Training For An Uncertain Military Future In The Calif. Desert The military's training center at Fort Irwin in California is complete with mock Middle Eastern villages. But as the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down, how will this facility change?
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Training For An Uncertain Military Future In The Calif. Desert

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Training For An Uncertain Military Future In The Calif. Desert

Training For An Uncertain Military Future In The Calif. Desert

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: Those aren't real bullets being fired. They're blanks. In fact, everything around me right now, this village where I'm standing is fake. The town has everything an ordinary town would have. There are houses, shops. There's a marketplace with goods. They're made out of plastic but it's bread and meat and vegetables. There's a mosque and a hotel...


RATH: ...and armed insurgents. It looks like we're in Afghanistan. It's actually a U.S. Army base in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the Fort Irwin National Training Center.

COL. CAMERON CANTLON: There're two observers up there so we don't want to go any further that way.


CANTLON: We'd end up in the middle of a bunch of guys with rifles.


RATH: If you want to see how a decade of war has profoundly changed the way we train our soldiers to fight, this is where you come. As the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down, we came to find out how the end of the wars would change the mission here. That's our cover story today.


RATH: Even though no real rounds are being fired, there are explosive charges. It's not safe for us to stay here. Our main destination is a place where they are using live rounds, which makes sense if you're trying to simulate war as closely as possible. Col. Cameron Cantlon makes producer Rebecca Hirsher and me don flak jackets and helmets before we get into his armored vehicle.

CANTLON: Feel safer?

RATH: Yeah. Col. Cantlon commands the Army's 3rd Cavalry Regiment. They're training here in Fort Irwin before their final deployment to Afghanistan. We're driving through the Mojave Desert about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but many of the soldiers we talk to tell us there are parts of the desert here that are indistinguishable from Afghanistan.

At a checkpoint, a sign in red reads: Danger - Live Fire in Progress. The base is huge. We drive about 35 miles through a number of regions with made-up names, past the fake city of Sharq Dawaza Jamea and north into Ertebat District until we arrive at Goat Mountain.

CANTLON: Well, we'll go up to the top here. It's one of the many mock villages here at NTC. And they took this mock village, they turned it into a - both for live fire and for blank fires. We can practice going in and out of buildings, in and out of rooms in these buildings. Really, it's a great little training facility.

RATH: We walk up a gravely hill toward the buildings but before we get to the top I see something that stops me. It's a body in a soldier's uniform lying on the ground next to a stretcher. A few steps closer and we can see it's a dummy. Col. Cantlon explains it's a leftover from an earlier exercise, another part of the full-immersion combat simulation.

CANTLON: Down here this part of the training is load a casualty in these trucks. We have a lot of what we call moulage kits, replicate the weight, the size. And one yesterday, it was almost too real for some soldiers. There was an explosion next to one of the generators and the soldier ran out there. And the training center hires amputees and then using moulage kits.

When the soldiers respond they come to a scene where there's people dressed in uniform and, you know, they're screaming in pain. And it looks absolutely real. You can't beat that kind of training. Although it is hard, I mean, there are some soldiers that really were disturbed. But you're always better to go through that here for the first time than somewhere else for the first time.

RATH: We continue up the hill. Cantlon explains that today his men and women are practicing for a situation that has been deadly for both soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, clearing a structure that contains a mix of innocents and combatants. It's incredibly high stakes. Hesitate and you could die. Pull the trigger too fast and you could kill a child.

CANTLON: This was tailored for what we call the insider threat, which is training soldiers to deal with a situation that goes from normal to a situation where they have to defend themselves rapidly. We'll get a chance to talk to soldiers up here. Good sight.

RATH: For this exercise, the soldiers will clear a one-story house on the top of this hill. It's meant to be an office where the soldiers have been sent to talk to locals and then face an ambush. The building is sort of like a Hollywood set, but instead of there being no fourth wall, there's no roof - for the same reason as a Hollywood set. These exercises are filmed and reviewed the same way NFL coaches review game tape.

The exercise begins with normal introductions before the situation suddenly turns violent.

CANTLON: Ah, look at Salaam.


UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Eagle, eagle, eagle.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: We're coming in. Bang, bang, bang, bang. One, what do you got?

RATH: The soldiers check all of the rooms, moving through the office and shooting at mannequins. When they've cleared the building, they debrief and then do it again and again. Each team does this exercise at least four times until it's second nature. Every soldier in the squadron gets a turn, even if they won't see direct combat.

CAPT. MARITZABEL MUSTAFA: My name is Maritzabel Mustafa. I will be the logistical officer for the SVOT team AUP Prevention.

