A Tour Through the US Army's Largest Simulated Battlefield

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

How does the Army train soldiers for guerrilla combat in cities and villages they've never visited? By building replicas of those villages, training a force of fake "insurgents," and hiring actors to populate the scenes. Welcome to Fort Irwin, a 1,000-square mile Army Base where many soldiers train before deploying overseas.

As part of their ongoing a pop-up interview caravan Venue, the new Editor in Chief of Gizmodo US Geoff Manaugh and his partner, Nicola Twilley, paid a visit to Fort Irwin earlier this year. There, they encountered all manner of surprises, from a bizarre Disney-esque recreation of an Afghan village called Ertebat Shar where actors sell street food and insurgents lurk, to a carefully choreographed truck bomb scene replete with fake blood.

Who plays the part of Ertebat Shar's "insurgent army?" That's Blackhorse Regiment, a team of 120 soldiers whose job is to provide opposition to trainees. "According to Ferrell," Manaugh writes, "their current role as Afghan rebels is widely envied: they receive specialised training (for example, in building IEDs) and are held to 'reduced grooming standards,' while their mission is simply to 'stay alive and wreak havoc.' If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, Ferrell added, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is strong."

The full read is well worth it, but a particular note of interest is how Fort Irwin, in order to reflect the nature of contemporary warfare, differs dramatically from traditional training battlegrounds. Manaugh explains:

The point of these architectural reproductions is no longer, as in the World War II test villages of Dugway, to find better or more efficient methods of architectural destruction; instead, these ersatz buildings and villages are used to equip troops to better navigate the complexity of urban structures—both physical, and, perhaps most importantly, socio-cultural.

As the battle has changed, so has the battlefield. [BLDGBLOG]