Posted : Wednesday Oct 13, 2010
The Marine Corps Marksmanship Program is a disorganized “hodgepodge” plagued by inadequate oversight, decrepit ranges and insufficient live-fire training, according to a controversial study that includes months of interviews with Marines across the fleet.
The study, “Battlefield Standards for Marksmanship and the Training Implications,” calls for an overhaul of the annual re-qualification process, extensive equipment upgrades and a new agency to oversee it all. It was overseen by the Operations Analysis Division of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and commissioned by Weapons Training Battalion, both out of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
Marine Corps Times obtained a copy of the Nov. 10, 2009, final report through the Freedom of Information Act.
Strikingly, while the service lives by the credo “Every Marine a rifleman,” the study finds that the Corps lacks focus and consistency when it comes to handling rifle quals, one of the most significant building blocks in a Marine’s training.
“The most striking part about listening to Marines express their opinions regarding rifle marksmanship was that there was no consensus across the Marine Corps as to what the purpose and objectives of the rifle marksmanship program currently are, or what they should be,” the study says.
Weapons Training Battalion officials disputed many of the study’s key findings, saying in a statement that the report “misses the mark for several reasons.” The study does not explain the difference between current and previous requirements for ranges and units, makes comparisons to the Army’s requirements and “infers that some Marines should be proficient marksmen while others merely need to be familiar” with a rifle, battalion officials said in a statement.
“This is not the Marine Corps mindset,” they said.
Four major recommendations are made in the study, which a Marine official said cost the Corps about $1 million:
• Establish a new central organization to oversee marksmanship. Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico now oversees service-wide directives on marksmanship. Base and station commanders interpret them on a local level with the help of marksmanship training units. The result is “inconsistent training procedures and confusion,” the study says. It recommends that Lt. Gen. George Flynn, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, establish a new service-wide organization overseeing all marksmanship issues under the command of Quantico-based Training and Education Command.
• Overhaul annual rifle training. Initial rifle training for recruits at boot camp and new lieutenants at The Basic School is widely considered a strength, and should not be altered, the study says. However, investigators found that week-long sustainment training held once a year means that too much time is spent relearning basics. It recommends holding sustainment every six months, possibly for two or three days each time, or every three months for a day or two each. The study also suggests that sustainment training needs to focus more closely on combat situations, posing one future option that would include firing at targets of unknown distances, moving targets, night firing and Marines wearing full combat gear.
• Remove rifle range scores from the promotion process. Many Marines currently go to the range “with a ‘qualifying’ mindset, not a combat training mindset,” because their scores are factored directly into their chances for promotion, the study says. It recommends that Manpower & Reserve Affairs remove the scores from the promotion process, saying Marines use a variety of weapons on the range, creating an “unfair” situation.
• Upgrade the Corps’ ranges in an extensive overhaul. The Corps’ ranges “are based on old, outdated technology” that needs an extensive upgrade plan, the study says. Like the Army, the Corps should have automated ranges that provide automatic feedback to shooters and coaches. No longer should Marines be required to pull “pit duty,” in which they pull targets as they are used and mark them. That’s a “blatant” misuse “of valuable people resources for any 21st century military organization,” the study says.
Leadership speaks out
Flynn, who also is the commanding general of Combat Development Command, addressed the study in an interview with Marine Corps Times. Without weighing in on the specific recommendations made, he said the service needs to do a better job of incorporating the standard rifle combat optic, or RCO, into the re-qualification process, and will be releasing a Marine administrative message soon that lays out new guidelines.
“We have enough data to suggest that the optic does improve your score,” he said. “It does improve the shooter’s ability. But the key to that is the sustainment training that goes with the annual re-qualification. That just doesn’t happen,” he said, referring to the training Marines need on the RCO.
TECOM also is working on a number of projects that could enhance marksmanship training, including online classes and motorized moving targets, Flynn said.
“It’s hard to develop a moving target range,” he said. “You know when you hit, but you don’t necessarily know where you missed. That’s one of the challenges, and that’s one thing we’ve [been] trying to do better for the last few years, to better engage moving targets.”
Attempts to interview Weapons Training Battalion officials were unsuccessful, but they defended the current structure of marksmanship oversight in their statement. The program currently gives individual commanders the flexibility to complete intermediate and advanced combat marksmanship training — commonly known as Tables 3 and 4 in the program — as it fits into pre-deployment training, they said.
Improving the combat effectiveness of each Marine is a never-ending goal, and there are always efforts underway to improve rifle accuracy across the Corps, battalion officials said. They acknowledged there are some variations in the way individual ranges work, but said it is “due in large part to the layout and design of older ranges.”
“Over the last several years, many upgrades and improvements have been made to improve the ranges throughout the Corps,” officials said. “More continue to be submitted each year.”
