Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Soldiers at the National Training Center in simulated combat exercise.
Photo credit: Gustavo Bahena/National Training Center

April 30, 2012 - FSI Stanford, CISAC News

Through explosions and gunfire, Stanford scholars see troops train for Afghanistan combat

By Adam Gorlick

Men are playing soccer in the street when soldiers from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division arrive in Shar-e-Tiefort. Vendors selling vegetables, teapots and toys shout to the troops who are here to speak with town leaders about building better roads and schools. The greetings in Pashto and Dari don’t sound like taunts – just a noisy welcome.

The place seems safe.

But chaos explodes when a roadside bomb detonates beneath a Humvee. Downed soldiers lie in the road. Survivors take cover behind the damaged vehicle – its side now stained by blood-red streaks.

A sniper shoots though a second-story window. The Americans return fire and the brat-a-tat-tat of machine guns is followed by the clinking of shell casings raining on the ground.

Then, silence. The sniper is hit. Or reloading. The troops flank the brick and concrete buildings, trying to secure their position and eliminate more threats in this small mountain town.

They’re not fast enough. A rocket-propelled grenade rips the air, striking close to the disabled Humvee and wiping out several more troops.

Overlooking from a nearby rooftop, Stanford scholars watch the action – a training session at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center, a sort of graduate school in California’s Mojave Desert for combat troops going to Afghanistan.

The bullets aren’t real. Neither are the bombs, the blood and the casualties. The soccer players, street vendors and sniper are either soldiers stationed at Fort Irwin or some of the hundreds of role players hired to populate Shar-e-Tiefort and the 10 other mock towns and villages built to replicate communities in Afghanistan.

But the tension and pressure of battle are genuine.

“You watch them train, and you become aware that the soldiers and the military supporting them are doing the best they can,” says Norman Naimark, a history professor and senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies who had the rooftop view.

“But you know some people are going to die.”

From the ivory tower to the trenches

Karl Eikenberry knows that tension better than any civilian. Now at FSI as the Payne Distinguished Lecturer, Eikenberry was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. Before that, he was there as a lieutenant general overseeing the American-led coalition forces.

Eikenberry has delivered several formal talks and had countless conversations with scholars about the war in Afghanistan since arriving at Stanford this past summer. He’s proud of the Army he served for more than 35 years, and he speaks often of how adept it has become at meeting the needs of modern warfare.

Organizing the February trip to the National Training Center with the help of Viet Luong and Charlie Miller – Army colonels who are currently visiting scholars at FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation – gave Eikenberry the chance to show a group of about 20 historians, doctors and political scientists exactly what he’s been talking about.

CISAC visiting scholars and Army colonels Viet Luong (left) and Charlie Miller (center) organized the trip to Fort Irwin with Karl Eikenberry, a distinguished lecturer at FSI and the former ambassador to Afghanistan.
Photo credit: Adam Gorlick

“I wanted them to have the opportunity to see the technology and the networked
approach to combat,” he said. “And I also wanted them to realize that – beyond all the technologies, beyond all the equipment – the most decisive force on any battlefield for the U.S. Army remains the individual soldier and the individual leader.”

Trips like this inform a scholar’s work. And the papers produced, the lectures delivered, and interactions with other academics and policymakers can help shape the way politicians, government officials and military leaders think about wars.

“It’s always very helpful to get out of the ivory tower and into the trenches,” says Amy Zegart, a CISAC affiliate and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who focuses on the effectiveness of the country’s national security organization.

“Even for someone like me who’s been studying the military for more than 15 years, I learned things I didn’t know before,” she says. “I hadn’t appreciated how hard it is to coordinate the human element when you’re going in and doing counterinsurgency operations. You can think about it abstractly, but to see it makes it more tangible.”

Before 9/11, the Army’s training program was shaped by Cold War perspective. Tanks ruled the battlefield, soldiers were easily identified by their uniforms, and nobody thought about the tactics that have come to define the war in Afghanistan.

