Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Marine Corps Systems Command’s mission to support the warfighter hasn’t stop.
Prior to the crisis, MCSC’s program offices hosted both in-person and classroom training sessions for Marines to learn to use new gear. With travel restrictions in place, MCSC had to find new, innovative ways to conduct New Equipment Training.
Earlier this spring, MCSC began conducting Virtual NET—online training that replicates a live, classroom training environment. Viewing a live video stream, Marines can watch as an instructor teaches them to employ a piece of equipment. During each session, participants can use an audio conference line or an online chat feature to ask questions.
MCSC began NET training for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Common Handheld and a Networking On-the-Move technology. MCH is a recently-upgraded, tablet-based system used to plot and share locations. NOTM is a satellite communication system that allows Marines to communicate while mobile on the battlefield.
“Virtual NET provides online training to Marines so they can learn to use new equipment and continue to support their mission,” said Kenneth Hess, MCSC’s Manpower Personal Training lead for the Program Manager for Command and Control Systems.
Instructors are government employees from MCSC and Naval Information Warfare Center, as well as contractors.
“We had certified, trained instructors and integrators conduct these sessions,” said Hess. “Instructors showed participants step-by-step how to operate and maintain a piece of equipment.”
The MCH NET occurred from March to April, and the NOTM sessions took place from April to May. Based on user feedback, the sessions ran smoothly and provided useful information to help Marines carry out missions.
Overcoming COVID-19 obstacles
The COVID-19 pandemic affects in-person training, as public health restrictions associated with the crisis prevent large groups from congregating. However, Marines still must learn to employ new equipment to support their missions.
On March 20, Jason Wolfe, the lead logistician for MCH, contacted Hess to discuss alternative sources for MCSC to conduct NET. As an alternative to live trainings, Hess began researching the feasibility of conducting these sessions digitally.
After considering several online communication applications, Hess ultimately chose an application that enables Marines to view an instructor through a webcam and ask questions in real time via an online chat feature.
“I then provided training to [MCH and NOTM program offices] and participated in many of their training events to provide technical support and gather best practices for delivering the session,” said Hess.
MCH instructor Michael Hill, Digital Precision Strike Suite training lead for the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at Naval Air Systems Command, connected the tablet into his computer and projected the system’s interface onto a large monitor, allowing Marines to follow along on their own tablet.
The MCH NET consisted of three, five-hour days, with participation from Marines from I, II and III Marines Expeditionary Force. Marines learned basic MCH application functions—including how to share locations within their network, and send and receive messages.
“We have trained roughly 10 units, which varied in sizes, ranging from five to more than 25 Marines, spread out across their duty stations,” said Hill.
The NOTM NET also included participation from all three MEFs. Field service representatives—who support the fleet on site—participated in several trainings that occurred periodically over the course of three weeks.
In April, FSRs learned to use the Secure Communication Controller, which is a stand-alone system—separate from the currently fielded NOTM variation—used to facilitate rapid, secure communication across multiple mediums. The technology is slated to field to Marine units later this year.
The program office issued each participant an SCC prior to the training event. After the April sessions, participants spent two weeks assessing the system on their own. In May, they virtually imparted their knowledge of the technology to the rest of the class, a training method called “teach back.”
“This training is critical to ensuring that the warfighter is properly trained on the use and performance of fielded equipment…” Lt. Col. Austin Bonner, Extensible MAGTF Command and Control product manager at MCSC
The initial training for FSRs helps to ensure they can properly conduct in-person or virtual NET for Marine units. The NOTM program office plans to conduct a follow-up session at a later date, during which FSRs teach Marines NET.
The MCH office will follow up with Marine units who participated in the virtual NET to give a shorter Program of Instruction to assess for knowledge gaps that the video-based course was unable to provide, said Hill.
Other MCSC programs are also considering virtual NET. In June, MCSC’s Program Manager for Infantry Weapons captured video during an in-person Instructor and Key Personnel Training session for the M18 Modular Handgun System, which will replace all Marine Corps pistols. The program office will use the footage for a potential virtual NET if COVID-19 restrictions continue when the system is fielded later this fiscal year.
“Due to COVID-19, units may actually receive the M18 before our NET team can train them,” said Brian Nelson, the M18 project officer at MCSC. “Employing a virtual capability allows Marines to get the training material [online] and enables them to learn without having to wait for travel bans to be lifted.”
An alternative solution
Sgt. Curt Johnson of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in Twentynine Palms, California, participated in the MCH virtual NET. He raved about the benefits of participating in the virtual training, noting how learning through a live computer feed supported his understanding of the system.
“The video feed was clear and showed no latency or delay,” said Johnson. “Instructors were very informative and professional, and they remained engaging throughout the course.”
Lt. Col. Austin Bonner, Extensible Marine Air-Ground Task Force Command and Control product manager at MCSC, said the virtual NET operated smoothly while also noting how virtual sessions save the Marine Corps travel funding.
“Using this capability brings new technologies to the forefront and demonstrates how we can still execute the acquisition process efficiently and effectively,” said Bonner.
Despite the positive feedback, the virtual training presented some challenges. For example, this method of training lacked face-to-face interaction, which Hill said could decrease overall engagement. However, Johnson said the added chat functionality increased communication, as Marines could ask questions when needed.
“I think the chat functionality definitely helps,” said Johnson. “Coupling a conference call with a chat was a solid way to ensure the service members not co-located, given our present circumstances, could communicate during classes.”
The differences in time zones among participating units did not present many challenges, according to Hill. In fact, he believes virtual training to be an effective utility in the present and future for Marines around the world.
“Considering we traditionally train Marines in person, this virtual solution has proven to be an effective alternative,” said Hill. “Given the challenging circumstances, I believe we have hit the mark virtually to train the Marines effectively and efficiently. It may provide a useful adjunct for future training events.”
Paul Emiro is a logistics specialist at MCSC responsible for ensuring the SCC devices were delivered to the MEFs prior to execution of the NET. He said that while the virtual NET was not a perfect solution, these sessions provided useful information to Marines.
“Given the COVID-19 restrictions in place and the project schedule, virtual NET provided an alternative solution for us,” said Emiro.
Bonner said the NOTM team adapted and overcame obstacles in training personnel at disparate locations across the world by employing virtual NET. He said the execution of these training sessions exemplifies MCSC’s dedication to supporting the warfighter.
“This training is critical to ensuring that the warfighter is properly trained on the use and performance of fielded equipment,” said Bonner. “As a command, we must support the warfighter despite the COVID-19 restrictions, and that’s what we’re doing.”