How an ‘unprecedented’ shooting study may shake up Marine marksmanship

by Tommy Grant

In 2018, Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration published an internal capabilities assessment of service marksmanship that exposed glaring gaps not only in how Marine shooters trained, but also what the service knew about how they were performing on the range.

Now the Corps is attacking those problems by making big investments in sophisticated marksmanship simulators and participating in a wide-ranging study that will challenge every assumption about how to teach Marines to get rounds on target.

The new study of Marine Corps marksmanship, set to take place over three fiscal years, is being undertaken by the Naval Health Research Center, with funding from the Office of Naval Research. It follows a recently concluded 2022 study focused on gathering better live-fire data that researchers say resulted in the proposal of a new training and readiness standard, now under consideration, emphasizing moving targets.

Enabling this research will be eight new advanced small arms lethality trainers, or ASALTs, ordered through an $11.3 million contract between Marine Corps Systems Command’s Program Manager for Training Systems and Virginia-based company Conflict Kinetics.

Set to be installed at all major Marine Corps bases beginning with Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, these enclosed trainers, also known as Gunfighter Gyms, use advanced simulation technology and adaptive artificial intelligence to take Marines through a spectrum of marksmanship training scenarios while collecting data to improve their performance.

The Marine Corps had discussed investing in ASALT trainers for years, even, according to Conflict Kinetics, installing one at 2nd Marine Division out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for a two-year study period in 2019.

“Key to ASALT is its ability to capture rich human performance data to inform better warfighter training, including the transfer to live fire and force-on-force training readiness,” the company said in a November release announcing the contract.

The Naval Health Research Center researchers who spoke with Marine Corps Times said they’re unaware of any previous research effort comparable in size and scope to what they’re now undertaking.

Already, they said, they’ve completed a literature review of all previous studies and reports having to do with marksmanship training and shooting simulators, enabling them to embark on a “blank slate” approach in their study of what makes an effective shooter.

‘We’re already experts’

While major military investments have been made in drone and electronic warfare, technological investments in small arms tools and training were comparatively minimal, according to Joe Hamilton, the marksmanship and tactical research lead for the Naval Health Research Center.

“Marksmanship does get taken for granted,” he said.

A reason for that, he said, was because the only consistent metric to evaluate shooting proficiency was range qualification, on which he said about 80% of Marines consistently earned an “expert” shooting badge.

“There’s no demand signal in this space, because we’re already experts,” he said, citing a typical line of thinking. “Why would we index on our expert task?”

Yet both the literature review and the Marines’ recent shooter study showed significant gaps in the service’s ability to train as it fights.

The 2018 Marine Corps Rifle Marksmanship Lethality Capabilities-Based Assessment, or CBA ― a redacted copy of which was reviewed by Marine Corps Times ― found that the existing rifle training tables failed to accurately represent current and future combat operating environments.

“Marine Corps rifle marksmanship facilities must not only support necessary marksmanship training, but also enable new, innovative modifications to the marksmanship program to advance marksmanship lethality,” the document found. “Range facilities must be multifunctional and not limited to a specific [course of fire] due to physical constraints.”

The Naval Health Research Center researchers will now work to “validate and optimize” use of the pricey new trainers by evaluating shooters in simulators and on the range. They’ve even developed a tool, the Joint Marksmanship Assessment Package, or JMAP, that creates a “digital score sheet,” linking a tablet to precision tracking devices such as an acoustic timer that can show the cadence between initial shots and following rounds.

“When I say [I want] more data granularity, it’s not the sort of whiz-bang fancy stuff,” Hamilton said. What we need is better information about the hits. I don’t want to just know, did you hit the torso.”

Hitting and leading moving targets

Several shooting challenges were isolated as pain points for the Marine Corps, including shooting at night, hitting moving targets, and leading targets, or aiming in front of a target so the bullet trajectory intersects with the target’s travel path, according to multiple sources who reviewed the full Marine Corps Rifle Marksmanship Lethality Capabilities-Based Assessment report.

Leading in particular is a complex skill and difficult to demonstrate or train to on a conventional range.

