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By Dan Lamothe
Marine Corps Times

Posted on: Sunday, November 8, 2009

Marines to build urban training site in Islands

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines speak with Iraqi role players at one of Camp Pendleton's existing immersion training sites.

LANCE CPL. DAVID A. WEIKLE | U.S. Marine Corps

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The Marine Corps will expand its use of special effects in infantry training next year, with an expansive urban training facility anticipated in Hawaii and high-tech immersion trainers planned in North Carolina and California, Marine officials said.

The next-generation Military Operation on Urban Terrain facility planned for Marine Corps Base Hawaii is expected to cost $7.9 million. Officials say it will help Marines meet predeployment requirements while reducing the need for travel to the Mainland.

Currently, most Hawaii-based units conduct such training at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

New Infantry Immersion Trainers are planned for Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The new facilities will incorporate many of the same methods to familiarize Marines with what they'll see in war zones, including the use of foreign role players, digital holograms that resemble insurgents and special effects that simulate improvised explosive blasts and the chaos afterward.

The Corps chose to expand its immersion facilities to increase the number of Marines who receive the training. Since the existing trainer opened at Pendleton in fall 2007, about 12,400 trainees have gone through it, Marine officials said. A smaller immersion trainer overseen by the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad program based near Quantico is used to assess combat gear, but does not train large Marine units.

TASTE OF COMBAT

The "hyper-realistic" immersion trainers are important, Marine officials say, because they give Marines a chance to experience a taste of combat before they actually deploy, to test themselves while hearing different languages in tense situations and discern who is and is not the enemy.

But the Corps hasn't been able to provide this type of training to as many Marines as it would like.

"One of the things that we realized through the experience at Camp Pendleton is that the IIT that they put in the old tomato factory just had limited through-put," said retired Lt. Col. Rich Engelen, a range requirements officer with Training & Education Command, based at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. "They had an ability to host squads for training, but not in the volume that they wanted."

Construction on the facilities has yet to begin, but planning is under way for all three facilities. The completion date for the Pendleton facility is May 2010, while the Hawaii facility could open in October and the Lejeune shoothouse could open in early 2011.

The facilities will offer Marine units training options that don't exist now. At Pendleton, some units will be able to train for days, maneuvering through existing outdoor urban training facilities before sending squads of Marines through both the indoor and outdoor immersion trainers, Engelen said.

A conceptual drawing for the new Pendleton Infantry Immersion Trainer shows it could have dozens of buildings, a marketplace, cemeteries and mosques. Like existing outdoor urban training facilities, it also will have observation decks on the second floor of buildings, where the units can be observed during training.

"We're going to make a concerted attempt to make this more realistic," Engelen said. "One of the problems is that there is no solid definition of what immersion is. Everyone sort of understands that it's the temporary suspension of belief to make you believe that you're somewhere that you're not, but we want to make it as good as we can."

MORE ROLE PLAYERS

The facilities will likely incorporate even more role players who speak languages such as Pashtu, which is common in Afghanistan, Engelen said. They interact with Marines during training sessions, acting out scenarios that can range from friendly group meals to deadly ambushes.

The planned trainer in Hawaii also will break ground for the Corps. It will build on the service's Military Operation on Urban Terrain concept, but offer four separate training areas with increasing levels of complexity, Engelen said.

"There will be some very basic structures that can teach some urban skills, then, as you ramp up, the most complex area will have irregular roads and paths, agricultural areas and other structures," he said. "Conceivably, a company could come in, run distributed operations in the simple part then have an entire company take the final objective."

MOUTs already exist on bases across the Corps, including Lejeune, Pendleton and Twentynine Palms. There are no holograms at MOUTs, however, and the facilities are typically large enough to send at least a company of Marines through, rather than a squad.