The study suggests that Marines generally want more live-fire training, and it proposes two approaches to future sustainment training. The first would likely resemble the current program and its KD, or known-distance, courses of fire at 200, 300 and 500 yards. But it would be conducted either twice a year or quarterly for each Marine.
The second approach suggests that Marines — including those outside the infantry — would benefit from more training that includes unknown ranges, moving targets and night firing while wearing full combat gear. It does not make any suggestions about whether to keep the four firing positions.
Weapons Training Battalion vigorously defended the program as it is, especially KD marksmanship training, which has been used for decades to train Marines for combat during previous wars.
“Likely more so than any other institutional training package, the marksmanship program is routinely reviewed for possible improvements,” officials said. “Bottom line: Weapons Training Battalion wholeheartedly disagrees with the report’s alleged implication that KD has no value for combat preparation.”
No marksmanship overhaul is being considered, Weapons Training Battalion said. The unit “would refer to what we propose as a refinement; as was originally intended when the Marine Corps Combat Marksmanship Program order was written,” officials said.
“As Marines, we constantly self-evaluate and self-review to ensure we are on point with our training programs,” officials said. “A more concise chain of responsibility and reporting is being explored.”
Rank-and-file weigh in
Rank-and-file Marines — including some with significant street credibility — are not universally down on the marksmanship program. In interviews with Marine Corps Times, they also said nearly universally that they want range scores to remain a part of the promotion process, a plan that goes to the culture of every Marine being a rifleman, they said.
Marines did acknowledge the marksmanship program has flaws, however, including something not mentioned in the study: cheating.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Murphy, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge of a designated marksman course for Marine Corps Forces Regiment, out of Virginia Beach, Va., said shifting to service-wide automated ranges would prevent Marines from covering up their misses by swapping out used targets.
“Technologies are needed and exist within the Marine Corps to automate target systems, doing away with Marines pulling Marines’ pits,” he said. “It would blow your mind if you could be a fly on the wall in the pits during a qualification course and see how many of those Marines are cheating. Automated systems don’t lie — a hit is a hit and a miss is a miss.”
Cpl. Alisa Hilton, an aircraft maintenance administration specialist with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36, out of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa, Japan, also said cheating is an issue. Adopting more ranges like the automated one at MCAS Miramar, Calif. — the only one of its kind in the Corps, according to the study — would help in that regard, she said. It tracks hits or misses, providing quick feedback to the Marines firing.
But Col. Timothy Armstrong, commanding officer of Weapons Training Battalion, rejected the notion that automated ranges would be an improvement. In a statement, he said Marines cannot swap used targets to help other Marines because the action “would be seen and halted by range personnel.” He also questioned the wisdom of using automated ranges, saying they are prone to malfunctions.
“Pit duties continue to provide the qualifying Marine with the fairest, most accurate and reliable scoring system; ensuring his or her performance is respectfully captured and recorded,” he said.
Range training questioned
Murphy, an infantry unit leader, has deployed six times, most recently in 2009 with Lejeune’s 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. He backed the Corps continuing to use KD courses at boot camp, but said a shift in sustainment training to include unknown distances would be wise.
“In my six combat deployments, not once has an enemy shot at me with a sign on his head that says, ‘I am at 100 yards,’ ” Murphy said. “The one marksmanship skill that the Marine Corps is failing to train to standard on is range estimation.”
A gunnery sergeant with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and trained as an advanced sniper said the basics taught at boot camp are “good for the foundational aspects of marksmanship,” and the RCO — also frequently known as an ACOG, or Advanced Combat Optic Gun-sight — can give Marines a boost later on.
However, other problems need to be addressed, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his spec-ops background. Commanders frequently do not devote enough time to preparing their Marines to use optics, he said, describing what he saw on one of Lejeune’s Stone Bay ranges.
“The problem I just witnessed this week was that almost every command failed to train their Marines in the required ‘grass week,’ ” he said in a Sept. 16 e-mail, referring to the classroom preparation and training on safety and techniques that come before rifle quals.
Additionally, many range coaches are sergeants and below, and few “really seemed to understand how to teach or correct marksmanship,” said the gunny, who leads a MARSOC element and is preparing for his third deployment to Afghanistan.
“I was not always a good shooter, and it took some time for me to learn,” he said. “The coaches needed to spend more time on shooter position and set-up on the line.”
Armstrong acknowledged that most marksmanship coaches and trainers are lance corporals and sergeants, but suggested that shouldn’t be a surprise.
“In fact, the greatest population segment of the Marine Corps is lance corporal through sergeant,” he said. “These are the same lance corporals through sergeants who boldly lead Marines in battle.”