FORT MEADE, Md. -- U.S. combat troops are comfortable operating at night, but even after 12 years of war, they still struggle after dark when it comes to hitting enemy fighters on the run with accurate rifle fire.
Combat-marksmanship training has always been a key focus in both conventional and special operations forces. Trainers have continually upgraded shooting techniques to counter enemy tactics.
But preparing trigger-pullers to effectively engage fast-moving enemy fighters remains a training challenge. The services have a limited amount of moving-target training resources for daylight marksmanship.
To date, however, there is no standardized night marksmanship training program -- for conventional or special operations forces -- that effectively replicates how fast-moving, elusive enemy forces look on a darkened battlefield, Defense Department officials said.
It's a challenging capability gap, but it's one that the Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group here is hoping to close with innovative marksmanship techniques and a relatively new style of robotic targets.
Combat units "don't have a way to truly replicate running, stopping, moving, hiding behind cover or running from piece of cover to piece of cover," said Sgt. Maj. Don Boyer, the Concepts Troop sergeant major at AWG.
The Army conducts force-on-force training with blanks and non-lethal training ammo, known as Simunitions, but nothing is as effective as training with live ammunition, Boyer said.
"You can get some of that with live role players, but just being able to go out to a live-fire range and shooting live rounds down range -- I have yet to see a range that allows you do to something like that," he said.
The AWG is a specialized unit under Training and Doctrine Command that was stood up to enhance combat effectiveness and survivability of Army units, said Lt. Col. Mike Richardson, commander of D Squadron, which is responsible for gap analysis and capability development at AWG. The unit is filled with "highly experienced veterans," who embed with combat units, identify tactical problems and search for solutions, he said.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico, Va., working with AWG, recently held an experiment that involved Marine instructors from the Basic School practicing a series of techniques for hitting these four-wheeled robotic targets.
Marine Sgt. Jamie Wieczorek, who participated in the experiment, said the training with this type of moving target made him realize what he already suspected.
"We have not been proficient in hitting moving targets," he said.
AWG officials first started working with these smart targets, made by the Australian-based Marathon Targets, more than a year ago. It didn't take long to recognize that they represented a potential breakthrough for improving training against moving targets, Boyer said.
"Sometimes, you don't know what you don't know until you see it," Boyer said, describing these wheeled, robotic targets that are topped with life-like mannequins and move at speeds of more than eight miles per hour. "You have to see it ... you have to go out there and see the technology to understand it."
The robot targets, which present only a 12-inch-wide target when moving horizontally, can be programmed to change directions quickly and move for cover like many of the enemy seen in Afghanistan.
"Then you can get with a commander after he sees it and say 'what do you want the enemy to do tomorrow for your guys who are training.' And he can draw you out a little map and as long as you can image that, you can make that happen," Boyer said.
Despite the promise of the technology, creating effective techniques for engaging these robotic targets at night has been difficult, Boyer said.
"We did one night study and we thought we'll go down there, I'll turn on my illuminator, I look at my laser and this will be easy and we will write a little chapter in a book later on about moving night marksmanship," Boyer said. "And what we found out was it was incredibly difficult."
Despite the advances in night-vision, depth perception is still "a huge issue at night," Boyer said.
"Even with your laser, you would be tracking a target and it would just disappear behind something before you can get that engagement off," he said.
After hours of range time, AWG members now have a working solution for using an M4-mounted illuminator and laser pointer to effectively estimate range to the target and allow the shooter to use the laser aiming dot to properly lead a moving target through night-vision goggles, a source familiar with the effort said.
The trick is to calibrate the minutes of angle, or MOA, on the illuminator so that a man-size target, that is approximately 6 feet tall, will fill the flood light circle at a range of 100 meters.
The other part involves moving the illuminator beam over so that the laser dot is in the center of the illuminator beam. This way the zero on the laser remains undisturbed.
This setup is designed to replicate the sight picture a soldier sees when using a daylight optic such as an M68 Close Combat Optic.
Currently, no such technique for combining the laser and the illuminator to engage moving targets at night exists in any of the Army's approved marksmanship manuals, a source familiar with the effort said.
There are still a lot of unknowns about the effort, AWG officials maintain.
"Is there a requirement for the Army? Does this type of technology need to be out there with the combat training centers?" Boyer asked.
These robotic targets currently can cost more than $100,000 each, a hard selling point at a time of massive defense spending cuts. Other companies are beginning to develop similar target technology, so the price could come down in the future.
On the upside, it looks like the Army, and other services, can use this style of targets without altering existing ranges.
"I feel like we have starting points that we are looking at, and we are hoping to do some evaluations that will lead to solutions that would be great for the Army," Boyer said.