Marines build warfare training city in desert

By Kelly O’Sullivan / Hi-Desert Star

MCAGCC — A meticulously planned community rising from the desert floor just 30 minutes from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s Mainside area will be a city unlike any other.

Covering 280 acres — roughly the size of downtown San Diego — it will feature an Olympic-size soccer stadium, a hospital, airport, large marketplace, prison, police compounds, schools, an industrial center, extensive underground tunnel systems and two embassies.

While it will draw thousands of visitors annually, few Hi-Desert residents ever will walk its streets, and no one will actually live there.

The site’s official name is CAMOUT, for Combined-Arms Military Operations in Urban Terrain. Pronounced “K-MOUT,” it is nowhere and everywhere at once — the perfect training ground for Marines who increasingly will fight America’s battles in diverse urban environments across the globe.

“We’re trying to develop a city like no one’s ever seen,” assistant project manager Hank Bergeron said Friday, Jan.18 as he and his boss, Bryan Robertson, led a tour of the facility in the base’s Quackenbush live-fire training area.

Both men are combat veterans who joined the base’s Operations and Training Directorate to work on the project.

Robertson, dubbed the “Mout Mayor,” is the project’s development officer. The former owner of Jerry’s Restaurant in Yucca Valley served in Beirut and Somalia, among other places, before retiring from the Marine Corps in 1994.

Bergeron, a retired sergeant major, served with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Iraq before leaving active duty in 2004.

Future of warfighting

By 2015, an estimated 75 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, Robertson said.

In 1997, according to Department of Defense documents online, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., began studying urban warfare environments.

In 1999, it launched Project Metropolis to develop a program to help Marines fight successfully in such environments.

A project study determined that urban training facilities, which have been in use for many years by the Marine Corps at its various bases, were too small. Many contained 35 or fewer buildings, Robertson said, hardly enough to provide the level of training needed to prepare troops to conduct operations in big cities.

“Trying to train for urban combat in 35 buildings is like trying to train for jungle warfare in a botanical garden,” he said.

And so the idea of a mega-MOUT, one big enough to accommodate a full Marine Air-Ground Task Force — 7,000 troops — was born.

In 2004, the Marines began developing the concept and design for CAMOUT, putting together a budget with funding from two sources — military construction funds and military procurement funding.

Three years, phases

What they came up with was a three-phase project to be built over a three-year period that began in 2007, with each phase funded separately. Cost for the project — the largest within the Department of Defense — will range from $200 million to $250 million if all three phases are built.

CAMOUT is not part of Mojave Viper, the program that trains Marines deploying to Iraq in facilities built on the base to replicate Iraqi villages.

Eventually, however, CAMOUT units will control all of the base’s MOUT operations, Robertson said.

The other urban training sites aboard the combat center include a live-fire, company-sized facility with 26 buildings, 377 buildings used for Mojave Viper, a live-fire convoy course with 20 buildings and an indirect fire range with stacked containers designed to look like buildings used for air and artillery training.

In all, CAMOUT will include 1,560 buildings in seven districts — the urban core, east and west stadium districts, hospital district, old town, industrial district and diplomatic district.

The city will be bisected by a river, already in place, that’s up to 80 feet wide in some spots.

“There will be no water in it,” Robertson said of the river, though a well was dug at the site to provide water to the facility.

Some areas will have buildings that have been reduced to rubble and there will be shanty towns around the city.

None of the buildings will actually be lived in, but several will be powered by solar electricity.

“We’re trying to put in as many different types of urban environments as we can,” Robertson said. “We don’t know where the Marines will be in 2015.”

Construction under way

Phase 1, which got under way in February 2007 and is expected to be completed this summer, is the urban core.

It will be very dense and modern, with 54 concrete buildings ranging from one to five stories each and 160 additional buildings made from galvanized steel as well as from containers.

It will have a large road network, with streets up to 120 feet wide — large enough to land a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter. The roads won’t be paved but they will be lined with street lights.

