The Canadian Forces have adopted a new training regime for all members of the Canadian Army being deployed overseas that better reflects the kind of equipment, landscape and warfare they are likely to encounter.

The changes include a five-kilometre timed-march and a circuit of intense exercises where the participants lift and drag heavy sandbags for short periods to simulate combat conditions when adrenalin-fuelled movements are short and intense with little rest in-between.

The new standard is one that  Lt.-Col. Matthew Sprague says could be the difference between life and death for Canadian Army personnel and those from the navy and air force being deployed under army command.

"If you are on operations and are unable to move around and survive on a battlefield carrying your equipment, then you could easily die," he said in an interview with CBC News.

The new regime replaces the traditional 13 km march, which was the standard test for army troops deployed to combat zones in places such as Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The changes are happening because the nature of warfare has changed, Maj.-Gen. Simon Hetherington, commander of the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre in Kingston told CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"What we're seeing is more operations in complex terrain," Hetherington told guest host David Common. "That could be built-up areas, not the wide plains of Western Europe that we looked at in World War II — that a lot of our training was based on."

Simulating the battlefield

In a May 17, 2016 internal document obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request called a "warning order," Lt.-Col. Sprague wrote that the new fitness standard is not meant to be a one-time goal, but a measure that is "relevant" and "sustainable."

The new measures took effect in October.

Participants must now complete a circuit that contains three stages:

  • A 5 km march wearing 35 kg of full combat gear, which is to be completed between 50 minutes and one hour. This stage represents the time it might take for a platoon to get back to its base;
  • A five-minute break during which time the soldiers dump part of the load they're carrying. This stage represents the time needed to prepare for the next part of a mission;
  • Completion of a circuit of a series of movements, including a "185 pound casualty drag" where soldiers lift and drag a heavy sandbag while still carrying most of their own gear.

The circuit is meant to mimic battlefield movements such as ducking for cover to dodge bullets and bombs, or dragging a wounded colleague to safety.

An evolutionary change

Sprague says the fitness test is only one part of the his goal, which is to ensure army personnel maintain a certain level of overall fitness, as well as mental health. It means having access to regular training regimes that the army will be obliged to provide. Participants concerned they may not pass will be given time to get into shape before taking the test. 

The new requirements come at a time when the Liberal government is set to offer the United Nations a commitment that may fall short of its initial pledge to deliver up to 600 peacekeeping troops and 150 police officers to UN peace-keeping operations.

Modern-day operations are a lot different than they were before Canada deployed troops to Afghanistan, says Sprague, explaining that equipment soldiers are required to carry is a lot heavier, and is now carried closer to the soldier's body.

"Soldiers are carrying more stuff and in different ways," he said. "It's about learning to be normal while wearing a lot more weight."

Hetherington, who took the tests during its pilot phase in the summer, describes the new fitness standard as "evolutionary," in part because the old 13 km march left soldiers with sore feet and aching joints and not "fit to fight. So what we looked at over the years, is: what is it that we're going to be doing in our future land environments, and make a test that's relevant."

Special waivers

Although the test is designed mainly for army personnel, members of the navy and air force will also have to pass it if they are to be deployed under army command.

Though he expects few people to fail, Hetherington says the Forces could grant "special waivers" to people such as a navy cook who may have been unable to pass but is required to be deployed.

The Forces had planned to roll out the new fitness regime earlier this year. However, Hetherington says they needed extra time to carry out most tests such as dealing with the extreme heat that forces could encounter in places such as Africa.

Hetherington recalls taking part in those pilot tests on a humid August day, admitting that they "kicked my ass a bit."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said the fitness test applies to Canadian Forces members deployed abroad. The story has been changed to reflect that it only applies to Canadian Army members and members from the air force and navy being deployed under army command.
    Nov 16, 2017 4:59 PM ET