In the second of three articles on UK Armed Forces Officer Training, MS&T’s Dim Jones visited the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, located in the town of Camberley on the Berkshire-Surrey border some thirty miles south-west of London.

Origins and Intake

The Royal Military College at Sandhurst was founded in 1802, to train officers of all branches of the British Army except for the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, who were trained at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, founded in 1741. In 1947, these two establishments merged to form the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (RMAS) and, with the closure in 1972 of the Mons Officer Cadet School in nearby Aldershot, and the Women’s Officer Training School at Bagshot in 1987, RMAS became the British Army’s sole Initial Officer Training school; through its hallowed portals pass all those destined for commissioning in the British Army, and a significant number of international entrants.

The RMA previously shared the Sandhurst estate with the Army Staff College, through which I was privileged to pass as an exchange student more years ago than I care to remember; Army advanced staff training is now carried out alongside members of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force as part of the Defence Academy of the UK.

Prospective Sandhurst cadets can come from a variety of sources: straight from school; from university; and from the ranks of Junior Non-Commissioned Officers (JNCOs) already serving. University graduates may or may not have been in one of the University Officer Training Corps (UOTC) units affiliated to their university. Ex-Warrant Officers (Late Entry) and those professionally qualified in civilian life (e.g. doctors and lawyers) will complete a specially tailored short course. All suitable applicants attend the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB) at Warminster, and successful candidates are awarded a place at RMAS.

There are three intakes per year at Sandhurst, commencing in January, May and September. The course lasts 44 weeks, and is divided into three terms, Junior, Intermediate and Senior. A ‘snapshot’ of Commissioning Course 201 (CC201), which commenced in January 2020 and is due to graduate on 9th December 2020 showed that there were 266 new UK cadets, of whom 204 were male and 26 female, two Return-to-Training (RTT) UK cadets, both male, and 34 International cadets, of whom 33 were male and one female.

The Academy itself is commanded by a Major-General (2-Star) and is divided into two Colleges – Old and New - each college commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, assisted by a Regimental Sergeant-Major (RSM/WO1). Companies within the Colleges are commanded by Majors with Company Sergeant-Majors (CSM/WO2), and platoons – the working unit – by Captains with Colour Sergeants and Staff Sergeants. Cadets spend their Junior term in Old College, and their Intermediate and Senior terms in New College; Victory is used for overflow. The instructor corps is absolutely key to achieving the aims of RMAS, and its members are carefully selected. They come from a variety of backgrounds, specialisations, branches and units, and they all bring different skill sets and learn from each other while carrying out their duties; nevertheless, it is important that they all teach the course in the same way, so that they have a common understanding of the issues and are able to assess their students fairly.

The Course

The Common Commissioning Course was written in 1992 and integrated all graduates, non-graduates and genders. However, during the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the course ‘morphed’ in order to ensure that young officers were as prepared as possible to go out and take command in these operations. Subsequently, as Op ENTIRETY (Afghanistan) drew to a close, it became apparent that the course had been ‘bent out of shape’, couldn’t be bent back, and needed to be rewritten; accordingly, in 2015 it was revised under Project McNAMARA. Central to this training remain the complementary functions of command, leadership and management: command being the authority to give an order; leadership, the ability to inspire people and make them do things they do not necessarily want to do; and management, the organisational and administrative aspects which allow a unit to operate efficiently. Project McNAMARA introduced leadership as a subject in its own right, and aligned and integrated academic instruction with military training, with the aims of stimulating the trainees’ brains throughout the course, and emphasising that officers are there to think, and that the most important question is ‘why?’.

