Free Play Training

By Capts Aaron Brusch & Joshua Hotvet

It is fitting that Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3 (MCDP 1-3), Tactics y leads its final chapter, “Making It Happen,” with the quote at right from one of the preeminent originators of “counterinsurgency.”1 Today’s strategists and futurists firmly believe that the contemporary and future operating environment will continue to be characterized by the fluid and unscripted realities of perpetual small-scale insurgencies. If we have been reminded of anything in the past decade it is that count er insurgencies and “wars amongst the people” have always been disproportionately affected by the actions and decisions of small unit leaders. Their tactical decisions in those fleeting moments of the “irrational tenth” directly determine our strategic success or failure. As such, we need to train our young leaders – lieutenants and NCOs – in a way that develops and fosters their abilities to make correct decisions. By emphasizing training that forces them to adapt to a thinking enemy, rewards them for being agile enough to preempt that enemy, and prepares them for the nonlinear complexities of war, we will be providing them and ourselves with the tools for success.

If one were to list all of the qualities essential for a future combat leader, that list would have to include traits such as flexibility, adaptability, ingenuity, boldness, and innovation. Fortunately these all happen to be traits that the average lieutenant, sergeant, and corporal have in large supply. They are not overly tied to habits, they are often unafraid to attempt new solutions, and their lack of experience makes them extremely open to testing ideas that haven’t been tried before. However, that strength is also their weakness. That same lack of experience can often result in poor judgment and an inability to recognize telling patterns or take preventive action. Most concerning, it can result in an inability or an unwillingness to think critically about their environment. They are more likely than their seniors to miss important indicators, and they think less critically, not because they are unable or uninitiated, but rather because they are unaccustomed to thinking critically.

In the Marine Corps (and the military in general) we consistently demand decisiveness from our leaders. Given the necessary aggressive inclinations of the solid leader, we often take the old adage “any decision is better than no decision” too much to heart and incorrectly expand its scope to include “action.” While it is true that indecisiveness is the worst quality a leader could possess, there is a difference between indecision and inaction. What happens when we force the uneducated or unaccustomed to become decisive without giving them a context? In a world where junior leaders’ decisions have nonlinear effects for good or for ill, the aforementioned adage is becoming outdated at best and dangerous at worst. Perhaps it is time to recognize that there is no quality more essential to effective combat leadership than the ability to solve novel military problems, to have the flexibility to try different solutions, and to have the critical thinking skills necessary to change tacks when the initial plan hasn’t been successful. These points beg the question: how can we best sharpen adaptive thought, which will allow them to make rational decisions intuitively, or better yet, how do we help their decisionmaking move “left of the bang” by becoming more predictive and more agile?

The themes presented above are not original. Proponents of maneuver warfare have always discussed the impor tance of developing solid decisionmaking at lower levels, and none have done so better than LtCoI Michael D. WyIy and his colleague William Lind. In the watershed article, “Teaching Maneuver Warfare/’ WyIy states that our top priority must be to instill and develop military judgment in our junior leaders.2 Lind, in his Maneuver Warfare Handbook, contributes that:

Free play exercises are critical to developing initiative, imagination, and new tactics. They present junior leaders with unpredictable, rapidly changing situations just like combat. This automatically brings initiative and imagination to the fore.3

Building initiative, imagination, and sound military judgment is instrumental to successful maneuver warfare, and Lind ‘s thesis naturally leads to his conclusion that most exercises should be force-on-force free play

WyIy, Lind, and TE. Lawrence cut to the essential question of how we make decisions. Philosophers, at least as early as Plato, have described the “war between the rational mind and the irrational mind.” Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink, popularized the notion of the intuitive mind reflexively finding the answers before the rational mind was even aware there was a question.4 More recently, Daniel Kahneman gave the “dual process” decisionmaking process a more scientific and less anecdotal underpinning in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. The work is full of ideas, experiments, and cognitive biases, showing just how easily our thinking can be skewed into irrationality, but understanding the general premise says volumes for how we can train ourselves to become better decisionmakers. Quickly simplified, the author divides our decisionmaking process into System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our intuitive mind. It is quick to react to danger, it is the reason we feel unease when an environment becomes unexplainably hostile, it sees patterns, and it is automatic. System 2, on the other hand, is our conscious and rational decisionmaking process. It is slower and more deliberative. One of the work’s most basic conclusions is that System 2 often believes itself to be the main player when in fact it is a supporting actor, stepping in only when we deem it necessary; for example, at times when what we are experiencing does not fit neatly into our previous experiences or seems to defy logic. The author makes the further implication that following System 1 leads to greater miscalculations unless we are aware of these proclivities and enlist the help of our more rational mind.5 The times when we are required to enlist the aid of System 2 can largely be seen as a function of how familiar we are with a topic, conceding the point to Gladwell that in cases where we are experts, we are much more likely to be able to rely on the instinctual and reflexive to deliver a more desirable outcome.

