CIMSEC shared questions with Captain Eric M. Sager to discuss the Submarine Force’s new Aggressor Squadron (AGGRON). In this conversation, Capt. Sager discusses what AGGRON is doing to enhance undersea lethality, the vital importance of connecting adversary doctrine to submarine force development, and how a dedicated Red team makes for much more realistic high-end combat training.
How would you describe the role and mission of the aggressor squadron?
The U.S. Submarine Force stood up an Aggressor Squadron (AGGRON) in October 2019 as one initiative in support of the broader Department of Defense focus on strategic competition. AGGRON enhances all undersea forces’ training and readiness for potential conflict in every area of operations around the world, focused first and foremost on our strategic competitors in the maritime/undersea domain.
AGGRON is a team focused on high-end combat training through emulating competitors in all training and certification exercises. AGGRON serves as the undersea forces’ expert in employing competitors’ potential capabilities. AGGRON is also focused on improving undersea combat tactics, techniques, and procedures to ensure all doctrine is aligned against the continually evolving capabilities of our competitors. AGGRON personnel work with submarine crews at all stages of operational and training schedules and have drastically improved the Submarine Force’s ability to win in combat.
How is the training experience different for Sailors who go up against the aggressor squadron compared to a blue-on-blue event?
AGGRON goes head-to-head with submarine crews to play the role of an active, thinking, and tactically engaged enemy force. AGGRON personnel engage with submarine leadership to ensure our forces are ready to predict and proactively position for expected adversary behaviors based on the close study of their capability and tactics.
This modeling of a capable competitor is geared toward driving the proper tactical decision-making by crews during combat operations and to develop muscle memory through repetition in combat training. AGGRON’s goal is to ensure our Submarine Force is always training against the highest fidelity. We have developed processes to refocus training and certification on higher-fidelity combat experiences and developed new tools and concepts to support high-end warfighting.
What are the core takeaways you hope Sailors gain from the experience? How can the Sailors use that experience going forward to independently improve their own warfighting skills?
Sailors leave every training event with a better understanding of how our competitors think and operate, with an emphasis on their current or near-term combat capabilities. Every training event better prepares each sailor to handle combat operations. We aim to produce winners and losers, just like there are in battle, and raise the force’s standards to ensure our sailors are continually more elite than the opponent. Sailors take these lessons forward, returning to the next exercise or training event more prepared to win.
What are the risks of mirror-imaging blue force methods in training and force development? What unique value and realism comes from being well-versed in adversary capabilities and doctrine?
The risk is we will not train like we will fight; we would instead train against our own tactics, techniques, and procedures instead of that of our competitors. This methodology risks developing a false understanding of our capabilities and tactics as they relate to the competition, which would not maximize our lethality in combat.
Folding in OPFOR realism creates an entire force of warfighters that are experts on the nature of the competition. Each person is a link to success and when each person knows adversary capabilities and doctrine as well as the adversary themselves, there are less unforeseen circumstances in combat, therefore enhancing combat survivability and lethality.
What are some key enablers for the learning experience surrounding AGGRON training?
AGGRON has worked collaboratively with the Submarine Learning Center to ensure training on competitor capabilities, tactics, movements, and strategic objectives are all folded into each area of the schoolhouse’s integration with the waterfront. An adversary-focused culture has been inculcated in all pipelining schooling as well as deployment readiness training and certification. AGGRON is intimately involved in the Submarine Force’s doctrine and tactical development processes, so that we are continually exploring and assessing existing and new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter evolving threats.
How do you interact with other communities, including those with an ASW role, such as the surface and aviation communities?
The AGGRON is primarily resourced to train unit-level submarine crews, submarine squadron staffs, and Submarine Learning Site (SLS) staffs about what to expect from their potential opposing counterparts, and helps explore new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter those threats. AGGRON fosters and cultivates relationships throughout the Intelligence Community to ensure that the most current and accurate intelligence is shaping training and simulation.
Standing aggressor or “opposing force” (OPFOR) units that are trained in the doctrine and tactics of potential opponents, or the “Red” force, are crucial for improving the realism of training exercises. A submarine aggressor force could certainly provide invaluable anti-submarine warfare training opportunities for the Navy’s surface and aviation communities as well.
