FORT IRWIN, Calif. — The facade towns in this desert training ground were set up to mimic Iraq or Afghanistan, complete with blocky buildings, minarets, simulated roadside bombs and plainclothes fighters waiting to ambush American soldiers.
Today, the National Training Center isn’t supposed to mimic Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead it’s Atropia, a fictional country set in the real-world region of the Caucasus between Iran and Russia.
Atropia looks a lot like a fake Iraq and has some of the same dangers. But now there’s an enemy force that has tanks, planes and helicopters.
The more than 4,000 Fort Wainwright-based soldiers here are in the last week of their 21-day rotation through the training center.
The 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division comes to the National Training Center every two years. This is its second rotation since the Army switched the training paradigm from fighting the guerrilla tactics of insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq to fighting a “near-peer” country whose military forces rival those of America.
The addition of a more militarily powerful enemy means soldiers have to think about things such as setting up their camps so they’re less vulnerable to air attacks.
“There’s a real air threat, which is something the U.S. Army has not been familiar with in a very long time,” said Maj. Dan Cole.
Cole was part of the Fairbanks-based brigade until June, when he was reassigned to the National Training Center. Now he lives here in the Mojave Desert and works to train other units, including his old brigade this month.
“I feel like it’s a family reunion. I see all my old friends here,” he said.
When talking to the Alaska soldiers, Cole uses a musk oxen metaphor to explain the risks of having their camp closely clustered in an air war. Musk oxen form a circle to protect themselves from predators, which is a poor defense against human hunters armed with rifles. For non-Alaskans unfamiliar with musk oxen, Cole uses a buffalo metaphor.
The dangers of an enemy with eyes in the sky were dramatically illustrated Friday morning at the brigade’s headquarters.
The brigade’s headquarters company consists of about 150 soldiers in tents, eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles and other vehicles hidden near a hill known as the Snow Cone. In this antennae-covered nerve center of the brigade, soldiers were up all night Thursday coordinating a culminating part of the exercise: their attack on Razish, the largest fake city in the training area.
The brigade took Razish with help from allied units, including the 72nd Tank Regiment from the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force in Hokkaido.
Then opposing forces from the Fort Irwin-based 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment counterattacked.
On Friday morning, as the headquarters company managed the counterattack more than 8 miles away, the fight abruptly got much closer. A roar blanketed the camp as a helicopter came into view and soon passed directly over the camp.
“Hey, it’s right here,” a soldier yelled.
It wasn’t one of the friendly black Apache or Blackhawk helicopters of the U.S. Army. The helicopter was big and painted with a light-green camo pattern.
“That’s not one of ours,” said Maj. Wade Smith, the brigade’s executive officer and chief of staff to the brigade commander. Smith was giving an interview to the Daily News-Miner about the general state of the training exercise when the helicopter arrived.
The helicopter appeared and retreated into the distance, out of sight before the soldiers could do much to react.
“Get the (expletive) 50-cal ready and (expletive) shoot it if it comes back!” a soldier yelled 40 seconds after the helicopter passed overhead, telling another soldier to prepare a .50-caliber gun.
The helicopter’s guns didn’t fire as it passed overhead. If it had, there would have been the bang of blank rounds, and the training center’s laser simulation system would have kicked in, telling soldiers whether they had been killed or wounded.
But even without shooting, the enemy “Donovian” forces had gained an advantage with the helicopter flight.
“It means they know where we are,” said Smith, the executive officer.
Soldiers began exiting tents with guns ready. Among them was Spc. Jacob Solis, who came out of a tent and lay on his stomach on a rocky hillside with his machine gun pointed to the horizon. Solis’ main job in the military is analyzing information from the brigade’s drones, but he’s also trained with an M249 light machine gun.
Solis was hoping he would have a chance of taking down the helicopter with his light-duty weapon, especially if he managed to hit the pilot, he said.
Two other soldiers climbed a nearby ridge with a shoulder-fired Stinger missile.
At first it wasn’t clear how the enemy helicopter was able to surprise the headquarters company.
After the helicopter left, company commander Capt. Juan Bonnet, who is in charge of the security of the company encampment, said his first stop would be to check with the radar technicians. Radars can fail to detect enemy aircraft if they’re pointed in the wrong direction or if they’re down for maintenance.
“I’m going to get with one of the techs on it,” he said. “This one came out of nowhere.”
Brigade public affairs officer Maj. Charlie Dietz explained on Saturday that the helicopter sneaked up on the unit because of confusion about the schedule of one of the periodic cease-fires in the exercise. No one was watching the sonar screens because some soldiers believed the ceasefire had already begun.
Dietz said another enemy helicopter approached the company later in the day and was shot down with a Stinger missile.
The Bilasuvar Freedom Brigade
Donovia, the fictional enemy, has a gross domestic product of $1.78 trillion. It’s a major oil-
exporting nation, is run by a small elite group of oligarchs, and has a national flag with a stripe, a crescent and a star.
In recent years the Army has set training exercises in a cluster of five make-believe countries, among them Atropia — its borders overlay the real-world nation of Azerbaijan — and Donovia, whose border overlays the semi-autonomous North Caucasus region of Russia.
To make the training as realistic as possible, the military wrote an 800-page guide about the military forces, economies and politics of the fake countries that reads something like a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing manual.
In the scenario the Fort Wainwright soldiers are facing, the Army has been called to assist the Atropian government fight back a Donovian invasion. In addition to the regular well-sup-
plied Donovian Army, the Fort Wainwright Stryker brigade must fight irregular militias and criminal organizations.
The mission involves both large-scale warfare and some of the counterinsurgency skills used in Iraq and Afghanistan
For example in Nabron, a fake village the Stryker brigade liberated from the Donovians early last week, they met 29 actors who played the roles of local villagers.
Hiding among the residents were insurgents, known as the Bilasuvar Freedom Brigade. The organization is made up of Atropians who are loyal to Donovia and who complicated the work of securing the village for the advancing Stryker brigade.
“They thought they had all the bad guys and then they started getting lit up again,” said Scott Rosen, a supervisor for the village actors. He has worked at Fort Irwin for 11 years. “This was going on for hours and hours. I think it was about five hours, but finally they got it.”
Winning a complete victory in Nabron included working with local civilian officials and helping deal with the flood of refugees who arrived in the city the day after its liberation.
But this counterinsurgency work was a smaller part of the mission than it was when the Stryker brigade was here a decade ago. The village that had 29 actors this week had a cast of 300 back at the height of counterinsurgency training, Rosen said.
Fort Wainwright soldiers have been practicing for this mock war against the Donovians since spring 2018 with exercises including the Arctic Anvil war games near Delta Junction in October. Railcars carrying the Stryker vehicles left Fairbanks in December, and the soldiers arrived in January.
It’s now starting to wrap up. The exercise ends Friday, but soldiers will remain at Fort Irwin through the end of the month as they maintain and load their equipment. They’ll begin to return to Alaska the first week of March.
Follow Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman on Twitter:@FDNMoutdoors.