The Marine Corps just spent $6 million on a war tool invented in the barracks

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The Marine Corps is proving the potential of its newly established rapid capabilities office with an early purchase: a tactical decision-making kit, invented by Marine grunts, that blends a range of cutting-edge technologies to allow infantry squads to compete against each other in a realistic simulated training environment.

The service inked a $6.4 million contract March 31 for enough kits to outfit 24 infantry battalions with the technology. The contract came just 51 days after Marine leaders identified the technology, invented in a Camp Lejeune barracks room, as a valuable capability for the service, said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

In an interview with Military.com on Tuesday at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference, Walsh said leathernecks from 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, decided to turn space inside one of the battalion’s barracks facilities into a makeshift warfighting lab, combining a handful of technologies already in use by the Corps into a sophisticated mission rehearsal system.

While the service last year designated a West Coast unit — Camp Pendleton, California’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — as its experimental battalion, multiple East Coast units have also taken the initiative to test out new technology and concepts.

The North Carolina-based 2/6 created what it called a tactical decision room, linking computers equipped with deployable virtual training environment simulation software already in use by the service.

The Marines used quadcopters to create a 3D map of a real training area, which was then uploaded to the simulation. They could then run and re-run the same realistic mission in the simulated environment. They added in the Corps’ Instrumented-Tactical Engagement Simulation System equipment, technology that allows tracking of battlefield movements and simulated fires using lasers, allowing for realistic training and complex after-action feedback for the warfighter.

“So now what we’re seeing these guys do is, they’re gaming in their barracks, squad-on-squad — gaming back-and-forth on decision-making,” Walsh said. “… They all get to take it 3D, plug it into what they look at virtually, figure out how they’ll attack it, then go conduct the mission.”

In an article published in the Marine Corps Gazette, four platoon leaders from 2/6, all second lieutenants, described how they saw the system they helped create fitting into infantry training.

“As infantrymen, we do not spend as much time in the field as we would like,” they wrote. “The decision room is a way to maximize our training and tactical prowess garrison … we can optimize the natural technical aptitudes of millennials while not requiring units to purchase additional materials.”

The Office of Naval Research assisted with pulling the software components together and making them communicate as a complete system, Walsh said. Ultimately, top Marine leadership, including Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters, designated the system as a candidate for investment through the Corps’ rapid capabilities office, which activated late last year.

The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's Maritime Raid Force conducts a Realistic Urban Training Exercise in Guam.

The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force conducts a Realistic Urban Training Exercise in Guam. | US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonathan Wright

Col. James Jenkins, director of Science and Technology for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, said the value of the system is in the ability of squads and small units to run and re-run the same scenario with detailed after-action feedback.

“Here’s the debrief, here’s who shot who when, and here’s why, and go back and just get better every time,” he said. “It’s all about that sets and reps.”

Jenkins said the first system will be delivered early next month, with planned delivery of four tactical decision-making kits per month until all 24 battalions are equipped. Jenkins said the kits will be delivered strategically when a unit has time to learn the technology and incorporate it into training, not during pre-deployment workups or other kinetic seasons.

This summer, between June and July, the Corps plans to publicly promote the tactical decision kit within the service, describing the innovation process at 2/6 and how relatively junior-ranking grunts came up with something of value to the greater institution.

“It was truly bottom-up, how could we make this better,” Jenkins said.

Walsh said the purchase illustrates the need for the rapid capabilities office and funding for fast prototyping and development. Ideally, he said, he would like to have around $50 million available to invest in new ideas and technologies.

“Is it the 100 percent solution? Probably not. We’re going to have to keep adjusting,” he said of the 2/6 invention. “But it’s now getting every squad in the Marine Corps wargaming, experimenting and doing tactics and learning from them.”

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