Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Advisor Training Group “Mission Rehearsal Exercise”

Capt Alex Luedtke (right) and a contractor observing during a notional 'attack.'

By Andrew Lubin for Leatherneck Magazine

Range 220, MCAGCC Twentynine Palms—It’s been “Clear-Hold-Build” throughout the length of the Helmand River Valley since 2009, but its “Transition,” or how successful the Marines are in teaching the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to control their own battlespace, is how the Marine efforts in Afghanistan will be remembered.

In the past few years, the Marine Corps built the largest military operations on urban terrain (MOUT) town in the American military, with 1,550 buildings spread over 284 acres. Built primarily from 20- and 40-foot shipping containers, the buildings replicate jails, hospitals, a bazaar, and even a multiple-story hotel complete with furniture. The roads have been reinforced to allow for Marine armored vehicles ranging from M1A1 main battle tanks, amtraks and light armored vehicles to participate in the exercises, with graveyards, Afghan women and “bazaaris” added to the atmospherics. The 284 acres have been subdivided into seven different districts, with Advisor Training Group (ATG) owning its own “battlespace.”

Taking teams of 14 to 20 Marines into the field, the Advisor Training Team uses a 28-day training cycle to teach the Marines the subtleties of training the ANSF. “It’s not just teaching tactics,” Captain Alex Luedtke told Leatherneck, “it’s using trust and respect so important in the Afghan culture to teach the tactical and soft skills necessary.” An infantryman by trade, Luedtke normally assists in the Human Dimension classes. This week he is one of seven captains who are overseeing the teams going through the mission readiness exercise (MRX).

Commanded by Colonel William Gillespie, the ATG consists of 25 to 30 Marines and some 400 (primarily) Afghan men and women who work together in teaching the Marines the subtleties of training the ANSF when they deploy. “We’re not teaching,” Luedtke continued, “we’re mentoring and advising, and it’s important the Marines understand the difference.”

Each training cycle has an MRX, in which the Marines are graded in how they interact and advise their Afghan counterparts during a series of high-stress exercises ranging from complex ambushes, vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) strikes, detainee processing, jirgas, force protection, morale and discipline, and air medevacs. Each team consists of a number of ranks: staff sergeants, gunnery sergeants, lieutenants, who are able to advise one-rank-up or one-rank-down as necessary.

In one of today’s exercises, an Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol suffered multiple wounded from an improvised explosive device (IED) and was then attacked as they called in a medevac. With five Afghans bandaged realistically (including copious amounts of fake blood), while moaning and shrieking in Pashtu, the Marine first lieutenant called in a 9-line for a Mercy Air medevac. But while awaiting the helicopter’s arrival, the patrol was ambushed, with the Afghans being attacked from a nearby village by notional heavy machine guns, small arms and artillery. The purpose of the attack was to see how well the Marine lieutenant would liaise with his Afghan captain-partner while under the pressure of combat; and in this complex war, it was a complex answer.

With the Afghan commander seemingly paralyzed by the heavy fire, the Marine tried to get him to make a decision. “We can’t stay here,” he emphasized to the Afghan, “we need to move forward and attack, or we need to pull back.” A Marine armored vehicle accompanying the patrol moved forward into the fight, but an audible was called declaring the up-gunner wounded and the vehicle pulled back in order to deal with the WIA. Calling for additional ANA troops was another option, but as the audio of incoming fire increased in volume, the Afghan remained unable to make a decision. “We can’t wait 30 minutes,” the Marine emphasized, in a tone one could hear over the gunfire. “You need to decide NOW!”

While the lieutenant continued to push the ANA for orders, other equally important actions were ignored; no defensive perimeter was established, the landing zones (LZ) were not swept for IEDs, a rifle was left unattended, and the ANA troops remained huddled around the wounded who had been carried to the LZ. After an intense 10 to 15 minutes, the medevac “bird” arrived, the Afghan “casualties” were loaded, and the Mercy Air flight departed in a cloud of dust.

It seemed a complex problem with an unpalatable answer. If the Afghan continues to waffle, ANA and Marines may die. If the Marine takes command, he undermines the command structure by showing the Afghan commander to be ineffective, while the other issues needed to be addressed simultaneously. If the ANA commander isn’t effective, the role of the Marine is not to take command, but rather to spur him to command effectively.

“Mentoring is often an exercise in pushing the Afghans,” Luedtke explained, “but not to the point of pain. Leadership is tone as much as tactics; it can be a fine line.”

Tomorrow: a complex ambush and IEDs.