Captain Eric Sager was commissioned in 1998, graduating from the United States Naval Academy. Sager’s operational assignments include division officer onboard USS HONOLULU (SSN 718) where he completed a Western Pacific deployment, serving as Engineer Officer on USS RHODE ISLAND (SSBN 740)(GOLD), completing four strategic deterrent patrols, and as Executive Officer on USS NORFOLK (SSN 714) completing an AFRICOM/CENTCOM deployment. Sager commanded USS CALIFORNIA (SSN 781), leading his crew on an unplanned surge deployment and a scheduled EUCOM deployment in 2016. He received the 2017 Vice Admiral Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership for his time in command. Ashore, Sager has served in various positions, including on the staff of Commander, Submarine Forces as the Tactical Readiness Evaluation Team Executive Officer, Deputy Commodore of Submarine Squadron Twelve, and as the Submarine Force Atlantic Prospective Commanding Officer Instructor. Sager is currently assigned as the Director of the Undersea Warfighting Development Center’s Aggressor Squadron.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@Cimsec.org.
Featured Image: English: NORFOLK (Oct. 28, 2011) Sailors assigned to the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit California (SSN 781) board the boat as they “bring her to life” during a commissioning rehearsal ceremony the day before the Navy’s newest Virginia-class submarine is commissioned. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John Osborne/Released)
By Mie Augier, Major Sean F. X. Barrett, and Major Kevin Druffel-Rodriguez
Major General William F. Mullen III, USMC, retired as Commanding General (CG), Training and Education Command (TECOM) on October 1, 2020, completing a career that featured an unusually vast amount of experience across Marine Corps training and education commands. Major General Mullen commanded Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) Twentynine Palms, CA, and he also served as President, Marine Corps University (MCU), concurrently serving as CG, Education Command, as well as CG, MCAGCC.
While CG, TECOM, Major General Mullen spearheaded the effort to publish Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 7 Learning, the Marine Corps’ first new doctrinal publication issued since 2001, to explain why learning is critically important to the profession of arms. In the conversation that follows, we discussed some of the themes in MCDP 7, learning to become learners, and the importance of building learning cultures in warfighting organizations.
What inspired your own interest and curiosity in learning, and how did you first experience the benefits of being a lifelong learner?
I have always been interested in learning and reading and what it can do for you. But I had never heard it articulated how much it can actually do for you until I was a company commander at 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines. The battalion commander was LtCol John R. Allen (later General Allen), and he exemplified everything that was possible with reading, the 5,000-year-old mind, for example, and using that for knowledge and experience.
As an example, we had a short notice deployment to deal with Haitian and Cuban migrants. Before we deployed, he gave us a couple chapters of problems the U.S. Army had had with POWs (prisoners of war) in Korea as a read-ahead for the things we would likely face (e.g., dealing with large, angry crowds). Reinforcing this, LtCol Joseph F. Dunford (later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford) took over as battalion commander after Allen, and he also exemplified this ideal of being a lifelong learner. They showed us what was possible from learning. They were so far past their peers in their ability to think and execute, and it kept getting better as they became more senior.
You argue the mind is a muscle and therefore atrophies when not exercised. This metaphor conveys not only the importance of learning, but also introduces an element of “pain.”1 What is the origin of your understanding of this metaphor?
We all know that Marines like to exercise, so when I was talking to them for my “PME on PME” lecture,2 one of the things I was trying to get across is that your brain needs to be exercised as well. I would ask them what happens if you don’t PT, you don’t exercise. Your muscles atrophy. Your physical abilities atrophy. The brain is the same way.3
In the past, I have read studies about Alzheimer’s patients and how to stave off the effects of memory loss. I noticed that people who stayed more mentally engaged, learned new languages, read a lot, and played challenging games were able to exercise their mental synapses, which allowed them to continue to think and be engaged instead of atrophying. Regarding the whole pain aspect, I would ask them, “How many times have you read a really hard book, and you are trying to work your way through it, and your brain is just tired?” This is just like a strenuous exercise, but for the mind. For me, philosophy is that way. I try and read it and work through it, but I have to take it in small doses because it is tough.
One way to train the mind-muscle is by reading. How did you become someone who reads broadly?4
Part of it is that I read fairly quickly, and that was developed when I finished being a company commander. I went to Inspector-Instructor (I&I) duty in Milwaukee and got back into my alma mater to get a Master’s in Political Science. So, I was working on my Master’s, working I&I duty, which if you do it right is more than a full-time job, and I was also doing my Command and Staff (non-resident course) box of books all at the same time. I had to figure out ways to read quickly. I wrote an article called “Advanced Reading Skills” that came out in the Gazette that talks about the process and how I did all that.5
I always knew I wanted to cast my net widely, but I couldn’t really articulate it until I saw LtGen Paul K. Van Riper articulate it. He said we are trying to understand human beings because we lead human beings. We try to get them to do things that they naturally would not do. How do you understand human beings? How do you understand all the things that impact our ability to get our job done if you aren’t reading widely? Some people say, “I never read fiction,” but some of the most creative things I have ever come across, with regards to ideas, are in fiction. Some of the things you read about, you ask, “Why can’t we do that?” It gives you ideas. When it comes to understanding the human condition and what makes people tick, human beings really haven’t changed that much. The character of war has changed, but the nature of war hasn’t. It is still human beings going against each other—opposing wills. So how do you understand people and what makes them tick?
