Chuck Mueller / San Bernardino Sun – 2006-04-22 12:40:46
FORT IRWIN (April 11, 2006) — Gearing up for a global war against terrorism, the Army has shifted its combat plan for troops in training from massive tank battles to urban warfare against insurgents armed with car bombs and suicide vests. “The war in Iraq has changed our outlook,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin. “We have all learned lessons from it.”
Restructuring its forces and strategy to cope with a drastically changing world, the Army is preparing its troops for combat in a hotbed of religious and ethnic chaos. The changes, the most for the Army since World War II, provide greater mobility and flexibility for its forces.
Cone calls Fort Irwin the training ground for the complexities of counterinsurgency combat. “It’s a high-stress environment that provides graduate-level training for today’s war fighters,” he said. “But we’re aware that we cannot replicate all the problems and concerns in Iraq,” the general said, citing the war-torn country’s cultural diversity, an urban setting rampant with tension and a violent insurgency. “The key in this war is understanding the people, and we need to win over the population and interact with them to build their trust.”
Cone, a West Pointer who also holds master’s degrees in strategic studies and sociology, is a military tactician and a renaissance man with a keen understanding of world cultures and issues.
“With the tough and realistic training conducted here, we truly believe what we’re doing will save the lives of our fighting forces,” said Cone, 48, who took over the helm at the National Training Center two years ago. “By integrating technology and military strategy for the next century, we are sending the best-trained soldiers in the world to Iraq.”
At Fort Irwin, the Army has designed a wide range of specific scenarios with more than 2,000 complex roles to prepare soldiers for duty in Iraq, Cone said. About $230 million is allocated annually by the Defense Department for this training.
The scenarios are carried out by 1,600 role players, including 250 Iraqi-Americans, in 12 simulated villages. Day and night, the soldiers-in-training face stark realism in the form of ambushes, car bombings, kidnappings, rioting and uprisings – all dramatically simulated by Hollywood-coached role players.
At the same time, troops learn the diplomatic underpinnings of negotiating with village and prayer leaders, working to ensure the safety and security of the townspeople. “The Iraqis are tremendously dedicated, especially in soldiers’ negotiations with suspected terrorists,” Cone said.
Investing in Training
The isolation faced by soldiers in the desolate, treeless outback of Fort Irwin invokes the sense of military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. “For me, it’s like Afghanistan,” said Sgt. Matthew Boone, an observer with the 10th Mountain Division, a New York unit training at Fort Irwin this month. “It’s a good place to train soldiers who haven’t been deployed (to the Middle East).”
To augment the virtual reality of an overseas mission, the Army will spend $57 million over the next few years to build a simulated Iraqi village with 300 buildings. It will expand one of the fort’s existing insurgent towns, Medina Jabal, at least sixfold.
“It will be a sound investment to create an urban setting for potential combat with enemy forces,” Cone explained.
With tilt-up concrete buildings, streets filled with vehicles and crowds of people, the city will provide combat training unlike any at existing Army installations – an opportunity to recreate the chaos experienced two years ago at Fallujah, the Army says.
In such a vast urban setting, underlaid by tunnels, the Army will be able to send companies and platoons on missions to uproot snipers and car bombers and find hidden factories, where improvised explosive devices are made.
“It’s imperative that our soldiers get this kind of training,” the general said. “It is the heart of our mission at the National Training Center – a mission we have honed the past two years.”
Cone said the military is calling for bids from contractors to construct the city, which will contain a palace complex, city hall and dwellings for Iraq-American role-players. The Pentagon has allocated $12 million this year for initial construction.
Simulating a War Zone
Maj. John Clearwater, the fort’s public-affairs officer, said the Army can readily adjust its scenarios at the National Training Center to match combat activity in Iraq. “We’re tied into an Internet system with our forces in Iraq that allows us to make any adjustment we feel is vital to our training,” he said.
The 50,000 troops on annual maneuvers at Fort Irwin can measure their training with what is happening in the Iraqi war zone. “We share what we learn with every unit that comes here,” Cone said.
Much of the action in the scenarios occurs at night, such as raids into the villages in search of bomb-making factories.
In a recent simulated attack with nonlethal electronic lasers, a team of “insurgents” tied three 150 mm artillery rounds together, hiding the bomb inside a truck. As the truck approached the front gate at a forward infantry base, the truck driver opened fire with a machine gun employing a laser, Clearwater said.
“Under the scenario, an explosive charge was set off, creating a loud bang and a lot of smoke,” he said.
In February, troops from the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., attacked a simulated insurgent village called Junction City. “It was a real slugfest to clear them out,” Clearwater said.
At the same time, ongoing training in the detection of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, is reinforced through Fort Irwin’s IED Center of Excellence. “The Defense Department established the center here last year to find ways to counter the insidious weapon,” Clearwater said. “It is one of the leading killers of American forces in Iraq.”
Building Better Soldiers
Gen. Cone said troop commanders at Fort Irwin teach soldiers in training “a sense of basics” to deal with insurgents. “Our job is to make soldiers better, and we assess each unit daily to ensure that we’re doing that,” he said.
Tracking bomb makers, for example, requires military-intelligence teams to follow a trail from the manufacturers of IEDs to the mules that haul explosives.
“For every bomb, there’s a causal trail, with 95 percent of our intelligence coming from the bottom upward,” the general said. “Our intelligence officers have visited the Los Angeles Police Department to learn how they fight crime and deal with gangs.”
At the training center, clues are inserted into the battlefield scenarios to help soldiers identify high-priority intelligence. “It’s amazing to watch a unit take corrective action (at trail’s end),” the general said.
Expanding the Fort
Fort Irwin, 37 miles northeast of Barstow, is home to 11,000 soldiers and their families. The military post, activated in 1980 as the National Training Center, has seen significant changes in those 26 years. But more are on the drawing boards, Cone said.
After 15 years, plans to expand the training center by 111,000 acres is nearing completion. “We hope to move troops onto the land by June or July,” the general said.
The proposal to enlarge the post drew fire from environmentalists, off-road vehicle buffs and rock climbers who said the federal government already has laid claim to too much land in the Mojave Desert.
In the center of the expansion battle was the state’s reptile, the endangered desert tortoise. After years of debate, the Army and its opponents reached a compromise that allows Fort Irwin to move onto land to the east and west.
A tortoise preserve will be created along the south border, and the Army will construct 40 miles of fences along Fort Irwin Road to keep the slow-moving creatures off the highway.
Meanwhile, the Army is expanding its complex of homes for military families along the fort’s western perimeter. Working with a private contractor, the military recently opened 241 new houses on the post and has plans to construct 900 more, the general said. And for families wanting more recreation than is offered at the post theater and bowling alley, Fort Irwin is moving ahead with plans to redevelop its “mid-town” area.
“We’re planning a new community center, with 10 retail stores and other amenities,” Cone said. That is expected to be a boon to family shoppers who now must travel to Barstow or 70 miles to Victorville.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department will spend $22 million to add five passing lanes on congested Fort Irwin Road, which links the post with Barstow. Fifty-one white crosses mark points along the two-lane road where travelers have died since 1980. Officials say 5,123 vehicles travel the road daily.
“People who visited Fort Irwin two decades ago won’t recognize it now,” Cone said. “For us, the only constant is the need for constant change.”