The Army’s rifle qualification course could become more realistic and challenging for soldiers across the force if a series of proposed changes is approved by senior Army leaders, Army Times has learned.

The proposed changes, which will be tested next month by soldiers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, will push shooters to fire farther and faster than they do now.

There is no date set yet for a final decision on these changes, but much of the data gathered so far is scheduled to be presented to the Army Munitions Requirements Council of Colonels in March.

Documents obtained by Army Times show proposed changes to the rifle course could:

  • Increase the number of hits required to qualify at the marksman, sharpshooter and expert levels.
  • Require soldiers to hit three targets beyond 200 meters to achieve a sharpshooter qualification.
  • Require shooters to hit targets at every distance from 50 meters to 300 meters in order to qualify as expert.
  • Cut shoot times at each position by more than half, from 15 minutes to six minutes.
  • Remove the standing unsupported firing position, making all positions supported.
  • Require soldiers to move themselves through the course while reloading, dealing with malfunctions and acquiring targets, and without instructor commands.
  • Cut the qualification course time from 96 minutes to 40 minutes.

Lessons learned

These proposed changes are all aimed at increasing soldier lethality and presenting a more realistic shooting environment based on what the Army has seen in 16 years of combat, said Brig. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School.

Donahue emphasized that the proposed changes are still in a draft phase, and more work will be done before any official changes, if any, are made to the rifle qualification course.

Command Sgt. Maj. Martin Celestine Jr., the command sergeant major for the infantry school, said the focus of the proposed changes — which began with evaluations at the school a year ago — is to have soldiers “train how they fight” and not make the qualification more challenging just for the sake of it.

“We replicate what we see in the operational environment,” Celestine said. “When you receive fire, you return fire, and you take cover,” Celestine said.

While the qualification course could change, the marksmanship training that soldiers receive prior to qualification will remain identical, Celestine said.

Over the past few years, more soldiers have qualified and more soldiers have reached higher levels of qualification in the current shooting system, in part because of the training, he said.

“Everybody has shot better. But look at where we had the bar,” Celestine said. “So, we raised the bar.”

The Army established its rifle qualification in 1955 but has since changed from a 7.62 mm rifle to a 5.56 mm weapon. That rifle has also changed, from the M14 to the M16 and variants of that rifle down to the current M4 carried by many soldiers.

Soldiers have also added a scope, rather than shoot open sights. The original course had 40 stationary targets and 16 moving targets. Moving targets are only used in advanced marksmanship training now.

The original course had shooters fire half their shots from a foxhole and half from the prone position.

Improving marksmanship

Two years ago, in a bid to improve soldier marksmanship, the Army rolled out the Marksmanship Master Trainer Course to push trainers out across the Army.

It worked. Sample groups saw an increase in soldiers qualifying as sharpshooters — from 38 percent to 54 percent. In addition, more soldiers were qualifying expert, 34 percent compared with 10 percent, after the training was implemented.

Under the proposed changes, these are the new requirements, out of a total of 40, needed for each qualification level:

Qualified (no badge)N/A23-27

With the requirements to meet each level of qualification increasing, those qualification statistics won’t likely stay as high, at least not initially.

“Yes, the scores will probably decrease,” Celestine said.

But he is confident that once soldiers run through the new qualification, they will adapt.

The Army also doesn’t plan to change the number of times soldiers must qualify. It is still an annual requirement, though some units fire twice a year to maintain proficiency.

As the Army developed these proposed changes, soldiers in operational units such as the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 10th Mountain Division and the 25th Infantry Division participated in testing and gave their feedback, Celestine said.

“This was designed to generate feedback, not to plan in a vacuum,” Celestine said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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