Medina Wasl with the 3rd Special Forces Group

National Training Center:

I had checked out… The environment was so complete that for a discrete moment I had completely forgotten that we were still in the continental United States. Perhaps it was the smell of kebabs cooking or the sound of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan playing from the electronics shop that also sold pirated Western DVDs or the afternoon call to prayer coming from the tops of the minarets in the local mosque. It could have been the women selling bread, fruits or flowers by the side of the road or the Arabic men playing backgammon in the cafe with shisha pipes. Toyota trucks or bicycles being repaired in the roadside repair shops under Iraqi flags added to the realism along with a tangle of wires on poles carrying telephone and electricity around town with satellite dishes for television on rooftops were added elements. But the thing that completed it was the sound of Baghdadi Arabic from a gentleman greeting us as we drove through town.

Even though this is a simulation, albeit a sophisticated one, where you know and acknowledge that you are not in hostile territory, there is nevertheless a certain palpable tension that grows as you proceed through town not knowing which persons by the side of the road are civilians or insurgents looking to attack. An attack can be a small arms ambush, a sniper, a rocket propelled grenade or the most feared assault, an improvised explosive device (IED) that explodes as you pass by. Those apprehensions were proven correct when I watched a blue pickup lurch out in front of the Lyndon Marcus International Hotel on the town center. A convoy of soldiers were coming through town from the other direction and sensing a potential ambush, I set up with cameras ready to capture the action. However, I was completely unprepared for the chest thumping BOOOM! that followed from up the road next to the convoy. The falling debris and rising dust cloud was substantial as was the intimidating and immediate outbreak of AK-47 fire from neighboring windows. As the US soldiers established positions and returned fire from their M4 carbines and mounted M240s, the smell of gunpowder spread through the air. Confusion initially reigned while CPT. David Durante and SSG Dennis Corey gave a running commentary and evaluation made possible through experience and multiple deployments. For these urban exercises, all rounds being fired are blanks, but the MILES systems ensure that virtual bullets are actively tracked both electronically and through third party airborne and ground based observers called observer controllers (OC). OCs roles are to assess the performance of participants and provide feedback on the scenario.

The participants know it is not real, but looking at their faces revealed that the ruse was still effective enough to widen the eyes of even the most battle hardened individual. This simulacrum called Medina Wasl we were traniting through en route to a forward operating base is an Iraqi town built in the middle of the National Training Center (NTC) approximately 170 miles NorthEast of Los Angeles, California. Medina Wasl is only one of approximately 15 towns and villages built in the middle of a 1,000 square mile patch of California desert next to Death Valley designed to emulate both Iraqi and Afghani population centers. Each town is populated by people with their own politics and complex, evolving story lines with loyalties, histories, grudges and goals. Individuals comprising villagers and townsfolk get assigned jobs, titles, family memberships and religious assignments appropriate for the scenarios. Some individuals may play the role of insurgent financiers, some the role of bombmakers while others play the role of the actual individuals who deploy the bombs and assault US forces. Other individuals are simple townsfolk just trying to live out their lives keeping shop or providing services.

Also operating at the NTC are two television stations that mimic both CNN and Al Jazeera to enhance training with media involvement as well as dealing in other aspects of current military and socio-political issues. These social issues play into training within the urban areas that include door to door operations, political negotiations with local mayors and international media issues related to direct operations.

All told, this is one of the most sophisticated training environments in the world designed to test and teach participants in warfighting situations so they have the opportunity to make mistakes, learn and succeed in a controlled environment. Actual combat environments are not the place to learn from mistakes.

To further enhance the reality of complex urban military operations, both US soldiers, civilian actors and even vehicles wear and operate with MILES systems to simulate actual battle conditions. Lasers are mounted on small arms with a complex set of rules and rankings to ensure the ultimate training reality. A rifle or sidearm for instance could not disable a tank while conversely heavier weapon systems can do more damage or cause injury to greater numbers of individuals. However, the most powerful weapon in the NTC is a small blue sidearm called the “god gun”. This electronic weapon instantaneously “kills” personnel or vehicles and removes them from the fight when participants are within the kill zone or blast radius of virtual explosions delivered from both grenades and IEDs.

