FORT IRWIN, Calif. (American Forces Press Service, Feb. 1, 2007) - When the National Training Center opened here in 1981, it presented the most realistic environment imaginable for troops to prepare for a potential large-scale, tank-on-tank confrontation with the Soviet Union in Germany's Fulda Gap.

Today, this sweeping training center has transformed dramatically to train troops for the fight they face today against terrorists and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deep within the Mojave Desert, on a post larger than Rhode Island, there's little sign of the National Training Center's past life, when it focused on preparing troops for a major Cold War confrontation.

Gone is the permanent opposing force that operated with Soviet tactics, dressed in Soviet uniforms and navigated the training grounds in Vietnam-era M-551 Sheridan tanks modified to look like T-72 and BMP tanks.

Capt. Sean Patrick, an observer-controller with the Operations Group here, remembers going through the old NTC in 1999. "It was a high-intensity conflict environment, designed for tank-on-tank conflict," he recalled. "It was wide-open desert, with no towns. We were fighting the Soviet army, so our techniques were different."

Today, Patrick and the rest of the NTC cadre and staff offer what Soldiers training here describe as the best preparation they could receive stateside for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops now train for the many diverse tasks they'll be called on to conduct while deployed: mounted and dismounted patrols, cordon-and-search missions, searches for weapons caches and high-value targets, bilateral talks with Iraqi officials, and infrastructure missions.

"What we do here runs the spectrum, from troop-leading procedures to teaching units how to react to contact and everything in between," said Patrick.

Sgt. 1st Class Adam Lammers, another observer-controller, went through NTC in 1997 with the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment. Ten years later, he's training the same unit for its third deployment to Iraq.

"Instead of putting the emphasis on big tank-on-tank battles, now the focus is on stability and support operations," he said. "Also, back then, we used tactical assembly areas. Now our operations are FOB (forward operating base)-based. So a lot has changed."

Training reflects the environment and threats troops will face in Iraq, and is altered slightly for troops deploying to Afghanistan. Scenarios are updated regularly to reflect lessons learned on the battlefield, said Col. Steven Salazar, commander of the Operations Group. "We do absolutely everything we can possibly think of to make sure we have a current environment and a current scenario," he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Heath Thayer, a section trainer for the scout platoon, calls the NTC's similarity to conditions in Iraq the perfect environment to reinforce the tactics, techniques and procedures troops will use during their deployment.

"This gives us an opportunity to rehearse (standard operating procedures and tactics, techniques and procedures) that Soldiers have been working on at home station and evaluate if they will actually work in theater ... against the most realistic and up-to-date threats," he said. "It's all very realistic, about as realistic as it gets."

Much of the activity centers around 12 Iraqi-style villages that dot the landscape, inhabited by some 1,600 actors posing as Iraqi citizens. Most of these actors are Soldiers from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment that serves as NTC's permanent opposing force, but 250 are Iraqi-Americans. They adopt roles ranging from political or tribal leaders to mullahs to everyday people whose support varies for or against U.S. troops depending on their actions.

John Wagstaffe, the training center's public affairs officer, compares the scenarios that take place in these villages to "an improvised Shakespearean play."

Citizens in the fictional village of Wasl, for example, started a recent training exercise relatively neutral toward the Americans in their midst. But after a patrol from the 3rd Infantry Division disrupted a house during a search and treated an "Iraqi" woman in a way the local people thought inappropriate, they staged a demonstration. The protest turned violent, and two Soldiers were "captured."

The following day, a small group of Soldiers met with the town mayor, police chief and religious leaders to help turn a bad situation around. "We focus on getting Soldiers used to dealing with the Iraqis and how to react to different scenarios," explained David Beach, one of two site managers in the "town."

Pvt. 2 Jimmy Hills, who has played a friendly Iraqi for the past six months, said he sees a direct correlation between Soldiers' actions and the local people's behavior. "It all depends on what the Soldiers do. If they mess up the city, it's just like in real life; we get angry," he said. "When Soldiers go through here, they actually reap the repercussions of their actions. As they do that, they are learning cultural awareness, how to use the language and what to look for."

Nearly every training situation here enforces the ever-present threat posed by improvised explosive devices and snipers. Pyrotechnics are used widely to keep troops ever watchful for roadside bombs, car bombs and insurgents wearing suicide vests. Snipers hide within the villages, often attacking when troops react to IEDs.

For example, medics going through Lammers' simulation training exercise lane got a taste of that when their Humvee and a vehicle loaded with "Iraqis" got hit by an IED. As the troops secured the area and began treating patients, they were hit with a sniper attack.

Cpl. Nathan Bell, a gunner with the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, who returned from Iraq in March, called the villages, explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire here good preparation for the unit's upcoming deployment. "This is all pretty realistic, and it's making us better prepared," he said. "We're able to work on deficient areas and get retrained in areas we need it."

1st Lt. Doug Serota had glowing words for the training the NTC cadre offered his troops. "These guys learned a lot from overseas, and they know what they need to push our way," he said. "There's always stuff we can learn, and these guys are awesome in what they give us."

The NTC cadre and staff say they recognize the urgency of the training. "Nobody comes to the NTC anymore unless they are going to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan," Wagstaffe said. "That puts a lot more pressure on us to ensure that the training is challenging and meaningful. We have to be sure that when people leave here, they are ready to go."

After-action reviews, conducted after training events, take on a more pressing nature than ever before. "No thin skin, okay'" Sgt. 1st Class Steve Smith, an observer-controller, said as he talked with members of 1st Platoon, 58th Combat Engineer Company, about a road-clearance training mission.

Smith pointed out shortcomings in the mission in which five tracked vehicles got ambushed and two of them got hit with IEDs. The vehicles were spaced too closely together, making them vulnerable to attack, he noted. The Soldiers didn't properly scan the area for secondary IEDs before reacting to the first. They had no established succession of command in the event that the leaders were lost. And a single vehicle crew was tapped to do two missions it couldn't possibly do simultaneously: evacuate casualties while setting up a traffic control point.

"Hopefully you will learn something from here," Smith told the Soldiers, all bound for Iraq within the next few months. "Take what you get here and apply it."

"The whole thing we do here is to get these guys spun up and get them ready," said Bob Mortensen, a civilian who advises troops going through route-clearance training. "The more knowledge people have when they get (to the combat theater), the better. So that's our mandate: to train these guys, give them the most up-to-date information so that when they're into the theater, they're prepared."

Sgt. Tony Smith, preparing for his third deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, said he welcomes the preparation he's getting at NTC. "This training parallels everything we deal with over there in Iraq," he said.

"This is probably as close as we are going to get to what it looks like and what we're going to be exposed to in Iraq," agreed Sgt. Marcus Williams, Smith's comrade. "It gets pretty intense here, because that's what it's going to be like when we are over there. So this is the time we can make mistakes and fix those mistakes."