The Navy's small arms training program has undergone vast improvement over the last five years. It must now start training beyond simply avoiding safety mishaps and begin pushing toward combat effectiveness. Important steps have been taken in this direction, but if combat effective proficiency is to be reached, additional efforts are needed.
Three issues contribute to the continuing lack of small-arms proficiency in the Fleet. First is the lack of knowledge, specifically among small arms marksmanship instructors (SAMI) and commanding officers. second is the sole dependence on using outside sources to conduct smallarms training at the Armed Sentry Course (ASC) and Shipboard security Engagement Weapons (SSEW) school. Third is the antiquated content and methodology used throughout Navy training programs.
First, the issues of content and methodology: the Navy is not using effective methods to train, nor is it using combateffective techniques. For example, when I arrived at SSEW, I was informed that we would not be handling weapons during the first day of training, essentially losing 20% of our training time. Another example is the decision that sailors will not be taught "failure to stop" and "high percentage" shot placement procedures.
As an instructor, I have found quite often that the content and methodology of the training curriculum is counter-productive to safe and effective tactical weapons employment. Time and again, I have taken sailors to the range who have recently been through every Navy weapons training program available only to discover that they do not even have a consistent grip and are unable to effectively present the weapon to fire a round. After up to six weeks of dedicated weapons training, this is completely unsatisfactory and demands that training methods be improved.
The use of outside sources has, to this point, probably been the only way to provide training of any substance to the Fleet. This solution alone, however, severely limits the levels of sustainable combat effectiveness that can be achieved, specifically in the anti-terrorism/force protection (AT/FP) and maritime interception operation warfare areas. Commanding officers are ultimately responsible for the combat readiness of their commands. Weapons handling and associated tactical proficiency, however, are now beyond their control. Commanding officers have no tools to correct training deficiencies or improve the small-arms combat readiness of their command.
This lack of knowledge pervades the Fleet. Years of placing small-arms proficiency on the back burner has left the Navy without the experts necessary to fill the role of command small-arms instructors. Such an instructor must be expert in small arms function and operation, have the tactical knowledge for the combat employment of those weapons, assist in the formulation of security plans, manage and document small-arms qualification and proficiency training, and run effective weapons and tactics training tailored to the needs of his command. In a nutshell, the command small arms instructor should be the commanding officer's tool to ensure combat readiness in matters pertaining to small arms. By any standard, it is clear that the SAMIs cannot adequately fill this role.
Fixing the Problem
To correct these deficiencies two things must occur. First, training must be updated. Focus should be shifted however, from passing a qualification course (as it now exists) to teaching and evaluating specific skills. One option would be to change the qualification to a series of pass or fail standards on specific skills. This would allow instructors to focus training time more specifically on fundamentals, such as weapons presentation, reloading, and clearing malfunctions, rather than on pushing bodies through a qualification of limited value. This more focused evaluation would truly reinforce both safety and fundamentals. Standards of this nature are used by the federal air marshals, several special operations units, and many of the top shooting schools in the world.
Training focus should also shift from the limitations of the range to the reality of the operational environment. Training should emphasize muzzle and trigger finger awareness in a 360Â° dynamic environment, as well as situational awareness and combat mindset. All training today is conducted in a "by-the-numbers" format. This method is used because it virtually eliminates mishaps, since the students never have an opportunity to make an error. Unfortunately, this does little to prepare trainees to carry weapons in an operational environment.
Safety should always be the top training priority; however if sailors are not trained well enough to safely operate a weapon on the range, then why should they be qualified to carry a weapon on the quarterdeck? Training can be designed to prepare students for autonomous weapons control without sacrificing safety. Since this is the way in which the trainees will ultimately be using the weapon, it is unquestionably the way training programs should be structured.
The most often heard argument against these types of training revisions is that they are based on methodology, techniques, and procedures used by special operations personnel and therefore are well beyond the fundamentals needed by the Fleet. This argument is simply wrong. Fundamentals, by definition, are basic tenets of a skill and apply regardless of community or designation. Techniques either work well or they don't. The method of grip, trigger control, and weapons presentation should be no different for a Tier 1 Operator than they are for a Fleet armed sentry. Both are training in techniques to prevail in armed conflict, so the basic tactical principles, techniques, and mindset should be the same.
The second step is to build knowledge in the Fleet. This can best be accomplished by providing each commanding officer with a well-trained weapons instructor assigned to his command in a primary billet. These instructors should be trained through a small-arms combat instructor school that would replace SAMI school. This course should be closer to two months long than to the current two weeks and should encompass all mission-applicable aspects of combat shooting as well as the tactical principles applicable to sentries, security alert teams, and visit, board seach and siezure (VBSS) operations. It should be geared toward preparing instructors and should evaluate the students' instructional and organizational abilities. This school should also be opened to additional source rates than those now used.
Another important step towards building knowledge is to educate commanding officers and executive officers. Including an intensive four-day handgun training program (to include force-on-force training scenarios) as part of prospective commanding officer and executive officer schools would provide all course participants with an in-depth understanding of the training methods and tactical principles associated with small arms. This would make them better able to support and enforce training standards and provide them the knowledge to make more informed operational decisions regarding force-protection and small-arms issues.
There is no question that improvements have been made to the small-arms readiness of the Fleet. The latest Navy Training Publication for weapons handling, OPNAV Instruction 3591 revision, and formal school restructuring are steps in the right direction. However, to achieve sustainable and effective combat readiness, further improvement is necessary. The importance of this improvement is dramatically highlighted with the continued expansion of the AT/FP program as well as the potential development of a naval infantry force. Because small arms skills are perishable, mission readiness will always be a command training issue, regardless of the quality of schoolhouse training.
This also is not an issue that can be solved through technology. The single most effective method to achieve and maintain combat weapons handling proficiency is through dry-fire training. This does not require fancy technological gadgets or massive expenditures of money, but simply a dedicated, professional instructor to conduct regular training. If the Navy ever hopes to achieve sustainable combat readiness with small arms, it must update its training and increase its knowledge base by providing commanding officers with both a personal knowledge of small arms and the command resource of a competent, professional weapons instructor.
Mr. Salomon, a former naval officer, was training officer for the U.S. Naval Academy Combat Pistol Team for three years. He is also a National Rifle Association -certified law enforcement handgun/shotgun instructor and developed weapons training programs as the lead small-arms instructor for USS Klakring (FFG-42) and Mobile Security Detachment 22. He now works as a security consultant.