What books have you found useful for inspiring others to pursue a lifetime of learning?
I wrote an article, “A Warriors Mind,”5 in which I talk about the different categories if you want to know more about this and all the books I listed. There are only five in each category. One of those categories is, “How do you hook their interest?” How do you get them reading more? That came from watching the phenomenon of the Harry Potter books. Kids who really wouldn’t read anything were reading books that are 700-800 pages long and just eating it up. That hooked their interest, and then they expanded onto other things because they realized that reading is not a chore. It is actually enjoyable.
So how do you get them interested? Where are they at intellectually? Where is their vocabulary? What is their comprehension level? Those are the important things because if you hand someone a dense book, and they haven’t been reading much, that’s a dead end. But if you hand them some other things that you can use to build up to something high-end, that’s a better approach. So, I would ask them, “Where are they at now, what have they read?” The biggest thing that has hooked people’s interest is historical fiction, especially well-written historical fiction. That really gets them enthusiastic and wanting to learn more, and they start expanding their interests from there.
MCDP 7 Learning has been out for a year now. How did it come together? And with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently? For example, are there any additional topics you would have included or ideas you would have framed differently?
To clarify, I didn’t write it. I had a writing team who did the writing, but it was my idea to initiate the writing of it, and I was heavily involved in the editorial process and reviewing it. I would go back to them and ask questions, ask them to factor in things, and try to get it “MCDP 1-like.”
The inspiration for doing it was frustration. MCDP 1 is our foundational document. It is our maneuver warfare philosophy. It is supposed to be the basis for everything we do, but a majority of the folks in the Marine Corps don’t understand it, mainly because they have not read it. For those who have read it, they have not read enough around it to understand what it means, how you operationalize it, because we aren’t studying our profession.
There are a lot of folks who just can’t be bothered. “Reading is a chore,” or “I joined the Marine Corps so I didn’t have to go to school anymore.” Officer, SNCO, enlisted, it doesn’t matter—everybody needs to understand it. So learning is about how you go about learning your profession. Continuous learning is a lifelong pursuit, and it is the only thing that enables you to understand what MCDP 1 says and how you then operationalize it and live by it in your units. Education prepares you for the unknown. What happens when plans have to change? And that always happens. Education is far more important than training.
What would I do differently? Right now, I can’t say that I would do anything that much differently because the main emphasis was to get it out in recognizable form. I sent it out to a couple of people, a number of people who I highly respect. Some of them came back and said, “We don’t need it,” and I was a little frustrated by that response, until I realized: Well, they lived it. Of course, they understand it, it is intuitive to them.
No, they didn’t need it, but it is not for them. It is for all of those folks who do not understand and don’t understand the why—why learning is so important. So I can’t say that I’d do it any differently. But I can say that it does need to be reviewed in about five or ten years or so. Take a look at it and see what needs to change to keep it current with education technology and the theories going on. But it was also to prod, to help change the Marine Corps from industrial age learning to information age learning, which is a very different approach, and we are not built that way. And we needed some serious dynamite under our foundation to break out of our bureaucratic processes.
You wrote the TECOM guidance that led to MCDP 7 and also had some interesting thoughts about how to take PME beyond the industrial age. What motivated you to issue that guidance?
The big piece was the why—why learning was so important. I have been talking about it for years, doing the “PME on PME” lecture as well, and advocating for it well before that—because of what I was seeing: the lack of people studying their profession and understanding the requirement to learn.
And then, thinking about what it would take to start to try and change the culture of the Marine Corps to become more of a learning culture. We were explaining the why and trying to get the culture to change through a doctrinal publication. I didn’t expect it to have the importance of MCDP 1, but I remember the Commandant, General Robert B. Neller, asking the question, “How do we re-invigorate maneuver warfare?” The reason he asked that question was that most people have not read it, they have not studied it, they haven’t studied the requirements.7 And all of this came together, and I talked with General David H. Berger when he was in his Deputy Commandant, Combat Development and Integration (DC CD&I) job, my immediate boss my first year at TECOM, and he thought the idea had merit. And then when he became Commandant, we sent it up to him after a brief review process, and he signed it.
So you had a little bit of inspiration from FMFM 1?
Yes, absolutely, because you have to understand how to take intelligent initiative. You have to understand what intent is and then be able to have the mental agility to adjust as things change around you. All of that requires continuous learning. If you decide that you don’t need to learn anymore and that you left all of that behind when you left school, you end up with people who might take the initiative—but there’s a good chance it is the wrong initiative.