3rd SFG:

For this deployment, I had embedded with the 3rd Special Forces Group who were assigned to take advantage of the unique training environment provided by the NTC prior to an undisclosed overseas assignment. From the fine dust, both low and high altitude desert, unrestricted airspace and isolation, this facility provides training for soldiers across the DOD spectrum that simulates arenas of operation like Iraq and Afghanistan. The NTC was first activated back in 1980 with the goal of providing opposing force training. This training initially consisted of troops that emulated armored Soviet Bloc forces, but in recent years has evolved to focus on complex low intensity operations and counter insurgency training reflecting current socio-political and military operations. While some operations are trained for in urban setting like Medina Wasl, other environments are far more common to Special Operations Forces (SOF) soldiers and the NTC provides environments much like what is seen in both remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the context of this visit was in the NTC in an environmental sense, the primary goal of this embed was to see the 3D SFG operate and get a feel for their training prior to deployment. It just so happened that it happened to occur in a curious, unique and effective training environment made possible by Ft. Irwin and the NTC.

Major James related that his SOF soldiers are elite teams of highly trained soldiers “expert in the application of violence”. However, he also noted that “the role of the SOF soldier is to train, engage and carry out operations that do not fall under the normal guise of military operations. These operations may include reconnaissance, direct action, counter terrorism and other unconventional warfare and are commonly clandestine, high risk operations in support of national or foreign policies”. To make all of these operations possible, you have to start out with the human element. Your typical SOF soldier is highly intelligent and a team player. Candidates for training are vetted through a highly selective process made even more rigorous through demanding training.

SSG Dennis Corey, a visual information planner for the 3rd SFG Alpha team gave some background on how SOF soldiers are trained and organized. Once US Army SOF soldiers are selected and trained, soldiers are then introduced into groups organized around three battalions each comprised of three companies, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Companies are comprised of six teams or twelve man detachments. Each detachment functions as a small group of highly skilled soldiers who can operate with large degrees of autonomy, move quickly via a variety of methods and are trained to solve difficult problems individually and through close teamwork. Representative of their character and training, I found the members of the 3D SFG to be intelligent, careful and precise in their thoughts, actions and words and was surprised at the diversity of operations they engage in. While I have long been familiar with some of the special reconnaissance roles of special forces soldiers, there are a variety of other roles that occupy the time and resources of these national assets. These soldiers go far beyond direct action to include roles in counterproliferation operations in support of diplomatic and arms control efforts. They engage in training and advising foreign nations on how to protect their societies which also includes much humanitarian assistance complimenting the efforts of civil agencies to mitigate human suffering. Demining operations or efforts to train foreign nations to recognize and safely remove explosive mines fall under this bailiwick to reduce the threat to civilians posed by years of accumulated unexploded ordinance.

Two other special forces roles I was unfamiliar as military special operations with until this trip were PSYOP or psychological operations and CA or civil affairs. While PSYOPs are something that has been written about before in limited contexts, most notably through the notable playing of loud music and noise when capturing Manuel Noriega back in 1989, the wider role of the special forces units in PSYOPs are not as well known. SFC Daniel Billiott with the Special Operations Training Detachment related that the PSYOPs role is to induce or reinforce attitudes and behaviors of foreign nations to be favorable to U.S. or friendly nation objectives. These operations are organized to convey information to foreign audiences to influence motives, emotions and behaviors of governments, organizations and individuals.

CPT David Durante, a CA or Civil Affairs operations officer informed me that their role is to “establish and influence relations between military and civil governmental and nongovernmental groups across the spectrum from friendly to hostile areas of operations”. While PSYOPS and CA may appear similar, CA is distinct in that CA works with battlespace commanders as a direct interface to mitigate the impact of military operations during peace and war. While both CA and PSYOPS are employed to win wars and conflicts, ideally these special operations groups are designed to accomplish these goals in a “blood free” fashion.