This is all an extremely simplified part of the book’s broad thesis, but the classification should sound very familiar to many of us as it is similar to describing recognition primed decisionmaking. Further, much like recognition primed decisionmaking, System 1, our intuition, is at its best when we have strengthened it with enough “repetitions” so as to easily divine the patterns and intuitively see things that an untrained eye cannot see. All of this is to say that we need to develop this facility in our lieutenants and NCOs. They need the practice and the repetitions to strengthen their abilities to think critically against a thinking enemy.

So the question becomes: how do we best develop and implement exercises that develop these positive attributes? MCDP 1-3 reminds us that “while combat provides the most instructive lessons on decision making, tactical leaders cannot wait for war to begin their education.”6 The necessity of providing realistic training that comes as close as possible to replicating the chaos, friction, and unpredictability of combat has long been an accepted fact, and as a Marine Corps we need to relentlessly advance that goal. As Lind intimated, competition is a great motivator on its own merit, but it has the added benefit of truly forcing a Marine to outthink an enemy who he knows is attempting to outthink him. Pitting Marine against Marine in a free play environment, where the Marine is not guided by an instructor or forced into courses of action to accomplish prescribed training and readiness standards, leaves that student the freedom to attempt to find his own solution to the problem. If our end state goal is to build a group of leaders capable of agile, adaptive, and critical thought in the contemporary and future operating environment, there is nothing more experiential than going against another human being and either winning or losing on your own merit or demerits. These experiences can form a more solid foundation for future decisionmaking.

The Marine Corps’ training philosophy espouses the idea of free play exercises but limits the scope of that free play in two significant ways. First, current training models adopt free play only insofar as mission- typ e orders. After the order is given, the training unit has very limited bounds within which to work, resulting in very specific performancebased skills being trained. Second, the current approach limits free play to only one side in the given scenario; the aggressor force is invariably controlled by a central exercise coordinator who knows where he wants the scenario to go and knows everything that the training unit is planning and doing. This approach is effective for lane training-type exercises, such as Enhanced MOJAVE VlPER, where each lane is designed to evaluate the unit’s ability to perform the “right” answer, be it responding to a sniper, reacting to an improvised explosive device strike, a complex ambush, etc. While the training unit is allowed to make its own decisions (as long as it fits into the prescribed training and readiness task), it never faces an independent, free thinking enemy.

That is not to be taken as an attempt to replace the preeminence of training tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). Developing the understanding and ability to effectively respond to a given stimulus – basic skills and battle drills – is irreplaceable. No other training is as effective in evaluating and rehearsing specific training outcomes. However, the proposed training shouldn’t seek to replace lane training, but rather should foster a very different set of skills that complements proficiency in the basics. These two training paradigms should not be at odds. The development of critical and adaptive thought skills is as important in a low-intensity counterinsurgency environment as it is in a high-intensity battalion attack on a fortified position. The decisionmaking skills gained from true free play exercises are just as important as performance-based training and readiness manual standards. As MCDP 1-3 tells us, in these free play exercises, “leaders form and execute their decisions against an opposing force as individual Marines employ their skills against an active enemy.”7

After a training unit has demonstrated an understanding of why and how to perform certain actions, we must then push them into applying that knowledge in new ways, forcing them to take the baseline TTP and use it as it was intended to be used. Further still, a unit can train its collective skills and simultaneously train its leaders at all levels to fight a truly independent enemy. Unlike strict lane training exercises where units pass or fail by acting (or not acting) within certain bounds, an exercise in which two or more independent units are fighting without direction from a master scenario coordinator can present a realistic experience for all training units. Situations may develop of their own momentum as opposed to being planned and controlled by the exercise coordinator, opportunities can be generated and either exploited or wasted, and the training units can feel real consequences of their actions or inactions based on their enemy’s actions.

True free play is certainly not a novel approach. The 1st Tank Battalion conducted such an exercise three decades ago, pitting its companies against each other to great success. The 2d MarDiv, under then-MajGen Alfred M. Gray, conducted similar exercises in the early 1980s when maneuver warfare doctrine was first gaining traction in the Marine Corps.8 Further, the benefit of freeplay isn’t limited to the Marine Corps as evidenced by Joint Forces Command’s Millenium Challenge exercise. Combat leaders at all levels need to be able to think on their feet and make sound tactical decisions. Accordingly, free play exercises should be a part of all combat leadership schools. In addition, the Operating Forces should incorporate free play exercises of this type into their deployment workups.

As earlier articles have mentioned, The Basic School (TBS) has implemented such a training exercise in the updated program of instruction. “The War” is the culminating training event for the student lieutenants. It was designed to provide students the opportunity to demonstrate the core competencies they learned during the 6-month program of instruction. Its stated end state is to:

. . . send students to the operating forces who have been exposed to an unscripted tactical environment that better prepares them to be critical and adaptive thinkers in chaotic, complex, and uncertain environments.

