After Afghanistan, Challenge Becomes Preserving Combat Skills (UPDATED)
While the military has expressed significant interest in simulators for helicopter pilots and other vehicle operators, technology has yet to reliably replicate the experience of infantry combat, said Jim Battaglini, a retired Marine Corps general and director of international and military sales for Ultimate Training Munitions.
“We have been at war for 10 years,” Battaglini said Jan. 16 at the National Shooting Sports Foundation's annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas. “A lot of it still happens close up, man-to-man. “Our toops have developed combat skills and experience that we don’t want to lose. With that in mind, we need to make training as realistic as possible.”
UTM has developed a new safe ammunition for the M-16 family of weapons that improves upon the blank rounds currently used in live training exercises. By simply switching the rifle’s bolt with a specialized one that accepts only the training ammunition, a soldier can almost immediately switch from live rounds to training. A special blue composite plastic magazine alerts others that the weapon is safe.
Firing blank rounds requires a more complicated retrofitting process and alters the weapon's weight and handling characteristics. Safety regulations forbid the use of blanks in close quarters and require troops to point their muzzles away from others in close-quarter combat exercises.
Technologies like UTM’s are billed as an affordable training implement that will expand what the military can do. The ammunition’s multiple redundant safety features mean it can be used outside of traditional shooting ranges and with the soldier’s personal weapon.
“Soldiers need to train with their own weapons and in the same way they use them in combat,” Battaglini said. “We don’t want their muscle memory to have them point their weapon away from a bad guy ... standing in front of them.”
Battaglini likened it to a boxer sparring with a partner. Punching bags can improve strength and technique, but a boxer who does not spar with another person is far less likely to be successful in a match, he said.
The military wants to find the infantry combat version of sparring while preserving the punching bag it already has.
Eric Seto, a former Army Special Forces member and UTM’s military training manager, said on-the-ground, realistic practice is something that computer simulators simply can’t replicate.
“What you want is to have a seamless transition from training to fighting,” Seto said.
Seto said the ultimate goal is the elimination of “training scars” — habits that are formed during practice that translate to weaknesses in actual combat. If troops can use their own weapons and equipment and fire them at opponents at all distances, it will allow them to better perform when fighting a real enemy, he said.
“If you don’t have to worry about risk management, it becomes much more realistic and worthwhile,” he said.
For the past 11 years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have served as real-life forums where troops could hone their fighting skills. Battaglini said emerging technology is trending toward simulating not only the experience, but the psychological stressors of fighting live enemies at close distances.
“There is a need to address both the physical and the psychological characteristics of combat,” he said. “There’s really no substitute for standing in front of another man who's holding a gun. Warfare hasn’t changed a lot since the Romans were fighting with swords. A lot of it still happens up close.”
Correction: The original version of this article misidentified UTM as Unlimited Training Munitions. The company is called Ultimate Training Munitions.
Photo Credit: Army