This article was written for the purposes of raising discussion about ways to improve current training design, particularly when it comes to the continuation of Combat Shooting training within the Army. Before reading further please consider the concept of 'Combat Shooting' itself and what is different about the application of the skills learnt in the enhanced course compared to the marksmanship taught across Army to all soldiers. I would argue the only shooting we do is for application in combat and the combat behaviours and techniques we teach are applicable for all weapon systems we use. So when I refer to 'Combat Shooting', I refer to all shooting training that is conducted, specifically in the Infantry Battalion.
As the Battalion approaches 100% qualification of all its personnel in Enhanced Combat Shooting (ECS), it is clear that this vital skill-set is retained across the unit in order to maintain our effectiveness in future operations. What is not clear is how this skill will be maintained. I believe this comes down to a lack of understanding of shooting training itself within the Australian Defence Force (ADF). This problem comes from all training being reduced to a pass / fail of a standardised test with ambiguous scoring over a short high intensity period (Range Practice Serials, Enhanced Combat Shooting Course Standards). Tests such as the Range Practice (RP) serials are too often used as 'training' when they are actually designed to assess a soldier's shooting capability in various positions and at extended ranges. They offer no opportunity for reflection, diagnosis and improvement and require both large amounts of ammunition and time. Using the RP serials as training in a 'Blocked' method of progression of one to the other is inferior to the alternate 'Interleaved' training method. In this article, I will explain how an Interleaved Training methodology is superior to the traditional 'Blocked' training style and will argue this must be facilitated by commanders, especially at the platoon level. This implies training is required for commanders before they are able to facilitate the training of soldiers.
It is almost unanimously agreed that shooting is a perishable skill and that repetition is the key to learning and developing new skills (Lee et al, 2012; Jensen, 2008). This implies we need to train more consistently over long periods of time and train for performance, not an outcome. Blocked Training is a method in which students or trainees are directed to perform a specific skill that is known to the student in advance. The training is structured, conducted in a sterile environment and skills are presented in a logical and progressive manner (Salomon, 2016). Studies have consistently shown that Blocked Training can offer high standards of performance at the end of short training periods, but offers lower results when tested after long periods with no training (Vickers, 2007). The ECS course is no exception and it is clear that the skills learnt in the five day package rapidly deteriorate over the months (and in some cases years) between time at the range, despite good performance during the standards and Battle Lane assessment. This is because the Blocked Training environment is sterile and the shooter knows which skill they are required to use at any time: in short, it does not require decision making. To be clear, the current method used for ECS training and qualification is the correct method, as he majority of skills taught are new to the trainees and require deliberate and directed practice. However, I contend that an alternate methodology (Interleaved Training) should be used for continuation training in order to ensure that the training is as effective and efficient as possible.
Interleaved Training involves a concept called Contextual Interference which is a phenomenon where adding an element of unpredictability or chaos to someone performing a skill, lowers their measurable performance in the moment but increases their memory retention of the skill in the long term. Interleaved training requires shooters to make the decision to apply a skill or skills rather than just training the skill itself. When someone is required to make a decision, their long term retention is increased due to the development of a much stronger formation of memory traces. This allows better consolidation of neural connections and therefore better retention of the skill in the long term
The RP Serials are an average tool for assessing shooting skills but do not provide any indication of shortfalls in soldiers training and the assessment of 'combat behaviors' is ambiguous. A commander can review the score for all their soldiers after a serial, see who 'passed' and who 'failed' and that is it. There is no indication of what positions or ranges their soldiers are performing well or poorly at and it is reflected when failures are told simply to reattempt the shoot again and there is no attempt at further training. If we can’t see where our skills, or our soldier’s skills, are lacking then we will have no idea that they need developing and we will never improve. If we focused training on training the skills required to pass the RP serials, our performance would improve greatly. It is as simple as breaking down the skills required during the an RP serial, isolating them using the Interleaved training method and allowing time and ammunition to practice them in a manner that allows for reviewing performance and appropriate coaching. Another way to potentially improve the RP Serials as a test would be to randomise the way targets are presented to stop soldiers from being able to predict each engagement and learn the current pattern within the test. This would more accurately simulate combat conditions. An understanding of these concepts by all commanders is key to improving our combat capability in future operations. We already possess the right people, culture and environments to facilitate these techniques but devoting resources and time to train NCOs and Officers in effective training methodologies is the key to improving our training.
Another example of where we can improve our training is with the Army Individual Readiness Notice (AIRN) shoot that must be completed by all soldiers. The standard for shooting required of the modern infantry soldier is far higher than what is tested by the current AIRN shoot and, much like our Soldiers Combat Ensemble, should be tiered in a way that reflects that. Infantry soldiers are expected to be able to engage targets out to 600m, yet the current average group size required to achieve their AIRN compliancy is 200mm or under. If an infantry soldier’s best group size is 200mm at 100m, their expected group size at 600m is 1200mm. If the average adult male is approximately 450mm wide, then the required group size they need to achieve at 100m is 75mm to be able to shoot that size target at 600m. Requiring a higher basic standard for Infantry soldiers will improve our operational capability and is another step towards increasing soldier lethality in combat.
It is clear that Combat Shooting is a vital skill that needs to be maintained and developed constantly throughout the Army and hopefully it is now more clear how that can be achieved. Devoting time and resources to train commanders to apply interleaved training methods will ensure efficient training is conducted. This training will be retained by soldiers and will change the way we approach and run range practices. We must ensure that performance is targeted in training in order to achieve outcomes and not the other way around. This will ensure the Army’s ability to achieve operational requirements in the future.