Sailors learn the proper technique on the use of an M4 rifle as part of the Expeditionary Combat Skills course at the Navy Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Miss. (LT. J.G. ALPHONSO JEFFERSON JR. / NAVY)
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Right now, there are sailors in Gulfport, Miss., who are firing rifle rounds downrange, practicing combat casualty care, getting familiar with roadside bombs and learning when they should and shouldn't use deadly force.
It's all part of a pilot program that, once it's fully up and running, will teach ground combat skills to every sailor assigned to Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.
That means that within a few years, there will be a sizeable community of sailors who know more about land navigation and muzzle discipline than they do about destroyers and frigates.
Already underway at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, the Expeditionary Combat Skills course will go from trial program to official course by February. More than 1,600 sailors are expected to complete the course by this time next year, and up to 5,000 sailors a year are expected to go through after that.
The fundamentals are simple: shoot, move, communicate, survive.
"It was recognized early on, about a year and a half ago, shortly after NECC was created, that traditional Navy training, particularly for new accessions, does not prepare them properly to work in that boots-on-the-ground expeditionary environment," said Capt. Mark Kohart, commanding officer of the Little Creek, Va.-based Center for Security Forces, which runs the program. "[Navy SEALs] notwithstanding, this kind of training is not part of our tradition."
Nor is NECC, the new command designed to provide maritime security in coastal areas and ashore using existing units like Seabees, revived forces like the riverine squadrons and new entities like the Maritime Civil Affairs Group.
Formed in stages after Sept. 11, 2001, the Center for Security Forces provides sailors with training on how to board vessels at sea and survive alone in hostile territory, and how to be security and anti-terrorism specialists.
Kohart said that by 2011, it's expected that some 5,000 sailors a year will complete the combat training course before they arrive at various NECC units.
"What that's looking at is a full sustainment package for the entirety of NECC," he said. "So whether you're an officer, a fleet returnee or a new accession, you're going to get exposure to this course, because it will save your life."
The first sailors through the course will be new Seabees, who previously had their own shorter two-week combat skills course called Seabee Replacement Training.
Other students will be eligible by priority, with sailors headed to riverine squadrons high on the list, along with expeditionary security force sailors, said Capt. Bob McKenna, assistant chief of staff for training at NECC.
Planners are looking at a "grandfather clause" for existing NECC sailors, based on time in the command and deployment schedule.
"If we get to the point where we're a closed-loop community and people are coming into the Maritime Expeditionary Security Force, then go into the Maritime Civil Affairs Group, then Expeditionary Training Command or riverine, they go [through the course] once and they don't have to go again. Eventually, we get to a point where this training is only [for] people coming out of boot camp," he said. "Then the force becomes standardized and more effective."
In the future, a sailor headed to NECC will go to "A" school after boot camp, then complete the ECS course before joining his unit.
Kohart said that under current personnel structures, an ECS graduate can still end up back in the gray-hull fleet, robbing the community of expertise.
"Right now, if a guy gets this training and does one tour but then never steps back into an expeditionary organization again, that training is lost," he said. "If you can retain him, now you are starting to build that mentorship that many mature communities already have, in aviation and surface and so forth."
Except for some units like explosive ordnance disposal and Seabees, NECC units do not have closed-loop detailing. But leadership has been looking at creating naval enlisted classifications that would allow sailors who find themselves in expeditionary combat units to stay.
"We're not trying to take the Army's place. We're not trying to take the Marine Corps' place. We're doing maritime missions. We're expanding the maritime battle space," McKenna said.
He said the course likely will become part of the requirements for the Enlisted Expeditionary Warfare Specialist pin and an NEC for those who complete the training. Other NEC specialties are being looked at, such as sailors qualified for noncompliant vessel boardings.
"There are a number of specialty areas throughout the force where we're looking at NECs right now. This would be one of the overarching ones that everyone should have, and it helps us with the closed-loop detailing," McKenna said.
The course relies on contracted instructors under Navy leadership. Since the fleet doesn't have a culture steeped in ground warfare — except for naval special warfare — Marines, retired Special Forces operators, explosive ordnance disposal specialists and Seabees were consulted on the curriculum.
"We really had an eclectic group there," Kohart said. "The Marines have been incredibly helpful to us in establishing this."
Due to the need for extensive firing range facilities, the Navy has been in talks with the Army about potentially moving the program to an Army base, most likely near a fleet concentration area.
"This week, we're expecting the results of their list of the top installations they think meet our criteria," Kohart said.
Wherever the training site is eventually established, Kohart promises a serious, realistic course. One aspect of the curriculum prepares sailors for deadly force encounters of a "personal" nature, including use of somewhat painful but nonlethal rubber bullets — far from traditional Navy training.
"When you think of a Marine, something pops in your mind. When you think of an aviator, you get this thought. That's because they've developed their own culture," he said. "Well, we're in the ground floor of evolving that."