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Marines bring Iraq lessons into street-fighting drills.

TWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIF. -- The Marines are building an urban-combat center here which may be the largest such facility in the world. Ultimately, it will consist of several complexes of" buildings designed to resemble Iraqi towns and villages. The first two, with 126 structures, opened in 2005. The newest of these, known as Range 215, cost $16 million. A third section, with 375 buildings, was nearing completion at press time. "Eventually, we would like to have 1,500," Col. Jim Braden, chief of staff of the Marine Air Ground Tank Force Training Command, told National Defense. "Of course, that depends on funding."

The Twentynine Palms site is huge compared to most similar centers, which usually are known as military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) facilities. For example, the Army range at Fort Lewis, Wash., has 50 buildings, and the one at Fort Riley, Kan., has 26.

The Leathernecks operate an urban-target complex called Yodaville at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., which features 178 buildings, but it focuses solely on close-air-support training.

The Twentynine Palms facility, by contrast, can provide training in all war-fighting functions, including maneuver, fires, communications and control, intelligence, logistics and force protection.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which includes the battalion currently training here has seen the complex and he is impressed.

"I just had the opportunity to go out and look at it," he told a group of defense writers in Washington, D.C. "It is unbelievably realistic."

A small group of reporters recently were invited to tour the site during a month-long, combined-arms training exercise dubbed Mojave Viper, which is designed to prepare Marines to operate in the cities and villages of Iraq.

The facility sits on the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. With 932 square miles of space, the base is the service's largest installation, bigger than Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Quantico, Va., put together. At some point in his or her career, almost every Marine will pass through here.

Twentynine Palms' huge size, combined with its isolation--deep in California's Mojave Desert--makes it ideal for live-fire training with tanks, artillery and combat aircraft, Marine officers said. The base has plenty of space for an urban-combat training facility.

The center's two existing complexes consist of steel shipping containers, provided by Allied Container Systems, of Pleasant Hill, Calif. with windows, doors and stairwells cut into them. Painted desert tan, they are arranged in one two and three-story configurations along dusty, streets, alleys and courtyards.

"What we've tried to do is replicate an average Iraqi village, said Lt. Col. Patrick Kline, the facility's director.

Newly planted palm trees line the entrance to one community. The most prominent building in the complex is a blue-domed structure meant to look from the outside like a mosque. Underground tunnels run throughout the village, which enables insurgent defenders to move freely without exposing themselves to Marine fire.

Adding to the sense of reality, the complexes are inhabited by role players dressing and acting as Iraqi interpreters, villagers, officials, policemen and insurgents. Most of them are Marines known as "coyotes" from the tactical training and exercise control group (TTECG), which is based here, Kline said.

Approximately 50 of the role players, however, are Iraqi contractors, who are Arabic-speaking U.S. residents, Kline said. "Each one plays a particular character--a mayor a sheik, a police chief, a shopkeeper," he said. Several of them operate a small souk or bazaar, where they vie loudly for the attention of individual Marines and argue vigorously among themselves.

The role players "are divided into family groups, clans and neighborhoods," Kline said. According to the training scenario, "one third of them are friendly; one third are neutral, and one third are unfriendly."

During the exercise, Kline said, the Marines "have to go into the village, assert control over it and figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys." They practice a procedure called "cordon and knock," surrounding a neighborhood and sending teams door to door, with role playing interpreters, to conduct systematic searches of every house.

Trainers from the TTECG, wearing orange vests, watch the Marines' every move, advising and correcting as they go. For example: "Marines are taught not to stick their weapons out of windows," said Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva. "That just makes them targets."

Because only a minority of the villages is believed to be unfriendly, Marines are taught to avoid antagonizing them as much as possible, Kline said. "They're not going in and kicking down doors. First, they ask for permission to search. Quite often, they are invited in and even offered tea.

Since the Iraqi insurgency began heating up in 2003, the Marines have increased their emphasis on cultural-awareness training, said Lt. Col. Marc La Clair, the TIECG's director.

"We try to teach them how to act in a foreign culture," he said. "A Marine's job is to go into a village and try to instill confidence that we're there to help."

The training emphasizes communication skills, La Clair said. "In counterinsurgency, it's essential that you communicate with the population," he said. "The population is not the enemy, but the enemy hides within the population. If we can show the average Iraqi that we're there to help, we're more likely to succeed."

