War games in N.C. prepare Marines for the 21st century 'Urban Warrior' training program puts battleground in crowded cities

December 28, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- A ghostly platoon of Marines, clad in the black and gray camouflage of city warfare, streams into the rebel-held TV station in Urbania's capital. The thud of boots gives way to an explosion of gunfire and shouting. A radio squawks: "Two enemy KIAs. One friendly KIA."

Suddenly, from an adjacent building, rebel fire slices into the TV station, killing half the platoon. A frazzled young lieutenant radios a nearby tank to fire. A single shell reduces the three-story enemy stronghold to rubble.

And the war game ends. As the Marines from Charlie Company shuffle from this mock city deep in the North Carolina pines, they know they are witnessing a troublesome future.

These are the first shots of "Urban Warrior," a two-year training program to prepare the Corps to fight in the battleground of the 21st century: congested cities where roaming bands of paramilitary units or entrenched armies can pick apart larger U.S. forces.

"The snipers were just taking us out. There are so many places you can get a shot from," said Lt. Brian Shellman, the 24-year-old platoon leader from Savannah, Ga., somber and humbled by his fight with the "rebel" Marines. "We have mastered the field; we have not mastered the urban environment. It is a weakness."

The U.S. military has traditionally shied away from city fighting, a brutal form of combat that grinds up troops and decimates civilian populations. America's tactics and weaponry -- even its sophisticated spy satellites -- are designed for the open field, the domain of armies since Roman times.

Away from the open field

By 2010, some 70 percent of the world's population will live in sprawling coastal cities that will increasingly become the crossroads of trade, government and power. "The Sands of Iwo Jima" are giving way to "The Streets of Mogadishu." Or Sarajevo. Or Port-au-Prince.

"It is here our enemies will challenge us the urban areas will

become the centers of gravity for our foes," says Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant. "Urban Warrior will give us the template to build the Marine Corps of the 21st century."

At the same time, the Army is practicing its own version of Urban Warrior, with Airborne and Ranger troops testing tactics and weaponry in mock cities from Fort Benning, Ga., to Fort Polk, La.

Even so, the prospect of street-to-street fighting is making defense experts nervous.

A maze of high-rise buildings, along with a web of sewers and subway systems, can become the lair of the enemy, reported the National Defense Panel -- a Pentagon task force looking at the nation's defense needs in the next century -- this month.

These urban realities, the panel concluded, will present "thorny problems" for the U.S. military in the coming decades.

Learning to stay alive

Charlie Company's commander, Capt. Allen Boothby of Cincinnati, assembles his Marines in the courtyard to address some of these thorny problems.

The 33-year-old captain ambles about like a burly and soft-spoken football coach, questioning and critiquing their every move, punctuating his words here and there with a stream of tobacco juice.

Don't send too many Marines into a building at once because there could be a booby-trap, Boothby warns. "Smaller groups [bursting in] quickly work better," he says. "Punch. Punch. Punch." Be wary of walking past a window or doorway. Shout out your name when running down the hallway of a captured building so your own comrades don't mistake you for an enemy.

The young Marines scribble his words in small notebooks.

Boothby turns to Shellman, the lieutenant who led the operation, and questions the use of a tank shell to destroy the rebel-held building next door.

"If you want a tank to shoot and there's a school with 100 kids on the other side, it's a bad decision," he says. "You have to be smart about it. One of your machine guns can do the same job."

Brig. Gen. John Sattler, a Naval Academy graduate and assistant commander of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, stands nearby and listens. A Marine for 26 years, he marvels at the increasing complexity of his calling. "You're going to have a corporal decide national policy," he tells a visitor, "when he rounds the bend."

Mock city, mock assaults

For three days, the platoons and squads of Charlie Company take turns assaulting different sites at this sprawling, 30-building, European-style city, complete with church, lake and a soccer field.

Some mount their attacks from the roofs. Other Marines crawl through the sewer system and pop up through manhole covers. The rebels become increasingly cagey. Two of them pose as monks, chanting in front of the church, wooden crosses held aloft. Suddenly, they toss the crosses aside, pull rifles from under their robes and duck behind a low wall.

When the sun goes down, the Marines continue their operations in the darkness.

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