New Training Facilities Force Marines To Experience the Fog of War

By Stew Magnuson
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — The Marine Corps platoon stepped out of the late morning North Carolina sun and into a dark warehouse.

Inside, 25 buildings typically found in a Southern Afghanistan village were laid out in a maze before them. Shops, homes, a school and a mosque were made from dull brown mud bricks.

The smell of burning cedar from wood burning stoves and the sounds of schoolchildren and clucking chickens greeted them as they cautiously stepped onto the dirt floor.

The platoon sergeant had walked into a hornet’s nest, though. Afghan actors portraying village leaders were angrily voicing their displeasure with the intrusion.

On the first run through the mock village earlier that morning, the sergeant had made several cultural missteps that had put the town in a bad mood. Now, the marines were suffering the consequences, and the faux-pas were preventing them from reaching the objective: the capture of two insurgents hiding in a home nearby.     

The village was one of three Infantry Immersion Trainers that the Marine Corps integrated into its training regimen this year.

Maneuvering through mock villages is not a new concept, but the Marine Corps believes this system creates the most realistic setting those deploying overseas can experience in the United States. It combines real-life Afghan actors portraying villagers and insurgents, the most realistic recreation of an Afghan town possible, and computer-generated avatars and effects such as makeshift bombs.

In a typical exercise, platoons will experience all four elements in an effort to subject them to the so-called “fog of war.”

“It incorporates the cultural piece, the intelligence piece and the tactical piece so these guys have to be thinking on their toes, all the time, as it happens,” said Vince Soto, site lead for Innovative Reasoning LLC, the Orlando, Fla.-based vendor that runs the facilities.

“This is graduate level training,” said Col. Daniel J. Lecce, Camp Lejeune commanding officer. The goal is to increase success and survivability on the battlefield, he said. By the end of a new marine’s training, he has learned basic tactics, and has had cultural and language lessons.

This is where it all comes together.

One of the most important lessons they learn here is the reality of Murphy’s Law. Things can and will go wrong.

Soto ensures that a walk through an Afghan village is never easy. He plays a behind-the-scenes role as the Taliban commander. He is both the objective for the platoon — the man it wants to capture — and the mastermind making the unit’s mission difficult.

Platoons typically go through the trainer twice — once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The objective in this case was to gather intelligence. The previous evening, Taliban fighters had attacked some farmers who were working in a nearby field, probably because the town had been friendly with U.S. forces. The next morning, marines entered the village to find out what they could about the incident.

They didn’t come alone. Afghan actors portray interpreters, local police and members of the Afghan army. Military working dogs may come along as well. Every effort is made to include all the people and equipment that would be part of a mission.    

Also present in the village is a Pakistani doctor who works for a nongovernmental organization. He is a potential source of intelligence if the marines think to ask him about the incident. Paper scraps with intelligence written on them are also left around the village for the marines to scoop up if they have a sharp eye.

While questioning the villagers during the first trip through the town, the malik, or village head, asked the sergeant if he could use his first aid kit to treat some of the wounded farmers. He declined, which angered the headman.

That’s why the village was so hostile when the platoon returned that afternoon.

“The whole town keyed in on it and they were very standoffish to the marines,” Soto said.

“How they do in the first scenario will set the tone for the mood of the town in the second scenario,” he said.

The platoon returned on the second mission to act on some information about two Taliban members who were hiding in one of the buildings.

That’s when the platoon leaders walked into trouble. Soto not only instructed the villagers to be hostile, he set off a makeshift bomb on the other side of the town to draw the platoon’s attention away from its objective.

“The environment itself is chaos … the fog of war they are going to get from the sensory overload. There are so many things happening. They are going to have to filter through the things that are important and not important so they make a decision when it is required,” Soto said.

The roadside bombs are distractions. Yes, the marines must demonstrate the tactical skills required when a bomb goes off and wounded need to be evacuated and the area needs to be secured. “But ultimately, you want to go after the guy in charge of doing it rather than the actual device itself,” Soto said.   

After the exercise is over, officers who do the after-action debriefing can look at 150 cameras set up in the village to see what the marines did wrong, or right. Soto gives the Taliban perspective, telling the marines what he was doing to prevent them from reaching their objective.

“You can make the absolute perfect decision every time and something still may happen. A lot of it falls into Murphy’s Law,” Soto tells the marines.

The Camp Lejeune facility is one of four scattered at Marine Corps bases. Camp Pendleton, Calif., has two: one was the pilot facility the service used to prove the concept, and a second is the finished IIT product. Camp Lejeune opened its warehouse in August. The last trainer was inaugurated in October at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows in Hawaii.

Not widely used during the two Camp Lejeune scenarios were avatars. There were a half-dozen computer-generated characters representing students in the school. Commanders can tailor the exercise to meet their needs, and can include other avatars, though.

Richard Schaffer, a fellow at the Lockheed Martin human immersion lab in Burlington, Mass., helped create the computer generated characters that are used in the IIT. Most of them are part of shoot-don’t shoot scenarios. The lab helped develop along with the Office of Naval Research, the laser shot tracking system that makes them react to being hit by a bullet.

In a hostage scenario, where an insurgent has a villager, the marines use a paintball-like ammunition along with a laser that shows where the bullet strikes. It will generate a mark on the body, which is picked up by an infrared camera. The software then commands the avatar what to do depending on where the bullet struck.

“If it is a hostage situation and you shot the insurgent, he falls over dead. If you miss, he may turn and shoot at the marine or he may turn and shoot the hostage, depending how the scenario is set up,” Schaffer said.

There are things that live actors can do that avatars cannot, and vice versa, Schaffer said. The student avatars in the schoolhouse in the Camp Lejeune trainer were necessary because children are not allowed to be role players. Also, in shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, the actors don’t want to be shot at, even with paintball guns.

So far, the avatars are not culturally interactive, although that could be incorporated in the future, he said. They could be programmed to speak and react to what marines are saying.

There is also a business case to be made for substituting avatars with actors, Schaffer said.

“Clearly, they are less expensive than the role players, but they can’t do everything a role player can do. It’s a balance,” Schaffer said.

Currently, one trainer behind the scenes can control up to four avatars. There was more automation in the pilot facility at Camp Pendleton, but the Marine Corps decided to leave that out of the three IITs.

Platoon Staff Sgt. Casey Olson, who guided his troops through one of the two exercises that day, has been on four combat deployments, three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He was about to embark on his fifth, and will be leading 19- and 20-year-old marines who had never been overseas before.

The quality of training the new marines were receiving is far beyond what he had before he first fought in Iraq.

“We had briefs. We had death by PowerPoint. We had talking point cards,” he said.

The cards had commonly used phrases on them but there were no native speakers around to teach him how to properly pronounce the words, he said.

“The quality of the training that they get compared to when I came in is light years beyond where I was at,” he added.         

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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