Col. Gregory Jones, commander of Weapons Training Battalion, out of Quantico, Virginia, told Marine Corps Times, “Back in the ‘70s … they were having people with a paper target and a stick just run really fast in the pit.”

“And that’s sort of what we do now.”

While the Marine Corps’ increasing adoption of robotic “trackless mobile infantry targets,” or TMITs, has offered more options for training on lead, that skill has not historically been built into simulators like the Marines’ older indoor simulated marksmanship trainer.

How to best teach lead on moving targets, a task among ASALT’s objectives that requires introducing a mathematical timing element, is among what Jones calls the “scientific experiments” that the Naval Health Research Center can undertake. And this is an example of where a paradigm shift might occur when it comes to evaluating proficiency on the range.

“If you are able to basically measure how quick and accurate someone is versus how accurate they are, there’s a floor, no ceiling,” Jones said. “When your lethality is measured this way, we can see how good you can be, and … the ceiling starts to be the limits of an individual Marine’s ability.”

Integrating ranges and simulators

The Marine Corps has taken substantial steps already to inject more realism into marksmanship assessments.

The service rolled out a new rifle qualification program in 2021 that required Marines to wear combat gear, hit moving targets and fire on targets in sequence. It was challenging enough that the Corps this year changed policy to give more Marines a chance to shoot expert if they missed it the first time.

In 2022, the service also introduced the Advanced Marksmanship Training Program, with 28 modules and 600 pages of material, as the new shooting curriculum for the infantry community.

The new ASALTs, however, will give Marines a chance to train regularly on scenarios too complex or dangerous to execute on a range, such as “shoot/don’t-shoot” dilemmas and high-pressure, rapidly changing decision-making drills that introduce more of the stressors of combat.

“You can’t train that at scale [on a range],” Hamilton said.

Alison Rubin, vice president of Conflict Kinetics, told Marine Corps Times that while she couldn’t go into detail about how the proprietary simulators work, a key feature is their emphasis on massive data collection and aggregation: 70 points of data per shot.

“It’s a whole different approach than what standard small arms simulators have done,” she said.

Timothy Dunn, principal investigator for Naval Health Research Center’s Expeditionary Cognitive Science (ExCS) Group, said the center planned to provide the Marine Corps with a validation report by the end of this fiscal year demonstrating the performance difference between shooting on the range in the simulator.

The year after, they plan to focus on optimization, delving into scenarios where they can ramp up physiological, social and cognitive stress within the simulator and assess how those factors affect marksmanship and operational outcomes.

The last year of the study, Dunn said, will be the “science project” portion: researchers will be able to design scenarios to test optimization theories and play with variables beyond the most intuitive shooting inputs.

So can we develop these unique scenarios that transfer over to actual operational performance in some way,” Dunn said. “That idea of transfer is sort of the golden goose within cognitive science, being able to train something on a but not the same task, and you see benefits in other things as well.”

A new era of data-based marksmanship

While it’s not yet clear what changes may be prompted by these new data-collection efforts, Jones believes a new era of data-based marksmanship is beginning with the 2022 Naval Health Research Center study, which he said he’s still awaiting.

“The CBA is sort of like the Old Testament: This is what the Marine Corps, you’re not doing well, and you should do these things,” Jones said. And then, from my understanding, we’ll get this report, and then that starts to be the New Testament.”

When Jones was a captain at Quantico’s Officer Candidates School, he said, his commanding officer had a striking photograph above his desk: a Marine wading through a swamp in the Philippines, his M16 service rifle clutched protectively above his head. In his own quarter-century of service, Jones said, that image has remained with him: a lance corporal and his rifle. As he ponders the future, Jones said providing the best support and training for Marines who stand at risk against the enemy remains an inspiration.

“That’s the neatest thing about all this: we can actually go from Industrial-Age models where we give Marines ammo and we push them through a range that was developed in 1907, then actually take training, enhanced training methodologies enabled by technology, redefined training programs, redefined definitional authority, and really built an information-age individual marksmanship training program that embraces data analytics,” Jones said.

Such a program, he said, would “pay it forward” from his generation to the young Marines now entering the fight, carrying rifles very similar to the M16 borne by the grunt in the Philippines.

“That’s what I’m most excited about,” Jones said.

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