MARINE CORPS NEWS
Marine Corps Evolving Live, Synthetic Training Environments
Marine Corps photo
ORLANDO, Fla. — As the Marine Corps evolves to meet new challenges posed by great power competitors, the service’s leaders are pressing for upgrades to its training systems.
The Corps is syncing its live and synthetic training environments to match operational changes outlined by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger in his “Force Design 2030” strategy. The document tasked the service to move away from tactics used in the previous two decades of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and prepare for future battlefields against sophisticated adversaries such as China and Russia.
“We have, I think unintentionally, put training third or fourth in sequence of our priorities,” Berger said at the National Training and Simulation Association’s annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Florida. “We go after a capability, we figure out how we’re going to structure the force, we buy platforms, and then we turn to the training guy and say: ‘We need a way to train.’ That’s not going to work going forward.”
In order for the Marine Corps to face evolving threats in less familiar operational conditions, service leaders agreed that training systems must keep up with the times.
“We’re going to have to be able to train like we fight,” said Brig. Gen. Matthew Mowery, assistant deputy commandant for aviation. That means matching training exercises to new strategies like expeditionary advanced base operations, he added.
EABO is a form of expeditionary warfare that “involves the employment of mobile, low-signature, operationally relevant, and relatively easy to maintain and sustain naval expeditionary forces from a series of austere, temporary locations ashore or inshore within a contested or potentially contested maritime area in order to conduct sea denial, support sea control or enable fleet sustainment,” according to the service.
Accurately replicating the operational environment a Marine could face in training will be key to achieving Berger’s vision as laid out in Force Design 2030, said service leaders during a panel at the conference.
Upon taking the helm of Marine Corps Training Command last year, Maj. Gen. Julian Alford said he first tackled how to revamp the training of the service’s infantry. The Corps has fielded three new infantry immersion trainers — two on the East Coast and another on the West Coast — that has troops complete tasks under stress, he said.
“The first time that a Marine goes into combat should not really be the first time they go to combat,” Alford said. He pointed out that when pilots attend flight school, they complete multiple flight and combat simulations before training in a live aircraft.
“We owe that to our young frontline infantrymen to do the same thing — particularly if we’re going to do EABO … with small teams, squads, platoons, companies that are spread out,” he said. “That’s a different Marine Corps than we have today.”
To make training more realistic and immersive, Marine Corps Systems Command is working to close a number of gaps, said Jim Fraley, the command’s branch head for range and training area management. For example, the service is implementing next-generation, interactive targets that move and exhibit human behaviors.
It is also tailoring its training systems to replicate scenarios Marines may experience in the Indo-Pacific region, said Maj. Gen. Austin Renforth, commanding general of Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Command and the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.
Twentynine Palms has developed a force-on-force exercise called the MAGTF Warfighting Exercise, or MWX, which first began in 2019. Designed to expand training focuses and address gaps, the live exercise invites international partners and Marines from different regiments to “adapt to a thinking enemy in a challenging environment where the adversary force is equipped with capabilities more consistent with a pacing threat,” Renforth said.
Although Renforth called live exercises like MWX the “gold standard,” he acknowledged that not all scenarios can be effectively replicated in a live training environment.
“We’ll certainly rely on virtual constructive systems to supplement,” he said.
Platforms that leverage synthetic capabilities like the live, virtual, constructive training environment, or LVC-TE, have been one of the command’s foremost modernization priorities. LVC uses a combination of virtual reality and computer-generated entities to replicate live training. Systems Command was given authority to begin planning stages in July to develop what it wants the platform to look like.
Col. Luis Lara, program manager for training systems at the command, said the service was preparing for a milestone decision review to enter the execution phase of LVC-TE in December. An early version of the software is set to begin fielding at Twentynine Palms so long as the next phase is approved and funding is allocated, according to the command.
Renforth emphasized that the Corps can improve how it replicates real world threats.
“We’re trying to create a pacing threat on a shoestring,” he said. “We know what the pacing threat looks like. We know what effects they can put on our command-and-control systems.”
At the same time, Force Design 2030 has prompted the Corps to shift focus away from the platforms themselves and onto the capability they represent, Mowery said.
For example, he said the service used to focus on making sure the F/A-18 Hornet combat jet was equipped to keep up with the technology of pacing threats. Now, the Marine Corps is paying more attention to the capabilities the platform brings to the table and evaluating it based on whether it meets the service’s requirements.
“Once a program or a platform no longer meets the requirement or need, then we’re moving on to something else,” he said.
Mowery said that while the service was training pilots well before Berger released his Force Design 2030 planning guidance, he also realized “we were doing some things wrong.” For example, better interoperability — particularly on the ground side of missions — is going to be a greater focus area for the service.
The training systems needed for EABO must also be easily deployable, shock-resistant and be small and portable enough so training exercises can be done year round rather than only during large annual events, he said.
Renforth’s focus for force-on-force exercises is teaching future commanders how to make informed and competent decisions, he said. But some leaders struggle with the modern systems Force Design 2030 requires, causing them to make decisions based on previous training.
“We’ve got to get our commanders comfortable with these systems to where they have confidence in the systems to utilize all the information that comes from [them],” he said.
Equipping the vast training ranges at Twentynine Palms with better high-tech networks like 5G would be “a game changer,” Renforth said, as it would give leaders a more comprehensive picture of larger exercises in real time. The ability to record and replay exercises for later review with training commanders would also help, he said.
Fraley said the Marine Corps is working with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia and industry partners to develop a device that would be able to replay and provide feedback to unit or fire team commanders.
“The ability to do that instead of having a green book in your hand and [another Marine] run around slapping tags on people and saying,
‘You’re dead,’ would be extremely important,” Fraley said, referring to how live infantry training is traditionally executed.
Brig. Gen. Arthur Pasagian, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, said the service is searching for new ways to employ training systems that are both organic to the latest platforms they procure and sustainable for the future.
“That’s at the peak of our attention as we develop these new weapons systems today, but also in a way that they harmonize with the gear that’s ready for tonight’s force and readiness,” he said.
The aviation component of the Marine Corps is laser focused on technology that has an open architecture so the service won’t need to procure entire new platforms as technology and adversaries evolve, Mowery said.
“We’ve got to be able to take a platform or system and be able to update that on the fly as needed,” he said.
Renforth agreed the service needs to be more agile in how it procures new platforms to keep up with rapidly advancing technology. The lengthy time between buying a system and it being fielded creates training gaps, he noted.
“We’ll procure something and we’ll say, ‘OK, this is a good program. In 2025, we’re going to have it.’ Well, what do we do in the interim?” he asked. “By the time 2025 comes around and we get this thing, it’s outdated.”
A persistent challenge for the Marine Corps has been figuring out how to balance being prepared for today’s challenges and future fights.
“One of the things we say about Force Design 2030 — that’s not an end state. You’ve got to get 2030 out of your head,” Renforth said.
“Really, it’s a concept and we’re in it now.”