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Marine Corps Training and Education: Train As You Fight

While using lessons learned to train for the fight in Afghanistan, Marines retain training in the core competencies

A part of the Marine Corps that is critical to everything else – especially to the ability of the Corps to carry out its missions with the highest potential for success and lowest for casualties – is training and education, beginning with the traditional – boot camp, Officer Candidate School, schools for military occupational specialties (MOS), professional military education, and college degree programs.

But a decade of constant combat in Southwest Asia has led to a heavy new emphasis on critical predeployment training that all Marines, regardless of rank, receive to ensure they benefit from the most recent lessons learned. It also seeks to make them fully proficient not only in the equipment, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) they will use in theater, but in the local culture, language, and political structure, as well.

Two organizations with major responsibilities for this combination of enhanced traditional and relatively new advanced training are the Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM), headed by Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox, and the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG), commanded by Col. Bill Mullen.

TECOM has the first element, from turning civilians into Marines to all of the formal education provided to both officers and enlisted throughout their military careers; in short, all requirements of Title 10 of the U.S. Code related to training the nation’s military force. With Marines rapidly cycling in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan the past decade, along with a wide range of other deployments around the globe, training and education have become both more critical and more difficult.

Counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Training

A U.S. Marine from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Lima Company, conducts counter improvised explosive device (IED) training on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 4, 2011. Concurrent Technologies Corporation, in accordance with Training and Education Command (TECOM)/Training Support Center Counter IED, assisted the Marines for an upcoming deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jody Lee Smith

“When the OPSTEMPO [operations tempo] increases, as it has for Afghanistan, we have to accelerate the training cycle, sometimes moving up three or four months,” Fox noted. “We [TECOM] have been able to react to that – it’s usually harder on the units involved, which may not have completed other training they normally would get first.

“When we start reducing forces in Afghanistan and get to what we call steady state, with a hopefully more predictable OPSTEMPO, we will have more time to train individuals and units, including going back to redo an event on which they may not have performed [as well as expected].”

MCTOG was stood up in 2007, with immediate requirements to provide crucial predeployment training – especially in leadership – while also rewriting infantry company and battalion doctrine that had not been updated since the late 1970s.

According to Mullen, the Operations and Tactics Training Program (OTTP) has three primary goals:

  1. Train and certify Operations Tactics Instructors (OTIs).
  2. Put units prepared by the OTIs through the Battle Staff Training (BST) program, concluding with an exercise called Spartan Resolve.
  3. Conduct the Operations Tactics and Training (OTT) program – reviewing or writing doctrine, updating training standards, and integrating tactical lessons from Afghanistan.

With only 150 personnel – about 50 government civilians and contractors, with the rest primarily senior officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) – MCTOG relies heavily on simulation in its training programs. But it also uses small groups who present the Marines with a range of human interaction, from local officials to villagers to enemy insurgents.

One of the most important components in predeployment leadership training – for both officers and NCOs – is something that has grown almost exponentially in the new century: information management, which includes acquiring, validating, and fusing data from a wide range of sources into useful information available when needed and in a format shared by leaders at all levels.

“They have to know not only who they are talking to, but understand what that person can or cannot do for them and the impact of that. We call it non-kinetic targeting, where they build a profile on the individual – who he knows, his background, his real influence – and develop a plan on what to talk to him about to get the best results,” Mullen explained.

Operation Spartan Resolve

U.S. Marines with 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division practice combat marksmanship on Range 105 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., Aug. 1, 2009, during Operation Spartan Resolve. The operation was in preparation for upcoming deployments. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher M. Paulton

“Part of that is information from other people. When you go into a new area, you don’t know all that, so you try to get as much information in advance as possible. But you remain noncommittal when you first sit down with locals, watching how others react to them. When someone enters a room and is ignored, that guy has no influence whatsoever; if all conversation stops, that guy has influence. But until you figure that out, you remain noncommittal.”

In Afghanistan, which has always been more a loose confederation of tribes and warlords with ever-changing alliances than a traditional nation-state, all that is further complicated by religion, culture, outside influences (such as al Qaeda), and a centuries-old distrust (at best) of foreigners. It is up to TECOM and, especially, MCTOG to give Marines on their way to Afghanistan the best possible knowledge and understanding of their host nation allies, civilians, and enemy.

