The Marine Corps is known as the “shoestring service” because of its ability to do a lot with a little. And now the organization is using virtual learning to help Marines figure out how to operate and repair weapons and save money while doing it.
Situation: Weapon jam jeopardizes the safety of a U.S. Marine in combat.
Solution: Quickly troubleshoot the problem using knowledge of the internal operation of the weapon obtained from a virtual 3-D weapon trainer.
The U.S. Marine Corps Detachment, located at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, provides training to Marines and related personnel on small weapons. With large numbers of Marines being deployed to Iraq, training on weapons has taken on increased importance. In addition to marksmanship training, Marines require development on preventative maintenance skills to ensure their weapons are in proper working condition at all times. To ensure their safety while on a mission, they also need to understand the internal operation of the weapon in order to troubleshoot it in case it jams in battle.
When learning how to repair equipment, nothing beats observing how the real thing works. But being able to see the internal operations of complex machinery is easier said than done. This was the challenge encountered by the Aberdeen Detachment, which was using a real mortar system to train entry-level students taking an introductory mortar weapon system repair course. Because students could not see the interaction between internal parts of the mortar, they often were destroying the threads on the firing mechanism when inserting them into the sear housing. This was leading to increased training time and costs.
To address this challenge, the U.S. Marine Corps Training and Education Command chose to enhance the existing learning environment with a virtual 3-D training aid that enables students to familiarize themselves with assembly procedures before working with the actual mortar. Through the use of simulation-based training, the Marines are better prepared to operate and maintain their weapons, which directly improves their safety during missions.
Costly Learning Curve
At the Aberdeen Detachment, the instructional process included the use of technical manuals, Microsoft PowerPoint slides with 2-D graphics and pictures and instructor-led demonstrations using the equipment to demonstrate the operations and maintenance of the weapons. While these training materials offered much-needed hands-on learning opportunities, they also presented the instructors with various challenges and limitations, including:
• The use of the actual physical weapons made it difficult to show the internal components of a weapon.
• The availability of some weapon types was limited, as combat units receive preference over training units for delivery of scarce equipment.
• The training was targeted at new soldiers with no prior knowledge or experience with the weapons, resulting in instructors spending the majority of their classroom time on basic concepts.
• The available training material was not suitable for self-study or distribution to remote locations as part of a distance learning program.
These challenges were exacerbated by the increased pace of military operations and ever-shrinking training budgets. For example, the mortar repair course requires specialized training on inserting the firing mechanism into the sear housing. When performed incorrectly, the threads on the firing mechanism are damaged. Because students had a difficult time visualizing the internal components and the interactions between parts, the Marines were spending an average of $23,000 per year just to replace the damaged barrel nuts. The limitation of using only a physical training device resulted in increased cost and poor student proficiency levels on procedures.
Filling Skills Gaps With Equipment Simulations
The Aberdeen Detachment investigated ways to improve the instructional process and training materials for weaponry familiarization. The Marines believed the use of simulated 3-D virtual weapons could fill critical training gaps by complementing the use of technical manuals, PowerPoint slides and instructor-led demonstrations. Virtual weapon trainers would allow all Marines to become familiar with all the weapons prior to their deployment. They also could improve understanding of the internal operation and parts of the weapons even if physical versions weren’t available.
Virtual trainers, software-based replications of equipment operation and maintenance procedures can be created using 2-D technologies such as graphics, pictures, Flash and videos. However, training organizations are turning to more realistic and more intuitive 3-D models of virtual equipment that let students view all components in an immersive environment. It provides views of internal structure and operations and allows students to explore every part from all angles, cutting cross-sections to better understand the relationships between each part.
In addition, virtual trainers provide students with access to training anytime, anywhere. Students can watch and review procedural animations and practice procedures and receive instant feedback and remediation when they make mistakes. This learn-by-doing method is markedly different from training using physical equipment, in which students have restricted hands-on time with the equipment due to cost and limited availability of gear.
Virtual trainers offer a number of benefits for equipment training by:
• Allowing training to take place even if equipment is not available.
• Letting students learn from their mistakes safely.
• Reducing wear and tear on equipment used for training.
• Enabling more training to be delivered outside the classrooms through distributed learning.
• Providing students with unlimited hands-on practice.
Historically, simulations that use realistic 3-D computer graphics have only been used on expensive, high-end solutions such as flight simulators. These solutions typically required many years for development, and could only be deployed on high-end computer platforms. Because of their complexity, they could only be updated by programmers, reducing the direct role of instructional designers and subject matter experts in the training content development cycle.
However, recent technological developments have eliminated most of these historical disadvantages, allowing for programs such as the mortar repair virtual training course. Simulations development now is more affordable; can be deployed on standard PCs, laptops and even PDA devices; and simulation content can be created by subject-matter experts. In many cases, this has made 3-D virtual trainers more economical than purchasing the equipment for training purposes.
Putting Training to the Test
To demonstrate the benefits of a 3-D virtual weapon trainer, the U.S. Marine Corps Training and Education Command approved the development of this modality for the M224 mortar as a pilot project. It would be used in the 2111 Small Arms Repair course, designed to teach maintenance procedures, disassembly/assembly and operation of mortar weapon systems.
The virtual trainer enhanced the learning environment by:
• Reducing training costs by providing students with the ability to train using simulations, which improved their skills before working with the live weapon. This also reduced wear and tear on the real equipment, saving maintenance hours on fixing equipment due to improper disassembly and reassembly and also decreasing the cost of replacement parts.
• Improving time to proficiency. By providing students with a visual perspective on the internals, they were able to comprehend procedures more quickly and spend more time practicing procedures rather than studying theory.
Master Sgt. Mike Ryan, U.S. Marine Corps Aberdeen Detachment, said, “The key value that the 3-D simulation has brought is the ability to effectively train personnel on how the parts interact with each other. By providing this training capability, not only will replacement costs be reduced, but the number of inoperable units will decrease, and operational readiness will increase.”
Making the Grade
Based on the success of the M224 pilot project, the U.S. Marines, working jointly with the U.S. Army National Guard, commissioned the development of virtual weapon trainers for eight additional weapons, including the M240 machine gun, M203 grenade launcher and M590 shotgun. With each weapon virtual trainer, Marines are able to familiarize with parts and assemblies and learn field-strip and reassembly procedures, as well as the cycle of operations for each weapon.
The weapon virtual trainers are deployed in training classrooms at the U.S. Army Ordnance Mechanical Maintenance School at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. They also are available on the Army’s e-learning portal that consists of online courses, online forums and a digital library that stores simulations and other materials. Developed with distributed learning in mind, the interactive virtual trainers can be used by Marines on their home computers for preliminary familiarization prior to coming to Aberdeen and refresher training once they are deployed.
Thanks to the success of the pilot program, personnel at the Marine Corps are experiencing a number of training benefits. New recruits can familiarize themselves with overall equipment construction, as well as the correlation and interaction of internal components by exploring realistic 3-D models. In addition, Marines are enhancing their skills by watching 3-D procedural animations of field-strip and reassembly work instructions, as well as cycle of operations for each weapon, giving them the skills they need to effectively deal with maintenance issues when they are in harm’s way.
Once only available for use in training for the most complex equipment, the use of interactive 3-D virtual training is now a reality for a number of training organizations. No longer hampered by traditional methods, organizations are transforming the training process through blended learning, which integrates 3-D simulations with traditional training methods such as technical manuals and physical equipment. This allows trainees to grasp more complex concepts in a shorter period of time, leading to lower training costs and better test scores.