July 28, 2010:
Over the last five years, the U.S. Marine Corps has built the world's largest urban warfare training area at their 29 Palms base out in the Mohave Desert of California. There are currently some 400 structures, from private homes, to large government building complexes, operational in the training area. When development of the center is complete, there will be over 1,200 structures to train in.
For several years, marines were trained here before heading for Iraq. Based on actual experience in Iraq, and using instructors who had already served in Iraq, the marines went through very realistic experience involving dealing with civilians (including many Iraqi-Americans who could speak Arabic and knew the culture). Hundreds of these actors were involved in the training exercises, with some of them playing hostile gunmen. The marines also got to use several roads rigged with realistic (but just loud, not fatal) roadside bombs. Marines also got to experience the shock of dealing with badly wounded marines and civilians (using people who had already lost a limb, and rigged by movie special effects experts). This was a sobering experience for marines who had not been to Iraq yet. Now the training area is all about Afghanistan, with Afghan-Americans hired to give the marines some realistic cultural experiences before they head down range.
Many of the buildings are really shipping containers, equipped with doors, windows, some paint and contents, are being used to represent the buildings. Like Legos, the containers can be joined together, or stacked, to make larger buildings. More importantly, the entire "town" can be rearranged to represent a different kind of environment. The training towns now being built represent what the marines are currently encountering in Afghanistan. But in a few years, the marines may be fighting somewhere else, and they want their training town to reflect that, quickly, when the need arises.
Based on the many urban battles marines have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably Fallujah, the new training center allows troops to experience urban warfare in a less lethal environment. Learning this stuff on the job can be deadly for the trainees, so the $250 million put into the center so far is worth it in terms of lives saved.
The marines have been carefully studying urban warfare since the early 1990s, and have used their experience in Iraq to develop new tactics, and training methods. The U.S. Army has nothing like the marine training center, and is negotiating for some time to get army troops into it. The marines are using the center heavily, but they are always ready to deal.
The most serious shortcoming noted, especially by combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, are the smaller number of civilians present in the training area. In actual urban battlefields, there are lots of civilians running, or scurrying, around. For the Mohave Desert training area, local civilians have to be hired to act as extras, or off-duty marines found for that work. There are never enough civilians available, so the marines have been bussing them in, as some exercises have required nearly a thousand civilians.