The Corps doesn't expect average Marines to become fluent in the Arabic language, La Clair said. However, he added: "We do try to teach them how to say basic commands they need to know, like 'stop,' 'get out of your vehicle,' 'go away" and 'do not enter.'"

The role players try, to replicate the reception the Marines are likely to experience in Iraq. Some of are friendly. Others are dubious and frightened. Still others are cold and suspicious.

And some are difficult to decipher. During one recent exercise, members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment--training for their imminent deployment--encountered two Iraqis, an apparent blind man and his escort.

Seconds later, an explosion rocked the terrain. The Marines seized the Iraqis and questioned them. The blind man turned out to be phony, and the two were taken into custody.

As part of the training scenario, the Marines often come under fire without warning. They also are required to use their weapons to clear buildings of hostile insurgents. This phase of training, however, does not involve live fire, explained Capt. Bryan Grayson, a TTECG team chief.

"We use SESAMS (the special effects small arms marking system)," he said. SESAMS slightly modifies the M-16A2 5.56 mm rifle and the M9 9 mm pistol to fire rounds filled with colored paste that leaves a visible mark wherever it hits.

"It also stings a little bit, and that makes a Marine aware that he's been hit," Grayson said.

The training also employs an element of equipment that, at the beginning of the Iraq war, was thought to be obsolete for close-in street fighting--heavy armor. "A lot of people thought that armor was no longer useful for urban combat," said Kline. "That is so not true."

Tanks, in particular, provide shock value, firepower and protection for Marines under fire, Kline said. Seeing a 70-ton Abrams rumbling through your neighborhood at 40 mph can be a frightening experience, he said.

Another armored vehicle favored by Marines in urban combat is the amphibious assault vehicle, or AAV. Originally designed to move Marines from ship to shore while under enemy fire, AAVs are being pressed into service in the desert towns of Iraq as armored personnel carriers.

"The AAV is the closest thing to an armored personnel carrier that we have," Kline said. It can carry 21 combat-equipped troops, compared to six troops for a light-armored vehicle and nine for an Army Stryker.

Both the tank and the AAV, however, are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices. In November 2004, an Army Abrams was destroyed by a roadside bomb, which killed the driver. In August 2005, another one took the lives of 14 Marines and an interpreter aboard an AAV.

To defeat roadside bombs, one tank at Twentynine Palms was equipped with the M1 mine-clearing blade system. This device is a 4.5 ton set of electrically operated steel plows mounted on the tank's front, where it can clear surface or buried mines up to six feet ahead of the vehicle.

Twentynine Palms is the only Marine facility outside of Iraq that is authorized to conduct training with countermeasure equipment for improvised explosive devices. It also has the service's only functioning stateside blue-force tracker system. The blue-force system is a satellite-based, sensing and communications system designed to trace the locations of friendly forces.

During the exercise, two AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters, each armed with a 20 mm cannon and a wide variety, of precision-guided missiles, swooped down to simulate close-air support.

No fixed-wing aircraft were in evidence, but F/A-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and F-14 Tomcats frequently participate in these exercises. Twentynine Palms has built an expeditionary airfield, with an 8,000-foot runway, the longest in the Marine Corps. It can accommodate the largest aircraft in the military inventory, Braden said.

In addition, he said, the Marines are planning to break ground in coming weeks for an "urban-aviation" facility to increase the role of aircraft in the training here. This activity will include unmanned aerial vehicles.

"We're valiantly trying to get more UAVs out here," he said. The Corps only has two UAV squadrons, he noted. One of them, VMU-1, is based here, at Twentynine Palms. it flies the Pioneer UAV and serves as the service's primary test bed for such systems.

Many of VMU-1's UAVs, however, have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. To make up for the shortage, the Marines are planning to add an additional UAV unit at Twentynine Palms to focus on training, testing and evaluation.

As training operations expand at Twentynine Palms, plans are being complicated by several ecological issues, explained Lt. Col. Jon Aytes, the base's director for natural resources and environmental affairs. Perhaps the most serious, he said, is the status of the desert tortoise, which is listed as activity that Can harm or harass it is illegal and punishable by up to six months in jail for each violation and civil penalties.

