Marine Times website has an article about Marine wargames (1) that contains an interesting bit about the lack of realism in training – a ComNavOps pet peeve. The article describes a weeklong exercise involving 5000 members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB). The article states,
“While the Large Scale Exercise only includes about a fifth of the approximate 20,000 Marines that typically make up a MEB, some of the missing forces will be provided via simulators. Luccio [ed: Lt.Col. Doug Luccio, G-3, 1st MEB] said training a full MEB would’ve been too expensive, but the comination of real and simulated training will make a thoroughly lifelike exercise.
‘As far as we’re concerned, from where we sit, it’s all the same, ‘ he said.”
No it’s not! Not by a long shot. What’s going to happen when we actually have to move and fight as an entire MEB and no one has actually practiced it before? That’s what actual, physical practice is for: to uncover all the myriad problems that simulations and paper studies don’t reveal. Simulating the unloading of a Maritime Pre-positioning Ship doesn’t reveal all the problems that the real exercise encounters. Simulating the exterior sling load movement of cargo or vehicles doesn’t show you that you’ve got the wrong slings and that the new guys don’t know where the hook points are. Simulating landing on the carrier doesn’t teach you to deal with the heart-pounding stress of the real event. Simulating a parachute drop doesn’t teach the paratroopers a thing.
In its quest for dollar savings, the military has all but abandoned large unit exercises. Now I know that we can’t afford to have every exercise be a division or corps level exercise but neither can we afford to never exercise large units. When major war comes we aren’t going to commit a thousand troops and simulate the remaining fifty thousand; we’ll commit them all and if they haven’t physically trained as a large unit they’ll encounter all the problems that have been hidden by simulations.
? Despite extensive training, when we actually went into the field we found out that we were unprepared. Thankfully, the scope and quality of the opposition was limited! Grenada
If we don’t exercise the movement, tactics, and logistics of operating and supporting large scale tank units I guarantee it will go badly when the time comes.
If we don’t actually practice moving 20,000 troops and all their equipment from ships to the beach I guarantee it will not go well when it needs to happen.
Here’s an example from ComNavOps industrial experience. A large industrial chemical manufacturing and research site I worked at had a site evacuation plan in the event of a large scale toxic chemical spill. It was carefully planned, documented, and practiced regularly in all respects except for the actual evacuation which was simulated. Site leadership was quite happy and the relevant government agencies were satisfied. Well, sure enough, an actual spill eventually occurred and the plan was implemented for real. Guess what happened? As it turned out, the site only had a single entrance/exit which was one lane for security reasons. As thousands of workers attempted to drive out of the site at the same time the single exit instantly became a massive, unpassable chokepoint made worse by the presence of an automated gate arm that would only allow a single car to exit at a time and had an extended cycle time. What was planned to be a twenty minute evacuation became a nightmare that completely failed. Panicked drivers, realizing they couldn’t get out, left their cars and evacuated on foot. The abandoned cars formed a blockade and prevented the fire department and HazMat teams from entering the site. They had to knock down fences to provide emergency access. As it turned out, the site’s local emergency responders were able to contain the spill without outside assistance so no harm occurred. The actual, physical evacuation had never been practiced because it was felt that it would be too disruptive to the normal workings of the site and site management did not want to foot the bill for the lost time.
Well, yeah, it’s a shame we can’t exercise complete, large units but the cost is prohibitive, right? Wrong! All we have to do is sacrifice a couple of JSFs, for example, and we can fund all the training we want. Or, how about a couple of useless LCSs? It’s just a matter of priorities and the military would rather have shiny new toys than trained personnel. That’s about as backward thinking as you can get.
While this particular example involves the Marines, that’s not the point. This criticism applies equally to all branches of the military.
(1) Marine Times, “War Games at 29 Palms Echo Real World Conflicts, Joshua Stewart,