Marine Corps Pilot Program Expands Infantry Skills

By Scott R. Gourley
A shooter’s white watch gathers biometric data during repetitive distance engagements.

Scott Gourley photo

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The Marine Corps is conducting a series of pilot training programs designed to enhance the capabilities of infantry elements.

The new course reflects Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s planning guidance contained in recent publications, including “Force Design 2030,” in which he concurred with findings that “current entry level and advanced infantry training programs and policies will not meet future demands of our infantry elements.”

The first of the new pilot programs concluded in late April at the School of Infantry-West, at Camp Pendleton, California.

“The impetus behind the Infantry Marine Course came from guidance from … Gen. Berger looking at systemic changes within the Marine Corps based on future age operating concepts, and looking at both the future threat forces we face and the environments in which we are going to face them,” Col. Coby Moran, commanding officer, School of Infantry-West, told National Defense during one of the final days of the training.

“Those changes are directed toward producing a Marine Corps that is better optimized to fight, win and survive in those future operating environments against those peer or near peer threats. And that relates down to the infantry, where Gen. Berger’s specific guidance was to enhance our training in infantry; enhance their capability; and enhance their capacity to win in those fights.”

Based on that guidance, the Marine Corps set out to restructure the Infantry Marine Course, expanding the program of instruction from eight-and-a-half to 14 weeks.

New or enhanced training areas include: operation, maintenance and employment of all company weapons; management of visual, electromagnetic and administrative signatures; conducting fire and maneuver with company weapons both day and night; communicating using HF, VHF and UHF radios; performing combat casualty care in a dynamic environment; aquatic confidence; and the ability to operate based on a task, mission and commander’s intent from an operations order.

Moran and others were quick to emphasize that the new course reflects far more than the simple addition of classes.

“Our current model is an industrial model,” said Gunner Chief Warrant Officer 3 A.J. Pasciuti, infantry weapons officer for the Infantry Training Battalion at the School of Infantry-West. “We have had one instructor and 300 students. But a lot of the skill sets required to be an infantry Marine are tactile skills. And we discovered that there was a loss in translation from a PowerPoint presentation to performing the task.

So, for this entire pilot program we taught only one class in PowerPoint, and that was our introductory briefing.”

With the exception of that one briefing, Pasciuti said that all follow-on training has been conducted in the field environment, using the actual equipment, through a process known as “EDIP” — explain, demonstrate, imitate and practice.

One example is marksmanship, which he described as “the vessel of how we have adopted the 21st century learning model.”

Crediting the revised curriculum to cooperative arrangements with the Office of Naval Research and other government organizations, he said:

“We are able to take a Marine and introduce them to a specific phase of marksmanship for about two-and-a-half hours every single day. In our previous course, if we wanted to train 70 hours of marksmanship, we would train 12 hours a day for several days. And then we would move on.”

Through cognitive scientists and expert master teachers at Training and Education Command, officers recognized that there was a limited response to that approach. Instructors introduced a block schedule with bite-sized chunks of two-and-a-half hours a day, every day, for several weeks.

“Now the students are able to contextualize that marksmanship information,” Pasciuti said.

Other differences were evident on the range itself, where students were utilizing the Heckler & Koch M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle with the new Trijicon Squad Common Optic to engage targets at close and extended ranges.

As compared to traditional International Practical Shooting Confederation/United States Practical Shooting Association cardboard silhouette targets that feature concentric A, C and D torso zones of engagement, the new targets were visibly smaller, eliminating the outer D zone to present a target size that more accurately reflects a lethal zone or effective hit on a target.

Other significant differences could be seen in the long-range engagement repetition, during which Marines engaged targets at 100, 200 and 300 meters from standing, braced kneeling and prone positions. The use of acoustic shot timers and other Marine-worn and external data recorders allowed observers to derive hit probabilities at each distance as well as information like how long it takes a Marine to get a gun into the fight and make a lethal hit on a target.

In addition to marksmanship, Capt. Dave Delong, commander of the headquarters and instructor company at the Infantry Training Battalion, outlined the broader program of instruction, noting that the first several weeks are devoted to individual skills with a follow-on transition to more complicated skill sets.

“Week nine is where we start working our mission pieces,” he said. “They are starting to learn how to take an order and operate off of that order. That moves into week 10, which starts our field exercise or collective phase, where they start to learn squad patrolling, squad attacks, complex fire and maneuver, defensive positions and integrating all the skills they have learned in the first several weeks into a team setting.”

