Desert exercise site aims to simulate war’s harshest elements
By Richard Whittle
FORT IRWIN, Calif. Beyond the edges of this lonely outpost midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas lies one of the world’s biggest sandboxes 1,100 square miles of Mojave Desert where the Army plays war.
Exercises at the Army’s Rhode Island-sized National Training Center used to mean smash-mouth tank battles in which a whole brigade, 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, tried to whip a home-team opposing force that fought like the Soviet Red Army.
Generals say rapid victories by U.S. forces in 1991 and 2003 over Saddam Hussein’s tanks owed much to that training.
Soon after President Bush declared the major combat phase of the Iraq war over, however, the Army found itself involved in a different kind of conflict, a counterinsurgency for which many soldiers were unprepared. But no one should accuse the Army of fighting the last war instead of the one it’s in, a failure often attributed to generals in the past.
After leading an unprecedented real-time, on-scene critique of the military’s initial 18 months in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Robert Cone took command at Fort Irwin. In the past year he has remade The Box, as troops call it, into a mini-Iraq a mock battlefield with no front lines, where combat occurs in urban areas…
instead of open desert and where insurgents hide among the population planting bombs in everyday objects such as abandoned vehicles, piles of trash and discarded fuel cans.
In the old days, a typical two-week exercise in The Box consisted of several hundred tanks, equal numbers of artillery pieces and dozens of attack helicopters squaring off in the desert. The brigade being trained would go back and forth between defensive scenarios and offensive sweeps in which it would drive north, then east, then invariably attack the opposing force with the rising sun at its back.
A commander’s toughest decision back then was whether to hit the opposing force’s lines hard on the left or hard on the right or punch right up the center. All was scripted and choreographed according to doctrine.
Today units start their training in The Box with a 90-mile convoy to one of six Forward Operating Bases where they will set up camp for two weeks. Along the way, they face the full range of threats they will have to deal with in Iraq.
The Box already had plenty of sand, rocky ridges and 117-degree heat. But with an eye for detail that leaves some Iraq veterans pinching themselves, Gen. Cone has added:
A dozen “villages,” mostly house trailers and cargo containers painted desert brown, where soldiers do street patrols and house-to-house searches among actual Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans supplied by a private firm. Some Iraqis welcome the troops by staging demonstrations and shrieking epithets in Arabic. Soldiers have to recruit young men for the new Iraqi security forces. Officers must cajole or threaten mayors and imams through interpreters to achieve their missions.
Insurgents, played by National Guard soldiers, who plant roadside bombs, ambush patrols, drive car bombs at sentries and fire mortars at troops in their isolated encampments. The bombs hurt no one, and the guns shoot blanks. Laser devices record hits, and referees judge who did what to whom.
Six Forward Operating Bases, austere camps enclosed by sand berms and concertina wire where battalion-sized units of 400 to 600 soldiers operate command posts, refuel and work on vehicles and helicopters, and plan missions. Soldiers sleep in big tents or under the stars, go without showers and subsist on MREs (meals ready to eat).
A gantlet of mock improvised explosive devices roadside bombs that soldiers traverse in convoys. They learn how to spot the most common explosives.
All the paperwork, negotiation and corruption that an officer can confront in Iraq when letting a contract for a water system, detaining a suspected bomb-maker or trying to get a conviction in an Iraqi court.
Two mock television news services modeled after Al-Jazeera and CNN whose reporters turn up at unwelcome moments to thrust cameras and microphones into soldiers’ faces. Their stories are broadcast over an internal system that commanders must consider as they try to win the hearts and minds of villagers.
“A lot of folks say a day at NTC is like a week in Iraq,” said Gen. Cone, a tall, balding redhead with a sonorous voice.
Aspects of the training aren’t unique to The Box. The Army has used role-players for years and has Iraqis training soldiers at several bases, including Fort Hood in Texas. But the climate, distances and intricacies of the The Box approximate Iraq far more closely than other sites. And the Iraq simulation presents commanders and troops with a dizzying array of problems.
At 0600 hours one July morning, a dozen sleepy-eyed officers and noncommissioned officers of the 1st Squadron/10th Cavalry Regiment sit around a horseshoe of folding tables in a room-sized tent. Their commander, Lt. Col. J.J. Love, wonders aloud: “Why didn’t we get mortared last night?”
The squadron’s 412 officers and soldiers, part of the 2nd Brigade of Fort Hood’s 4th Infantry Division, have been camped for 12 days at Forward Operating Base Dallas, a remote patch of The Box. With 3,100 other 4th Infantry Division troops and 300 from the Kentucky-based 101st Airborne Division camped at other bases, the 1-10 Cavalry is in The Box to prepare for an Iraq deployment this year. Ever since the squadron’s 26 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 30 Humvees, 40 or so trucks and dozens of other vehicles arrived at FOB Dallas, insurgents have disturbed the troops’ sleep with nightly mortar attacks. Patrols have failed to find them.
During the meeting, the officers review the past 24 hours, in which the squadron has suffered 18 war-game casualties, including three “killed in action” and four “died of wounds” from roadside bombs and mortar attacks.
Col. Love, 39, of Coldwater, Mich., and his staff also go over the day’s planned operations. Among a wealth of issues discussed:
A mayor’s demand that the squadron provide his village with 24-hour security.
The need to screen village residents to keep insurgents from infiltrating an upcoming hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage.
A requirement that soldiers photograph residents with weapons caches found in their homes to provide evidence for trials.
Afterward, as Col. Love chats with a visitor, two sharp explosions rend the air near the mess tent, 100 yards away.
“We’re getting mortared,” the commander observed, then turns to subordinates and barks at them to go find the source.
Shortly thereafter, he grits his teeth over a report that the mortar attack has killed two soldiers waiting in line for breakfast. The day has barely begun.
Still a simulation
For all that, and though every soldier must wear a helmet and body armor in The Box, the squadron’s top noncommissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Charles “Chuck” Davidson, 49, of Hernando, Miss., admits that it’s impossible to get troops to act and react as they will in Iraq.
“We can’t instill in them that this is Iraq,” said Sgt. Maj. Davidson, who joined the 1-10 Cavalry in July after a stint as sergeant major of Fort Irwin. “They know we’re in the California desert.”
Still, the mockup is close enough for some Iraq veterans. “I had to leave the set yesterday because it got too real,” said Staff Sgt. Ronnie Smith, 43, a paramedic who served in Iraq from April to December 2003 with the 933rd Military Police Company of the Illinois National Guard. He was playing an insurgent in one of the villages in The Box this summer. Gen. Cone, a former West Point instructor, isn’t done trying to turn The Box into a little Iraq. He’s been in contact with Hollywood experts and actor Carl Weathers who played boxer Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies to get their ideas on improving the illusion.
“They’re going to help us with the realism of explosions” of roadside bombs, the general said. “They seem to think they can put up a much larger explosion with less concussion. It gets your attention more.”
He also hopes Hollywood can improve the Iraq simulation’s moulage makeup kits used to simulate blood and guts so war-game wounds will look more real.
The general has even asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to consider sending its own trainees to The Box to take part in mock detainee operations.
Gen. Cone said it’s frustrating to hire people to portray Red Cross inspectors when it would be more valuable to have the real inspectors, who monitor military treatment of prisoners of war, come to The Box to learn how to deal with the military.
In a possible sign that the Army expects to be in Iraq for years to come an issue Gen. Cone declines to address his future budgets include $55 million to construct a 300-building urban mockup over the next three years where soldiers can train for Fallujah-type street-fighting.
“Our soldiers,” Gen. Cone said, “should see here everything they’re going to see in Iraq.”