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Marines use robots to assess techniques for shooting

Sep. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Robotic Targets
A Marine walks on a robotic target to gather data on best shooting practices for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va. (Colin Kelly/Staff) ()
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Sgt. Jamie Wieczorek, Warfighting Instructor Company, fires on a robotic target at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., on Wednesday. The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab is using robots to gather data on shooting at moving targets. (Colin Kelly/Staff)

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — In nearly nine years as a Marine, Sgt. Phillipi Sanz has been to predeployment training in Twentynine Palms, Calif., five times, but he has only completed range training with moving targets once that he can remember.

Now a marksmanship instructor with Weapons Training Battalion here, Sanz said his experience is typical within the service, where moving target engagement requirements are typically met by shooting at a rectangular target, moving perpendicularly to the Marine at a crawling pace.

“To be honest, I think it’s just been an oversight,” Sanz said. “We’ve been more worried about every Marine a rifleman and annual rifle quals.”

A 10-day range experiment that the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab completed last week may lead to more and better training in moving target engagement. It pitted Marine shooters against Marathon Targets — state-of-the-art robotic dummies on four-wheeled platforms, programmed to move evasively at speeds of up to eight miles per hour.

The bullet-riddled dummies, clad in T-shirts, would topple with each direct hit, and then right themselves for another round. At about $250,000 apiece, the Marine Corps owns eight of the robotic targets.

The 12 Marine shooters in the experiment were marksmanship instructors from Weapons Training Battalion and The Basic School, also here at Quantico. Over the course of the experiment, they fired more than 18,000 rounds, testing every variable that might affect a shooter’s ability to hit a realistic, moving target, said Capt. Benjamin Brewster, projects officer for the Warfighting Lab’s field testing branch.

The man-size dummies moved across three shooting lanes, sometimes wheeling behind barriers and dodging to the right or left in patterns the shooters could not predict.

The targets themselves were equipped with technology to record hits and incapacitating or kill shots, and Marines on the sidelines worked with teams from the Army Asymmetric Warfare Group and the Center for Naval Analyses to create independent records of the data.

The Marines trained on the M4 carbine and M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, the Marines’ new squad automatic weapon replacement. With the M4, they conducted engagements with the weapon set on single shot, semi-automatic and three-round burst; with the M27, they shot in the semi-automatic and fully-automatic mode.

While Marines are very adept at laying down suppressive fire, Brewster said that shooting in the various modes would highlight the best methods for firing on a moving target.

“When you’re shooting at a moving guy, is it better to shoot more rounds quickly or to be more precise with each pull of the trigger?” he said.

The shooters tested their skills at the relatively close distance of 75 meters and at 150 meters, determined to be the farthest distance at which a marksman could reliably hit a moving target. The dummies moved at a walking pace of 4 mph or an 8 mph simulated run. Prior to each engagement, the shooters were instructed to stand, kneel or lay prone.

They also switched up engagement techniques, rotating between the tracking method, in which a shooter follows the target in his front sight post; the ambush method, in which the marksman aims at a point ahead of the target and wait for the target to pass through the cross-hairs; and the swing-through method, in which the marksman begins by aiming the barrel behind the target and swings the weapon in the same direction the target is moving until the shot is acquired.

Finally, the shooters practiced shooting in full body armor and out of gear to test any difference in results.

The first discovery, Brewster said, was a surprisingly steep improvement in the Marines’ accuracy at hitting moving targets as they became familiar with the exercise.

“We’re showing marked proficiency improvements per day,” he said. “The first day out here shooting, the hit ratio was below 50 percent and it took 4.7 rounds to actually get a kill. Yesterday we were down to 2.3 rounds.”

Warfighting Lab officials hope to complete data collection and analysis within two weeks following the experiment’s completion. After that, it’s less clear how the results of the experiment might inform future training. Marine Corps Training and Education Command may use the results to augment or enhance predeployment training or marksmanship instruction; expanded use of the Marathon targets may or may not be part of the conversation.

For the shooters, the exercise demonstrated that a one-size-fits-all approach might not work for moving target engagement.

“I’m used to this one type of shooting style for moving targets,” said Cpl. Chris Savage, an instructor with The Basic School. “Different shooting styles might work for different people, and now I know this.”

Savage said the two-week experiment had given him greater confidence in his own moving target marksmanship skills as well.

Sgt. Jeremy Wellenreiter, an instructor at Weapons Training Battalion, said he could envision a realistic moving target engagement requirement as part of future predeployment training workups.

“If it’s going to help you kill the enemy before he kills you or your buddy, why not give him a leg up?” he said.

Sanz, the instructor who found his prior exposure to moving target engagement lacking,

said he was encouraged to see how well Marines picked up the new skill set.

“Marine infantrymen in general, they’re quick to grasp the concept; they just need to be afforded the time and opportunity and rounds to do it,” he said.

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