The War consists of 7 days of true free play in which each student company is split in two, and each is given broad, opposing tasks and put into an area of operations that spans most of the available training areas on Marine Corps Base Quantico, with each side assisted by a TBS staff member acting as company commander. Once the missions are briefed, the students conduct all of the tactical planning and orders process and drive all of the action. The intent is that all students are fully immersed into The War experience and are solely responsible for the success or failure of their mission. When companies decisively succeed or reach culmination, they are given new, equally broad tasks to accomplish. The area of operation is large enough so that each platoon has the opportunity, depending on the plan developed by the students, to conduct every type of offensive, defensive, or patrolling operation, in the tree line and in urban environments. The students plan and execute their entire logistics plan, guided by the company commander and his student staff, and move logistics around the battlespace via a mobile section attached to each company

Instead of a master scenario event list, the exercise utilizes phases and branch plans to account for the fact that there is no timeline and the students’ actions are not dictated. Whether the students get through two tasks or six tasks is not important; the intent is that the students themselves drive all of the action and make all decisions impacting their mission. The situation is kept as realistic as possible so that the students have the ability to fully exploit any advantage they generate or one that arises on its own. Cherry picker casualties remain wounded in action or killed in action until that scenario plays out completely, and full casualty drill (triage and casualty evacuation) is demanded of the students throughout the exercise. The exercise makes extensive use of the instrumented-tactical engagement simulation system (I-TESS), which is worn by all students. The system not only tracks each student in realtime and sends the data to screens monitored by the exercise coordinators, but it also assigns casualties, assisting the observer controllers (OCs) and the exercise coordinators in rapidly understanding the battlefield environment and making necessary judgments of effects.

Finally, given the immersive nature of The War, there are no administrative breaks, and there are no debriefs until the exercise is complete. To tie the exercise together and facilitate the development of critical and adaptive thought, the exercise coordinators build and conduct a comprehensive after- action review of each war. The after- action review is built from the realtime battle log of The War made possible by the I-TESS gear and by the products built by the OCs. The OCs are specifically tasked to use whatever media they have available to chronologically record student decisionmaking and the ensuing consequences. Those products are distilled into several distinct case studies (in chronological order) and discussed in depth. For each case, the conversation starts with the most important questions. What was your understanding of the situation? What was your mission? How did you plan to generate and exploit advantage over your enemy in order to accomplish that mission? The facts of the case are reinforced by I-TESS slides that show the actual positions of each unit and by media delivered by the OCs. Each case study concludes with a discussion of why each unit succeeded or failed, and what could have been done differently. This debrief is critically important as it highlights judgments and decisions outside of a vacuum; i.e., the students are able to receive valid feedback from their adversary and truly see the battlespace through the eyes of their enemy. These conversations among the students, and the affiliated learning points in judgment and decisionmaking, represent the end state of the after- act ion review.

Detractors of this method could argue that allowing training units such an amount of freedom to essentially determine the course of their own training evolution would result in unrealistic or nonsalient training. That concern would best be addressed on three levels.

First, the exercise has to be run by competent coordinators who develop the exercise in such a way as to ensure that it remains free play for the students but not necessarily free play for the staff. However, the staff must be willing to accept that students, when given the opportunity to outthink an enemy, may also outthink a scenario. Second, it falls upon the training institution, be it school or unit, to determine when such an exercise would meet its training objectives. The ability to rapidly react to the enemy using sound battle drills and immediate action drills is irreplaceable, and entering into a free play exercise with the expectation that it will provide those skills is misguided. Finally, it follows that in the free play exercise the goal is not necessarily to mimic any particular enemy or style of maneuver. Rather the overriding goal is to provide the trainee with an opportunity to test his skills against an opposing will. This in turn facilitates the overarching goal of improving judgment and decisionmaking through experience. Training to that standard is not necessarily about imparting specific knowledge or skills, although those skills will be used and practiced during the course of training. Training to that standard is about teaching judgment and how to think.

It is essential that we tailor our training regimens to focus on decisionmaking in complex, chaotic, and ambiguous environments. Developing military judgment is just as important as developing performance-based skills from the training and readiness manual. However, unlike the collective skill sets, there are not any training and readiness standards that state: “Using mostly instinct, apply creative, agile, and adaptive thought – manifested as sound judgment – to solve a novel military problem.” The driving force behind competition and free play exercises is to facilitate an experience for the Marines that fully immerses them into a tactical problem, and then allows them to develop the situation and make decisions on their own against an independently thinking, adapting enemy. The true test of a free play exercise’s worth cannot be measured in green spreadsheet cells or by a number of checked boxes. The true test comes when those students are able to function more rapidly and outthink their enemy in the “irrational tenth.”


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1-3, Tactics, Washington, DQ 1997, p. 111.

2. WyIy, Michael Duncan, “Teaching Maneuver Warfare,” article from Richard Hooker, Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology ยป, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1993, p. 263.

3. Lind, William, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1985, pp. 41-48.

4. Gladwell, Malcolm, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2005.

5. Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Faber, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

6. MCDP 1-3, pp. 114-115.

7. Ibid., p. 125.

8. Lind, p. 46-47.