Camp Roberts will bring war games to wine country

The replica townhouses as seen from the top of a replica hotel.
The replica townhouses as seen from the top of a replica hotel. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Col. Ken O’Connor stood on the roof of a concrete block structure made to look like a hotel and motioned to the vast span of grassy countryside around Camp Roberts just north of San Miguel.

“If you were up here and defending, it’s an easy five miles for a straight shot,” he said as he pointed north into the hills and talked about military urban warfare.

O’Connor, project manager of the California National Guard’s new urban training site, was demonstrating how every year thousands of troops-in-training could use the camp’s approximately $11 million urban simulation compound when it opens this fall.

The 210-acre site is about five miles southeast of the camp’s main gate and includes the structures that would make up a small town, including a three-story hotel, a police station and a small walled neighborhood of one-story bungalows.

“The question was, ‘What could present the most challenging training, based on the funds that we have?’ ” 

O’Connor said in explaining why certain building types were chosen.

The site will also help local agencies such as SWAT teams and police train for domestic emergency-response operations.

While no live ammunition will be used, troops will practice maneuvering through small spaces, running up and down narrow stairways, climbing through ladder wells and breaking through entryways in full gear.

Video and audio — including lifelike sound effects — will also be used throughout the compound. The use of smoke is also an option, O’Connor said.

Cameras will monitor nearly every square foot of training space so trainees and instructors can critique and improve on strategies as they watch the footage in an on-site control room.

“They can see exactly what they did right and exactly what they did wrong,” O’Connor said.

The urban training site is one of about a dozen such facilities in the United States and the only one for the Army National Guard on the West Coast, O’Connor said. 

While urban courses were used in the 1980s, officials said this new version, complete with audio and video, is an improvement.

The concept is in line with the United States’ increasing focus on urban warfare. 

“That is certainly one of the site’s key roles,” said Capt. Will Martin, public affairs officer for California National Guard. “Asymmetrical warfare is a core emphasis of training on the part of the armed forces moving forward.” 

The new training compound, in the works since 2007, is designed to reflect various geographic features of places such as Afghanistan with its underground tunnels and household escape hatches. Still, designers also sought to make the site generic to fit a variety of places and locations worldwide.

“Baghdad and Afghani-stan are the flavor of the month right now, but in five years it could be something else,” O’Connor said.

Design details included narrow streets, as in some European and Middle Eastern cities, and a variety of rooftop types from which trainees can rappel.

 “Walls are tall, and you’re isolated. For roofs, there are some gables, some flats — just a little bit of everything,” O’Connor said. “You’re trying to replicate, as much as possible, scenarios that are difficult.”

Everything was built to last. 

Door and window openings are covered with wooden shutters instead of glass and built so that some are more difficult to knock out than others.

Over time, features such as furniture and mannequins will be added. Bookcases, beds and sinks will make rooms more realistic and hide crawl spaces from troops who will try to find them in their search for escape routes.

One possible practice scenario calls for troops to clear a building while the people inside are still making their way to the lower floors. 

“There’s a lot of false-floor possibilities (here),” O’Connor said. “Whatever could come up realistically for training.” 

The project is federally funded and has been under construction since 2011.

Camp Roberts is a 42,000-acre camp run by the California National Guard. About 1,200 Cal Guardsmen were deployed worldwide as of Monday; about 300 are in Afghanistan, with about 200 more heading there in the next few weeks, Martin said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the California National Guard has deployed troops globally 38,699 times.  

“We don’t have anybody in Iraq anymore, but we do have about 40 soldiers in neighboring Kuwait who serve as advisers to military forces there,” O’Connor said.

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