Will a proof of concept exercise find a permanent home?
By Captain Scott A. Cuomo and Captain Brian J. Donlon
Reprinted with permission of the Marine Corps Gazette.
Speaking at the International Seapower Symposium on 17 October 2007, General Conway discussed the Marine Corps' role in the new maritime strategy. Looking from the present to the years 2020-2025, the Commandant echoed oft repeated trends: that the average age in developed nations will continue to grow older while underdeveloped nations will grow younger, creating a population of military age males for whom employment opportunities will be scarce; that 75-80% of the world's population will move towards an "urban sprawl" adjacent to a sea coast; and that state conflicts will continue to grow more rare as transnational and regional conflicts increase in scope and frequency. Largely due to these trends, the Commandant also spoke about the continuing likelihood of Marines being involved in complex irregular wars or what multiple experts have begun calling "hybrid" wars. (1)
As we enter the seventh year of "The Long War" the implications of these trends seem particularly significant, especially when, as the Commandant stated, one appreciates that a lot of "blue" exists on the map around the "Arc of Instability." It may be that the fight ahead will include many "Small Wars," fought amidst the remains of the old Islamic Caliphate. In the face of such a potential challenge, there has never been a more acute need for a "hybrid warrior," possessing a mind capable of operating in timeless environments, conventional and irregular.
Since the start of Operations' Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) has continually sought to train officers capable of leading Marines in the complex combat environments that they've found themselves in only months after graduation. Students now execute PALMFEX, a fifteen-day field exercise in the Mojave Desert, which is the culminating event in the IOC Program of Instruction (POI). There, students train in dismounted and mechanized day and night live-fire attacks, utilizing fire support assets organic to the infantry battalion as well as the integration of armor, artillery and air. Block III blank and live fire urban training is conducted utilizing the excellent urban facilities available only at Marine Corps Base (MCB) Twenty-Nine Palms. Additionally, students have executed a Small Wars Package designed to teach specific Small Wars tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP), many of them lessons learned in the hard school of combat. By the flight home, students have been instructed and evaluated in the capabilities needed to lead Marines across all spectrums of conflict.
A Learning Organization and IOC's Small Wars Package
No successful organization ever rests on its laurels. Catalyzed by feedback from the Operating Forces and Marines' performance in combat, the IOC Staff's continuous review of the POI recognized that a gap still existed in the Small Wars Package. Preparation to fight and win a Small War required more than a "kit bag" of TTP but also the development of a mind able to think counter-intuitively, bridging the gap between conventional and irregular conflicts. As a result, a guided discussion was added to the POI for David Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. An additional Decision-Making class, tied to the "Combat Hunter" initiative and focused on the "orient" phase of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop was included in the POI, along with a Counterinsurgency / Irregular Warfare professional military education session from Lieutenant Colonel Julian D. Alford, USMC. For all these adaptations, it became increasingly apparent that the only way to educate students how to think through the complex problems routinely encountered in Small Wars was through the creation of a realistic "timeless" Small Wars environment.
Observation of exercise MOJAVE VIPER in June 2007 led instructors to realize that there was no need to completely "reinvent the wheel" to achieve their goal. Rather most of the elements required were already present in the exercise. Most prominent in the minds of the IOC Staff were two showpieces of MOJAVE VIPER: the integration of contracted role players and the battlefield effects simulations (BES). Contracted role players provide the cultural and language barriers of an indigenous population. BES give a force and reality to the training, punctuating the human factors aspects of Small Wars. Ranges 200 and 215 at MCB Twenty-Nine Palms, where MOJAVE VIPER is executed, are unmatched in their size and realism. All the pieces needed to create the Small Wars environment were already there, it was simply a matter of putting them together.
Following discussion of role player and BES integration by the IOC Staff, the decision was made to conduct a proof of concept Small Wars training exercise at Range 200 from 2-6 September. The lane training structure of the pre-existing Small Wars training exercise was maintained. (2) Contracted role players from TATITLEK would be employed and BES would come from STRATEGIC OPERATIONS. Predominant in the minds of the IOC Staff was whether the addition of these assets would significantly enhance the Small Wars Package.
Preparation began with coordination between IOC / The Basic School (TBS) and the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, Training and Education Command, Program Manager for Training Systems at Marine Corps Systems Command, and multiple personnel aboard MCB Twenty-Nine Palms. Interaction with TATITLEK management was straightforward and it became quickly apparent that TATITLEK's employees, mostly retired and former Marines, were dedicated to providing the best and most realistic training for Marines soon to deploy to combat. Role players were divided into two tribes, identifying tribal leaders, school teachers, a doctor and an imam. Fourteen Marines from Instructor Battalion, TBS, were to augment the contracted role players as a dedicated opposition force. Tactical control measures and a demographic geography were applied to Range 200.
