Soldiers assigned to the 120th Combined Arms Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, participate in desert training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in 2009.
Soldiers simulate an RPG attack at the National Training Center in 2009.
The mock villages at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., are meant to simulate urban environments that soldiers might encounter in Afghanistan.
In the middle of the Mojave Desert, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, there is a place that looks just like Afghanistan.
There are villages with houses, shops, a mosque and a marketplace. But it is all a facade. The area is actually a U.S. Army installation, the Fort Irwin National Training Center. If you want to see how a decade of fighting has profoundly changed the way the U.S. prepares its soldiers for war, this is where you come.
As the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down, NPR's Arun Rath visited the base to find out how the end of the wars would change the mission here.
At War At Home
Col. Cameron Cantlon commands the Army's 3rd Cavalry Regiment, which is training at Fort Irwin before its final deployment to Afghanistan. Many of the soldiers say there are parts desert that are indistinguishable from Afghanistan. At a checkpoint a sign in red reads, "Danger — Live Fire In Progress."
The base is huge and has miles of regions with fictitious names. Goat Mountain is one of the many mock villages here at the National Training Center that's used for both live- and blank-fire exercises.
"We can practice going in and out of buildings, in and out of rooms in these buildings ... it's a great little training facility," Cantlon says.
The exercises are part of what is called full-immersion combat simulation. They use training dummies and even hire people who have had amputations to simulate victims in a combat scenario.
"When the soldiers respond they come to a scene [and] there's people dressed in uniform and they're screaming in pain," Cantlon says. "And it looks absolutely real. You can't beat that kind of training. Although it's hard ... but you're always better to go through that here for the first time than somewhere else for the first time."
Cantlon's soldiers also prepare for a situation that has been deadly for both soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan: clearing a structure that contains a mix of civilians and combatants. There are incredibly high stakes: Hesitate and you could die; pull the trigger and you could kill a child. This particular exercise is a response to what the Army calls an "insider threat," Cantlon says.
"[It] is training soldiers to deal with a situation that goes from normal to a situation where they have to defend themselves rapidly," he says.
For this exercise, the soldiers will clear a one story house on the top of a hill. It's meant to be an office, where the soldiers have been sent to talk to locals and then face an ambush. The situation suddenly turns violent and gunfire rings out. The soldiers check all the rooms, moving through the office and shooting at mannequins.
Like a Hollywood set, the building doesn't have a fourth wall or roof, so that the exercises can be filmed and reviewed. When they've cleared the building, they debrief and then do it again and again. Each team does this exercise at least four times, until it is second nature.
Evolving Training Grounds
This training is tailored to specific situations these soldiers will face in Afghanistan: from the realistic villages and cities to the stark terrain and the bloody fighting.
Maj. Gen. Ted Martin, the commander in charge of the center, says the training center has changed a lot since Sept. 11, 2001.
"The towns and villages are the direct result of lessons learned from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan," Martin says. "We need to learn to fight in an urban environment and also peacefully coexist."
As the U.S. moves beyond these specific conflicts, Martin says, the villages and cities in the training center will remain, but be repurposed as needed.
"They just happen to look like a little like Middle Eastern cities. It doesn't really matter; we can change the name of the cities," he says.
It will take more than a name change, however. The cities are complete with mosques, signs everywhere in Arabic. Afghans have been hired to play the parts of locals, village elders and insurgents living in the fake towns and cities. To give this sprawling fort a makeover and transform it into something other than an ultra-realistic desert training ground will likely be costly.
Even without a new real-world conflict, some training changes have already begun, Gen. Martin says. Now that the last Afghan-bound brigade has come through, Fort Irwin is focusing on the tactics of tomorrow.
"We have to be prepared for an uncertain future," he says. "If we see a new enemy tactic, we seek to train it here. Would you think that a brigade combat team would have to worry about cyberwarfare? Yes. So we train now, and I never would have thought 10 years ago that we would do that."
Fort Irwin has also been bolstering chemical- and biological-weapons training for the soldiers.
Paying For 'Readiness'
The military's training budget is in the billions of dollars, but that is shrinking. Last year, sequestration cuts forced the National Training Center to cancel almost a quarter of its training rotations, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has announced the size of the Army will shrink dramatically in the coming years.
Todd Harrison, a military budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says he doesn't see any evidence that the Army is actually getting more targeted training in the way Hagel envisions. In fact, he sees training centers like the one at Fort Irwin going back to traditional, very broad training despite looming budget cuts.
"They talk about it as full spectrum operations. So they're going to be training troops for a wide variety of contingencies," Harrison says. "I think in the future years, as funding becomes more constrained, we may need to focus that training more on the most likely scenarios ... a specialization, if you will, in readiness."
At the National Training Center, "readiness" is more than a buzzword; real readiness means that when combat occurs, fewer soldiers and civilians die.
But when it comes to potential threats, the list of scenarios the military could prepare for is infinite. The enemy could be insurgents or a regular military; the terrain could be anything imaginable, including outer space or cyberspace.
How many different scenarios the military can realistically prepare for is a question that the president, Congress and the Department of Defense will need to settle.