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Budget cuts affect the pace of training program innovations

Oct. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Barstow Marines sight in on target
A Marine fires downrange during a M9 pistol pre-qualification. The Corps is trying to maintain funding for its ranges. Innovations will have to wait, however. (Sgt. Shannon Yount / Marine Corps)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — The service will have to dial back on some of the innovative training programs it has rolled out in recent years — or intended to implement in the near term — as the Corps deals with deep budget cuts.

Role players in training exercises will once again be Marines, not natives of the countries to which Marines are deploying, and plans to improve immersive training, jungle warfare centers and ranges will likely be put on hold.

Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, commanding general of Training and Education Command, said his command conducted a “cost to train” study in order to determine exactly what it should cost to train and educate Marines. TECOM then worked with the service’s budget experts to reach an agreement on what the command could afford to continue to do, he said.

When across-the-board budget cuts forced the Corps to eliminate even more spending, however, TECOM had to dig deeper, he said.

“We just lined up everything we do, from number one to last, and prioritized it,” Murray said during a Sept. 9 interview. “So rather than just take a salami-slice cut across everything we do, there were some things we aren’t going to touch and other things that we’ll be taking more money out of.”

Training will still have the same quality, Murray insisted, but it won’t be as expansive as it was in the past decade. Marine officials determined what skills they could put on hold for now, while accepting some risk in certain areas.

“There are things that we looked at that over the last 10 years, maybe we can kind of put on the back burner and just keep it warm,” he said. “Make sure we still understand the problem ... but it’s not something we need to be teaching our Marines every day.”

Readiness has been one of the major concerns cited by top military leaders as they have pushed Congress to reverse the automatic spending cuts that sliced $500 billion from defense spending over the next decade. With another year of tough cuts on the horizon, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus warned of a bleak training outlook during a speech at National Defense University on Sept. 11.

“In another 12 to 18 months, we will have sailors and Marines deploy without all the training they need,” Mabus said. “Through no fault of their own, they will be less ready to face whatever comes over the horizon.”

The Marine Corps is focusing on those next in line for deployment, Murray said. But Marines a year out from a deployment might not get the same level training as those heading out now will receive. Here are some areas where Marines will see training remain stagnant, scaled back or shelved:

Role players. During the height of Enhanced Mohave Viper, the predeployment exercise Marines completed before heading to Afghanistan, they might have encountered up to 1,000 role players from the region who donned local attire and spoke the native languages.

“We’ve found how important that is to training individuals,” Murray said. “In the past we used to just kind of do it with other Marines, and it just doesn’t have the effect that it does when you actually have people from a certain part of the world who actually have the background you have to deal with.”

Marines next in line to deploy likely will still encounter role players, Murray said. But if Marines are a year or more out from deploying, they will likely rely on other Marines to play the parts because hiring role players is too expensive, he said.

Jungle training. When the Marine Corps began its shift to the Asia-Pacific region, plans called for reinvigorating jungle warfare training. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos wanted TECOM to look at producing a service-level jungle warfare training center where Marines could conduct small-unit training. Also being considered was a training center in the Western Hemisphere, so Marines didn’t have to go all the way to the existing facility in Okinawa, Japan, to get the training.

“This is one of the things the cuts are having a pretty drastic effect on,” Murray said. “When we’re just trying to sustain what we have, to be able to enhance something like Okinawa to a service-level venue or to go out and start working elsewhere in this hemisphere, we probably don’t have the funding to do that — unless the priority for it changes significantly.”

Cultural expertise. Cultural awareness is considered one of the most vital lessons learned on the dispersed battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the Marine Corps started assigning all newly promoted sergeants a region, culture and corresponding language they would study for the duration of their careers. New officers had been doing the same since 2008.

It’s called the Regional, Culture and Language Familiarity program — or RCLF for short. Murray said it won’t be going away — all new sergeants and lieutenants will still pick up an assignment, but his command won’t be able to further develop the program.

“We think it’s very valuable, and it’s one of the things we’ve tried to protect,” Murray said. “The core of it will all still be there, but it’s probably not going to be quite as robust as we’d hoped. That’s one of the [programs] we’re just going to be sustaining.”

Immersion trainers. Marines should expect immersion trainers — three-dimensional facilities that combine live and virtual training with such special effects as pyrotechnics, sounds and smells — to be sustained rather than improved, Murray said. TECOM was planning technological advancements to the infantry immersion trainers in Hawaii, California and North Carolina so they could be adapted to the conditions in any part of the world. Those improvements will be placed on hold for the foreseeable future due to cost constraints, he said.

Ranges and targets. Marksmanship is one of the Marine Corps’ most prized skills. While the commandant made it clear there should be no degradation of ranges due to sequestration, Murray said they won’t be able to afford to make improvements as fast as they’d like.

That means Marines shouldn’t expect new targets in the immediate future. Anytime the Corps develops something new, there’s an expense tied to it, Murray said, so it’s likely that ranges will remain equipped with what they have.

Athletic trainers. TECOM has placed athletic trainers at each of the training facilities, including both recruit depots, Officer Candidates School, The Basic School and the Schools of Infantry. Murray said it’s an area in which he tried to keep as much funding as possible. In the long run, the Corps saves money since it gets injured personnel back into the training pipeline faster. But the expansion of the program won’t reach the levels he had envisioned.

“We had hoped to pay for all of [the athletic trainers] for the operational forces, but that won’t happen with budget restrictions now,” Murray said.

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