April 11, 2006:
Twenty years after the U.S. Army started using its revolutionary National Training Center (NTC) to give troops combat experience in peacetime, China is opening its own version. The Chinese NTC is larger than the U.S. one (359,000 acres in the Mohave desert at Ft Irwin, California.) The Chinese center is to be used for training divisions, while the U.S. one trains only a brigade at a time.
The United States Army revolutionized the training of ground combat troops in the 1980s 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) NTC at Ft Irwin. Other countries soon realized the importance of these innovations and a few built their own NTC clones. One of the best of these is in Israel, the Tactical Training Center (TTC) at Ze'elim. In addition to wide open areas for the training of armor, infantry and artillery units, there are several villages and urban areas wired for training troops to fight in close quarters.
The Chinese NTC is a big deal. It means the Chinese are really serious about training their ground combat troops to the highest standards. It's expensive to use an NTC. Not just the fuel and ammo the troops will use, but the expense of a staff to run the NTC, and perform as OPFOR (opposing force). American intelligence officers will track which units go through the Chinese NTC, and mark them as likely to be much more formidable in combat.
Ft Irwin itself is to be expanded, but this effort was delayed for five years by negotiation and litigation over the status of an endangered species (the Desert Tortoise) discovered on the NTC grounds. Since the 1980s, the United States has established many similar training centers, all using lots of electronics to assist the trainees in having a realistic experience, and enabling them to see their mistakes, and learn from them.