Student preparation for the revised package included reading chapters on combat mindset, urban patrolling, and cordon and search operations from the Small-Unit Leader's Guide to Counterinsurgency and the Tentative Small-Unit Leader's Guide to Urban Operations. Additionally, David Kilcullen's "Twenty-Eight Articles" was read and discussed. The students then received three classes, "Satellite" Patrolling, Cordon and Search Operations, and a class taught on best practices for site exploitation in combat. These readings and classes were designed to serve as the foundation of the Small Wars mindset. Practical application in a realistic environment would fill in the rest.
Every training scenario conducted during the Small Wars Package was based on the focus points identified in Figure 1. All IOC instructors were briefed on the focus points and had detailed guidance on how the lane scenarios intended to bring them out. Stating how important the 57 contracted role players were in bringing out the focus points—and ultimately the student learning points—cannot be overemphasized.
Training began with a Small Wars transition brief, designed to reorient the students to the other two blocks of the three block war following three days of high kinetic urban training. Following the brief, students rotated through a series of lanes: shoot/no shoot scenarios, a combat operations center and urban navigation class; a squad-sized "satellite" contact patrol lane without role player involvement; and a vehicle checkpoint class. Key learning points for the first day included the "Strategic Corporal" and small unit leader decision-making, "Every Marine a Collector," the creation and use of a common operating graphic for navigation and the use of contact points in satellite patrolling. At the conclusion of the lanes, students received a company operations order that served as the base order for training scenarios executed during the next three days.
The training for this day was built around progressive lane scenarios, involving "satellite" contact patrols and urban ambushes. Patrols were tasked with collecting information from a worried and reticent populace such as names and addresses of authority figures, infrastructure and past enemy activity. This was most students' first experience in a realistic third-world urban operating environment—and it showed. (3) Figure 2 shows a picture of one squad during its initial patrol being overwhelmed by civilians on the battlefield. Ambush lanes were conducted at night near historical improvised explosive device (IED) sites and were designed to ensure students understood the importance of maintaining a hunting mindset. Students were also introduced to the challenges involved in conducting an ambush when the only good option for an ambush position is someone's home. (4) As Figure 3 demonstrates the ambush lane also allowed the students to practically apply what they learned in their site exploitation class.
Students graduated to platoon level operations on this day. Platoon-sized "satellite" contact patrols were tasked to continue building relationships with the people specifically through information operations (IO) messages. Machine-gun vehicles were attached and a quick reaction force was on standby during each mission to increase the command and control challenge on patrol leaders. Enemy contact increased as well, with fire-team reinforced ambushes including IEDs and rocket propelled grenades. This was the first time the students experienced BES. The difference in intensity of the students' reactions due to the BES, in both trying to hunt down and kill or capture the enemy, as well as in taking care of their wounded Marines was profound. The realism offered by the BES brought the training intensity much closer to that which the students will feel in combat.
This day focused on cordon and search operations. The specifics of each cordon and search were dictated by the platoons' successes and failures in previous lanes. Initial operations were intentionally simple. Students were often required to conduct reconnaissance patrols to verify intelligence prior to execution. The role player population continually tested the Marines' security. Follow-on cordon and searches tested students' "dry hole" drill procedures and introduced potential enemy most dangerous courses of action. Enemy attacks included Suicide Vehicle Borne and Human Suicide IEDs. The pyrotechnics and moulage kits from the BES and the superbly orchestrated reaction of the role players created a chaotic environment in which students' decision-making and ability to cope with human factors were pushed to the limit. Additionally, insurgents with access to cameras and computers took pictures of the operations and developed IO products that forced students to evaluate the total effect of their actions. Figure 4 demonstrates an enemy IO product that significantly frustrated the students. The scenario involved a human suicide IED detonating and wounding multiple Marines, along with a civilian. Cut from the picture in the enemy IO product is the corpsman treating the civilian. This scenario left the students with a thorough appreciation for the 21st Century reality that sometimes what matters most is not what you actually did, but what people perceive you did. (5) At the conclusion of the day lanes multiple students were visibly and mentally shaken as a result of the intensity and realism of the BES. One lieutenant even admitted as much in writing when stating, "upon contact with the amputee victim, a state of shock came upon me. I had to reconfirm out of fear that it was not real." (6)
Figure 4. An enemy IO product given to the students upon their return from conducting their second cordon and search. The main purpose of this product was to ensure that the students understand the importance of tactical IO in modern combat.
The final lane involved a night cordon and "knock" operation on a meeting of key tribal, civil, and former police and army leaders. As both platoons left friendly lines it was obvious that most students expected—and wanted—enemy contact so that they could take out their aggression built up from their previous patrol. The lane was intentionally built to not allow this to happen. For this reason, when the students knocked on the tribal leader's door, they were invited inside to meet the current and former power brokers and also asked to join in their feast. Given the intensity of enemy and civilian contact in the previous lane, the main focus of this lane was to challenge the students to develop a mindset that could employ a diplomatic approach yet be ready to execute Block III TTP in an instant.