RATH: Capt. Mustafa is one of the few soldiers we encounter who will be going to Afghanistan for the first time. Her job there will be to work with and train Afghan uniformed police. That means a lot of interacting with locals in potentially sensitive circumstances. She's been learning about Afghan culture and customs and more subtle things like the way body language is different there.

MUSTAFA: Well, for me it gives me a better perspective of my security forces that will be, you know, in charge of protecting us down range as we go and conduct key leader engagements.

RATH: What's it like? Have you had the situation where you're interacting with these actors who are portraying locals and that sort of thing?

MUSTAFA: Oh, that definitely gives me a perspective into what we're going into. It helped me come up with a the techniques to engage them, talk to them and I understand their culture at the same time.

RATH: We heard over and over how tailored this training is to specific situations these soldiers will face in Afghanistan. From the realistic villages and cities to the stark terrain to the bloody fighting. This is a mini-Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. Ted Martin is the commander in charge of the center.

MAJ. GEN. TED MARTIN: If you were to go back in time to the National Training Center pre-9/11, it was called heavy metal combat, 14 days in the octagon. And it was a clean battlefield and it was clean in that there was friendly and enemy and nothing in between. No cities, nothing to get in the way. Actually the towns and villages here were direct result of lessons learned from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we need to learn how to fight in an urban environment. How to also peacefully coexist.

RATH: Now, that's got to be sort of tough because you come out of a period where we've had two major conflicts where we - over time we figured out what we're dealing with. And now I can't imagine that you - that it would still make sense to have training in mock Iraqi or mock Afghan villages.

MARTIN: Oh, well, see, I disagree with you on that. But we're not going to lose these cities. We're not going to give it up and we're not going to give - it doesn't matter what flavor the - as long as they speak a different language, have a culture you have to study, you know, they just kind of happen to look a little bit like Middle Eastern cities. It doesn't really matter. We can change the name of the cities. In fact, we do frequently.

If it's in the old Iraqi days they had a particular name and now, they have an Afghan name. And in the future, we'll move to probably change them to another name, just to keep people thinking.

RATH: But it will take more than a name change. The cities we saw were complete with mosques, signed everywhere in Arabic. Actual Afghans have been hired to live in the fake towns and cities, playing the parts of locals, village elders and insurgents. To give this sprawling fort a makeover, transform it into something other than an ultra-realistic desert training ground will be costly. But in the absence of a specific conflict, Gen. Martin says that some changes have already begun. Now that the last Afghan-bound brigade has come through, Fort Irwin is focusing on the tactics of tomorrow.

MARTIN: We have to be prepared for an uncertain future. Our job is to, you know, if we see a new enemy tactic, we seek to train it here. And we could look at would you think that a brigade combat team would have to worry about cyberwarfare? Yes. So we train now, and I never would have thought 10 years ago that we would do that.

RATH: The training center has also been bolstering chemical and biological weapons training for the soldiers. All of this costs money, a lot of money. The military's training budget is in the billions of dollars, but the budget is shrinking. Last year, sequestration cuts forced the National Training Center to cancel almost a quarter of its training rotations, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced the size of the Army will shrink dramatically in the coming years.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: Our recommendations favor a smaller and more capable force, putting a premium on rapidly deployable self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries.

RATH: Todd Harrison is a military budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He doesn't see any evidence that the Army is actually getting more targeted in a way Hagel envisions. In fact, he sees training centers like the one at Fort Irwin going back to traditional, very broad training despite looming budget cuts.

TODD HARRISON: They talk about it as full-spectrum operations. So they're going to be training troops for a wide variety of contingencies. Everything from, you know, combined arms operations, you know, tank battles and that nature, all the way over to, you know, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism-type operations, and operating in a chemical environment or biological environment.

And I think in the future years, as funding becomes more constrained, we may need to focus that training more on the most likely scenarios and maybe tailor it so that not all units get the same training, kind of a specialization, if you will, in readiness.

RATH: Readiness is a word we heard over and over at the National Training Center. It's more than a buzzword. Real readiness means that when combat occurs, fewer soldiers and fewer civilians die. But when it comes to potential threats, the list of scenarios the military could prepare for is almost infinitely expandable. The enemy could be insurgents or a regular army. The terrain could be anything imaginable, including outer space or cyberspace.

How many different scenarios the military can realistically prepare for, that's a question the president and Congress and will need to settle.


RATH: Coming up, the latest from Ukraine, and we look at Russia's enormous military. New tanks, jets and artillery are part of a force massing on the Ukrainian border. But below the surface, Russia's military might not be so impressive. That's in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.


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