Because “blood free” applications of strategy are not always possible, SOF soldiers tend to be heavily armed and often modify their platforms and tools beyond what is typically issued by the wider service. SSG Corey related that each Humvee used to transport six of the twelve man teams is modified to be “a mobile can of whoopass”, a more modular vehicle than the traditional Humvee that carries additional fuel and water for long deployments along with modified weapons mountings allowing a wider variety of weapons to be carried and implemented in combat. Each Humvee mounts M240 machines guns, and .50 caliber M2 machine guns. Mk 19 grenade launchers are employed and M203 grenade launchers are also carried by team members along with AT-4 anti-tank weapons attached to the roof and sides of their vehicles. Individual soldiers in twelve man teams carry M9 sidearms and M4 carbines or their functional equivalents that could include small arms from a number of manufacturers including Heckler & Koch or SigSauer. All of this is a substantial amount of weaponry for a twelve man team, but is representative of what these teams deploy with to deal with a spectrum of potential hostile actions. While all of this hardware is crucial to completion of many of their missions, SSG Corey related that the first truth of special operations forces is that “humans are more important than hardware”. I heard this more than once on my embed.

For the more remote exercises, we were moving with two twelve man teams operating in a small convoy covering and protecting themselves while moving through hostile territory and engaging multiple targets in both live fire and simulated fire situations. Just as in Medina Wasl, exercises out in the open desert are organized into “lanes” designed to exercise observation, navigation, engagement and defensive maneuvers. Live fire exercises are designed with pop up targets to engage from mounted positions. Targets pop up by remote control and crews are graded on their ability to identify and appropriately engage targets with live rounds. Other maneuvers are designed to test problem solving, negotiation of remote vehicle borne explosive devices (VBED) and ambush situations.

Some situations were isolated small arms engagements like the one immediately above where teams of two insurgents would hide at some distance from the road and engage with light cover as we passed. Other engagements were more sophisticated where insurgents would engage us with more sophisticated IED or VBED combined with small arms assaults from high protected ground. The OCs set up lanes with a planned route of approach and various exercises that the SOF soldiers have to negotiate both mounted and dismounted. Yet other engagements were incredibly demanding with hidden IEDs that had high kill probability if not spotted. The purpose being to train SOF operators to look carefully for clues that might reveal the presence of an IED; wires, disturbed dirt or sand, oil or solvents on the ground around the location of the IED and other undisclosed clues.

All told, the goal is the directed training of the 3rd SFG troops to prepare them for battle wherever the 3rd SFG may deploy. Some of these operators are battle hardened and have multiple deployments to their credit, but training is always demanded and this training environment is one of the most unique in the world. I talked with a number of operators who deployments had taken them to places in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and other undisclosed locations in the world. Because SOF teams operate in more remote areas, often in isolation from more traditional DOD assets their training reflects the independence of these operators.

Thanks to the U.S. Army, the 3D SFG, SSG Dennis Corey, CPT. David Durante, CPT. Rebecca Lykins, and SFC Daniel Billiott among many others who made this visit possible.

I would also like to thank Electrophysics for the use of one of their AstroScopes. It was an invaluable tool to capture night vision operations visually with my Canon SLR. The Astroscope fits on a standard Nikon or Canon mount inbetween your lens and SLR body. Certain lens combinations make for an unwieldy combination (a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens for instance), but it is the only way to get those action shots with only starlight illuminating the scene. Modern professional SLRs like the Canon 1D Mk IV are becoming remarkable devices to capture imagery for photojournalism at extremely low light levels, but for any action photography occurring at night, you still need an image intensifier on your SLR and Electrophysics is the way to make that happen. Electrophysics also makes image intensifiers for video cameras. I am actually quite interested in the convergence of video on SLRs and will be following the implementation of night vision for these modalities in the very near future.

Content in this entry has appeared in the following publications:

The Washington Times: Special operations forces battle away from spotlight
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: Ambushed!
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: Actors and Lasers.
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: The “god-gun”.
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: “Experts In The Application Of Violence”.
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: Precision Thinkers.
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: “Blood-Free” Warfare.
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: “Mobile Can Of Whoop-Ass”
War Is Boring: Train Like You Fight: Firefight!
War Is Boring: The Washington Times: Special Operations Forces Battle Away From Spotlight
War Is Boring: Commando Dies In Afghanistan Hostage Rescue


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