“We’re doing a lot of work on lower-level development to make the best squad leaders we can, so they can make the right decisions in the environments they will be facing,” Fox said. “I’m not sure today’s young Marines are much different from those in World War II, but certainly they are challenged to do more and the world is a much more complicated place today. So basically it has ramped up our requirements to spend more time and use all the means of education and training we can. We use a lot of online training and have invested a lot more time teaching the cultural values and languages of different countries.

“The equipment is more sophisticated, which requires better education and training, as are the communications. So they need to understand how all that gear works before they go into combat. And that is what has produced the Marines we have today, from their desire to be Marines to their ability to grasp the technologies involved, the need to understand culture and language, and take those new skills out onto the battlefield.”

And while public attention has been largely focused on Afghanistan, Fox and Mullen emphasized Marines were heavily engaged in multiple other missions around the globe since January 2010, ranging from humanitarian relief after the Haitian earthquake and the Japanese tsunami to counterpiracy efforts off the coast of Africa and to training with allies worldwide.

“The type of operations the Corps has done in the past 18 months is something the nation should be proud of,” Fox said. “The Corps is justifiably proud of the versatility of our deployed forces. I think policymakers sometimes take for granted having those forces there without realizing what it takes to get them there.”

MCTOG’s Spartan Resolve exercise has multiple goals, including helping battalions prepare for their final test before deploying – Enhanced Mojave Viper (EMV), a grueling 35-day live-fire exercise conducted by the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. The “Block IV” component of the Corps’ Pre-deployment Training Program (PTP), it combines elements from two previous programs – the Revised Combined Arms Exercises and Security and Stability Operations training – giving warfighters a final, Afghanistan-focused “dress rehearsal” for what they soon will face in theater.

Afghan National Army (ANA)

A role-playing Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier takes up a security position during an Enhanced Mojave Viper exercise at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s new combined arms, live-fire, Military Operations on Urban Terrain training range, Feb. 15, 2011. Role-playing ANA soldiers attach with squads throughout some of the training, giving Marines an idea what it will like when working with foreign militaries. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Andrew S. Avitt

“Enhanced Mojave Viper is the last test for battalions before they head overseas, so we help them try to do better on it,” Mullen said. “Regiments do not go to EMV, so we set up two different Spartan Resolve exercises, one to work through the bugs and the second as an assessment, which really is another set of eyes looking at the regimental staff.”

A Spartan Resolve exercise was conducted in July and August for three battalions at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and a fourth at Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH). MCBH was where the first Spartan Resolve was held in October 2008, when the 3rd Marine Regiment was activated as a special purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) to go to Afghanistan on fairly short notice.

“They were building a battle staff training program as part of our original charter and may have run one or two battalion-level operations before that, but that was the first real one,” Mullen said. “And since then we’ve hit every battalion going to Afghanistan – 7th, 2nd, 1st, 8th, 5th, and we’re getting ready to do the 6th Marines in September.”

The various training programs conducted by MCTOG address junior and senior officers, NCOs, and enlisted personnel equally, he added, with a goal to have leaders at all levels – from squads to headquarters – equally prepared to deal with whatever may happen.

“If you take the time to explain things to Marines of any rank, they understand. But it you don’t explain things to them in advance, their first instinctive reaction may create problems,” he said, “which is why we train officers and enlisted together in the MCTOG courses.”

While the culture, religion, politics, and tribal relationships of Afghanistan are far outside the world American military personnel know and understand, it is the Marines’ own technology that can be the most difficult obstacle MCTOG training seeks to overcome.

“The hardest part, by far, is information management and the compounding factor is integration: organizing all the incoming information, sifting through what is and is not important, then getting it to the decision-maker in time for him to make an informed decision,” Mullen said. “There is so much information coming in today, you could easily drown in it. You have people above pulling for information and people below you sending it up in vast volumes. So you have to be value-added to the people below you, even as you feed the beast above.

“A common comment in Iraq – and now Afghanistan – is information goes up, but nothing ever comes down. When pulling a new team together, you first have to get past the typical inward focus. One technique we use is the institution of a battle rhythm, a series of meetings that force you to pull in other folks, process information, establish human filters who are trusted members of the team. We have to sort all that out through the training exercises so they can get that out of the way before they deploy.”

