Revamped training has Guard fit to fight

At desert base in Calif., realistic exercises ready part-time soldiers for war

Teaching how to fight insurgents

April 25, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- Dusty and sunburned like his troops, Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver came to this sprawling desert training base to prepare for a year's duty in Iraq -- and finally put to rest a 15-year-old slight.

In the fall of 1990, Rodeheaver and fellow soldiers of the 48th Infantry Brigade, a Georgia-based National Guard unit, arrived at the Mojave Desert proving ground to gear up for war with Saddam Hussein's forces. But after weeks of exercises, the Army said the unit had poor leadership, could not maintain its vehicles and was unable to mount large-scale offensives.

"After 60 days, it still wasn't ready," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the top commander in the Persian Gulf War, wrote in his autobiography. On the day, weeks later, when the "Lightning Brigade" was finally declared fit for duty, the war ended.

This time around, said Rodeheaver, a 52-year-old Georgia Power Co. general manager, "we are going to make sure we are vindicated."

The Army can't afford to prove Rodeheaver -- or his brigade -- wrong. Half of the combat troops in this Iraq war are members of the National Guard.

To make sure they are fit to fight, the Army has revamped its training to better prepare the part-time soldiers for the field and to teach them what to expect once they get there. The lessons are designed to be so real that the government has hired Iraqi-Americans to play roles ranging from insurgents to local officials and Al-Jazeera journalists.

Before National Guard units are sent off to places such as "Forward Operating Base Detroit" -- a collection of tents, armor and Humvees in the Mojave encircled in razor wire and designed to replicate an American outpost -- they are required to undergo training in the basics of combat.

The 48th spent more than two months at Fort Stewart, Ga., honing its skills in everything from marksmanship and first aid training to responding to sniper attacks.

Meeting a new threat

When the brigade finally arrived at Fort Irwin, an unforgiving expanse of parched hills and high desert roughly the size of Rhode Island, it found a different training program to prepare its members for a different kind of war.

Gone were the 1990 lessons for sweeping tank-on-tank battles -- the kind the brigade would have faced against Soviet forces on the plains of Europe or with Iraq's elite Republican Guard along the approaches to Baghdad. Armored columns no longer sent up plumes of dust as they surged across the desert, much as they did in 1942 when a flamboyant tank officer named George S. Patton Jr. first came here to prepare soldiers for World War II.

Instead, the National Training Center has evolved to teach tactics in fighting a new threat: insurgencies. A dozen villages now dot the landscape, the largest with 40 buildings. There are plans to build a 300-building site to replicate the dense and deadly urban landscape of Iraq's Fallujah or Mosul.

The soldiers from Georgia and elsewhere face what is known as asymmetrical warfare, where gun-toting guerrillas or insurgents can mount quick attacks and slip back into the civilian population, grinding away at a larger, better-equipped force such as the U.S. military.

There are 1,100 role players on the battlefield, posing as insurgents, civilians or Iraqi National Guardsmen, who are portrayed by Nevada Guard soldiers. More than 200 of these actors are Iraqi-Americans, many of them recent immigrants who now live in San Diego. They each earn about $4,000 from a government contractor for the three weeks they are here.

Eight of the center's 12 villages are being used in the war game, outlined in a script that runs more than 1,600 pages. The soldiers are given a breakdown of the ethnic and religious groups in the villages -- Shiite Muslims, Sunnis, Kurds -- and which ones are friendly, hostile or a mixture. There are also Iraqi-Americans portraying Al-Jazeera reporters, whose broadcasts can affect the stability of the villages.

Part of the training involves how to defend convoys and thwart roadside bombs. Trucks and armored vehicles drive through a new, $2.5 million convoy course, complete with buildings, using the latest technical equipment to prevent the detonation of roadside bombs.

Throughout the two weeks, soldiers are tested with mock mortar attacks, infiltration of their bases and ambushes.

"We'll keep them up all night long," said Col. Steve Bailey, the center's operations chief. "It's really about creating a laboratory and learning how to face everything they'll see in Iraq."

What is most challenging in the training, officers and soldiers said, is the human element of warfare. Coaxing intelligence information from villagers and dealing with the language barrier are among the biggest hurdles, they said, echoing their counterparts in Iraq.

"This is totally different," said Lt. Col. Mark London, 41, the operations officer for the Georgia brigade. "You don't know who the enemy is or where he is."

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