Inside a 32,000-square-foot former tomato packing plant at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the Marine Corps has constructed an infantry combat simulator so realistic that it sent the wife of one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the hospital.
That level of realism in simulated training must be extended to every soldier and Marine headed for frontline combat, said Undersecretary of Defense Robert Wilkie, who also chairs a new task force on close combat lethality enhancements for U.S. troops.
“She’s fine,” Wilkie said of the unnamed officer’s spouse on April 11 at the Association of the U.S. Army’s headquarters outside Washington, D.C.
“Every plane and ship we purchase comes with sophisticated simulators to train personnel to overcome every conceivable contingency,” he said. “We would not buy a plane or a ship that wasn’t packaged along with that technology. We don’t do that for our ground forces. Why not build those state-of-the-art simulators for the sights, sounds and smells for any exigency imaginable to comprehensively prepare our troops before the first shot is fired?”
“We have the technology to do this,” he added. “We need to put it in practice.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made an impassioned plea for more and more-immersive training simulators at AUSA’s annual conference last October.
“Tens of millions of dollars are spent and invested in training and simulation for an F-35 pilot before they are ever allowed to come near a fifth-generation fighter,” Milley said Oct. 10. “Well, we have fifth-generation fighters in our squads and platoons and they are actually fighting every day. So, we must do the same thing for them.”
“Any soldier that engages in close-quarters combat deserves the same investment as anyone who is flying at 30,000 feet,” he added. “There is no reason we don’t do that. The technology already exists.”
Similar immersive training environments to the “Tomato Factory” are in operation at Fort Irwin Training Center, Calif., Twentynine Palms, Calif., and Fort Polk, La. Getting thousands of troops to those locations on a regular basis and putting them through immersive training is a prohibitively expensive and time-consuming task, however.
Those facilities alone cannot support Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ goal to send every frontline soldier or Marine through 25 bloodless battles before they are ever shot at in anger, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales. That would require at least 23,000 training immersions a year, Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College, said at AUSA.
“The Army must be able to create synthetic environments where we can … have repetition and variation of stress applied,” Scales said. “That can only be done with the application of [artificial intelligence]. Otherwise you can’t get variation at that level of warfare.”
Immersive training is the best opportunity to increase the combat effectiveness of small units and individual soldiers, although both the Army and Marine Corps are also seeking material solutions like new and improved small arms, Scales said.
The M2 .50 caliber machine gun was first fired in 1919 “and yet it is still the most prolific machine gun in the American military,” Scales said. Likewise, the M16 family of weapons that includes the M4 carbine traces its roots to 1955. The Army and Marine Corps have invested in “infusing the precision revolution and micro circuitry down to the small-arms level so squads can have precision capabilities that used to only exist at the company, battalion and brigade level,” he said. That includes a next-generation rifle, new pistol and new squad machine guns.
But improvements in small unit and individual soldier lethality is most likely to come from the human element than the development or fielding of any particular weapon, Scales said.
“That includes training, manning, personnel policy, selection, recruiting, all those things,” he said. “The real transformation, we believe is going to be in that area.”
There is no silver bullet that will make U.S. ground troops impervious to enemy fire or consistently overmatch enemy troops in close combat, Wilkie said. The Close Combat Lethality Task Force will look at the problem from multiple angles to ensure potential future enemies are never on equal footing with U.S. troops.
“Because of our nation’s historical technical restlessness, we are constantly looking for the silver bullet to somehow change the nature of warfare,” Wilkie said. “A look at history going back to Troy calls into question whether a technical panacea will ever emerge to change the grim facts of ground combat. … What we do here will lay the ground work to overmatch any enemy,” he said. “Anything short of that will have failed those exceptional young people who carry our future on their shoulders.”