The final day involved a guided de-brief with students, instructors and role players. Two role players who had served as tribal sheiks answered student questions. Both gentlemen lived in Iraq for at least thirty years and provided invaluable perspective on interaction with an indigenous population.
Immediately following the de-brief, 77 IOC students (76 lieutenants and 1 staff sergeant) spent thirty minutes filling out a thirteen-question post-training after action report (AAR). 1 Infantry Officer and 13 of the Enlisted Marines who augmented TATITLEK's role players also responded to a similar survey. The student and instructor responses were invaluable for three reasons.
First, the responses validated that the exercise did achieve thorough student learning, specifically in those focus points that were extremely difficult, if not impossible to replicate previously without contracted role player support. Second, they identified the immense value students and instructors placed on this type of training, particularly in light of current real world operations. Third, in concert with the theme of IOC operating as a learning organization committed to meeting the needs of the Operating Forces, numerous recommendations were included to take future Small Wars training to the next level.
Student responses were uniformly detailed and eye-opening in many respects. When asked about their estimate of the value of the training, the following three quotes summarize the students' answers:
- "This was the best training I've received to date. It was the most applicable,
the most realistic, and had the most decision points on all levels of any training to date."
- "Overall this was the best, most realistic training to date, with casualty
play, effects and civilians... just having people there create a distraction at the very least for simple security and then learning to talk simple (Arabic) phrases... this led me to have a much more serious hunger for knowledge about the culture and language and provided me a real good wake-up call as to how little I know."
- "The phrase 'situationally dependent' became real for once instead of just a phrase. Decisions were made on the fly in a real environment. Training became reality NOT JUST training. It was like football practice and instead of having dummy bags that didn't move we had a scout team so we were forced to make the same decisions we will have to make on Saturday—during game time. So absolutely affected my decision-making cycle."
Perhaps the strongest evidence of student appreciation for the training came when asked to rate the importance of including role players in future IOC Small Wars training. On a scale of 1-5, 70 students responded by circling 5; 2 students responded 4; and 5 students created their own scale, 2 circling a 6 and 3 circling a 10. Many students also added remarks next to the question to further reinforce their thoughts. Here are a few examples of the remarks:
- "Absolutely necessary"
- "Critical. They (future lieutenants) need this."
- "Need more role players."
- "Never thought about the civilian casualty aspect until this package (10 ½ months into the officer training pipeline)
- "This is a must... actors made the training."
- From a former infantry fire team leader in Iraq, ".... more eventful and thought-provoking than my actual deployment."
An unintentional training windfall came by virtue of the 14 Marine instructors who augmented the role players. All but one of these Marines has served two or more combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan with varying levels of pre-deployment training in Small Wars. Throughout the exercise TATITLEK provided these Marines with language and culture classes and coached their reactions in each scenario. Their responses to a similar survey were equally eye-opening:
- "Outstanding training! I can only hope that you (IOC) will continue to allow weapons platoon Marines to participate; we learned an incredible amount."
- From a Sergeant just back from his third Iraq deployment, "this is the best training that I have ever seen or done."
- From another Sergeant with two combat tours, "BEST training I have experienced."
- From a soon-to-be Staff Sergeant, "this was a great experience for not only the students but for myself. I am thankful to have experienced this."
While most every AAR comment was positive, suggestions were offered to improve the training. First, many students and even a few of the instructors asked for more training time for Small Wars. Second, most AARs asked for more role players. Third, almost all AARs identified a need for a range the size of Range 200 if not larger. The general trends in the student and instructor responses were summed up well by one lieutenant when he wrote, "It would be a great detriment to future classes if any of this were removed, if anything I believe it should be expanded upon with more role players and utilize Range 215 (this range is approximately four times the size of Range 200)."
To ensure that the inexperience of many IOC students in real world Small Wars operations did not skew the results of the AAR, a copy of the training plan was sent as a litmus test to a rifle platoon commander weeks removed from Iraq. His response is perhaps the greatest testament to the necessity of the training:
"The Small Wars POI looks awesome- first because I have never seen anything like it- nor an attempt at an organized thought process to COIN training- this will be an awesome template to use next year. Second- I think you hit all the things to get the THOUGHT process going- Looking back- I wish I had this opportunity before going to Iraq- additionally this kind of exercise gets us out there in the kind of situations that really happen...." (8)
When discussing the training required to prepare military forces for war in the 21st Century in The Sling and the Stone, Col T.X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.) wrote,
In addition to [these] known training methods, we must examine innovative approaches. One such approach is a platoon-level exercise conducted for the lieutenants at the Marine Corps' Basic School. In this exercise, the lieutenants move into a real town to assist the "local authorities" with security against an insurgent group. The town is the exercise site, and the townspeople are part of the play. Needless to say, the exercise is free play and presents lots of surprises to all involved. (8)
Three years after this book was published, IOC's proof of concept Small Wars exercise brought precisely this type of training to the Corps' next generation of infantry officers.
