conducted according to a sound theory of change, such training efforts have the potential to generate additional positive impact on the margins, increasing the readiness of Ukrainian forces and those of other democracies faced with authoritarian threats in an economy-of-resources role. Non-profit volunteer training organizations can thus be a value-for-money part of the toolkit of the free world, a way to leverage civil society to increase preparedness in the face of aggression.  


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