A faux Afghanistan in the California Sierras teaches Marines about IEDs, rugged terrain and enemy tactics

Roger Leo Contributor
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It’s one thing to think about mountain warfare, another thing entirely to engage in it.

The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in the eastern Sierras of California gives troops a taste of the realities of war in what is called complex, compartmentalized terrain, without the lethal consequences they will face once in combat.

Battalion-level training takes place over several weeks, starting with individual skills that include rock climbing, wilderness survival and mule packing. Company exercises and battalion exercises follow. Units perform exercises that include driving an IED course set with roadside bombs; establishing relations with Afghan villagers; gathering intelligence; trying to intercept and engage small groups of enemies moving through the mountains; evacuating casualties, and coping with the problems of movement and supply in a rugged landscape.

They learn, for example, that carrying wounded or dead comrades over miles of rugged terrain, in the dark, while fighting off enemy forces is not easy.

They learn that IEDs — the improvised explosive devices, or bombs, that opposition forces prefer to open combat — are often impossible to detect until they explode.

Col. Norman L. Cooling — then a lieutenant colonel — was commander of 3rd Marine Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in the Alishang Valley of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush in 2005. There he saw the tremendous physical challenges posed by complex mountainous terrain.

A squad of 3-3 Marines from Kilo Co. engaged enemy fighters in the Alishang, suffered two casualties, and had to conduct a fighting evacuation over 20 kilometers of ground, in the dark.

The following year Col. Cooling led his battalion into Iraq’s Anbar Province, where he saw the devastating effect of IEDs.

“If I were fighting us, that’s what I’d use,” he said at the time. “They can’t beat us in an open fight, but they’re hurting us with these tactics.”

In Afghanistan, 3-3 Marines lost two men in 22 firefights during the unit’s deployment there. In Iraq, 14 men were killed — 11 by bombs, one by sniper fire, and two in non-battle incidents.

Col. Cooling has been given command of the Mountain Warfare Training Center at Pickle Meadow, near Bridgeport, Calif. He tries to teach others the lessons learned in the 14 months his 1,000-man combat battalion was deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We all want a world where we can sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya, but realistically we have to invest in weaponry and also dedicate time to training to meet emerging threats. Otherwise we’re taking an unreasonable risk for the nation,” Col. Cooling said.

“The information age has allowed people who are socially destructive to congregate and share ideas and agendas,” Col. Cooling said. The state of the world is such that such people can find havens around the world in rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, and states with security vacuums within their borders such as areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Darfur region of Sudan and parts of Yemen, Col. Cooling said.

The Mountain Warfare Training Center teaches six basic warfighting functions, applied to the complex, compartmentalized terrain of rugged mountains. The functions are movement and maneuver; weapons fire; intelligence; supply and sustainment; command and control, and force protection.

Gunnery Sgt. Jose Luevano III is one of the trainers at the center.

“We beat ’em up pretty good, but I’m not here to be nice, I’m here to train Marines. What we do saves lives, and that’s the bottom line,” Gunnery Sgt. Luevano said.

“We let the mountains do a lot of the training,” Gunnery Sgt. Edward L. Skelly Jr. said, referring to the altitude and ruggedness of the terrain in which training takes place.

The center is in the Toiyabe National Forest, with a base elevation of 6,762 feet, and summits near 12,000 feet.  Nearby Hawthorne Army Depot is used for IED training course, and Fallon Naval Air Station adds an air component to exercises.

The combination of the center, Hawthorne and Fallon into exercises gives units a sense of the enormous geographic region that will be involved when they deploy to Afghanistan, Col. Cooling said.

The staff sets up scenarios that are as realistic as possible, and gives trainees the opportunity to decide just how much gear they need to carry across rugged terrain in various situations.

“It’s a balance between having everything they want, and having what they really need and arriving in shape to go into a fight,” Gunnery Sgt. Skelly said.

Most units try to bring everything, and find it’s hard for them to be nimble, or fresh going into battle.

“We’re fighting people who live off the land, and carry only their weapons,” Staff Sgt. Luevano said.

The Marine Corps trainers are supplemented by civilian contractors who help create the various scenarios and add realism to enemy forces, intelligence gathering and Afghan role players.

The Mountain Warfare Training Center was established in 1951, during the Korean War.

“We were losing an inordinate number of Marines to cold weather injuries. We lost more Marines to cold weather than to nine Chinese divisions at Chosin,” Col. Cooling said.

The center was closed during Vietnam, reopened afterward to teach cold weather warfare to Marines who might fight the Soviets in northern Europe, slowed again when the Soviet Union broke up, and was re-energized to teach mountain warfare to troops that might deploy to South Asia.

In the 18 months Col. Cooling has been commander at MWTC, 19,992 U.S. and allied Marines, sailors, soldiers and interagency personnel have participated in the center’s courses and unit programs.

“We trained 13,461 during FY09, which constituted a 238 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, and I hope to equal that this year,” Col. Cooling said.

“We have received positive feedback from Marine and Army commanders and units currently in theater,” Cooling said.

Marine Col. Randy Newman, commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 7 operating in Regional Command South, in southern Afghanistan, said in a note to Col. Cooling, “The training we did at Bridgeport is seen as more valuable every day that I operate here.”

Scenes from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center

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