MCDP 7 refers to learning organizations and learning cultures. How do these organizational elements interact with individual-level learning, and how can we cultivate them more effectively?
We have to set the foundation for the expectation that when you join the profession, continuous learning and continuing professional development during the career—ideally, through life—is absolutely required. And if that is too much work for you, then you need to find employment elsewhere. Because the way I look at it is, if we are not studying our profession, if we don’t keep up with it, it is like a doctor or a lawyer who stops studying. Who wants to go to them?
We are in the most intellectually and physically demanding profession on the face of the earth, and the price of getting it wrong is that the people we are in command of end up dying.
We shouldn’t have to figure it out by filling body bags. But we do, too often. I saw it in Iraq, I saw it in Afghanistan. And that is not right.
There should be the understanding that learning is something you need to get after as a professional. But if you don’t because you are young, and you just haven’t figured that part out yet—whoever is in charge of you should tell you, “You better get after it! Here are some ways to do it, and let me help you with it. Here are some things to read, we are going to talk about them. I will help coach you and move you along.” That is the kind of thing that has to happen in a good profession and in a good unit.
How do active learning approaches benefit leadership development?
Part of it is taking responsibility instead of needing others to push you through things. One of the active learning experiments we did was out at the Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School (MCCES) out at Twentynine Palms. One of the questions I asked when I first took over was, instead of Marines having to wait around to join a course, can’t we hand them a syllabus as soon as they show up, preferably on some electronic device? They start to read through the syllabus at their own pace. If there is a lab requirement, it is hands on, it is available to them 24/7. The instructors are there to coach, teach, mentor, and help them through the process, and they work through it with their peers—but they work at their own pace. And when they have demonstrated the necessary level of competence, they move on, cutting down on time waiting around.
In the experiments we did, the Marines loved it. We experimented at Marine Corps Intelligence Schools, and the Marines loved it. There were a couple of other places where we experimented. We need to be able to take advantage of the fact that the young Marines are smart, great with technology, and can learn at their own pace. It also is then about building trust by giving Marines control over their learning. Let them show initiative as well.
In both MCDP 7 and your “PME on PME” lecture, you talk about the importance of critical thinking, judgment, and decision-making. What other important post-industrial age skills and attitudes do you find important, and how can we improve at cultivating them in our PME institutions?
The understanding that comes from continuous learning—being better educated, being more openminded, being more mentally agile—makes Marines more capable. Some people have advocated that the kinds of skills that special operations forces (SOF) have are needed—the maturity, the knowledge, the skills. I’m not advocating that we need to be SOF, but we certainly need to be more SOF-like. We have to get our Marines more mature, better focused. In today’s operating environment, people have to be able to think, take the initiative, have good judgment, and understand what is going on around them.
Thinking about the differences between rote memorization and critical thinking, what shifts have to occur to transition from teaching warfighters what to do and what to think to how to think critically and independently?8
Part of it is getting out of the bureaucratic process we have established and that has been ground into everybody, probably since the mid-1960s. TECOM is part of the problem because we inspect that process, the industrial age process, which tells people what to think, which encourages them to sit down and wait to be told what to do.
So, shifting out of that—one part of that was sending a letter to the commanders of all the schools in TECOM saying, “Now you have the authority to experiment. Tell me what you want to do. And that is what we will hold you to, and no longer the part of the inspection process that does not apply.” But we need to figure out how to do that in the most effective manner—not necessarily in the most efficient manner. Efficiency is good, but it is less important than effectiveness in my mind.
How do you shift, and how will it look after? I don’t have the answer right now, but we need to at least start moving, and that is what we are doing. We have started, but we need to expand. Every Marine knows he or she may get called to go into combat or to support it. They need to be able to show initiative and figure out what to do, not wait around to be told.
You mention the importance of experimentation, active learning, and critical thinking. What are some of the critical barriers to cultivating and implementing them in our organizations?
For sure, bureaucracy and the inspection process—the formal school’s inspection process, which holds people in a straitjacket. And what I experienced was, some colonels, as soon as you gave them an inch, and the ability to experiment, they took it and ran like you would expect a good colonel to do. Others were very hesitant, didn’t know what to do, and said, “No, we are just going to continue doing what we are doing.” And that was tremendously frustrating. You have been given guidance. Here is the intent. You have top cover—get after it. You have the ability to take some risk, especially in a training environment where the risk you are taking is being more effective and making sure Marines understand.
One of the buzzwords I had was we have to get away from focusing on process, and we have to focus on product. What do the Marines understand and retain once they move out to the operating forces? That is what is most important. Everything we do should focus more on that: helping them understand more, retain better, think better—not the process of just moving things through and making sure you have all the “i’s” dotted and all the “t’s” crossed. That, to me, is our biggest obstacle: our own processes and bureaucracies and being so focused on process.