Civilians, especially teenagers, may be surprised to learn one of the most common forms of communication in a combat operations center is “chat,” using everything from handhelds to laptops to desktop terminals. But just as in civilian life, while chat can provide a fast way to communicate among numerous users, it also can become part of the information management problem – and so part of the training program.

“People tend to get too focused on their chat windows – they can have half a dozen open at the same time – and that impacts situational awareness. So we get them to understand there are times when you have to say ‘stop,’ get everyone’s attention, explain what information has just come in and what needs to be done with it,” he said. “We explain to them how the whole information chain needs to be fed, how to properly resource everyone and make decisions on what has to happen.

“We operate all the way down to the company, putting advisors at the regiment, battalion, and company levels, which is where they really have to start pulling things together. A lot of our training is focused on the individual Marine, out there every day collecting information. But if no one responds to that when they come back from patrol, they will stop collecting as much.”

Integrated Ground Operations Chief Course and Tactical Marine Air-Ground Integration Course

Marines and soldiers sit waiting at a Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG) classroom for the first integrated Ground Operations Chief Course and Tactical Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integration Course graduation April 8, 2011. The class graduated 57 officers and 18 enlisted personnel. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. William J. Jackson

While the current focus is on Afghanistan, TECOM, MCTOG, and the entire range of Marine Corps training and education components also are looking to what will be required in a post-Afghanistan world. The new company and battalion doctrine updates, as well as the length and structure of the OTI training course,  will incorporate both lessons learned from more than a decade of combat in Southwest Asia and some things critical to traditional Marine operations but overshadowed by the requirements of combat far from the sea.

“We are squarely focused on lessons learned. We’re great at observation, but less so at adopting them. So we need to make sure all that is pushed back into the doctrine so these things are not forgotten,” Mullen noted. “Even after Afghanistan, we will still have to train units to deploy. The only real change will be the exercises no longer will be fully focused on Afghanistan.

“In fact, the course we run for OTIs today, the final exercise, has nothing to do with Afghanistan; the actual details are classified, but it’s an amphibious MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] landing for offense, defense, and stability operations. That is a core competency we have to make sure we maintain. If we lose our ability as Marines to do amphibious operations, then people will start asking why we need two land armies.”

There appears to be general agreement within the Corps that, at least for the next 10 or 15 years, any combat operations, wherever they may occur in the world, are more likely to resemble the asymmetric, counterinsurgency (COIN) battlespace of OIF/OEF and what were known as “small wars” in previous centuries than a full-blown conflict with a peer or near-peer nation-state. But future doctrine and training also will have to take into account both rapidly evolving technology and the increasing ability of even small terrorist groups to acquire and use that technology for communications, surveillance, and even precision weaponry.

At the same time, because the Marine Corps prefers a young, short-term enlisted force, leaving minimal time for training, courses and exercises will need to focus on what is known or expected regarding potential adversaries.

“We try to maintain focus on all the changes that are happening, but the only things we teach the students are what we know for a fact they will face once they get out and into their jobs. We want to make certain they are proficient on what they need to use now, not train them on things they may not be using,” Mullen said.

“Technology changes too fast; people are not even getting proficient in the systems we have now before new ones come out. We’re trying to put the brakes on that so people are at least 80 percent proficient; we’re not pushing for 100 percent. And that is not just for command and control, but also weapons, vehicles, etc. Every new system that comes online brings its own problems – who uses it, who maintains it, etc. The enemy also has a vote – and for all our vaunted technology to remove the fog of war, they find ways to get around it.”

Fox believes the training that has evolved for Marines since 9/11 has been crucial to their success, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in humanitarian relief efforts and other missions around the world. And what they have accomplished, from Fallujah in Iraq to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, has laid the foundation for future training, exercises, and deployments.

“The thing we have carried forward, starting well before Fallujah, is it is the MAGTF that wins the fight, sustaining the individual Marine on the ground with ISR, firepower, communications, working with the coalition,” he concluded. “All those we constantly reinforce while taking into account lessons learned to do better the next time.”

This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...