MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — Capt. Brian Chontosh was pushing to Baghdad with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, on March 25, 2003, when enemy forces ambushed the weapons company he was leading. After his driver purposefully crashed their Humvee into an enemy position, Chontosh dismounted and began fighting his way down a trench. His M16 ran dry so he picked up enemy AK-47s and broke the ambush by killing at least 20 Iraqi soldiers.
He received the Navy Cross for his actions that day.
To help ensure Marines know how to operate foreign weapons in dire situations, like the one Chontosh found himself in, the Marine Corps created the Foreign Weapons Instructor Course at Weapons and Training Battalion here in 2007. The course expanded Marines’ training beyond the simple ability to identify foreign weapons and gave them a much deeper understanding of the ballistic capabilities, safe handling, proper maintenance and effective employment of some of the world’s most pervasive weapons.
Today, the course provides essential knowledge not only for Marines on the battlefield but also those taking on an advisory role in Afghanistan, training allied forces in Africa, Asia or Latin America, or simply those who want to understand foreign weapons. The overall objective of the 10-day course held 11 times each year is to certify Marines as instructors so they can return to the fleet and share their knowledge with others.
Marines, lance corporal or above, with more than a year left on their contract after they graduate, are encouraged to apply for the course. They must have a rifle qualification of sharpshooter or better and complete both the Basic Instructor Skill Course and the Foreign Weapons Safety Course, both available online. Most often, the students come from the infantry, engineer and explosive ordnance disposal communities, since they are the Marines most likely to come in close contact with a variety of foreign weapons, but that is not a requirement. Employees of federal law enforcement agencies also attend the course on occasion.
“Outside of the M16 and the M9, most of the Marine Corps doesn’t know other weapons systems,” said Sgt. Will Hiett a master instructor at FWIC. “They don’t even really know where the fire selector or the triggers are.”
About 30 students who began the latest iteration of the FWIC course Aug. 19 are getting a crash course from Hiett and a handful of other instructors on nine weapons: the AK-47 and its variants, the FN FAL rifle, the Heckler and Koch G3 rifle, the RPK light machine gun, the Dragunov Sniper Rifle, the PKM medium machine gun, the RPD light machine gun, an 82mm Chinese mortar system and the DShK heavy machine gun.
That covers weapons Marines are likely to encounter around the world, but the heavy emphasis, for now, continues to be on Soviet weapons Marines have encountered in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
As combat operations in Afghanistan wind down, however, and the service looks to refocus on the Asia Pacific region, the course could be due for an overhaul.
Many of the more prolific weapons, like the AK-47, would be found in Asian countries, too. But Marines operating there may also encounter unfamiliar North Korean or Chinese arms like the Type 69 75mm Airburst Anti-Personnel High-Explosive rocket-propelled grenade, which impacts the ground before bouncing to about chest height and detonating. Hiett and the other instructors at FWIC are anticipating the possible shift by laying the groundwork for classes that, if needed, could be added to the courses syllabus.
Making sure that graduating students spread their knowledge as widely as possible is important to FWIC’s staff, whether it is to help those like Chontosh who pick up enemy weapons on the battlefield or prepare Marines going downrange to advise or train friendly forces.
Hiett said that before he deployed in 2008 as a member of an embedded training team in Regional Command East, Afghanistan, a contractor was hired to brief the team on the foreign weapons they might encounter. But the cursory training class only taught them to identify weapons. There was no hands-on time, he said. Instructors even glossed over the ubiquitous AK-47.
“This is an AK-47. There are many like it. This one is not yours. Don’t touch it,” Hiett said the contractor told them.
He could have been a much more effective trainer if he had arrived in country knowing the weapons systems the Afghan National Army was using, rather than having to learn about them on the fly, Hiett said. He had his ANA soldiers hitting targets at 300 meters by the time he left but thinks they could have done better if he had more preparatory training with the rifle.
There is also an important safety component for Marines seizing enemy weapons caches, Hiett said. During one classroom presentation here, he recounted an occasion in Fallujah, Iraq, when Marines seized weapons that included a PKM machine gun. Marines opened the feed tray and removed the belt, thinking they had cleared the weapon. But because they did not have a thorough understanding of the PKM, they didn’t realize a loose round was still on the feed tray, he said. One grunt threw the weapon in the back of their Humvee and it discharged, striking another Marine in the leg. He had to be evacuated from the battlefield.
Unfamiliarity also meant Marines were less likely to spot booby trapped rifles. In Fallujah, insurgents would pack AK-47s with explosives and leave them behind, Hiett said. Marines would strip the magazine and rack the bolt to clear the chamber. When they sent the bolt home, it would strike a blasting cap, turning the rifle into a large grenade that would kill anyone within five meters and potentially wound others.
By the time he and his fellow instructors finish teaching the students in the class, they will have an intimate understanding of the nine weapons systems, their capabilities and their advantages and disadvantages. That could give them a tactical edge on the battlefield.
Understanding the ballistic capabilities of these weapons also means Marines can better assess the threat they pose if the Marines later come under fire from one of them, said one of the students, Staff Sgt. Alex Reyes, an infantry unit leader assigned to Officer Candidates School here.
Reyes, who has deployed to Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was familiar with the AK-47, RPK and PKM, but all the other weapons were new to him and most of the other students. He said the course gives him more confidence to train foreign troops and engage enemy forces more effectively.
This iteration of the Foreign Weapons Instructor Course culminates with a competition in which Marines are required to shoot the various weapons under simulated combat stress. That includes such tasks as moving to fire as an RPG team and reassembling a DShK machine gun as quickly as possible. The winning team is rewarded with trigger time on a .45-caliber Thompson machine gun at the course’s end on Aug. 30.
And for a sharpshooting Marine, it doesn’t get much better than that.