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Bombs & Bullets, Sagebrush & Sand

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif., Jan. 27, 1996 – Four M1A1 tanks trailing billowing dust clouds lead the assault through sagebrush and sand. Humvees, light armored vehicles and amphibious assault tracks rumble behind, a Vformation of fighting machines steadily advancing across the desert plain.

In the hills ahead, artillery rounds blasts an enemy position. Attack helicopters cross the clear sky. Two F18 jets swoop in low and release 500pound bombs into the smoke and chaos below. A mineclearing line charge explodes in a massive cloud of jet black smoke. Battleready infantry erupt from armored personnel carriers and fan out across the sand.

Rockets, flares, bombs and bullets. Its just another day on the range for the U. S. Marines. Combat maneuvers using live ordnance bullets, aerial bombs, artillery and mortar rounds is the name of the game at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Southern Californias Mojave Desert. Such realistic training is what gives the U.S. military its competitive edge, according to Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

Training leads to readiness and readiness must not be jeopardized, Perry said during a visit to Marine and Air Force training sites in California, Nevada and Texas in late January. He said unit readiness suffered dramatically because of a DoD mistake last year.

The department used training monies to pay for contingency operations in Somalia, Haiti and the Middle East, Perry said. Though Congress later approved supplementals to replace the money, annual training already had been canceled in some cases due to a shortage of funds.

Sacrificing training in order to support contingency operations is a mistake of the past, Perry said. Planning ahead is DoDs solution. The fiscal 1996 budget includes $600 million for U.S. operations in Bosnia and future contingency operations, he said.

Perry said training, such as that conducted at the Marine Corps combat center, the Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., is critical to maintaining skilled, ready forces. Lessons should be learned at training sites, not the battlefield, he said.

For the Marine Corps, maneuvering in a harsh environment under live fire is key to simulating combat conditions. Each year, 35,000 Marines a third of the Corps train here. Army, Air Force and allied units also train here, according to center officials.

Marines from across the country come to Camp Lewis, an austere complex of tents, wooden Aframes, maintenance and support facilities. Attack helicopters, fighter jets and large transports land at an expeditionary airfields 8,000foot runway of AM2 interlocking matting panels.

Summer temperatures at the training base range from 100 by day to 70 at night. Record high is 121 degrees. Winter temperatures range from 70 during the day to 40 at night. About four inches of rain fall each year, usually between September and April.

Steeply sloped, highly eroded mountains, sand dunes, lava flows and dry lakes fill the vacant expanse. Prehistoric rock carvings dating from 3000 B.C. are in protected areas along with endangered desert tortoises.

A 12hour sandstorm which started after midnight recently wiped out a tent city erected to house 3,000 incoming Marines. An advance team member housed in an Aframe said he woke to find half an inch of sand atop his sleeping bag.

Heavy equipment is provided for incoming units. "This enables them to train as they will fight without the major expense and logistical burden of transporting their heavy equipment here from their home station. An expansion program is ongoing," said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Gary Stump, deputy director of operations and training. The center recently added 22 M1A1 tanks, 24 TOW antitank missile systems and additional artillery.

Nearly 85 percent of the centers 932 square miles is considered "impact area," according to Stump. The Marines can use all their conventional weapons there.

"We would sacrifice a lot of things before wed sacrifice the training these Marines get," said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Leslie M. Palm, center commander. "Keeping units trained is a tremendous effort in terms of people and resources. This is the only place in the United States where they can put all of the weapons systems together."

Marines can call for air support; they can direct artillery and tank fire, all while the infantry moves around the area. "Its a pretty intense environment when you know all your Marines have live ammunition," Stump said.

"At other training bases, you have an area where the rounds impact, and no one is allowed out there because of the danger," said Marine Corps Maj. Jeff Hewlett, assistant logistics officer with the 6th Marines from Camp LeJeune, N.C. "But you have to be able to train with live fire. You cant be static all the time, just sitting around watching rounds impact. Thats not the way we operate in combat."

Hewlett said the coordination involved to ensure people arent going where artillery rounds are landing or where jets are about to drop 1,000pound bombs is immense.

"We dont want to get anybody killed," he said. "Our commander says all the time: Theres not a damn thing we do out here thats worth the life or the injury of one Marine. Its great training but youve got to keep it in check and keep your head about you."

According to Palm, live rounds will land right in front of the Marines as they assault an objective. Then they move through the same area. Safety is a major factor in each units training program, he said.

"Were building safety into how they operate," Palm said. "They get classes on all aspects of safety on duds, proper handling of weapons, where and when they can fire, the requirement for always having communications with range control so we know where they are and when theyre firing. We never ask them to do anything here that they would not do in combat."

Sgt. Michael Waters, 2nd Tank Battalion., 2nd Marine Division, is an M1A1 Abrams tank commander from Camp Lejeune. He said his tank crews qualify just like an infantryman qualifies with an M16 rifle. Combined arms livefire exercises are "the fun part" of being a tanker, he said.

"We take plywood and cut out the shape of personnel carriers or enemy tanks. We pop em up out of nowhere, and we fire em up from there," Waters said.

Sgt. Troy Pugh, also of the 2nd Battalion, is a tank mechanic at Camp Lejeune. "In the rear, I dont get to work on the tanks as often as Id like," he said. "Out here, we get to go out and we actually recover the vehicles and we get to see them in action. Its a big change, and it gives us a chance to practice what were paid to do."

Other training held at the center includes air control, aerial delivery missions of equipment and personnel, air support flights with Marine, Navy, Army and Air Force aircraft and regimental and joint chiefs of staff exercises.

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