“The Army wasn’t planning to fight counterinsurgency in a remote country in Central and South Asia,” Eikenberry says of the organization in which he rose through the ranks. “But today, if you look at the effectiveness of our forces on the ground, it’s extraordinary.”

In The Box

Roughly the size of Rhode Island, Fort Irwin is home to the largest and most expansive of the three combat training facilities designed for each branch of the military. About 4,500 soldiers and their families are permanently stationed here, and another 50,000 troops rotate through three weeks of combat training each year.

The base is a community unto itself, with the shopping centers, schools, gyms and restaurants you’d expect to find almost anywhere in America.

But all familiarity vanishes in “The Box”– the National Training Center’s 1,250-square-mile operations area that sprawls across an otherwise empty high desert with infinite views of mountains, dirt and sky.

Activated in 1980, the NTC was filled with tanks and troops expecting to take on the Soviets. Trainers blasted this no-man’s land with every live weapon in the defense department’s arsenal with the exception of nuclear bombs.

Just before 9/11, the Army began rethinking the command structure of war. Rather than having generals make top-down decisions for thousands of troops, military leaders figured it was wiser to have smaller units do what made the most sense given their individual combat situations.

The move toward decentralization was complete soon after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

“By that time, we were well-structured to be able to fight smaller guerilla and insurgent networks,” Eikenberry says. “We changed how we were going to fight, and that meant we needed to change how we trained.”

Tanks rolled out of The Box, replaced by a new land of make-believe. Apartments. Courthouses. Government buildings. Mosques. A construction boom of facades ushered in a new way of training for the next generation of warriors.

Replicating the worst

The Army’s 1st Infantry Division arrives in Shar-e-Tiefort, a mock Afghan town at the National Training Center.
Photo credit: Adam Gorlick

As the 1st Infantry Division moves through a makeshift market in Shar-e-Tiefort, crowds of men bicker and barter over vegetables while women shrouded in burqas hover in doorways.

They scuttle and take cover when the roadside bomb explodes and the gunfight begins, but they don’t break character.

While the skirmish looks and sounds like the real thing, what’s happening is essentially an elaborate game of laser tag. The vehicles, soldiers and actors posing as insurgents and civilians wear targets that detect safe lasers being fired at them from otherwise authentic weapons.

When they’re hit, they hear a beep. Game over.

The terrain of the Mojave Desert may not be similar to the high peaks and lush valleys of northern Afghanistan, but there’s enough here to disorient – and ultimately familiarize – the soldiers with what awaits them when they deploy.

Pyrotechnics create bursts of flames and leave clouds of smoke. Speakers wired through some of the town’s 480 buildings play the soundtrack of urban warfare: Shouts, shrieks and cries replace the brief quiet that comes when rounds are no longer being fired.

Even the stench of battle is copied. Hidden sensors emit the stink of burning flesh and rotting garbage.

Scripts and mock weapons used for the combat scenarios are constantly changed and updated in response to new battlefield threats. When troops in Iraq saw a surge in casualties caused by a newly developed grenade, they were able to describe the device in enough detail so artillery experts at the NTC could replicate it.

Within 96 hours of initial reports of the new explosive, soldiers at Fort Irwin were being trained how to outsmart it.

“We try to replicate the worst possible day they’ll ever see and make sure they learn from it,” Capt. Richard Floer tells the Stanford group while escorting them through The Box.

“In Afghanistan, there’s no rewind,” he says. “There’s no stop or pause or do it again.”

Bad guys and best practices

The training isn’t all about offensive and defensive tactical maneuvers. The NTC has designed dozens of scenarios meant to replicate actual missions carried out in Afghanistan. Some involve nothing but fighting. Others rely heavily on role-playing, where soldiers have face-to-face meetings with actors posing as town leaders who are eager – or sometimes resistant – to negotiate local stability for the American promise of improved infrastructure.

Occasionally there’s a combination of force and diplomacy. An operation meant to engage local officials can be derailed by insurgents bent on driving the Americans away, like the members of the 1st Infantry Division experienced in their training.

