Based on combat experience gained since 2001, the U.S. Army is making some major changes in the way it teaches, and tests, how all troops handle their weapons. This is the first major overhaul for this subject since 2006. While it is all described in the new, 800-page TC 3-20.40 manual, lots of the items included have been added separately to weapons training during the last fifteen years. Now the annual weapons qualifications test is reflecting all of that. What it comes down to is that troops must demonstrate not just shooting accuracy each year, but a larger array of related skills. These include firing night and day as well as while wearing a gas mask. Troops must not only seek to hit the target on the firing range but to do so while moving and changing firing positions. These include standing, kneeling and prone. The firing exercise is also continuous and troops carry extra ammo on them as they would in combat, and are tested on how well they get new magazines from where it is carried and into the weapon. There is no longer just one target but multiple targets and you are rated on how well you quickly select and fire on the one that is the greatest threat. There are no longer time-outs for jammed weapons or other problems. You are rated on how well you deal with these realistic disruptions. These problems could be fatal in combat if you didn’t know how to handle them under fire. All this is done while moving downrange among other troops firing and facing the same problems.
The new weapons qualification test will not be as much as a shock to the average soldier because a lot of the new items tested are already part of basic and advanced infantry training. This came about because the army quickly realized after 2001 that better weapons training was required for the infantry as well as everyone else. Especially everyone else. So you could say that you could say that TC 3-20.40 has been a work in progress for over fifteen years.
By 2005 combat experience in Iraq had already changed the way the army trained its troops to use their rifles, machine-guns and pistols. Since two-thirds of the casualties are caused by roadside bombs and gunfire from ambushes, troops have had to learn to use their weapons reflexively. This is a special kind of shooting, and the army usually had its hands full just teaching troops the basics. This was especially the case for combat support troops, who are not expected to use their weapons often, if at all. In Iraq, any combat support troops outside a base quickly learned that combat was a very real possibility at any time. Thus, by late 2003, more elaborate and intensive weapons training became a necessity.
Trainers quickly discovered that teaching reflexive fire was more complex and time consuming than expected. First, the troops, especially non-infantry, had to get more practice on the basics. This included how to quickly clear jammed weapons, fast reloading, and the need to clean weapons regularly and keep them zeroed in. This meant adjusting the sights, especially the new high tech ones so that you hit what you believe you are aiming at. Then you have to make sure everyone has their basic marksmanship skills down. This is the traditional rifle range stuff, with concentration on aiming the rifle and pulling (or squeezing) the trigger properly. Then you get into practicing firing your weapon from non-standard positions like sitting in a hummer, or from the back of a truck, or from any number of other odd positions that always seem to be the norm in combat. Another aspect of reflexive firing is switching weapons quickly and still getting off accurate fire. Many troops carry a pistol, as well as a rifle, and you need to practice switching quickly from the rifle or machine-gun which may be jammed, or out of ammo, or machine-gun, to the pistol for those situations when you have no choice. The training also includes firing one handed, with either hand (to reflect being wounded, or in a really awkward position). But, above all, it is a matter of lots of practice. Not just for the initial reflexive firing course, but regular practice after that.
This application of “lessons learned” continued to change training for years. Many of these lessons are the same ones picked up in every war the U.S. has fought in the last century. But this wisdom gets polluted, diluted and forgotten during peacetime. If you are patient, observant, and not too old, you can watch this process repeat itself over the next two decades. The army realized it had to institutionalize much of this valuable experience. Which was another reason for TC 3-20.40.
Put another way the army took its Iraq/Afghanistan reality check seriously and made the kinds of changes that make a difference. First, there was the initial instruction for recruits; making sure all troops have their basic infantry skills down cold. This means insisting that, during Basic Training, the civilians you have recruited get that necessary mental adjustment needed to deal with stress and combat. Unfortunately, Basic tends to get watered down in peacetime, mainly for political reasons. Too many (or just any) injuries during training can get the media and politicians in an uproar. During the 1990s, there was a major flap over the problems female trainees had keeping up with males. It wasn't fair. For the moment, everyone is getting pretty strenuous Basic, but that tends to change during extended periods of peace.