The aims of the course are enshrined in core Values and Standards: Values being courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment; and Standards of conduct being appropriate, lawful and professional. The specific focus of the training is, respectively: Term 1 - ‘Foundations: Soldier First, Team Player, Basic Combat Leader’; Term 2 - ‘Command and Conceptual Development: Professional, Robust Combat Leader’; and Term 3 - ‘Leading in Complexity: Professional, Agile-Thinking, Ethical and Robust Leader’. Each platoon is integrated and all-arms, and comprises male, female and international cadets. The breakdown of course content is interesting. Drill accounts for only 2%, a significant reduction on previous regimes. This is concentrated in Term 1, but all trainees participate in the Sovereign’s (Commissioning) Parade at the end of each term and are required to regain the necessary high standard for that purpose. Four percent of the syllabus is Combat Fitness training and, for this discipline only, male and female are separated in the Junior Term, the aim being to build the female’s strength, endurance and techniques in preparation for the Intermediate Term exercises, and is harder than the male equivalent, not easier; required fitness standards are based on the job to be done.

Only 6% of the syllabus is formal academic training with 18% private study, to be used for preparation and post-academic reflection. RMAS is an affiliate of the University of Reading, and the course merits a post-graduate certificate in leadership, which counts towards a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, for which cadets can continue to study after commissioning, at the Army’s expense, as part of the Army Higher Education Pathway scheme. Military training and exercises account for 46% of the syllabus, spread over the year but concentrated in the Intermediate Term. Term 1 focuses on basic military skills in Platoon operations, and culminates in Exercise Long Reach, in the Black Mountains of Wales. Term 2 looks at Platoon operations in a Company context, and these are tested in Exercise Allenby’s Advance, also in Wales but in Sennybridge Training Area. Adventure Training is a core part of the course, and students will plan an AT expedition for the end of Term 2. Term 3 concentrates on stabilisation and coalition operations and the final exercise, Dynamic Victory, normally takes place on the ranges at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels in Germany.

Exercise Dynamic Victory, Bavaria. Image credit: MoD/Bdr Murray Kerr.

These exercises are designed to test character, courage and competence. An individual’s values and standards are a product of upbringing and are generally ingrained before arrival; they can only be marginally influenced by training, and the tendency will be to revert to them when under pressure. Emotional intelligence can be affected by training, as can humility, empathy and the ability to lead by example. Courage comes in both physical and moral forms, physical being self-evident and moral the capacity to ‘do as you ought, not as you want’. As regards competence, although much activity is undertaken as teams, Sandhurst training is individual, as the failures of one student cannot be allowed to impact on others.


I referred to the instructor corps as being key to the success of the course. The role involves relatively little formal teaching, but a lot of coaching – especially for the weaker students – and mentoring for the stronger ones. Platoon Commander posts at Sandhurst are rightly highly-prized, and front-line units will nominate their best Captains for these assignments. As regards the NCO instructor cadre, 60 of the best Colour and Staff Sergeants from across the Army will be assessed every year. They will generally be bound for RSM posts, rather than commissioning, and have the potential and confidence to teach officers and, crucially, will be able to answer, when it is posed, the question ‘why?’. Of the 60 nominated, 30 will be selected to join the RMAS staff.

The quality of the instructor corps is reflected in the student pass rate, which is historically around 96%. Most of the failures are ‘Voluntary Withdrawals (VW)’; a few are physically unable to complete the course or meet the required fitness standards. For those who sustain injuries which render them temporarily unable to continue training, a rehab unit - Lucknow Platoon - operates in the basement of Old College, and embraces a remedial regime of PT, physiotherapy and academics, the aim being to reinsert fully-recovered students at the same point in the course at which they left it. When I visited, there were 27 such students, and I was impressed by their positive attitudes, desire to return to full training, and determination to take advantage of the break forced upon them.

The view of the RMAS Colonel Training, Col Adam Crawley, is that the recruitment and selection system is working, and that Sandhurst is ‘full of the right people’. In order to inform the cadets’ future career aspirations, early in the course, all arms and services display at the Academy with their range of equipment, following which students apply for the units or corps of their choice in order of preference. They will subsequently pay visits to more than one of their chosen units to get to know the unit and vice versa. The units will arrange formal interviews with twice the number of students for whom they have places available and will then make firm offers to those they select. Aspiration and availability do not always coincide exactly, and there follows a process of ‘horse-trading’, during which the staff may proffer an opinion on a student’s suitability. In numbers terms, the most popular arm is the infantry, followed by armour. During the selection process, applicants for the Army Air Corps will also undergo flying aptitude testing at the RAF’s Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre.