Major General Mullen was commissioned in 1986 and served 34 years as an infantry officer, serving in the operating forces with 1/3, 2/6, and RCT 8. He participated in Operation SEA SIGNAL dealing with Haitian and Cuban migrants, Contingency Operations in the former Yugoslavia, several counter-narcotics operations, as well as three combat tours in Iraq. Supporting establishment tours included the FAST Company, Pacific; Inspector-Instructor, F Company 2/24; Marine Aide to the President; the Joint Staff; and, CO, MCTOG. As a general officer he served as President, Marine Corps University; Director, Capability Development Directorate; Target Engagement Authority for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE; CG, MCAGCC; and ended his service as CG, Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM). Major General Mullen retired on Oct 1, 2020 and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado. He also recently started as Professor of Practice at the Naval Postgraduate School (Graduate School of Defense Management). He co-authored the book Fallujah Redux which was published in 2014.
Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of NWSI and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.
Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is an intelligence officer currently serving at Headquarters Marine Corps Intelligence Division. He has previously deployed in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM-PHILIPPINES, and INHERENT RESOLVE.
Major Kevin C. Druffel-Rodriguez is an active duty Marine Corps combat engineer officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.
 Mortimer J. Adler, “Invitation to the Pain of Learning,” Journal of Educational Sociology 14, no. 6 (Feb. 1941): 358-363.
 Epstein notes the importance of intellectual range and agility in David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019).
 William F. Mullen, III, “Advanced Reading Skills: Techniques to Getting Started,” Marine Corps GazetteBlog (Apr. 2019): B1-B5.
 William F. Mullen III, “A Warrior’s Mind: How to Better Understand the ‘Art’ of War,” Marine Corps Gazette 103, no. 6 (June 2019): 6-7.
 For a more detailed discussion, see William F. Mullen, III, “Reinvigorating Maneuver Warfare: Our Priorities for Manning, Training, Equipping, and Educating Should Be on Our Close Combat Units,” Marine Corps Gazette 104, no. 7 (July 2020): 62-66.
Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (Jan. 10, 2020) – Marines and Sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force secure a simulated casualty during Visit, Board, Search and Seizure training. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Isaac Cantrell)
“[We must] embrace the urgency of the moment: our maritime supremacy is being challenged.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021
The fundamental character of war is changing.1 Distributed networks, next generation threats, and artificial intelligence will change “the face of conflict” by compressing and accelerating the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop, streamlining the closure of kill chains.2 American security depends on the Navy’s ability to control the seas and project power ashore.3 Preparing future naval officers for 21st century warfare must begin at the US Naval Academy (USNA), where Virtual Training Environments (VTEs) could provide education and training opportunities once exclusive to the Fleet.4
21st century warfare requires data producers and smart data consumers. Although the Department of Defense recognizes the need for an “AI ready force,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that professional military education “has stagnated at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”5 To address this charge, the Navy’s 2020 Education for Seapower Strategy calls for the creation of a “continuum of learning” through the Naval University System.6 While the Naval Postgraduate School conducts innovative technical research—and the Naval War College endows senior leaders with a strategic outlook on the future of warfare—the US Naval Academy does not feature AI, unmanned systems, tactics, or strategy in its core curriculum.7
New technology often means new qualification requirements for junior officers. Added training extends the length of time before an officer is ready to deploy, a worrying trend at which Type Commanders are taking aim (see Figure 1).9 VTEs could offer Midshipmen exposure to the naval applications of disruptive technologies, the chance to accomplish existing Fleet training prior to commissioning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ Machine Learning (ML) tools that they could take to the Fleet. To realize these objectives, the Naval Academy must leverage three types of VTEs—low-cost, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), and Fleet-integrated—to expand training opportunities and reinforce its core curriculum.
E-learning in the COVID-19 era provides the Naval Academy a chance to update its operating system (OS). Instead of using new media, such as Zoom, to present the same PowerPoints Midshipmen would receive in-person, USNA should update its curriculum to take advantage of VTEs with proven training and educational outcomes. Incorporating new media into existing curricula requires an OS update that expands USNA’s “leadership laboratory” into a 21st century warfare laboratory, where smart data producers and consumers are forged.10
Integrating Low-Cost Virtual Training Environments (VTEs)
“To maintain naval power in an era of great power competition and technological change, the Navy and Marine Corps need to strengthen and expand their educational efforts.”—Education for Seapower Strategy 2020
The Navy and Marine Corps increasingly rely on VTEs to “expand watch team proficiency and combat readiness” across the Fleet.11 Unlike traditional simulators, virtual reality trainers are highly mobile and often rely on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The Chief of Naval Air Training’s Project Avenger simulator, for example, uses gaming computers and virtual reality headsets to qualify students for solo flights in half of the traditional number of flight hours.12 The Marine Corps’ tactical decision kits use similar technology to train infantry battalions on weapon systems and tactics.13 Mixed reality glasses, which overlay a user’s vision with digital information, help crews across the Fleet complete complex maintenance.14
Expanding access to existing virtual reality trainers at the Naval Academy could enable Midshipmen to complete portions of Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation (NIFE), The Basic School (TBS), and Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) syllabi prior to commissioning. “Future multi-domain combat will be so complex and long-ranged that the military will rely heavily on simulations to train for it.”15 More access to VTE trainers means more familiarization with the technology and interfaces that junior officers are increasingly likely to encounter in the Fleet.
