May 9, 2009: Britain has spent $20 million to build a replica of two Afghan towns, and staffed it with Afghans and retired Gurkhas who respond to soldiers as Afghans would. British soldiers headed for Afghanistan will undergo realistic training in this portion of the Stanford Training Area. The U.S. pioneered this type of training, and several training centers like this.
For example, the U.S. Army's JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) at Fort Polk, Louisiana can put a brigade through a month of realistic conventional warfare training at JRTC for about $2 million. But it costs $9 million to run the same brigade through a month of peacekeeping training (for Iraq or Afghanistan.) The major additional cost is payroll. Over 800 civilians, including either Afghan or Iraqi-Americans, are brought in and trained how to act as civilians, aid workers, reporters and so on. In effect, the troops get to play parts in a very realistic simulation of what the trainees are going to face, for real, in a few months. About two hundred veterans of those battle zones dress, and play, the part of the various bad guys. All this is supervised by troops and civilians who run the JRTC. Thousands of man hours go into setting the scene and writing the script. Unlike a movie, however, there can be many endings to this adventure. The trainees have many, very realistic, opportunities, to make mistakes. Thus the debriefings are one of the most important parts of the exercise. The trainee commanders are given a blunt assessment of their performance. If they didn't make some mistakes, they are reminded of that, and asked if this was just luck, or that they knew what they were doing. For mistakes, the correct solutions are provided.
For the troops, the JRTC experience is more revealing, and educational, than anything else they have done to get ready for action. Perhaps the biggest lesson is the need for some cultural awareness. The U.S. Army Special Forces has long appreciated this, but the rest of the army has always been playing catch up. Thus, while the troops are given cards or booklets containing useful phrases in the local language, when they confront "actors" on the "set" who are actually Afghans or Iraqis, and won't speak to them in English (representing the fact that few people in these countries can), the troops either have to remember and use those phrases they were supposed to have memorized, or try and get along without. It's much easier if you can say a few words in the local language, and this way they learn why at Fort Polk, instead of overseas, where such problems can get them killed.
The troops will later get to talk to the Afghan-American or Iraqi-American actors, and get the lessons repeated in English, with assurances that, "over there," bad manners can have very serious consequences. All of this reinforces what veterans in the trainee units have been telling the non-veteran troops. It's all about repeating realistic experiences without getting killed for making a mistake. This kind of training works, as the troops themselves testify. The trainees are polled after they have come back from overseas, and are solicited for additional items the JRTC training should cover.
So successful has this kind of training been that the army's largest, and most effective (for conventional war training) center, at Fort Irwin, California (the NTC, or National Training Area) is now covered with nearly twenty "villages", and a $50 million dollar "town" is to be built as well. In addition, the army is buying lots of special effects technology, and consulting, from the same firms that supply movie makers.
The realistic training areas also provide a suitable venue for trying out new tactics and equipment. This has especially been the case with roadside bombs. This involves simulating what goes on with the enemy, to get a bomb in place. It's actually a complicated process, and new tactics make it more difficult for the bad guys. But effective new tactics only get developed if you have a realistic way to test them. This involves not just the combat troops, but also the intelligence people, and even some types of support troops.
All of this is costing the army several hundred million dollars, which puts the British effort in context. But the army has ways of measuring the impact of the new training, and the result is fewer American casualties, and more, and faster, success in the combat zone. It was the success of these training areas that led the British to build their own, to give infantry battalions some realistic experience before they show up in Afghanistan and face real bullets and bombs.