A major part of the course is exercises, of which the more minor or routine will be carried out on the Barossa Estate, a 498-hectare training area adjoining the Academy, and the major events in training areas around the UK and in Germany. The cadets are assessed in turn as commanders in whichever scenario is playing out, but will necessarily spend most of their time as ‘followers’. This time is not, however wasted, since the staff will take note of their leadership qualities when not in command, and also how their peers react to them. I joined one platoon during a Barossa exercise, and was able to talk to them between the exercise serials. I found them to be outgoing young people, articulate and not afraid to engage in conversation and express their views, even to the dreaded media – once they had received qualified assurance of my harmlessness from the staff. Covid-19 permitting, I hope to join a more advanced exercise at some point in the future.

Simulation at Sandhurst

There is, perhaps, less opportunity for effective use of simulation in Basic Officer Training, as compared with subsequent, and more specialised, professional courses, but RMAS does own and operate a C3 trainer which is used in the Senior Term as a mission rehearsal tool for Exercise Templar’s Triumph, which takes place at Longmoor Camp in Hampshire. The exercise scenario is a peacekeeping and counter-insurgency operation involving an advance to contact in a village. The approach may involve hazards, such as Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and, once in the village, the various roles of a local population, both friendly and not-so-friendly, are played by fellow cadets from a different Company. For added realism, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also take part.

MRX Exercise Templar’s Triumph - Company Ops Room. Image credit: MoD.

In the C3 trainer, cadets receive a 90-minute brief on the system and scenario. There are eight identical Company Ops Rooms, based on the Afghanistan model, differing in size but comprising the same functional positions - OC, 2I/C, Intelligence Officer – and the same ISTAR feeds: Base ISTAR and Watchkeeper and Desert Hawk UAVs. The conduct of ‘today’s battle’ is the province of the 2I/C, while the OC concentrates on future operations. Higher Control (HiCon) at Battlegroup level and above, and LoCon (at Pln level) are manned by fellow-students, and are run from desktop positions in an adjacent classroom, HiCon providing a scripted ‘feed’ from Battlegroup HQ via JChat. The scenario runs for half a day, at which point The Ops Room staff will swap roles with their colleagues playing LoCon. The simulation software is Bohemia Interactive’s VBS2, with a planned upgrade to VBS3, and the virtual players are represented by avatars using Artificial Intelligence (AI). The instructing staff are free to wander amongst the various set-ups, mentoring and advising as appropriate. There is no formal After-Action Review (AAR), but there is an informal debrief at half-time, and a full wash-up at Close of Play. The C3 trainer is used for a further mission rehearsal prior to the final exercise, Dynamic Triumph. The cost-effectiveness of the simulation is demonstrated by the fact that an Intake exercise on the Barossa costs an estimated £13,000 a day, whereas a day in the C3 costs around £200.

The RMAS course also makes use of Live Instrumented Training with Saab’s Direct Fire Weapons Effect Simulation (DFWES) supplied on contract for specific events: force-on-force individual equipment for Exercise Allenby’s Advance in Term 2, and additional instrumented sangars, buildings and vehicles for both Templar’s Triumph and Dynamic Victory. Equipment for the latter is provided by Digital Instrumentation Systems Europe (DISE); the ultimate phase starts in an instrumented Military Ops in Urban Terrain (MOUT) village, and culminates in a fully-instrumented Battlegroup assault.

Character, Courage and Competence

The final act of the Sandhurst course is the Sovereign’s Parade, for which the Reviewing Officer is a direct representative of HM The Queen. Graduating UK cadets will normally commission as Second Lieutenants, Late Entry ex-WO1 and 2 as Captains in roles such as the Quartermaster (QM) Branch, Professionally Qualified officers according to their qualifications, and international graduates according to their national arrangements. Their future careers may take them in many different directions but although operational theatre, scenario, threat and weapons systems may change, the Values and Standards, principles of leadership and the three Cs – Character, Courage and Competence – instilled in them during their 44 weeks at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, will stand them in good stead for the rest of their professional lives.