Money may be roadblock for tank training town

Mock urban center being built at Fort Knox

August 22, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT KNOX, Ky. -- On 26 acres in the middle of this Army post, work crews are putting the finishing touches on a mock town of 22 pastel-colored buildings, painting the walls, paving the roads, stringing electrical wire and landscaping the grounds.

Then will come the armored invasion, when the Army begins to use this state-of-the-art training area to teach tank units how to fight in an urban center.

As the training area is envisioned by its creators, computerized technology borrowed from amusement parks will provide the sounds, sights and surprises that tankers and Bradley fighting vehicle crews could expect in a hostile city.

Railroad cars will suddenly move across a road, cutting a tank column in two. Electrical wires will dangle overhead, sparks splaying from severed ends, forcing a tank commander to decide how much of a charge the vehicle can take without electrocuting all inside.

Cars might suddenly explode in front of a tank column on a road; anti-tank batteries could open fire, splashing the hapless vehicles with bright paint-ball rounds.

But although the "town" is supposed to be ready by December, its designers do not know when it will be fully used. Though the site's creators are spending about $15 million building the training center -- and several elite units, including the Army's Rangers, the Navy's Seals and the 101st Airborne Division, are eager to use it -- the $500,000 needed to put it into operation is a prisoner of tight training budgets and bureaucratic delays.

"I've got to have an inventory of special effects. I've got to have manpower in place and trained to run this thing," said F. L. "Andy" Andrews, Fort Knox's range manager and one of the designers of the training facility.

He does not have a commitment for any of those. Under the Defense Department's intricate financing procedures, no money can be allocated to run the urban training center until the Armor School at Fort Knox determines where the center will fit in its curriculum.

But Col. Richard P. Geier, director of the Armor School, said he could not determine that until the site was up and running, and its use evaluated.

As the financing is caught in the Army's bureaucratic round-robin, the Senate has passed an amendment to the military appropriations bill that provides $1 million for the Fort Knox urban training site. But the money is not in the House-passed spending bill for the Pentagon, meaning the two bills will have to be reconciled in conference.

Officials at Fort Knox say the site will open in October, with low-level training that does not involve the computer-generated special effects. The officials are confident, they said, that Congress will provide the money to make the site fully operational by January.

Advocates of the new training center say the need has been growing. For years, American forces have tried to avoid urban areas where fighting from house to house or street to street is inherently more difficult for both soldiers and civilians.

Instead, American forces have preferred to fight -- and been trained to fight -- on open plains where the mobility and firepower of M1A2 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Apache helicopter gunships, mobile howitzers and rocket launchers and low-flying fighter-bombers can be used to full advantage.

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