The first of a four-part series
In a remote part of the barren Mojave Desert in California, the military's National Training Center has built a model Afghan town to help troops practice counterinsurgency warfare.
In a remote part of the barren Mojave Desert in California, the military's National Training Center has built a model Afghan town to help troops practice counterinsurgency warfare. JJ Sutherland/NPR
During the training, hired actors play the roles of Afghan locals.
During the training, hired actors play the roles of Afghan locals. JJ Sutherland/NPR
There are 12 model Afghan towns on the base in the California desert. Here, the shell of the "Lyndon Marcus International Hotel" offers opportunities for urban training.
There are 12 model Afghan towns on the base in the California desert. Here, the shell of the "Lyndon Marcus International Hotel" offers opportunities for urban training. JJ Sutherland/NPR
Supplies, including water and guns, are flown into the remote bases at the training center.
Supplies, including water and guns, are flown into the remote bases at the training center. JJ Sutherland/NPR
U.S. troops board a helicopter at the base in the Mojave Desert in California.
U.S. troops board a helicopter at the base in the Mojave Desert in California. JJ Sutherland/NPR
Stacked shipping containers with false fronts at a model town in the California desert serve as training grounds for the streets of Afghanistan.
Stacked shipping containers with false fronts at a model town in the California desert serve as training grounds for the streets of Afghanistan. JJ Sutherland/NPR
America has the most battle-hardened Army in the nation's history, but it's an Army that may also be broken. The seven years of war — in Iraq and Afghanistan — have taken a toll on the troops, tanks and trucks, as well as on the Army's leaders.
As troops start their day at the Army's premiere training ground high in California's Mojave Desert, the sunrise casts light across more than 1,000 miles of sand, rocks and dust.
From the sky, the landscape seems almost empty. The occasional patrol raises spreading plumes of dust that hang suspended in the dawn air, a still life of brown cloud and blue sky. But not too many years ago, hundreds of tanks rumbled through this open desert, and artillery boomed.
"The center of gravity of our enemy then was mechanized forces — his artillery," says Lt. Col. Steve Smith, an artillery officer — the branch of the Army known as "The King of Battle." "It was pure force on force."
"It was purely our Army and our Air Force is going to destroy your army and your air force and your equipment," Smith says. "And when we do that, we win and we go home."
A Very Different Kind Of War
Now Smith is back at the National Training Center after a 10-year hiatus, preparing for a very different kind of war. Where there used to be 10 massive tank exercises each year, now there are none.
Instead, the Army has built a little piece of Afghanistan.
In this exercise, one of Smith's small combat outposts has just come under attack from the Taliban — mortars and machine guns.
Smith is with the 25th Infantry Division as commander of Task Force Steel, which includes about 800 soldiers. He is leading his troops from a Tactical Operations Center — or TOC — a couple of miles from the fight.
"We have a total of six U.S. WIA and six enemy KIA at this time, over," the call comes over the radio. That's six wounded Americans and six enemies killed.
At the command post, about a dozen men sit at two rows of tables where computers and radios are scattered about. The soldiers talk with each other and with other units over the Internet, in a special chat room called the jabber.
Sometimes Smith just uses his cell phone. In this kind of warfare, the radio is your most powerful weapon. Smith wants it to be second nature for his troops: When you make contact with the enemy, get on the local airwaves. The idea is to get the message out that the enemy Taliban is the problem.
"The center of gravity is the people now," Smith says. "So we've got to think and be a lot smarter on how we do business. And understand not only their culture but their problems and issues and how we can help them solve their problems and issues, and not so much concentrated on destroying enemy forces."
Smith says realizing and acting on this change wasn't an easy one for him or for the Army.
"If you were to ask me five years ago, I would say absolutely a hard switch to make," he says. "I think now five years into it, it's not so hard to make. We've been down the road enough times, we've had enough deployments to make that switch."
A Debate Over Training
That switch has sparked a debate inside the Army over what missions it can perform and how it should train its soldiers. The training, lately, is all about counterinsurgency, and some in the Army are wondering if the pendulum has swung too far.
"Obviously we can't go back to the extreme we were in 2003 where the force knew nothing about counterinsurgency," says Maj. Neal Smith, the operations officer of the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center. He teaches people how to fight the kind of wars we're in now in Iraq and Afghanistan. "But we also can't go to a force where if a tank division is needed someday — no one knows how to move, defend, attack or move to contact anymore."
But even he worries about what today's soldiers are being taught: how to fight a classic ground war.
"The risk we run as a force is that we have a generation of officers [who] have spent five to six years [at war] that never have done their conventional competency," Neal Smith says. "And if we were expected on short notice to fulfill that conventional competency, we would struggle very hard to do it as well as we did in 2003 during the attack to Baghdad."
The problem is there simply isn't enough time to teach people how to fight both conventional and unconventional wars — the soldiers are simply at war too much and troops now have only about 12 months between deployments.
"The reality is we really only have enough time to prepare soldiers for the next mission they're going to face," says Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who runs the Combined Arms Center for the Army. He oversees 18 different schools and training centers, including the National Training Center. "Then as time permits, we'll operate across the whole continuum of intensity of ops."
The Army says it won't even be able to really begin training for all kinds of warfare until 2010 at the earliest, so for now, the focus is on hearts and minds, not tanks and artillery.
Afghanistan In The California Desert
Flying over the National Training Center — it could be Afghanistan. The rocks are the same. The mountains look the same. The dust — that ever-present talcum-fine powder that gets into everything — that's the same too.
Helicopters are loaded up with water and food and ammo — even howitzers — and are lifting supplies to remote bases in the mountains.
In Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Steve Smith's task force will be spread out in small bases too, with just a few dozen troops in each. The soldiers will operate near Afghan villages, and to get the troops ready, the National Training Center has built a dozen towns in the California desert.
One of them is called Medina Wasl. It's Hollywood's version of an Islamic village, but it does the trick: There are a mosque, a market, a battered hotel and a butcher shop made out of shipping containers but plastered with authentic-looking brick and concrete.
It's here that Lt. Eric Hall is learning counterinsurgency. His patrol found a bomb on a market street. Good job, he thought, until he tried to persuade the local shopkeepers to stay away from it.
"Do you understand the danger from this bomb on the street?" Hall asks a shopkeeper through an interpreter. "The bomb could still hurt you from where it is."
"He says they don't care — they want to die," the translator replies.
Hall is coming to appreciate just how complicated and frustrating the art of irregular warfare can be. But for now, it's the only thing the Army is teaching.