Marines Bring Iraq Lessons into Street-Fighting Drills

By Kennedy, Harold | National Defense, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Marines Bring Iraq Lessons into Street-Fighting Drills


Kennedy, Harold, National Defense


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. …

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