Another significant difference in the pilot Infantry Marine Course involves a five-day, student-led capstone field exercise that requires the Marines to continuously apply their field skills while operating independently and making critical decisions.

One of the new skills provided under the 14-week Infantry Marine Course involves aquatic confidence. After water exposure throughout the course, the field exercise scenario opened with the notional delivery of the Marines some distance from a beach landing site. Students were required to package their equipment and push, pull, or swim their equipment bundles for 300 meters in a pool to reflect that scenario.

Sgt. Raz Ornelas, pool instructor for the course, noted that early water exposure had included “a rough patch” as both students and instructors ascertained their competency in the water.

“From there it was a building block crawl, walk, run approach,” he said. “Once we figured out their competency we put them through basic beginner swim qualification. Then we went to intermediate. And there were a few chosen from each platoon to participate in working into advanced swim qual.”

Another instructor quietly acknowledged that previous classes did not include any swim training or exposure to the pool setting, characterizing that omission as “the skeleton in the closet of amphibious infantry training,” before quickly adding: “But now we’re putting that skeleton into the water.”

According to 1st Lt. Mark O’Connell, a company operations officer in the Infantry Training Battalion, at completion of the water transit the students enter the tactical phase of the exercise, which would include features like a 30 kilometer road march with continuous tactical operations, establishing high frequency communications, conducting casualty care and observing a live helicopter raid being conducted as part of pre-deployment training by other Marine Corps elements.

“Ultimately, the goal of the [course] is to produce a better trained, more lethal, more capable entry level Marine that can come into the Fleet Marine Force and hit the ground running,” stated Moran. “And the receiving unit will be able to take those Marines and, instead of necessarily starting at a square one or square zero, they’re able to look at levels of proficiency higher up on the training continuum.”

According to Brig. Gen. Jason Morris, commanding general at Marine Corps Training Command, the School of Infantry-East at Camp Lejeune was schedule to begin testing the same 14-week pilot course in June. That process will be followed by one more pilot on each coast before forwarding data for command decisions. Current plans call for full implementation of the new IMC approach by the end of fiscal year 2023.

Pointing to the likelihood that the course would grow, iterate, change and develop over time, Morris observed: “There are some things that we know you can’t get to in a 14-week [program of instruction] that are going to require more time to train; things like heavy machine guns or some sort of amphibious training. These are things that we would like to explore getting after. But I don’t think we’re going to do that until we come up fully online with full production 14-week, see where we are, see what’s sustainable, and get it right. And then we’ll probably do an 18-week or so pilot and see what that looks like going forward.”

Asked about his perspective on the types of additional skill sets that might enhance future capabilities, Pasciuti related his own recent field experience with the pilot class.

“During our patrolling exercise I got a squad together and physically went out to ‘hunt’ the students,” he said. “Remember, the instructors at this point are hands off and this is entirely a student-run event with their own student squad leaders and their own student radio operators. And the students had to set up a platoon patrol base as directed in their operation order.

“But what the students decided to do was set up a patrol base plus a triangle defense, with three independent fire teams out as [listening posts/observation posts]. And one of those picked us up on thermals when we were still two kilometers away.

“I didn’t know they had picked us up. But what they did was move a machine gun team over to allow plunging fire into my squad, along with two more fire teams to counter ambush my team.

“This was done by privates, all of their own. They did this on their own because they understand geometries of fire. We taught them that.”

In addition to things like machine gun placement, he added that the new instruction also begins to introduce how mortars could be emplaced.

Noting the noise being generated by the artillery from Camp Pendleton’s 11th Marine Regiment across the Camp Pendleton impact area, he speculated, “What if, in the future, we taught them supporting arms and how to bring those resources when they see a patrol two clicks away?

They would use their most deadly weapons, right? And now I’m done. I can’t even get close.”

He concluded: “The No. 1 question I get asked is to identify the biggest single difference between this and the old course. The biggest single difference is that we stopped focusing on the instructors and started focusing on the students. We genuinely care about the students and their success. These are almost all ‘Generation Z’ Marines.

“What if we had the audacity to make the generation that follows us better than we were?” he added. “If we can affect their trajectory right now, we can change not just the way that they think now but also what happens when they are at 20 years or more of service.”


Topics: Marine Corps News

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