Infantry: Lithuania Gets Real


May 12, 2016: Lithuania has become the latest country to adopt the American practice of realistic infantry training centers. Lithuania, like many other nations, is building an urban training areas, in this case a small village consisting of 26 structures representing building types typical in Lithuanian urban areas. Some training exercises will employ civilians hired to represent themselves when caught in the middle of a battle.

This is part of a trend that got started in an American desert during 1982 when the National Training Center (NTC), a 147,000 hectare (359,000 acre) facility in the Mohave Desert at Fort Irwin, California was established. There the United States Army revolutionized the training of ground combat troops with the development of MILES (laser tag) equipment for infantry and armored vehicles and the use of MILES in a large, "wired" (to record all activities), combat training area. Other countries soon realized the importance of these innovations and a growing number of nations built their own. NTC type training centers are usually built to enable a combat battalion or brigade to go through several weeks of very realistic combat exercises. But not always. The Pakistani version, for example, concentrated on training individual soldiers and small units. After 2001 the United States established more training centers that specialized in irregular warfare and small unit operations. Most NATO allies, plus Israel, Russia, China and many others eventually followed with their own versions of NTC. Some innovated in ways the United States had not.

Thus in 2015 Pakistan revealed that it had also built an NTC but, because they were operating on a smaller budget, made some changes and substitutions. First, they used paintball guns instead of the laser equipment. More importantly the instructors taught the troops most of the tactics and techniques the Islamic terrorists would use and then had soldiers trained against men dressed and trained to operate as Islamic terrorists. All this provided realistic experience with how the enemy operated. Troops encountered different types of situations as they moved through the new training areas. The Pakistani NTC included villages and other structures similar to what the troops would encounter. The troops quickly learned what worked, often by making mistakes that would have been fatal in combat but were instead a valuable bit of combat experience.

The Pakistanis began this type of training in 2009, about the same time the British Army built an "Afghan Village" in one of their bases, to better train troops headed for Afghanistan. In additions to dozens of buildings, including a market place, over a hundred Afghans living in Britain were hired to dress and act as residents of the training village. This was not a new idea. As far back as the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army had built mock villages for training troops headed for combat. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a lot more of this sort of thing, mainly because it works. Pakistan has long paid attention to what the British Army does and apparently picked up some useful advice from the Brits as well as the Americans.

By the time the Pakistani troops began their North Waziristan offensive in mid-2014 nearly all the infantry involved had gone through this realistic training. The Pakistanis already knew this sort of thing worked because there had been a number of smaller operations against the Islamic terrorists after 2009 and it was noted that the troops who went through the specialized training did much better. That’s because one of most unnerving things about combat is the uncertainty, especially for those who are experiencing it for the first time. This uncertainty causes first-timers to make mistakes, and that gets people killed. Thus the U.S. Army, since the 1980s, strove to develop new training methods that eliminated a lot of the uncertainty. First came the laser tag attachments to weapons (from rifles to tank guns), which exposed the troops to an environment where lots of people were shooting at you. Now the troops knew how easy it was to get hit if they were not careful about where they were, where they were going, and how they got there.

When the war on terror came along, troops had to face other new experiences. Mainly involving dealing with people from a different culture. Most of them were not shooting at you, but you had to get information from them. And do so without turning them against you. Laser tag wouldn't help, but a large scale re-creation of a piece of Iraq would. Staffed with 3,000 civilians trained to play the roles of Iraqis (including 300 Arab speakers, some of whom are Iraqis) and others (aid workers, journalists), the army training program was a huge role-playing game. Normally, these exercises are run at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) in Louisiana, in a special facility that contains fourteen Iraqi villages and enough area for a brigade to run realistic missions for days on end. But the civilian actors were sometimes brought to military bases large enough for a brigade to move around in, and used any buildings available. The important thing is to get the troops some real experience dealing with a different culture.

Troops coming back are full of praise for this preparatory training. While 80-90 percent of the American officers and NCOs going over to Iraq or Afghanistan now are combat veterans, they still have to get the many younger, first time, troops up to speed. The realistic training does it. This sort of thing isn't sexy or newsworthy, but it's one of those things that saves lives, American, Afghan and Iraqi, and does wonders for the morale of troops headed into combat for the first time.

Not to be outdone by the army, starting in 2005 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 were already hundreds of structures, from private homes, to large government building complexes, operational in the training area but when the additional training structures were built there were over a thousand 1,200 structures to train in.

Many of the buildings were really shipping containers, equipped with doors, windows, some paint and contents were 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 were originally set up to replicate Iraq and after 2008 were rearranged to represent what the marines were facing in Afghanistan. In the future the training town can be rearranged to reflect whatever new battlefield the marines must deal with.

The marines had been carefully studying urban warfare since the early 1990s and used their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to develop new tactics, and training methods. The U.S. Army eventually copies some of the marine training methods and some of those ideas appear to have been picked up by the Pakistanis as well.

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.

The United States has shared its NTC experiences with its allies (and openly, via the media, with anyone). American allies get lots of details and technical advice. That makes it possible to build an effective (for local needs) NTC more quickly and inexpensively. This is apparently what is going on in Lithuania.


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