Another lesson learned that to get the most out of any troops in combat, you have to keep them together long enough so they can operate as effective teams and units. That means that units should have at least three months, and preferably six months, to train together before heading overseas. That also means not moving a lot of people in or out of the units during that time. New people are not trusted for a while and have to train with the veteran members of in their unit to build trust. Also important is keeping a unit together for a few months after it gets back. This is a big help for troops dealing with combat stress issues. The people you most want to talk to about the stress are the people you went through it with. Getting a unit filled up with troops and keeping it that way is not easy. Especially for the personnel (er, "human resources") crew. In war time, you can insist that it be done. In peacetime, you can still insist, but will largely be ignored. Bureaucrats rule unless you can point a gun at them. Thus Stop Loss (keeping troops about to retire, or end their enlistment, in up to a year more so that a unit going into combat has all its leaders) has been used for units headed overseas but is always dropped once the war is over.
To avoid problems with troops coming under fire for the first time, the army learned to let the troops fire their weapons a lot, with real ammo, beforehand. Marksmanship is a perishable skill, so you have to find the time, and money (for the ammo and building enough firing ranges) to do this. Gunfire is unpopular in peacetime, no matter how important it is. In wartime, it's easier to get this done. Which is why the U.S. Department of Defense was, after September 11, 2001, been buying three times as much rifle and machine-gun ammo for training. Come peacetime, the amount of ammo bought will shrink, as will all that damn (to the increasing number of civilians building homes near military bases) noise.
One solution for that problem was the growing use of electronic indoor firing ranges. These became much more realistic in the last two decades and the army and marines took full advantage of it. TC 3-20.40 recognizes and for the first time mandates a lot of training on these ranges. Much cheaper and less noisy than real ammo.
Another weapons related issue that rarely gets addressed during basic is the fact that in a combat zone you carry your weapon around with you all the time. The army recently modified basic training by issuing new recruits their rifle within a week and making them thereafter carry it with them just about everywhere when on duty. That is not as easy as it sounds for a civilian. Practice makes perfect, and you learn to clean your weapon daily.
Another lesson learned and applied is that every combat zone is unique, so make sure special skills needed for a particular combat zone are taught. Troops going to a combat zone, especially Iraq, needed to practice convoy protection. Combat units going to Afghanistan should practice tactics in hilly country, so they don't drop from exhaustion the first time they have to chase some bad guys up a hill. In peacetime, you have no specific area you are sure you are going to fight in. So specialized training tends to fade away.
Another lesson learned was the importance of passing it on, the sooner the better. That means having the troops briefed by those who have just got back. This should be a "relaxed" briefing because you want the briefer to tell the troops how it really is, not what the current official word is. Nothing scandalous here, but this briefing will be contradicting some regulations. like on what equipment troops should leave behind, to keep weight down, when going into action, or what civilian gear they should consider buying to replace less capable military issue stuff. In peacetime, there's no place to be coming back from, although the U.S. Army Special Forces has a good program of keeping in touch with potential hot spots. This, however, is political/media dynamite, so the Special Forces activities are kept as quiet as possible.
The troops themselves have used the Internet to get in touch with their fellow soldiers who are in combat, and used message board, email and listservs to communicate. Makes a big difference if you can ask questions of those who have been there, or are there. The U.S. Army set up official Internet-based communications services for this. There is also an effort to capture the "lessons learned" and ensure that this valuable information does not fade away (as it usually does.) Troops could also access all army training manuals online as well as the lessons learned database. Time will tell if the post 2001 efforts to preserve useful memories will work. In that respect, TC 3-20.40 isn’t unique but part of a larger process to never forget lessons that can be the margin between victory and defeat as well as life or death for many individuals.