For that reason, Marines are required to go to great lengths to protect the tortoise, Aytes said. "If a convoy comes across a tortoise in the road, we have Marines who are trained in how to move them and send them on their way."

To protect the tortoises even further, the base is opening a $16 million captive-breeding facility, for the species. The Marines are taking this step as a matter of self-interest, Aytes said. "If the tortoise is downgraded to endangered, the restrictions will increase, and that will have a negative impact on training."

Most observers argue that the Twentynine Palms course, with its urban-combat emphasis, is useful. "This is pretty good training," said the 3rd battalion's Sgt. Casey Ziegler, who is headed back for his third deployment to Iraq. "We're better prepared than we were the last time I went out."

John Pike, director of Global Security.org, of Alexandria, Va., agrees that such facilities are helpful. "You have to have them," he said. "You should train like you fight, and we're fighting one of the largest urban guerrilla wars in history.

"The more of these facilities you have, and the more realistic they are, the more likely your Marines are to come home safely."

Many of the sites, however, are too small, Pike said. "The small ones lack the complexities of real city neighborhoods," he said. "The advantage of the real big ones is you never know what's around the corner. There's always something unexpected--just like in a city."

Meanwhile, a study released in December by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, asserted that troops from all military services need more opportunities to train jointly in urban operations.

The study named Twentynine Palms as one of a handful of bases capable of supporting such training. Others included the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.; the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Multinational Training Center at Grafenwoehr/Hohenfels, Germany.

Leathernecks Upgrade Combat Training Equipment

TWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIF. -- The Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force Training Command here, is installing a number of new devices that are designed to help Leathernecks headed to Iraq and Afghanistan improve their fighting skills.

The Corps is acquiring the devices after awarding a series of contracts over the past several months to Lockheed Martin Corp. The agreements require the company to provide a variety of live-fire and virtual training systems.

Twentynine Palms--the largest installation in the service-is where most Marines receive their final combat training before deployment.

The new systems are intended to make the training as realistic as possible without putting lives at risk, said Andre Elias, virtual training program director at Lockheed Martin Simulation,

Training and Support, of Orlando, Fla. Included, he told National Defense, are combat-vehicle simulators, virtual convoy trainers, live-fire training systems and advanced gunnery training systems.

In January 2005, Lockheed Martin received a $5.1 million contract to deliver four Virtual Combat Convoy Trainers, or VCCTs, to Twentynine Palms. The VCCTs-modified to match the Marines' Humvees-are being used to train troops deploying to Iraq to recognize and respond to ambushes and improvised explosives.

Each of the Marines' VCCTs occupies a 53-foot, self-contained, deployable commercial trailer. Using a full-scale Humvee and a simulation system that replicates scenarios troops might encounter, it enables combat crews to communicate, maintain situational awareness and acquire targets while moving at highway speeds in a convoy.

The same system is being used by the Army, Elias said. "To date, 25,000 soldiers and Marines have been trained on VCCTs," he added.

Lockheed partners with Firearms Training Systems Inc., of Suwannee, Ga., to provide the firearms included in the VCCT system.

In May 2005, Lockheed won a five-year job worth up to $17.1 million to provide live-fire training systems for Twentynine Palms. The company's plant in Huntsville, Ala., produces, deploys and supports a variety of live-fire targets and simulators, including infantry and armor pop-ups, shoot-back devices, black smoke and dust generators, and three-dimensional representations of military vehicles, explained Yousef Imam, Lockheed's live-fire targets business manager.

"To train as they fight, Marines have to shoot real bullets at real targets," he said. "These devices provide the means to do that."

This past August, Lockheed landed three more Marine contracts totaling $15.2 million, including a follow-on order for two VCCTs and two Advanced Gunnery Training Systems, or AGTS.

The AGTS is a simulator designed to train individuals, crews and platoons in the skills of precision gunnery, Imam said. It allows them to transition rapidly from electronic training to live-fire schooling or combat gunnery.

Lockheed was scheduled to deliver four full-fidelity AGTS systems for light-armored vehicles and 17 deployable systems by December 2005. Another order, for 10 deployable MA1A Abrams tank-training systems, is slated for delivery by April 2007.
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Title Annotation:mojave VIPER
Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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