Within two years, Marines could finally see realistic shooting and effects when they go head to head with other services, allies or Marines in force-on-force training.
Marine Corps Systems Command recently announced a contract award to Saab Inc. for the service’s Force-on-Force Training Systems-Next program.
The FoFTS-Next system will allow Marines to move away from decades of semi-accurate laser weapons systems that can often be defeated by standing behind a leafy shrub and cannot replicate the trajectories, drops, shooting experience or effects on target that are desperately needed for live training.
The Corps currently plans to buy 16 sets of the system and field them between 2023 and 2026 at all major bases, including Camp Pendleton, California; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Japan and Guam.
But the first set is likely headed for the centerpiece of Marine Corps ground combat training: Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California.
Each of those individual sets should be able to handle an entirely kitted-up battalion. While early use will focus on the platoon and company level, the system will have the capacity for an entire battalion.
Current software focuses on service weapons already at hand, but developers can build in ways to simulate future systems, such as the Next Generation Combat Weapon and even support items such as mortars, loitering munitions, artillery, grenades and more.
The new system will also allow for real-world style target leading and weapons will show trajectory drop and other characteristics of shooting actual bullets.
“I think this is going to revolutionize the way we conduct force on force training,” Col. Luis Lara, program manager for Marine Corps Systems Command training systems, told Marine Corps Times.
For decades, Marines and soldiers used the multiple integrated laser engagement system, or MILES. While cutting edge for its time, it was developed in the late 1970s. It did not have as accurate shooting or realistic factors that are essential for training good shooting and maneuver tactics and habits.
Upgrades included the instrumented tactical engagement simulation system, or ITESS. While more accurate, ITESS still fell short of Marine goals for fidelity to real-world scenarios.
Even something as simple as speed mattered. Lasers fired from ITESS or MILES instantaneously struck targets. There’s a short, but very important, lag time when shooting a real firearm.
An added feature for the FoFTS-Next is a haptic wristwatch that will monitor if direct or indirect fire is coming toward the user, Lara said.
From a command and control perspective, the FoFTS-Next will also allow commanders and observers a clear view of what their Marines are doing.
In tests, the system could track the muzzle direction of Marines moving up floors of a building in an urban training site.
The system records, allowing for after-action reviews that units can take home with them from a training location to improve performance, Lara said.
And Marines quickly realize that this system is different, Lara said.
He shared an example of a platoon of Marines testing the system at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
That platoon had a fire team in a building trying to cross a danger area. With the old MILES or ITESS system, they knew the range and effectiveness of what they faced and crossed when they shouldn’t have.
“Within five minutes, 75 percent of the platoon was dead,” Lara said. “They had to regroup and try again. It caused them to say, ‘no kidding,’ we’re going to have to do this the right way.”
The Army is currently developing the integrated visual augmentation system, or IVAS, a do-it-all goggle that allows users to display multiple feeds of information and also use rapid target acquisition software that wirelessly links with a camera on their weapon.
That linkup allows users to see multiple views, picture in picture with the weapon’s sight, full view like a standard night vision goggle and weapon’s site view such as looking through an optic.
The colonel said that the Marines are closely aligned with the Army’s IVAS work and see this system as complementary for training purposes, allowing shooters to connect the two at some point in future scenarios and development.
Lara said that Marines have been experimenting with and testing the system at multiple events over the past year. Those included a platoon-sized element from The Basic School, out of Quantico.
A separate event from August to September 2020 worked with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, each of which provided an infantry company for force-on-force work.
The experiments originally were scheduled to begin in March 2020, but were delayed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Lara said.
The next steps include a potential contract award for a “live, virtual, constructed” environment that could bridge simulations like virtual reality, with the force-on-force trainer. That contract could be awarded by the end of 2021.
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.