Soldiers plan their next move after a simulated IED attack "kills" a comrade and disables their vehicle.
Photo credit: Adam Gorlick

And once the insurgents are killed and the casualties are tended to, the meetings sometimes go on.

“You need to dust yourself off and continue with your mission,” says Luong, the Army colonel and visiting scholar at CISAC who fought in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 and in Iraq four years earlier.

“You have to show the bad guys that they can’t just scare you away,” he says. “You need to show them that the Army can stay on mission.”

As the United States draws down its military presence in Afghanistan, the NTC is preparing new training programs for future wars. Based on newly imagined conflicts, the so-called decisive action training will pull together the motivations of military forces, freewheeling criminal organizations, guerillas and insurgents to create a host of worst-case scenarios.

Tanks, bombs, weapons of mass destruction and political, religious and cultural grudges will all come into play.

“We’re looking at the world’s worst actors and using all of their best practices,” says Brig. Gen Terry Ferrell, Fort Irwin’s commanding officer. “This will serve as our new baseline training. Once we get specific orders, we will refine that skill set and respond accordingly.”

Learning from mistakes

After about an hour of simulated combat in Shar-e-Tiefort, the troops of the 1st Infantry Division are sitting in a room watching a rerun of the mission they just carried out. Dozens of video cameras rigged around the town captured their maneuvers and create a powerful teaching tool used during what’s called an AAR – an after action review that gives the soldiers and their combat trainer a chance to critique the operation.

They’ve run through the same battle scenario twice today and will have another crack at it after the AAR. In just a few weeks, they’ll be in Afghanistan.

“What are the things that worked better this time or need to be modified or fixed?”

Maj. Peter Moon, the combat trainer, wants to know.

First, they report the good: Vehicles were positioned to provide good cover from enemy fire. The unit did a better job responding to casualties. Overall, the soldiers tell Moon, they worked better together.

Moon agrees. “You looked a lot more controlled,” he tells them. “Things went much smoother than this morning.”

Then, the problems:  Too much chatter over the radios. A lag in communications that could have been deadly – four rounds of sniper fire went off before it was reported over the radio.

Despite the errors, one soldier describes how quickly he spotted the sniper from the second-story window. And how he waited for his shot.

“Next time he poked his head out, I zeroed the .50-cal in,” the soldier says. “And that was that.”

Moon keeps at it, asking the same questions over and over again to go over every detail. What went wrong? What needs to be tweaked? What must be duplicated?

Facades of apartments, government buildings and mosques were built in the Mojave Desert to replicate Afghan villages.
Photo credit: Adam Gorlick

Here, they can learn from their mistakes. In Afghanistan they won’t have that luxury.

“That’s your goal,” Moon says. “To keep getting better and better and better.”

Drawing insight and saving lives

For many in the Stanford group, the AAR provided some of the best insight into how the military trains for combat.

Beyond the technological gadgets and computerized network systems they saw, beyond the off-the-record briefings they received from Fort Irwin’s leaders, and beyond the simulated combat they watched, many say the most impressive aspect of the NTC is the student-teacher relationship where questions are asked, lessons are learned and lifesaving knowledge is the goal.

“As a teacher, that’s what really sticks out,” says Katherine Jolluck, a senior lecturer in history and FSI affiliate. “You see the leaders trying to draw real insight from the soldiers. They’re not just being told what to do. They’re being encouraged to think for themselves and come up with solutions.”

And the most important solutions often lie in what can seem like the smallest of details: Marking a building properly so everyone knows it’s clear. Stationing vehicles in just the right place. Determining how much chatter should fill the radio. Figuring out who should be carrying the radio in the first place.

“It isn’t about grand strategy,” says Stephen Krasner, FSI’s deputy director and the Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Relations.

“The goal of the training is to make sure you do all the small things right,” he says. “That’s what saves lives.”


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Topics: Institutions and Organizations | International Security and Defense | Afghanistan | United States