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In the Mojave, an Army dress rehearsal for Afghan war

Most Army units deploying to Afghanistan must first prepare for the combat zone at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. CNET Road Trip 2012 visited to see it first-hand.

Army soldiers fire live artillery shells during a session at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. U.S. Army

FORT IRWIN, Calif.--The shoulder-launched rocket-propelled grenade was aimed at several U.S. Army soldiers trying to work their way through the chaos of an Afghan insurgent attack. This was not looking like a good day for the members of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Fortunately for those soldiers, the RPG wasn't real, and they weren't even in Afghanistan -- yet. They will be soon, though. But before deploying to the combat zone, the entire 4th Brigade from Fort Lewis, Wash., spent four weeks in the June heat of the Mojave Desert at the Army's National Training Center here, a facility in the middle of terrain -- harsh desert and even harsher mountains -- that is much like that in Afghanistan.

Since 1981, Fort Irwin has been home to the NTC, as it is sometimes called, a small city about 30 miles northeast of Barstow, Calif. There, every month, a new Army brigade of 6,000 soldiers pulls into town, toting all their vehicles, equipment, and gear, for three grueling weeks that will prepare them for their imminent deployment.

As part of Road Trip 2012, I spent a day at the National Training Center to see what the Army's brigades must go through on their way to that deployment.

In its early years, the NTC trained soldiers in Cold War-era battle scenarios against the Soviets, explained Col. Kurt Pinkerton, the Fort Irwin garrison commander. And in the years following 9/11, the focus shifted to preparing units for battle in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But today, with America's major involvement in Iraq over, the National Training Center has once again shifted its aim. To be sure, units deploying to Afghanistan must still stop in for training (though some will go to another national Army facility known as the Joint Readiness Center, at Fort Polk, La.), but other brigades are now visiting to ready themselves for warfare of the future, which the Army is calling "decisive action operations."

According to Pinkerton, that means warfare that's neither full-scale nation-on-nation battles nor guerrilla war against the likes of Al Queda, but rather a possible combination of the two. Still, 70 percent of the units coming through these days are prepping for Afghanistan, with just 30 percent readying for decisive action.

Time in the village
The basic format of each unit's time at Fort Irwin is simple. Week one is reception, staging, and movement into the training area. Weeks two and three are spent in the training area, where they play out scenarios against one or more of 13 villages spread throughout the base's 1,000 square miles of dessert terrain. Week four is preparing to ship back to soldiers' home stations.

The center of Ertebat Shar, seen from a walkway in the middle of town. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For the first six days in the training area, the units spend hours each day playing out a scenario involving rescuing soldiers injured in the middle of a mock Afghan town called Ertebat Shar by an improvised explosive device attack on their vehicle. That would be simple except for the fact that as they go in to save their comrades, the soldiers are subsequently attacked by "insurgents" in the town. Chaos ensues, particularly because the village is full of "Afghans," played by hired locals.

The second week in the training area is unscripted, at least from the perspective of the visiting units. Instead, they spend the week camped out at a forward operating base on the outskirts of the village, and each day must contend with new issues as they come up. This certainly ends up involving concerted action against the enemy.

The enemy in this -- and all cases at Fort Irwin -- is played by the permanently-posted members of the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment, a unit whose job is to help prepare the visitors by pretending to be their opponents in whatever battle they're in, be it from the Afghan War, or, in the old days, in tank-on-tank combat against the "Russians." And though the 11th ACR is there to play a role, they don't know what the visiting units will do, or how they will react to various situations. Then again, the visitors don't know what the 11th ACR is going to do, either.

Daniel Terdiman

More from Road Trip 2012: Tech out West

Check out the latest from Daniel's tour of all things geeky in the Golden State, with jaunts into Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon, as well.

Another permanent team that gets involved in the action -- though not directly -- is the National Training Center's Operations Group. These are observer controller trainers, explained Pinkerton. Their job is to write the scenarios and run the battles, as well as to mentor the visiting units during their time on base. And then there's the 916th Support Brigade, whose members handle much of the logistics involving getting thousands of soldiers and their equipment in and out of Fort Irwin each month.

The base can be incredibly busy during a training. Pinkerton -- who in many ways is Fort Irwin's city manager -- said that there are about 5,000 permanent military members living on the base, along with 7,000 family members and a large civilian workforce. Add 6,000 visiting soldiers, and you get about 22,000 people on the base on an average day.

That's a far cry from what I saw when I was there on the Fourth of July -- the city was almost empty, eerily so. It appeared like a Hollywood set of an Army base, except full-scale rather than just a few buildings. Or maybe a large Army ghost town.

I got a tour of Ertebat Shar, the mock Afghan village, where much of the force-on-force fighting takes place during units' visits these days. Made to look like a small town with a main square, an overpass/main gate, and a few side streets, it also shows the scars of having been in the middle of a whole lot of battles -- there are destroyed cars, walls filled with bullet holes, and even a patch of messy "blood" stains left over from the part of the initial scenario involving the soldiers injured in the IED attack.

One thing becomes clear after thinking about the various scenarios. Since building relationships is such a big part of what the U.S. military has to do in the mountains of Afghanistan as it fights the Taliban, the units that visit Fort Irwin are best served by practicing that relationship-building before heading to the Middle East.

Given that the scenarios begin with trying to rescue injured fellow soldiers in the middle of a town, some of the trainees may decide to march in gung-ho to save their friends. Others may tread more carefully. All the time, "locals" are in the middle of everything, and if the soldiers alienate them, they're very likely to be on their own from there on out. Act compassionately to the locals and they may get vital intelligence gifted to them.

But whatever the elements of the training, soldiers may end up making lots of mistakes during their time at Fort Irwin. And that's OK, said Pinkerton. "It's much better for them to do their training and learning fighting here," he said, "than in Afghanistan."

This story was updated at 11:19 a.m. PT to clarify the format of a each unit's time at Fort Irwin.