IOC wants to continue this training and also wants to make it better. Critical needs to make this happen are at least another 50 role players, more BES and a readily available urban facility comparable to Range 215. Another critical element in this process is to have an organization such as TATITLEK remain available and responsible for providing role players. TATITLEK's on-site supervisors understood IOC's intent for training, adjusted scenarios when necessary to meet this intent, and exceeded expectations to ensure that the students received the best training possible.
The question now is where do we go from here? Will funding continue for contracted role players and BES for the months and years to come? Will realistic urban training facilities be available for IOC—and the rest of the Corps— to use in properly training today and tomorrow's "strategic lieutenants"?
While many of these answers are still to be determined, what must weigh heavily into the decision-making process as the Marine Corps goes forward in preparing for 21st Century conflict are comments made by her most talented warriors. One such Marine, a superb staff sergeant that participated in the proof of concept exercise and also proved his mettle while serving with a rifle company in Ramadi in 2004-2005, commented in his AAR, "[the Small Wars package was] great training with fantastic support from role players.... made me want to go back to Iraq and win this WAR." This same Marine also commented that when he returns to being an instructor at Infantry Unit Leader Course after graduation from IOC among his top priorities is to figure how to incorporate a similar exercise for the Corps' "strategic staff sergeants".
The Marine Corps is an organization that preaches the importance of "training as you fight." The proof of concept exercise definitely met this intent. Although this training is expensive due to transportation, contracted role players, Hollywood effects, etc., not having it would prove—and has proven—significantly more expensive in the price of mission accomplishment and the lives of Marines. One lieutenant made precisely this point in his AAR:
If the first time that I had interaction with these (Iraqi) role players was MOJAVE VIPER I would not have enough time to train myself first to learn their culture/language customs. And, I would have no time to then turn around and train my Marines. This experience over the last 3 days will save lives of my Marines because I and my Marines will be better prepared.
We must find a way to give this vital training a permanent home at IOC.
Captains Cuomo and Donlon are instructors at the Marine Corps' Infantry Officers Course at Quantico, Virginia.
1. For more on "hybrid" wars, see Lieutenant General James N. Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps and Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired), "Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Wars," Proceedings, November 2005, pp. 18-19.
2. While contracted role players and BES were the most significant changes to the exercise, there were also changes made to the baseline order and scenario construct, which included linking all scenarios so that the exercise gave the students a continuous field exercise "feel" despite the exercise being built around nine different lanes.
3. While at the Basic Officer Course (BOC), lieutenants do execute two very limited field exercises that include Small Wars-type scenarios. The initial scenario is a two-hour vehicle patrol that turns into a cordon and search in a small combat village; the second scenario is an hour-long dismounted urban patrol. Historically, both scenarios have incorporated enlisted Marine role-players and were very limited in nature. In the immediate future, both exercises are scheduled to have contracted role player support. To a limited degree, IOC's POI does build off the basic skills taught in both of these scenarios.
4. For an example of a scenario similar to that created for this lane view a Marine rifle squad conducting ambush operations North of Fallujah located at: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/world/20061102_MEDIC_FEATURE/blocker.html (click on icon "Politics").
5. The idea for this IO product was generated from enemy actions taken against the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, Iraq, as described in Col Ralph O. Baker, "The Decisive Weapon: A Brigade Commander's Perspective on Information Operations," Military Review, May-June 2006. For more information on how our enemy is using tactical military engagements for strategic IO purposes, see Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet, "An Internet Jihad Aims at U.S. Viewers, New York Times, 15 October 2007; located at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/15/us/15net.html and accessed 31 October 2007. For videos that demonstrate the enemy's IO capabilities in greater detail, including the use of an American citizen in North Carolina to create and disseminate such products, view the "The Internet Jihadi" and "The Jihadi Trainer" at the same World Wide Web link.
6. Multiple student and instructor after action report (AAR) comments will be cited in this article. Please contact IOC for further details on any information in the AARs or about the Small Wars Package in general.
7. Quote taken from an e-mail discussion between authors and 2ndLt Phil Peacock on 25 September 2007, less than two weeks after he departed Anbar Province. Lt Peacock served as a rifle platoon commander in Eastern Anbar Province with Battalion Landing Team 3d Battalion, 1st Marines.
8. Hammes, T.X. The Sling and The Stone, Zenith Press, Saint Paul, MN, 2004, p. 240-241.
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