The Marine Corps recently published an update to its water escape training policy aimed at closing loopholes that had left too many Marines unprepared for a water emergency.
And they’re asking to spend more than $13 million on new trainers to help them keep up with the increased volume.
A Marine Corps bulletin released in March provides an interim update to the Corps’ service-level underwater egress training policy. It comes ahead of a broader overhaul to the Marine Corps’ Water Survival Training Program, expected within a year.
The document states that Lt. Gen Kevin Iiams, commanding general of Marine Corps Training and Education Command, assembled an operational planning team in fall 2021 to discuss possible changes to the water survival and underwater egress training requirements.
“Early in the problem-framing effort, the (planning team) determined that there was a lack of clear, service-level guidance regarding (underwater egress training) standards,” the bulletin continues.
The primary change in the document is to ensure that exceptions to the egress training requirement for Marines and sailors participating in helicopter or MV-22 Osprey flights over water, or waterborne amphibious vehicle operations, are exceedingly rare and difficult to obtain, which has not always been the case in the past.
The new bulletin supersedes a 2018 underwater egress training update that created more rigorous requirements in the wake of a fatal Osprey crash, but left room for frequent waivers. It also only required egress training for troops with jobs related to amphibious vehicle and aircraft ops, not for passengers.
“Waivers should be used sparingly and only after all other options to qualify service members have been exhausted,” the new bulletin states.
The new guidance comes the same month the Defense Department released its fiscal 2024 budget request. In an accompanying justification document, the Marine Corps said it planned to allot $13.88 million “to replace Underwater Egress Training equipment that is obsolete.”
“The (underwater egress training) currently replicate vehicles that are no longer in service in the USMC and must be redesigned to replicate vehicles that are currently in use,” the document states. “The recent loss of life in Amphibious Assault Vehicles, coupled with the introduction of the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle has created a new enterprise level priority for Underwater Egress Training. The intent of this training is to improve the likelihood of survivability in a catastrophic, waterborne event.”
Per the new guidance, underwater egress training for troops who require it must now be completed before they begin any training event involving amphibious vehicles or shipping, according to the document. Marines and sailors must also get underwater egress training-qualified before deploying as part of the unit deployment program to Japan or becoming part of a shipboard Marine expeditionary unit.
The training is intensive: It includes eight hours of classroom instruction and practical application; pool drills and familiarization with a breathing regulator; and mastery of fundamentals in the Shallow Water Egress Trainer or Modular Amphibious Egress Trainer, both designed to simulate the chaos and disorientation of escaping from a vehicle or helicopter that’s taking on water. Once complete, the qualification is good for four years.
In addition to these required evolutions, the Corps is emphasizing real-world practice and refresh sessions.
“Frequent rehearsals must be conducted whenever practicable on actual amphibious vehicles and aircraft,” the bulletin states. “UET success—and increased probability of surviving a mishap—is achieved through rigorous integrated rehearsals in the (Fleet Marine Force).”
To begin underwater egress training, Marines have to have a current water survival training program qualification, or swim qual.
Waivers will be extremely difficult to come by. Commanders at the O-6 level can push back underwater egress training qualification if deployment schedules change, but must notify the first general officer in their chain of command. Only a general officer can waive underwater egress training requirements entirely for individual troops or units.
“Unit waivers apply to every member of the unit and are only appropriate when unforeseeable circumstances force a unit to conduct amphibious operations … on short notice,” the bulletin states.
Troops who refuse underwater egress training and thus “cannot adequately discharge their assigned duties” may face “the full range of administrative actions available,” according to the document.
Egress training, as has been the case in the past, will take place at the major Marine Corps bases: Camp Pendleton, California; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Marine Corps Base Hawaii; and Camp Butler, Okinawa, Japan. If there are not enough training seats to meet the operational units’ requirements, commanders need to communicate that to Training and Education Command, the document states.
That’s a point of concern for Walt Yates, a retired Marine colonel who was the Marines’ acquisition program manager for training systems before his retirement in 2018.
Yates told Marine Corps Times he was happy to see the release of the bulletin, with its emphasis on consistent egress training for all Marines.
In April 2021, half a year before Iiams assembled his operational planning team, Yates wrote for Task & Purpose that the July 2020 amphibious assault vehicle sinking disaster that left nine troops dead represented a failure of training. Only two of the 13 passengers onboard the mishap amphibious assault vehicle, he noted, had completed underwater egress training, and even they had only trained in the shallow-water “dunker chair.”
In February 2022, the Marines published a policy update requiring more troops to conduct the deep-water egress training as well as the shallow.
Based on his experiences, Yates says he suspects the four training locations won’t be able to meet the demand for qualifications operating a standard eight hours per day during the week.
“If you don’t have enough contractor hours of labor and maintenance to keep [the trainers] operating, that’s an easily solved problem,” he said, adding he estimated it would cost about $1.5 million to increase hours and staffing for the trainers. But, he said, it’s not clear yet how the Marines plan to resource the work and facility maintenance hours required to handle the increased volume.
“That’s the only weakness I see in the plan is, you haven’t said anything about what your budget is going to look like,” Yates said. “Are you going to keep underfunding this year after year based on what the program office cost estimate is?”
While Yates’ concerns are merely based on informed speculation, Training and Education Command officials did not respond to questions about the new training and associated costs.
The egress training update follows an announcement in the Marines’ Training and Education 2030 planning document, released in January, that “All Marines should expect the standards to be elevated and require additional training in the water.”
Water training has long been a sticking point for the Marine Corps: an exclusive Marine Corps Times report from October 2022 revealed major concerns at multiple levels within the force about shortfalls in the frequency and thoroughness of water survival training and a troubling lack of swimming proficiency among Marines.
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.