A 10-block area, the urban core boasts 150,000 square feet of space in the concrete buildings alone.

On Jan. 18, crews were putting finishing touches on the concrete buildings and preparing the area for addition of the remaining buildings. Ninety men were on site, but only a few were visible as Robertson and Bergeron led a reporter and a representative of the base Public Affairs Office from building to building.

A partially collapsed bridge built entirely from items recycled from other areas of the base greets visitors to the city. Under the rubble is a burned-out vehicle, salvaged from DRMO, the base’s Defense Reutilization and Marketing Surplus office charged with disposing of surplus government property.

Buildings in the combat city also will be furnished using DRMO items, Robertson said.

Doors are reinforced to stand up to forced entries troops will practice. There are fire escapes on the buildings and the alleys are narrow.

Mouse holes in the heavy concrete will be covered with drywall to allow troops to attach charges and blow entry and exit holes without damaging the structures.

In one four-story building, Robertson lead the group through a series of rooms and staircases, then up a ladder affixed to a cement wall and onto the roof.

Standing atop the building, he pointed out Landers in the distance, noting that while it may be within sight of civilian communities, CAMOUT is off-limits to the public. Not only is it in the middle of an active live-fire training area, the facility is protected by security officers who are on duty 24/7.

Surprises await in each building

The concrete buildings may look similar on the outside, but their interiors are vastly different so the Marines won’t be able to anticipate what they’ll find behind the next doorway.

Walking across the street from the first building, Robertson opened a door to another building. Inside was just a simple room, with no doors or staircases allowing access to the rest of the building.

“What do you do now?” Robertson asked. “I don’t know,” came the answer.

“That’s what commanders will have to decide,” he said.

When the urban core is finished work crews will move on to the second phase of construction, which if funded will provide for completion of three districts containing 600 buildings, Robertson said.

Old Town will be Middle Eastern, very dense with narrow streets and residential courtyards based on Sadr City, a suburb district of Baghdad where American troops have battled Iraqi militias during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The district will feature a commercial ribbon, a series of buildings that are close together so troops can go from building to building on the ground, via rooftops or via tunnels and basements.

The hospital district will be less dense, with a hospital building, police compound, college-type campus and wide open areas.

The east stadium district will be moderately dense with a marketplace, residential area and rubbled buildings.

“This will look like the Green Line area in Beirut or Mogadishu,” Robertson said of the district. “They’ve been hit hard.”

Phase Two is expected to be completed in the summer of 2009, then construction will begin on phase three if funding is forthcoming.

Robertson noted each phase was designed to stand on its own so operations can be conducted regardless of whether the other phases are built.

The final phase, expected to be completed in the summer of 2010, will include 746 buildings in the remaining districts.

The west stadium district will include a two-story, Olympic-size soccer stadium modeled after the Olympic stadium in Mogadishu.

The diplomatic district will have two embassy-type compounds.

Robertson said the stadium and embassy areas will allow Marines to practice mass evacuations.

The industrial district will feature an oil-pumping station, prison and police department as well as high-density shanty towns without streets.

Each of the city’s districts will have underground tunnels Roberston said will replicate sewer systems or an underground city.

In the industrial district, some tunnels will cross over one another.

Command bunkers and basements will be scattered throughout the underground areas.

“It will be the most complex system of its kind,” Robertson said.

Everything caught on camera

Remote-controlled cameras will be mounted throughout the city, allowing unit commanders to follow and record the action as their Marines train.

Using a control switch, they’ll be able to record overall shots of training operations and zoom in for close-ups of one building or even a doorway.

“They’ll be able to record and play back their operations later for review,” Robertson said.

CAMOUT is an ambitious project, but it’s one Robertson and crew know will save troops’ lives on the battlefields of the future.

“I was in Mogadishu and Beirut,” he said. “We didn’t have this to prepare.”