ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Marine Corps is focused on bringing synthetic training systems to its infantry members, acknowledging that advanced threats and operational changes under the Force Design 2030 adaptation effort necessitate a change from traditionally prized live training events.

Marine generals on different panels at this year’s Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference painted the same picture of live infantry training: Marines maneuver around the desert with so-called coyotes — other Marines assigned to training groups who supervise and mentor during live exercises, wearing bright orange vests to distinguish themselves from the players in the event. The coyotes run around participants, “arbitrarily” telling individuals they’ve been shot or identifying a vehicle hit by indirect fire.

But no one can keep up with the coyotes’ moves in real time, meaning other units and leaders up the chain of command have to make decisions without seeing a conflict’s progression in real time.

The generals agreed that’s not how the Corps will fight in the near future, and therefore that’s not how it should train.

“We’re going to have to be able to train like we fight, and part of that means to operate [under the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept that’s shaping Marines’ plans]. It’s all about that network: It’s information at the right place, at the right time, in a usable fashion so we can make decisions at the lowest level,” Brig. Gen. Matthew Mowery, the assistant deputy commandant for aviation, said during a Dec. 1 panel.

He added the Marine aviation community fielded good simulators on the United States’ East and West coasts as well as in Japan, but the challenge for the next couple budget cycles will be developing training interoperability with ground forces.

Ideally, he said, pilots from the air combat element and Marines in the ground combat element of the same Marine expeditionary unit should be able to train together, seeing the same scenario and being able to attack a problem together.

He noted that another upcoming focus will involve developing smaller and more rugged versions of aviation simulators that can go to more locations and on deployments.

“To fight a peer threat, you’ve got to be able to train to that all the time, not just once a year at some of the larger training bases,” he said.

An ideal scenario

During the same panel, Maj. Gen. Austin “Sparky” Renforth, who leads Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command and Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, described his wishes for what ground combat training should look like.

Live, force-on-force drills, he said, come down to training commanders to make the best decisions on the battlefield. As the Marine Corps modernizes in line with Force Design 2030, these commanders are gaining access to more data and information from near and far, but they’re having difficulty comprehending their access as well as trusting the intelligence.

The situation is worsened when training ranges aren’t networked to allow commanders to see a real-time common operating picture of the battlefield.

What would go a long way in helping, he said, would be an instant replay type of capability on the ranges. If he and his staff could go back to pivotal moments in an exercise, ask commanders why they made certain decisions and then show them what data was overlooked, that could lead to improved decisions, Renforth said, plus commanders could learn to consider and trust new streams of information during training, hopefully then coming to rely on those sources during a real-world operation.

Additionally, with live-only training, Renforth can’t insert threats synthetically to force a commander to make a tough decision, and he can’t fully replicate how he expects a peer adversary to complicate operations — compromising or denying command-and-control systems and communications, for example, Renforth said.

He currently contracts surrogates to play the adversary and attempt high-end tactics as best as possible.

“I think we’re doing an OK job, but that shouldn’t be good enough. We can do much better,” he added.

Simulation before combat

Brig. Gen. A.J. Pasagian, who leads Marine Corps Systems Command, said during the panel that he is committed to developing and understanding mature and stable requirements for this kind of force-on-force ground training system, as well as properly resourcing it.

“What I’ll tell you, force-on-force — free-play, interactive, using real, live data from human beings [performing both the blue force and red force roles], in a networked manner, using a capture and networked after-action to provide instant feedback to those gun fighters — is being invested in as we sit here today,” he said.

“Can I see it?” Renforth interjected, to audience laughter.

Pasagian acknowledged the Corps hadn’t made these investments before but is now doing so thanks to Commandant Gen. David Berger’s commitment to overhaul and modernize the force in preparation for a potential fight against a high-end adversary, like China, by the end of the decade or sooner.

“What you hear the commandant say is: ‘I think Force Design is going well, we’re making great progress, but the two areas I want to concentrate on are talent management … and then training and education.’ So now you’re seeing as a result of that … we’re making investments, we’re putting [in] the resources and we’re really drilling down into the requirements for these programs,” Pasagian said of the ground training capabilities.

Maj. Gen. Julian Alford, who leads Training Command, said during his opening remarks that the commandant tasked him with revamping the infantry community to support Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and other emerging concepts and missions. He said improvements in individual training is already happening and will continue as the service invests in new capabilities, even ahead of these infantry Marines being ready to join the large, force-on-force drills the other generals discussed.

He noted Marine aviators learn in a simulator before they risk their lives in a plane, but the same is not done for infantry Marines.

“The first time a Marine goes into combat should not be the first time they go to combat; because when you go down to flight school, before a pilot ever gets in an airplane, takes off in the airplane, lands in the airplane, drops a bomb in an airplane — they do what multiple times? Simulation. So we owe that to our young front-line troops, infantrymen, to do the same thing,” Alford said.

He said the service has fielded an infantry immersion trainer, similar to one that communications Marines go through, “where the Marine is under stress, having to operate, for instance with the comm school, touch his radio, work his radio, take it apart, put it back together, all under stress: loud explosions, lights going on and off, having to do it in the dark with headlamps and so forth. We’re doing that with our infantry, too,” he said, adding that two systems on the East Coast and one on the West Coast were recently set up.

In a separate panel discussion on Nov. 30, Lt. Gen. Kevin Iiams, who leads Training and Education Command, said he wants to see the Corps train with all its weapons and systems networked together against a properly replicated adversary able to challenge Marines in all domains. In this training world, Iiams wants Marines to leverage the highest-end tools available, even if they’re classified or otherwise sensitive assets.

All those needs, he said, point to using synthetic training to a degree the Marines have never before considered.

“We believe that this necessitates synthetic training domains — enclaves, if you will — where we can generate effects inside those enclaves and then play them into the larger picture so that we can conceal our playbook from the prying eyes and exploitation and then still enable full play. I believe the synthetic [Live Virtual Constructive Training environment] is the only place where we’ll be able to put all our assets on the table, exercise all of them with all the bells and whistles we know hide behind the black curtains,” he said.

“Our future training systems must replicate a vast and complex future battlefield and develop the cognitive capabilities of our future leaders. There’s only one training regime that does this.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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