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Report: Marine Corps needs to better evaluate simulator training

Aug. 29, 2013 - 06:59PM   |  
Marines prepare for Afghanistan in simulator
Lance Cpl. Elias D. Gonzales with 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, uses the combat convoy simulator April 5 on Camp Hansen, Okinawa. The Government Accountability Office says the Corps must do a better job tracking the effectiveness and cost savings of simulators. (Cpl. Matthew Manning/Marine Corps)
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Although the Marine Corps has stepped up its use of simulation-based training for ground operations since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains unclear if it is cheaper or more effective than traditional training, according to an Aug. 22 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Neither the Army nor the Marine Corps has a clear methodology for comparing the costs and effectiveness of simulation-based training against traditional training, according to the GAO. And the ratio of live to simulation-based home station training is typically left to the discretion of unit commanders, and dependent on available time and resources, rather than a prescribed system or plan, the GAO said.

“Neither service has taken steps to identify performance metrics and the type of performance data that would be needed to evaluate how the use of simulation-based training devices contributes to training effectiveness,” the GAO wrote. “Officials told us they recognize the value of performance metrics, but given the pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years, priority was focused on conducting training and preparing forces to deploy.”

The report, “Army and Marine Corps Training: Better Performance and Cost Data Needed to More Fully Assess Simulation-Based Efforts,” was prompted by language in the House report accompanying the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act expressing the interest of Congress in promoting continued use and evaluation of simulation as a military tool.

“Historically, the aviation communities in both services have used simulators to train servicemembers in tasks such as takeoffs, and emergency procedures that could not be taught safely live. In contrast, the services’ ground communities used limited simulations prior to 2000,” the report noted. “However, advances in technology, and emerging conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to increased use of simulation-based training in the ground forces.”

The Marine Corps has touted its use of simulation in training as a way to save time and money while taking advantage of modern technology, from virtual shooting ranges with virtual bullets to flight simulators. Developments since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began have included multisensory infantry simulators, which replicate the sights, smells and sounds of a patrol in an Afghan village; simulators that replicate the impact of an improvised explosive device on an armored vehicle; and, as the report mentions, egress trainers that help troops practice a hasty evacuation in the event of a tactical vehicle rollover.

GAO researchers, who conducted the simulation audit between June 2012 and August 2013, met with Army and Marine Corps officials in training and training development and visited simulation-based training facilities, focusing on training efforts in the aviation, armor and artillery elements. They also reviewed training for amphibious assault vehicle and motor transport specialties on the Marine Corps side. They reviewed planning documents on simulator usage and compared program management practices to leading management standards, according to the report.

The report identified anecdotal proofs of costs savings through collaboration in the development of some simulation-based training devices. For example, the Marine Corps determined that it could use 87 percent of the components in the Army’s Homestation Instrumentation Training System for a Marine Corps version of the system, resulting in $11 million in cost savings for the Marine Corps and a reduction of 7 years in fielding time.

The system supports maneuver training for platoons or battalions, and allows trainers to track movements on the battlefield. Marines can then review the data to see where more training is needed to improve performance.

The Marine Corps does track some data on simulator training, such as the number of training hours used and, in some cases, the number of virtual rounds fired, the report said. Officials who spoke with GAO researchers pointed out some problems they’ve encountered in trying to drill down into cost-savings metrics: While live-fire training might require fewer overhead costs than construction of a virtual range trainer, for example, troops might be able to fire more rounds on the virtual range, getting in more training than they would on the live range. The report pointed to guiding principles established by the Navy to measure simulation training effectiveness as a helpful starting point for Army and Marine Corps officials.

In a Defense Department response to the report, Laura Junor, deputy assistant secretary of readiness, agreed that better metrics and a more comprehensive cost analysis would improve training decisions, but said comparing live to virtual training would include “many independent variables.” The Marine Corps bases its training on the Systems Approach to Training, which was established to manage the process of analyzing, designing, developing, implementing and evaluating instructional programs. When coupled with the Planning, Programing, Budgeting and Execution process, which is how is how the Defense Department allocates its resources, “it captures all relevant costs needed for decision making,” she wrote.

A spokesman for Marine Corps Training and Education Command acknowledged receipt of a request for a response to the GAO report, but said the command would not be able to provide one until the following week.

Officials with TECOM did not immediately respond to a query about Marine Corps annual budgeting for simulation-based training.

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