An Entirely Different Battlefield

By Ed Darack

Train for the Environment

But what about those units bound for the heights of Afghanistan—or other mountainous corners of the globe in future conflicts ? Full range, live-fire MAGTF training is absolutely essential for Marine Corps units deploying anywhere on the planet; but so is immersion in an environment specific to where a unit will travel. The Mountain Warfare Training Center, located at Pickel Meadow, near the town of Bridgeport in California's eastern Sierra Nevada, has proven vital for Marines deploying to Afghanistan over the course of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Established in the wake of the "Frozen Chosin" campaign of the Korean War in 1951, Bridgeport (as the base has come to be known) presents deploying Marines with the experiences of gasping for breath at high altitude, the cold of night and the biting chill of pre-dawn, and of course the knee-pounding and ankle-twisting movement across miles of steep terrain—just like Twentynine Palms immerses troops in the realities of desert living. But while the combat center provides a full-fledged MAGTF experience, Bridgeport has only a few ranges for sniper training, with no ability to host live-fire mortar, close-air support, and artillery training.

Captain Zach Rashman, a CH-53D pilot who served with the 2d Battalion of the 3d Marine Regiment as a forward air controller for the battalion's seven-month deployment to the mountainous provinces of eastern Afghanistan in 2005 described splitting training between live-fire at Twentynine Palms and the environmental experience at Bridgeport.

Had we done live-fire, full MAGTF training in the mountains, we would have been much better prepared. There were many, many factors and hurdles that combat in the mountains of Afghanistan presented us with that we would have been much better prepared to face had we done live-fire training in the mountains before deploying, and not had our training essentially broken between live-fire in the desert and non live-fire in the mountains.

Many share Rashman's sentiments.

"We can't take complex terrain to Twentynine Palms, but we can bring full spectrum, live-fire, combined arms training to the mountains," stated Colonel Norman Cooling, who took command of the Mountain Warfare Training Center in July of 2008. Cooling commanded the 3d Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment in eastern Afghanistan from the fall of 2004 through the spring of 2005. While in the operating forces, he trained for and deployed to Afghanistan, then Iraq, in back-to-back succession.

Great Leap Forward

Today, Cooling and the staff at the Mountain Warfare Training Center seek to pioneer a quantum leap forward in mountain warfare training by establishing a live-fire and maneuver, combined-arms training complex—including the center's current training area coupled with existing and potential live-fire ranges in and around Hawthorne Weapons Depot in the high mountains to the south of Hawthorne. Cooling emphasizes that the envisioned mountain warfare training complex isn't intended to replicate training at Twentynine Palms, but complement it. He further qualifies the proposed training ground by explaining that while the mountains of the Combat Center represent positions from which a unit can dominate the surrounding desert plains, that luxury does not exist in the complex terrain at Bridgeport.

Cooling noted that the area, with elevations ranging from 6,000 feet up to more than 11,000 is very similar to the terrain of Afghanistan's Kunar Province. "The terrain dramatically changes the tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with the accomplishment of every military task." The terrain complicates everything from communication, to methods used to employ direct and indirect fires—from the M16 service rifle all the way up to aviation—delivered ordnance-to sustainment, and force protection. "It's an entirely different battlefield."

Artillery Considerations

Experts in the respective components of a MAGTF who have operated in Afghanistan enthusiastically agree with Cooling's position, including Captain Roe Lemons, currently of 1st Air Naval Gun Liaison Company and an artillery forward observer who served with the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines in Afghanistan during their 2005 deployment. "The idea of a full-scale, live-fire MAGTF training ground, dedicated to the mountains is a great and necessary idea. In the mountains, you really have to worry about trajectory," Lemons said. "Most gun lines [batteries of heavy artillery] sit in valleys in Afghanistan—very steep walled valleys. A target only a few miles away is often separated by a high, steep ridge, so you really have to elevate the gun, to shoot high angle, to lob the round over the high ridge. In the desert, you typically don't have to worry about that." Lemons also explained difficulties posed to forward observers. "In flat desert, you have a forward observer perched on key terrain, and he can get a strong feel for distances throughout the entire battlespace from that one spot. In the mountains, sometimes you're lucky to be able to see a mile. It can really throw you off."

The artillery officer then explained another factor crucial to mountain artillery work—elevation correction. In the desert, the gun line and target are usually at or near the same elevation, where in the mountains the difference could be 5,000 feet or more. This requires a complex ballistic solution that demands training. "It isn't something that you should face for the first time when lives are on the line in country."

Mortars also present their own challenges in mountain battlespaces. Infantry officer Captain Patrick Kinser, the officer in charge of the Mountain Warfare Training Center's Formal Schools, described the challenges he faced with mortar fire in Afghanistan: "The greatest hurdle came from sustainment—in a desert environment like Iraq, you can move gun tubes around and re-supply a team by convoy. Not so in steep mountains like those of Afghanistan."

In Afghanistan, you carry everything on your back, or if you are lucky, you can hire some donkeys to help out. But you have to absolutely be prepared to man-pack the tubes, the base plates, the bipods, the sights, and of course, the rounds, in backpacks. You never can leave the wire without mortars organic to your unit—even as small as a squad. 

Air-to-Ground Difficulties

Mountainous terrain presents extremely challenging hurdles to aviators as well. "From a fixed-wing aircraft's position, the toughest problem in the mountains is target acquisition," stated Major Doug Glover, an F/A-18D weapon system operator who served as a forward air controller in Afghanistan from December 2001 through February 2002 for the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "Even though we live in a world with GPS weapons, you still have to find the target, work to positively identify the target, and with complex terrain—moving fast in a jet—that can be a real challenge." Glover also noted the ramifications of altitude and effective threat proximity:

If you are used to flying at 20,000 feet, with targets at or near sea level—and now your target is at 10,000 feet, then you are 10,000 feet above the ground; that much closer to a possible ground-to-air threat. So the solution to that is to fly at 30,000 feet—where your airplane flies very differently than at 20,000 feet.

