View Full Version : Marines revamp training after learning what works, what doesn't in Iraq

01-25-06, 09:38 AM
Marines revamp training after learning what works, what doesn't in Iraq
By Rick Rogers

January 25, 2006

TWENTYNINE PALMS – The last time Lt. James Richardson went to war, his men trained in abandoned military housing not far from an outlet mall in Riverside County.

Despite the unlikely venue, the Marines thought the training program would give them an edge against insurgents in Iraq.

But once Richardson and the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines reached Iraq in August 2004, they learned that much of their preparation was useless and even dangerous.

Their patrolling techniques, for example, bunched them up on street corners, where they were easy targets for snipers and hidden bombs. Their training had also focused too much on complex attacks and too little on street fighting. As for their cultural training, it was inadequate to nonexistent.

Richardson, a platoon commander who will again lead Marines to Iraq in March, shakes his head at the memory.

"We practiced techniques last time that we literally couldn't use," said Richardson, 24. "The urban training we got before really didn't work."

His was not an isolated experience. Across Iraq, U.S. military commanders discovered fatal flaws in their counter-insurgency tactics.

Back in the United States, the Marine Corps and Army set about devising more thorough, customized and realistic training programs. Some of their revamped methods will get a big test with the latest major round of deployments in Southern California. About 25,000 Marines and sailors, most of them from Camp Pendleton, will head to Iraq in the coming months.

The Army, convinced that its urban combat strategies are on track, has focused on beefing up its cultural programs. Hundreds of Arabic speakers now populate its training sites in Germany, Louisiana and California.

"We moved to another phase of operations in which the cultural aspect was important," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Harms. "It is no longer close in and destroy the enemy. We have to build relationships with Iraqis on the street."

While the Army remodeled, the Marine Corps rebuilt.

The result is Mojave Viper, a little-known national training program based at Twentynine Palms. The monthlong course in urban combat and cultural awareness gives commanders unprecedented flexibility in tailoring training to best suit their units' needs.

About 8,000 Marines and sailors – including Richardson's men – have finished the course, which is held at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center on the Twentynine Palms base. Nearly all of the Southern California-based troops shipping out to Iraq for the next rotation are expected to be Mojave Viper graduates.

Though not battle-tested yet, the training system is being described in historic terms.

The program is "possibly the most realistic and comprehensive instruction ever introduced by the Marine Corps," said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, who is leading Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Division back to Iraq. "Mojave Viper not only equips the Marines to meet the rigors inherent in combat, but it also imparts skills integral to the conduct of humanitarian operations so the Marines can best assist the Iraqis in fostering their new democracy."

He added: "The feedback I have received from my commanders . . . is very encouraging."

The last time around, Richardson and his battalion trained on a few acres at March Air Reserve Base with a handful of role players.

This time, the training is on a scale worthy of a Hollywood epic. It includes almost 400 buildings in two villages set on 252 acres of desert, as well as nearly 350 actors, including about 50 Iraqi nationals, who play out scenarios typically found in Iraq.

Richardson and his Marines, many of whom are heading to Iraq for the first time, got their initial exposure to Mojave Viper recently.

Breaking down doors and searching buildings are routine tasks in Iraq, so much that Marines consider them as fundamental to their combat duty as blocking and tackling are in football.

Yet the maneuvers are much more nuanced than they seem, as Staff Sgt. Jerry Rogers pointed out during a Mojave Viper session.

For instance, Rogers told the Marines that it matters how close they are to one another when they enter a house.

And it matters which foot they use to step through a doorway and how fast they do it.

And it matters which direction each Marine follows once he's inside the home.

And it matters how each person holds his weapons.

And if someone is waiting for the troops on the other side of a door, responding correctly might mean not instinctively firing at that individual.

So many little things matter, Rogers said, and each element has to be executely rapidly and flawlessly.

"Sweep the room," Rogers told the young Marines gathered around him in a Mojave Viper setup. "Get dominant position. Don't get stuck in one part of the room. Make sure you get it right. Your speed will come later."

Some Marines entered the dwelling too far apart from one another. Others literally got off on the wrong foot. Some turned the wrong way or looked in one direction while pointing their rifle in another.

But after 30 minutes, the Marines were quick, efficient and ready to try it with real bullets.

Richardson reflected on how the preparation for duty in Iraq has evolved.

"It's just a lot better. Before, it was just general urban training. Now it is keyed to our specific area and what we are going to see," Richardson said as his men squatted in the sand below Bullion Mountains.

Mojave Viper gives officers like Lt. Col. Nicholas Marano, commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, a much bigger say in how their men are trained.

After making a trip to Husaba, the city in western Iraq where his battalion will be based, Marano returned to the United States knowing what training would be necessary.

The beauty of Mojave Viper, Marano said, is that commanders select the training and their units are offered customized critiques based on those regimens.

Each exercise is also free-flowing, meaning the fates of the Marines rise or fall depending on their actions.

"If I am able to project the right tone in meetings with sheiks and imams, things will go better than if I say things I shouldn't," Marano said. "I'd rather we make mistakes here than there."

Because of Mojave Viper, improved intelligence from Iraqi cities such as Husaba and an emerging Iraqi military, Marano called this next deployment round "Our bid for success."

Richardson shared the optimism. "I've never seen senior Marines so excited about going back," he said.

The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines were last in Iraq from August 2004 to March 2005. Richardson remembered battles that took place almost daily, but he said recent intelligence reports suggested a change in the attitudes of many Iraqis.

"It's not that (the Marines) want to get out into the fight. It's just a very exciting time because it feels very positive in Iraq," he said.

And what about his youngest Marines?

"They are just so excited to get over there," Richardson said. "And this time, I know they are ready."

Rick Rogers: (760) 476-8212; rick.rogers@uniontrib.com