Accessing the Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE)
“Winning in contested seas also means fielding and equipping teams that are masters of all-domain fleet operations.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021
VTEs allow users to conceptualize next generation threats. While the Naval Academy provides Midshipmen the technical foundation to understand Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubbles and contested communications zones, it offers few means for Midshipmen to visualize these abstract threats in an operational context.17 NAVAIR’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) and INDOPACCOM’s Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability simulate next generation threats for operations analysis and platform research design testing and evaluation (RDT&E).18 The Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE) enables cross-platform integration of these platforms, and many more, which allows warfighters around the world to take part in scalable multi-domain battle problems.19
To meet the Fleet’s growing need for diversified data, the Navy should leverage the informed and available, yet inexperienced, potential of the Academy’s more than 4,000 Midshipmen. Providing the Naval Academy with NCTE access could generate data for the Fleet and the operational context of classroom lessons for Midshipmen. Data is the new oil; improving predictive AI/ML models, concepts of operation, and training interfaces requires mass amounts of quality data from a range of problem-solving approaches.21 Installing an NCTE node in Hopper Hall’s new Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) would not only allow Midshipmen to observe Fleet training events but also to perform their own operations analysis on platforms, capabilities, and strategies developed during their capstone research.22
Leveraging Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) VTEs
“Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have increased the importance of achieving decision superiority in combat.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021
For the cost of a video game, the Naval Academy could use the same software as defense industry leaders to improve the decision-making ability of Midshipmen, reinforce classroom concepts, and introduce next generation threats and platforms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) uses popular videogames like Command: Modern Operations ($79.99 on Steam) to search for “asymmetrical conditions” within “hyper-realistic theater-wide combat simulators” that could be exploited in real-world scenarios.23 Many titles offer open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow users to change the decision-making logic of AI opponents and load custom platforms and capabilities into the game, such as squadrons of future unmanned systems.24 Modern concepts of operation—like Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and Joint All-Domain Command Control—often undergo “virtual sea trials” in such simulations.25
The user-friendly, scalable, and unclassified nature of wargame simulators like Command: Modern Operations make them suitable for inter-academy use. Allies such as the United Kingdom already use commercial titles to host “Fight Clubs” among military and civilian personnel across all roles and ranks of their armed forces.26 By leveraging its cadre of foreign exchange officers and multilateral relationships, the Naval Academy could form an international “fight club” in the style of the growing “e-sports” industry. Competing with and against international Midshipmen and officers would allow Naval Academy Midshipmen to forge relationships with allies and learn from their approaches to tactics, strategies, and decision-making across a variety of simulated scenarios.
“Adopting AI capabilities at speed and scale is essential to maintain military advantage.”—2020 Department of Defense AI Education Strategy
Virtual machines provide users with access to advanced AI and ML tools, as well as the computing power necessary to use them at scale, anywhere there is an internet connection.27 Maintaining the Navy’s military advantage requires an “AI ready force” of smart data producers and consumers.28 Applying AI to operations and processes across the Fleet will likely make open-source ML software the Excel of the future, requiring both smart data producers and consumers. Not every officer is an Excel “wizard,” but most understand how it works, the problems it can solve, and the type of data it needs to function. In order to build an “AI ready force” across all roles and ranks, the Naval Academy should join the growing field of leading research universities incorporating introductory AI and ML courses in their core curricula.29
Just as seamanship and navigation are the cornerstone of maritime competence, AI-literacy will be the core of digital competence. Incorporating AI and ML into the Naval Academy’s core curriculum would create smart data producers and consumers, accelerating the Fleet’s exposure to AI through the bottom up approach envisioned in the Department of Defense AI Education Strategy.30 According to a 2019 study by IBM, “model interoperability,” understanding how a model arrives at a given decision is the single factor that most influences users’ trust in AI.31 Naval Academy graduates literate in AI and ML could better lead enlisted sailors as increasingly complex systems join the Fleet.
