A Marine squad on patrol emerges from a narrow street and into a courtyard with a crowded open market. As part of the patrol passes by a fruit vendor’s stall, an IED hidden in one of the stalls explodes. Simultaneously, a car bomb on the other side of the market detonates. Suddenly the air is filled with the screams of panicked civilians – some with horribly shattered or severed limbs – and the sound of insurgent gunfire from rooftops and nearby buildings.
A scene from Fallujah, Ramadi, Husaybah, or any one of countless other towns and villages in Iraq or Afghanistan? No, it’s in San Diego, Calif., part of the training program developed by Strategic Operations, a division of Stu Segall Productions. Originally Segall’s company specialized in action-packed “shoot-’em-ups” for movies and television. When such projects fell out of fashion in the wake of 9/11, Segall reinvented his company, creating Strategic Operations in 2002, and transformed a part of the company’s 20-acre lot into a training facility.
Strategic Operations’ first customer was the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, for whom it developed a search-and-arrest training program. Some of
the agents who went through the training were also Marine reservists. They were so impressed with the realistic nature of the program that they recommended then Lt. Col. Patrick Malay check it out. At the time, Malay was commander of a Marine battalion slated for deployment to Iraq in 2004. He felt the training his troops were receiving was insufficiently preparing them for what they would encounter in Iraq. Malay met with Segall, and a two-week training program was developed in which Malay’s Marines ran the gamut of MOUT – military operations on urban terrain – exercises based on situations experienced by troops in Iraq. Today, Strategic Operations has three MOUT facilities, and has helped train more than 400,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel.
A key to the company’s success is an advanced level of environmental and scenario development that the company calls “hyper-realistic” training. Kit Lavell, executive vice president and a retired pilot who flew 243 combat missions for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War, said, “Basically, what we do is use all the techniques of the television and movie industry – sets, actors, pyrotechnics, and props – to make the training as realistic as possible.”
Strategic Operations has created a wide range of portable training facilities, including village neighborhoods complete with mosques and open markets, private homes, urban sniper towers, and other structures. Also in its inventory are ship simulators designed for nautical exercises, and a Boeing 727 customized for aircraft highjacking and hostage scenarios.
Realism in the MOUT exercises is enhanced by an “indigenous population” that includes regular actors, Iraqi immigrants, and amputee-actors used to simulate casualties. As a result, instead of troops experiencing a staged exercise with few props, everything including the kitchen sink is in place – and in their face. The participating troops find themselves immersed in a true-to-life environment complete with enemy combatants, panic-stricken villagers, and gruesomely mutilated casualties.
The duration of training sessions varies, with the shortest lasting just one day and the longest as much as four weeks. The two most common sessions are three-day and two-week exercises, and programs have been developed for training up to brigade level.
Lavell added, “We also do a lot of research and development, and have come out with a lot of different products.” These products include Re-locatable Habitat Units (RHU), that utilize ISO shipping containers customized using Hollywood set construction techniques to create a wide variety of urban environments that can be built and torn down in minutes; Ballistic Unmanned Ground Vehicle-Target (BUGV-Target) – remote-controlled mobile platforms capable of being fitted with a number of different lightweight vehicle chassis and designed for suicide vehicle exercises; and the Get The Forces Off/On (GETFO) system that allows troops to swiftly and safely exit or enter a high-wheelbase truck by using a firefighter style pole mounted on the rear of the vehicle.
As for the necessary explosions and gunshots, Lavell said, “We use pyrotechnics developed for television and movies that allow us to trigger explosions much closer to individuals without hurting them. They’re huge explosions, with very little energy.”
When asked what scenario was the most challenging for the company to create, Lavell said, “It’s hard to say. Everything is challenging. But we’re very flexible. We can create just about anything a military unit wants us to create.”