MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
(Permission to repost granted by San Diego Union-Tribune, Rick Rogers and editor Hieu Tran Phan)
The Marine Corps is embracing breakthrough holographic technology to teach combat tactics and battlefield ethics at Camp Pendleton as troops there begin another major round of deployments to Iraq.
Marine officials Tuesday unveiled the Infantry Immersion Trainer, a high-tech prototype simulator that resides in a former – and decidedly low-tech – tomato packing plant that still bears directions for truck drivers.
The 32,000-square foot, $2.5 million training ground became reality after a request from Gen. James Mattis, former commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. The program capitalizes on 15 years of Navy and Marine research on everything from body movements to urban warfare, coupled with the latest advancements in simulation from defense companies like Lockheed Martin.
The new training area is “a pretty big deal ... that's expected to save lives,” said Col. Clarke Lethin, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
He stressed that it also could help guide Marines through the tough process of making split-second battle decisions involving morality and legality.
“As we go through the war, it's changing out there. There are more no-shoots than shoots,” Lethin said. “We want to make sure that we are shooting the right people.”
During the Iraq war, some incidents in the combat theater have embarrassed the Marine Corps and called into question its leadership and training on ethics.
The government charged a group of Camp Pendleton Marines with murdering two dozen civilians Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq. Members of another unit from the base were charged with kidnapping and executing a grandfather April 26, 2006, in the village of Hamdaniya.
In a third case, a few current and former members of a Camp Pendleton company have been charged or are being investigated for allegedly murdering detainees Nov. 9, 2004, during a significant offensive in Fallujah.
The eight Hamdaniya defendants struck plea bargains or were convicted during courts-martial, with the mastermind found guilty of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 15 years in the brig.
The Haditha court proceedings are ongoing. Two defendants in that case are set for court-martial on the charge of involuntary manslaughter, while two others are scheduled for trial because they're accused of not properly scrutinizing the 24 civilian deaths.
Last year, the Pentagon acknowledged that its first-ever survey on the ethics of U.S. troops in Iraq underscored the need for stronger training, intervention and leadership.
The study found that only 40 percent of Marines would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian. One-third of the Marines surveyed would turn in someone for stealing, and 30 percent would report a unit member for unnecessarily destroying property.
Figures for the Army were about 15 percent higher in those three categories, but even they were depicted by the report's authors as in clear need of improvement.
The new simulation program is designed to reinforce ethical conduct, hone small-unit infantry skills and sharpen a Marine's combat instincts.
It takes its inspiration from a city block that U.S. troops typically would patrol in Iraq, complete with a warren of shops and houses. Hardly a detail is overlooked among the props modeled with Hollywood set-design techniques: Wash hangs on the clotheslines. A cooking grill sits against the wall. Propane tanks are placed here and there amid the musky scent of unpaved streets and alleys.
Perched in the rafters are projectors that cast life-sized images of civilians and insurgents on wall after wall in the building. Live actors and pyrotechnics round out the integration of sight, sound and smell.
“It's called hyper-realistic training,” said Eddie Wright, 32, a Marine corporal.
During an April 2005 battle in Fallujah, a rocket-propelled grenade blew off his hands. Now, Wright works as a military training coordinator for the San Diego-based Strategic Operations, the organization operating the Infantry Immersion Trainer.
The simulator “offers an urban environment like the one we are fighting in over there,” Wright said. “It gets you thinking more along the lines of what you have to think over there to be successful.”
A lot of that thinking must be done in a flash, such as when troops clear rooms.
So the Marines practice this process during their simulation exercises. After bursting through doors, they have fractions of a second to decide whether to shoot. The troops use specially modified weapons to fire small-arms marking system rounds, which are similar in concept to paintball rounds.
The training facility opened without fanfare in November. Relatively few Marines have run through the simulation course, but those who have give it high marks.
“It's definitely Iraq,” said Lance Cpl. William Hawkins, 21, based in Kokomo, Ind.
“It's pretty good,” said Lance Cpl. Jason Trehan, 24, from Toledo, Ohio, as his men regrouped after clearing a room.
“It has the looks and the sounds,” said Trehan, who has served two tours in Iraq with the 1st Battlion, 4th Marine Regiment.
The immersion program figures to be a central part of future infantry training as the Marine Corps continues its presence in the Anbar province of Iraq and will take on expeditionary combat in Afghanistan this spring.
The converted warehouse provides another training tool for Marines, who already practice in an outdoor simulated town called Mojave Viper, spend months refining their weapons skills, study the dangers of improvised explosive devices, learn basic Arabic, receive cultural training and undergo other preparations for warfare.
Marine commanders would like to make the new simulation trainer more versatile so it can depict additional types of missions – combat and humanitarian.
Tuesday, they asked a group of defense contractors to tour the facility and submit suggestions for enhancing the training's realism and expanding its range of scenes.
On the wish list for Lethin, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's chief of staff, are scenarios portraying a meeting with a sheik, vehicle searches and a riot.
Trehan and Hawkins have their own suggestions.
Both would like to see a much bigger and taller simulation area, one that could accommodate Marines running across rooftops or tackling conflicts not confined to a room.
“Size matters. Sometimes a fire fight can consist of a house. Sometimes it can consist of several blocks,” Trehan said.