Following the Vietnam War, the Army's leadership was challenged with training soldiers to face the reality of modern combat. The massed armored forces of the Warsaw Pact were increasing in capability and size, and their doctrine stressed offensive action. United States forces, transitioning to an all-volunteer force, were profoundly challenged to maintain combat readiness in the face of declining budgets, aging equipment and massive technological change.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli War provided a test bed for the Soviet doctrine and equipment. Using tactics and systems similar to those employed by the Warsaw Pact, the Arab forces were initially successful in their assaults. Although ultimately defeated by the Israeli Defense Forces, the Arab successes with their initial armored thrusts, anti-tank defenses, and surface-to-air missiles presented new dimensions to the conduct of military operations.

Training the force to adapt to these new combat circumstances presented similar challenges. Increasing weapon range, greater unit mobility and complex interactions between systems of systems greatly complicated effective training at the battalion and brigade levels at unit's home stations. TRADOC planners realized that they needed new training methods to exercise the entire unit's capabilities and assets.

For decades, the Army had conducted force-on-force training events to test new doctrine and prepare units for battle. These umpired events lacked realism, as umpires made subjective determinations regarding combat effects and the outcome of battles. By the 1970s, new technology was becoming available which could change the way engaged units were evaluated. In short, the Army needed a place to conduct realistic, multi-echelon training. The location needed to be sufficiently remote to allow for the use of aviation and electronic warfare, full-scale maneuver of brigade-sized units, and sufficient area for complex live-fire missions. A dozen posts in the US and Canada were considered, but on August 8, 1979, the Army announced that the home for the U.S. Army's National Training Center would be the 642,000 acres of Fort Irwin, California.

One of the key innovations at the National Training Center was the development of an opposing force trained to emulate the tactics and equipment of potential enemy formations. The OPFOR at the National Training Center typically spends more than 200 days a year training in the field. This high level of training gives a "home field" advantage to the OPFOR which most units find challenging.

Another critical innovation has been the deployment of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES). Every weapon has an encoded laser; every soldier and piece of equipment has a receiver. When targeted by an appropriate weapon, the system signals the soldier he has been 'killed'. The effect is a greater level of realism than could be achieved with umpires ruling on the effects of engagements.

The success of the training experience at the National Training Center transcended its initial purpose. Two similar centers, the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk and the Joint Multinational Readiness Training Center at Grafenwohr, Germany, train soldiers using similar methods and techniques. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been trained at these locations since their inception, ensuring America's soldiers are as prepared as possible for the rigors of combat.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16