Captain Rashman described some of the challenges he faced on the ground in Afghanistan that if practiced in a full MAGTF training environment—in the mountains—would produce far more thoroughly prepared units for an Afghan deployment. "Both the altitude and the terrain are so critical, for both troops and equipment. You can't expect a unit to be able to operate anywhere near full capacity at up to altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet and beyond if they've trained at only sea level to 3,000."

The aviator then explained the effects on helicopters: "The higher you go, the thinner the air, meaning the greater the power required to keep the aircraft in the air. But also, because of the thin air, you have less power available. As a helicopter operator, you get squeezed between the two converging margins."

Rashman also explained how mountains foster turbulence, particularly while flying close to the ground, "orographic [mountain induced] turbulence can be very problematic—strong wind shear can come at you from all different, unpredictable, directions, sometimes pushing you toward the ground." As a helicopter aviator and someone who has served a rigorous tour on the ground in eastern Afghanistan as a forward air controller, he has seen both sides.

While controlling the air environment for numerous combat operations, the aviator quickly understood how steep, mountainous terrain posed challenges vastly different from other situations. Radio operators and forward air controllers must walk the mountains with a tremendous amount of gear. Backups are needed for everything, including the large PRC-117 radio. "We carried extra batteries, extra headsets, and 60mm mortar rounds to mark targets for aircraft." And there is the sustainment gear, weapons, body armor, and helmet.

Rashman explained some of the technical difficulties:

Communication is vital—you need to maintain comms at all times, and in the mountains, where you're rarely in line of sight of whom you want to talk to, you really have to know how to use non-line-of-sight frequencies and channels, like SATCOM. To be able to work out techniques before setting foot in a theater of operation—talking to air, infantry, commanders in the rear, in a live-fire training setting—would give troops a tremendous advantage.

Any Marine who has worked comms of any type in the mountains will attest to the often frustrating difficulties the terrain poses.

And It's Physical

Rashman and others who have worked in Afghanistan unanimously agree that mountainous environments can throw a variety of often-unforeseen physical challenges at troops. "Most people who've not operated in the mountains underestimate the amount of dehydration one experiences at altitude," said Staff Sergeant Keith Eggers, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of Bridgeport's Mountain Leaders Course and a scout/sniper team leader who deployed to Afghanistan in 2005. He added that people often incorrectly consider all mountainous environments to be cold. "During the summer months in the Kunar Province, it regularly topped 110 and 115, even as high as 8,000 feet." And it's not just extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter. Eggers explained that mountains "create their own weather," and experience wide daily temperature swings:

It can be bone dry and hot one minute, then later in the day, a thunderstorm can appear out of nowhere over a steep ridge, dump icy rain, and then the troops will be shivering through the night. Combine this with the stress of combat, and it weighs on troops like no other experience. To replicate this before heading to theater is vital.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Scott, currently the Commandant of the Marine Corps Fellow to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former executive officer of 2d Battalion, 3d Marines during their Afghan deployment, summarizes the big picture of such a proposed training facility:

It will challenge units to start thinking and working across longer distances and ensure that the staff is working the warfare functions across those distances. Afghanistan is an immature theater when compared to Iraq and the staff needs to learn the difficulties in working in an immature theater across those long distances. That would be the beauty of training in such a full-scale MAGTF mountain training ground.

Although not all of Afghanistan is comprised of complex mountainous terrain, Lieutenant Colonel Chip Bierman, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines there in 2006, asserted "any Marine battalion deploying to Afghanistan must prepare for the possibility that it may end up operating in the mountains. . . . I think deploying with any other view is a mistake."

Tough on Everything

Getting the training ground up and running won't prove easy. "I agree 100 percent that we need a full spectrum, live-fire, MAGTF training ground in the mountains," stated Brigadier General Charles Gurganus, the commanding general of Marine Air Ground Combat Center, under which the Mountain Warfare Training Center is a subordinate command. "But to do this will require a huge commitment of personnel—expert personnel, essentially standing up another Tactical Training and Exercise Control Group specific to a mountain MAGTF training center. But it can be done."

Because of the joint nature of current and future military operations—to include those in mountainous environments—the Mountain Warfare Training Center staff hosts a number of units from other services and countries throughout each year. The proposed complex will of course continue this trend to bring in units of other services both to train and to support training, to develop the most realistic, relevant, up-to-date training experience.

Currently, the proposed site lies unused and virtually unseen. With a renewed focus on Afghanistan, and clear need for a real-world training ground for future threats in mountainous regions throughout the globe, however, this may soon change. Lieutenant Colonel Scott summarized the necessity best:

To build combat effective units, the Marine Corps always takes a building block approach to training. . . . A Marine can fire expertly on a target, and a Marine can withstand shivering cold. However, can a unit get a Marine into position to fire expertly on a target while shivering cold and then follow up with non-kinetic operations ? You have to create that experience.

Mr. Darack is an independent photographer and writer who covers a broad range of topics. His forthcoming book, Victory Point (Berkley Hardcover, 2009), recounts operations Red Wings and Whalers, which took place in Afghanistan's mountainous Kunar Province in the summer of 2005.

Mr. Darack is an independent photographer and writer who covers a broad range of topics. He has focused on U.S. Marine Corps operations in recent years, specifically those of the 2nd Battalion of the 3d Marine Regiment, as well as mountain warfare and close air support.

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