Towards a 21st Century Warfare Laboratory
“Transforming our learning model for the 21st century will enable us to adapt and achieve decisive advantage in complex, rapidly changing operating environments.” —2020 Triservice Maritime Strategy 32
The Naval Academy must return to the warfighting mentality of its past.33 In 2007, the Naval Academy not only removed its only tactics and strategy course from the Midshipmen core curriculum, it stopped offering it altogether.34 Until recently, this decision signaled the end of a rich history of wargaming at USNA, which included Academy-wide games held at varying levels of classification.35 VTEs offer the Naval Academy an opportunity to reprioritize warfighting by providing the “ready, relevant learning” future naval officers will need to conduct 21st century warfare.36
New concepts of operation require learning and experimentation that 21st century warfare-literate junior officers could accelerate. The Navy and Marine Corps continue to outline ambitious plans that leverage AI, unmanned platforms, and next generation networks in new concepts of operation. Consequently, the Navy aims to equip sailors with “a high degree of confidence and skill operating alongside” unmanned platforms and AI by “the end of this decade.”37 Creating a true “learning continuum” to prepare the Fleet for the future of warfare must start at the US Naval Academy, where the COVID-19 distance-learning environment offers an opportunity for the Naval Academy to update its operating system using VTEs.
Ensign Bunyard is a 2020 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon completing his Master’s in Information Technology Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, he will report to Pensacola for training as a student naval aviator.
Feature photo: A U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman conducts a simulated T-6B Texan II flight on a newly installed virtual reality trainer device at the U.S. Naval Academy during Aviation Selection Night at Dahlgren Hall. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Rick Healey/Released)
“If a unit is not well trained, its men know it. This fact adversely affects their confidence, especially if they anticipate there is a possibility of using that training in a critical situation. Every soldier likes to feel that he is playing on a winning team—he knows he can’t win if he isn’t well trained.” —Gen. Bruce C. Clarke, U.S. Army
It is through training—through constant realistic and repetitious training of individuals and units—that military organizations acquire the skills they need to succeed on the battlefield. Nothing peacetime leaders do is more important.
Gen. Clarke had a very clear picture of the crucial role individual and unit training played in determining the outcome of an armed conflict. The hallmark of the Marine is his superior preparedness for battle, and the proud heritage of our Corps rests on this very foundation of superior training and discipline. As the din of battle becomes more unknown to a “peacetime” generation of Marine officers, it becomes even more crucial that leaders produce realistic training evolutions that will ensure success on the battlefield and the survival of the young Marines in their charge.
Every Marine officer is by now familiar with FMFM 1, Warfighting and the move to dispel the “zero-defect” mentality from our training and daily operations. But in an increasingly competitive promotion environment, glowing after-action reports often become the ultimate objective of our training evolutions, and our tolerance for risky experimentation is dictated largely by our concern for our own career patterns. Is this an exaggerated description of our current philosophy toward unit training? Perhaps. But who among us can honestly say that our major training evolutions are not heavily influenced to ensure a “successful” outcome? If the Marine Corps is to continue to win on the modern battlefield, we must reexamine our definition of “successful” training and determine to what degree we are really preparing for war as opposed to only ensuring our next promotion. FMFM 1 has this to say about training:
“Exercises should approximate the conditions of battle as much as possible; that is, they should introduce friction in the form of uncertainty, stress, disorder and opposing wills…Dictated or canned scenarios eliminate the element of independent, opposing wills that is the essence of combat.”
While we would wholeheartedly agree with this basic tenet of preparation for war, again, who among us can say he has participated in major exercises where “success” was not artificially preordained?
On a larger scale, our major operations serve more as political vehicles than realistic simulations of conflicts we are likely to face. Year after year, we assault the same riverbed in the same locale during Exercise TEAM SPIRIT, with the ground combat element (GCE) headquarters already established ashore and dignitaries lining the beach. The Marine air-ground task force commander enjoys perfect command and control, for his communication battalion arrives 60 days beforehand to ensure it. Exercise GALLANT EAGLE kicks off in a similar manner, with I Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters comfortably nestled into Bear Mountain well before the start of “hostilities.”
On the infantry battalion level, how many times do we “lose” a Combined Arms Exercise? How many times has an infantry battalion been decisively engaged with electronic warfare assets during the crucial phases of our perennial assaults up the Delta Corridor?
While recent conflicts have proven the willingness of Third World nations (and the Soviets) to conduct chemical warfare, for how long has any Marine unit trained realistically in a simulated chemical environment? It can be argued that certain artificialities must be maintained on a large scale to provide training for subordinate leaders. Will tomorrow’s adversary, however, be so accommodating as to allow us to comfortably establish our major headquarters and perfect our command and control systems before the advent of hostilities? Will Third World nations shelve their electronic warfare assets because we have not trained in an electronic warfare environment?
