The commanding officer of B Squadron of Lord Strathcona's Horse, Cooper has had a gruelling day trying to defend the area against two enemies — he faces a well-equipped army, while guerilla forces attempt to chip away at the squadron's rear.
"It's a very complex enemy that we are facing," Cooper said, over the whine of fighter craft circling in the air above.
Fortunately, Cooper and his tanks aren't facing real fire. The squadron, and its enemies, are on a training ground at CFB Wainwright, east of Edmonton. Cooper and his fellow soldiers are taking part in Maple Resolve — a month-long simulated war that brings in 6,750 Canadian army and air force members to train alongside American and British troops.
Maple Resolve is the Canadian Forces` largest training exercise of the year. The aim is to not only get the troops working with their international counterparts, but to give them a taste of what life is like in an actual battle. In kicking off the exercise in late April, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said Maple Resolve "enables elements of the Canadian Armed Forces and our allies to work together in the most realistic setting, short of an actual deployment."
Military officials say the experience is vital. The majority of the forces taking part in Maple Resolve are drawn from 5 Canadian Mechanised Brigade Group, based in Valcartier, Quebec. For the group, it's not just another month of training: the exercise is the last step before the brigade takes up the mantle as the country's high-readiness task force — a special unit trained to be ready to deploy on short notice, often in conjunction with NATO forces and other allies.
In April, the federal government announced that the current task force, based in Petawawa, will be deployed to Ukraine to help train soldiers.
Given how often the unit will work with allied forces, the experience of training alongside other countries is invaluable.
Capt. Chrisman Long, a U.S. army reserve engineer, is one of 700 American soldiers taking part in the exercise. He said it allows each country to learn the strengths and limitations of their allies before they make it to the battlefield.
"If you are going to be a multi-national force, we have to have the thought that it's not just the beans-and-bullets types of things," he said.
"It's the other parts of the whole operation that can stop the whole thing."
Long said while the exercise is gruelling, it has already yielded important lessons. He points to something as simple as knowing different fuels are used in Canadian and American armoured vehicles as an important lesson before going into battle.
"Yeah, we get a little tired, we're a little dirty. But at the same time, when I wake up in the morning, I'm happy to be here."
A different kind of foe
In previous years, Maple Resolve has focused on teaching soldiers to deal with an insurgent enemy, mirroring much of the fighting Canadians saw during a decade of war in Afghanistan. This year, the exercise is largely focused on a "near-peer enemy" — facing off against an established army with equipment and training similar to the Canadian forces. The opposing force in this year's exercise are armed with equipment from the former Soviet Union.
While the switch has not been attributed to a particular conflict, Lt. Col. Patrick Robichaud — commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment — said the near-peer training is preparation for the types of enemies Canadian forces are likely to face in the near future.
Defence against guerrilla warfare is still a large part of the operation, he said. In the final weeks of the exercise, the forces had to deal with a surprise insurgent attack on the army's headquarters.
For Robichaud, Maple Resolve offers experience that isn't possible with other training programs, while at the same time building closer relationships between different units in the Canadian Forces, as well as with its allies.
"All of a sudden, you are finding yourself on the same battlefields, anywhere around the world," he said.
"This is very beneficial for pretty much anyone in the chain of command."
Maple Resolve continues until May 23.