New Force-on-Force 'Free-Play' Training Will Teach Marines to Think on Their Feet

U.S. Marines with Combat Logistics Detachment 1, Combat Logistics Battalion 13, 1st Marine Logistics Group, practice "combat gliding" during Integrated Training Exercise 2-15 at Camp Wilson on Twentynine Palms, California, Jan. 31, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Kathryn Howard)
U.S. Marines with Combat Logistics Detachment 1, Combat Logistics Battalion 13, 1st Marine Logistics Group, practice "combat gliding" during Integrated Training Exercise 2-15 at Camp Wilson on Twentynine Palms, California, Jan. 31, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Kathryn Howard)

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. – Marines are about to face far-less predictable training that will challenge young leaders to outsmart sophisticated enemies with high-tech weapons and tools.

More force-on-force freestyle training will replace scripted scenarios in the years ahead, Lt. Gen. David Berger, head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told Military.com.

“We need to teach Marine leaders how to think on their feet,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot more of that graduate- or varsity-level thinking leader, and I need them figuring out how they can outthink me.”

The move follows a new national defense strategy that warns of long-term threats from strategic competitors like Russia and China. To be ready, the Marine Corps “must move beyond ‘scripted’ live-fire maneuvers and incorporate more force-on-force training in a free-play environment,” Commandant Gen. Robert Neller wrote in a Sept. 26 white letter to senior leaders.

“To meet the challenges of a peer-to-peer fight, we must incorporate independent actions and opposing will in our training at all levels,” Neller wrote. “Just as iron sharpens iron, an aggressive [force-on-force] training regime will test the limits of our capabilities, refine our actions, and prepare us for the fight to come.”

Much of that will take shape at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in California, Berger said, where units complete the Integrated-Training Exercises that prepare them for combat.

The live-fire maneuver training Marines have practiced for decades and the simulations that ramped up during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan won’t go away. That training will just be balanced with peer-to-peer fights during which one group of Marines is tasked with playing the good guys and the others, the foe.

And there are benefits to being on either side of those mock fights, Berger said.

“We’ll get better, but the training will also be more dynamic,” he said. “We need to fight as the foe would fight, so think about how they would be organized, trained and equipped. We also must better understand how they would use rockets, drones, planes and more.”

Marine leaders are still working on guidance that will better shape the plans for force-on-force training. In the meantime, Neller said the entire service must develop the mindset and skills necessary to prevail in the coming fight.

“We must ruthlessly test ourselves, conduct honest after-action reviews, make refinements and test ourselves again,” he wrote.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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