Can we be sure that our real enemies in the world will not employ nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons against us, particularly when we know they have used these weapons extensively within the past decade?
While on the surface these questions may seem only rhetorical, we as leaders have failed in many ways to train and test ourselves and our Marines against some of the very obstacles we are almost certain to face. Regardless of our military occupational specialty (MOS), we can all reflect upon instances where we enjoyed artificial handicaps that ensured the right outcome for our exercises. George Allen, one of the most successful coaches in National Football League history, did not attain this distinction by constraining his defensive line during practice to ensure the success of his quarterback. Known for his grueling team training, Allen confronted his team with challenges during practice; this paid obvious dividends on the playing field. Is our training of Marines as rigorous and realistic as it could be, or do our exercises smack of “zero-defect” artificiality in the name of overall “success”? This is an important thought to consider, as our success on tomorrow’s battlefield will be measured not on a scoreboard but with the number of casualties we suffer.
Realistic training is just as vital on an individual scale as it is to the grandest of armies. The training of our Marines in individual combat skills is far superior to that received in most armies of the world, yet we must remember that the title “Marine” must be earned every day through continual training for combat. Two significant factors come into play here. First, the individual Marine must have the mental and physical toughness necessary to withstand the horrors of war. Second, the Marine must be so skilled in his MOS that his job will be second nature when it counts. FMFM 1 states that:
“any view of the nature of war would hardly be accurate or complete without consideration of the effects of danger, fear, exhaustion and privation on the men who must do the fighting…”
Although we must provide a safe training environment for our Marines, to what extent do we simulate environments of “danger, fear, exhaustion, and privation” to train in? Recent initiatives by the Commandant, such as Basic Warrior Training and the reinstitution of the School of Infantry for all new recruits, have done much to improve the training of Marines. But all too often we as leaders accept platitudes such as “You don’t have to practice being miserable” to rationalize making our training as painless as possible. But misery is guaranteed in combat, and the more a combatant is accustomed to it, the less it will affect him when his life is on the line.
Of course, training should not be sadistic, but dealing with cold, exhaustion, and adverse elements are skills just as valuable as marksmanship and MOS proficiency. While our defeat in Vietnam was largely due to political constraints, let us not forget the formidability of an enemy whose idea of rest and relaxation was a bowl of rice. Mental toughness cannot be developed in an environment of complacency, where those responsible for training are able to rationalize easing requirements. It is our mandate as leaders to give our young Marines the best chance to come home alive from combat. Coddling them with overly comfortable surroundings in training will not prepare them for the mental and physical challenges they must face.
In his classic Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi says, “It is a strength of [the warrior] to be able to fight on as usual because of day in, day out practice.” MOS proficiency, like any other learned skill, is a product of continual repetition. Yet how many times have we encountered Marines who were unable to perform rudimentary functions within their area of expertise? Is this their fault or have we failed as leaders?
It is incumbent on us to drill our Marines repeatedly; to have them perform the rudiments of their MOS again and again until all facets of their jobs become second nature. This is a lofty goal, yet one we must strive for. Going back to George Allen, his success rested on the superior training of the individual members of his team. We must all train our team of Marines with that same demand for constant drill and repetition; we pay a much heavier toll for defeat than does a football team.
To subject a unit to repetitious training under difficult conditions would do little to enhance our popularity within our own unit and would probably generate discontent within the ranks of the less disciplined. If world tensions lessen and the prospect of major conflict dims, it will become even more crucial that we as leaders prepare our Marines to fight and win under all kinds of adverse conditions.
Many nations throughout history have suffered terrible defeat because of the poor state of readiness they possessed on both the unit and individual combatant level. It may be difficult to equate the readiness of small units with the fate of a nation, but history has shown us time and again the cost of complacency. Let us not waste the lives of our Marines needlessly because of the political difficulties associated with training them for the realities they are almost certain to encounter in combat.
This article is not intended as an indictment of Marine Corps training as a whole, for our proud heritage continues whenever we are called upon. Nevertheless, we must always ask ourselves if we are really preparing Marines for the challenges they will face. Or do we become complacent, finding it easy to allow ourselves training artificialities that will make us “look good” in the eyes of our seniors? Who among us is willing to risk “failure” in a training environment full of the obstacles we are sure to face in real combat? Those of us who are willing to take that risk may not fare as well at promotion time, but we are more likely to bring our Marines home alive from the next war.
This article originally published in 1990, and won the 1990 CG MCCDC Leadership Writing Award under the title “To Keep Our Powder Dry.”
Captain Bradley recently completed the Command and Control Systems Course, MCCDC and is currently stationed with 2d MAW Cherry Point.
Featured Image: Students of Martial Arts Instructor Course 2-14 grapple against each other during their final exercise on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., April 17, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ali Azimi/Released)