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Training area expands preparing the joint, NATO force

Oct 9, 2009

By Christie Vanover (USAG Benelux)

CHIEVRES, Belgium-Military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are at a shifting point. The number of boots on the ground in Iraq is decreasing, while the needed force strength in Afghanistan is under review. As the operations evolve, so do the methods of training troops.

Tucked away in the valleys of Belgium, a country the size of Maryland, a handful of NATO support forces deploy on a rotational basis to Afghanistan to support the International Security Assistance Force.

Those at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe who work with NATO's Allied Command Operations don't have easy access to multi-million dollar training facilities, but their jobs and their lives require them to be as efficient with their Mission Essential Task List as any other Servicemember who goes downrange. The command team within the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux has made it a priority to provide the training platforms needed in this unique environment.

Just over a year ago, a field on Chièvres Air Base sat empty, until a kick-start of $150,000 from the 650th Military Intelligence Group/Allied Command Counterintelligence had a trickle effect on what is now a fully-functional training area used by U.S. Army NATO Soldiers, counterintelligence agents, special operations forces, military police and other units in the region.

"My intent was to generate a scenario that was true to life," Col. Scott St. Cyr said a year ago when the training area was undergoing its first stage of construction.

"I wanted to bring the streets of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo to Belgium, so that my Soldiers and future Soldiers who use this site are as prepared as possible to face the unknown," added the commander of the 650th MI Group/ACCI.

At first, the area consisted of one dead-end road, a tree line and a field. The 650th MI group/ACCI has an ongoing mission to deploy counterintelligence agents to Afghanistan, and they worked with the USAG Benelux and Joint Multi-National Training Command to construct rows of small wooden buildings used for counterintelligence interface exercises.

One year and more than $1 million later, the site has expanded dramatically. It now has two additional roads that make convoy training more realistic and two two-story buildings with multi-level walls for single-man, team and vehicle entry.

"The MOUT is used almost every day during training exercises," said St. Cyr. "MPs used it this week for hostage recovery. We use it as an ISAF Headquarters. It's multi-purpose and extremely effective." The NATO Special Operations Coordination Centre (NSCC) also uses it for an information gathering exercise - the Technical Exploitation Operations Course.

Luis Velez, a training support specialist with the JMTC, added that the training area's location on Chièvres Air Base (35 miles southwest of Brussels) is a geographic advantage.

"We're in a central location. Before the closest place for people in the UK and the Netherlands was Baumholder [Germany]," he said.

"Even though we don't have a brigade combat team, we have a lot in the community who deploy. Those skills have to be maintained. We have a little bit of everything here," he said, commenting on the structures and the added bonus of an airfield.

The expansion of the Alliance Home Station Training Area isn't complete, and neither is the goal of opening it up as a true NATO training facility.

"We're looking to the future to expand it and to make it a better training area, so we can practice even more scenarios," said Sean Lehane, the deputy garrison manager for Chièvres Garrison.

Because the site is located on a U.S. Air Base, it is open to U.S. ID cardholders. So far, international Soldiers in units like the NSCC have been able to use the training area with their U.S. counterparts, but the garrison is working to streamline the international partnership even further.

"We're trying to discern how we can allow NATO members and countries easier access to be able to use that facility," said Lehane. "That's being done in coordination with the Provost Marshal Office for access control and JMTC because they manage the facility."

Lt. Col. Michele Prihoda, the commander of the SHAPE Battalion, U.S. Army NATO Brigade, said most of her Soldiers serve in NATO positions and rotate through Afghanistan in support of ISAF.

"If the training area is opened up to the international community, we will endeavor to partner with them during training exercises so that our Soldiers can train with the Soldiers they will fight with," she said.

In addition to greater accessibility, Ben Rogers, the range technician with JMTC, said the next priority is an improvised explosive device lane.

"That project can go up to a million and a half dollars to set in place a top-of-the-line lane that other units are using," he said.

The model he has in mind includes a control post that manages when and where each IED goes off. He said it is hooked to a computer and has an incorporated video system that units can use for after action reviews.

"Since IEDs are a major concern in the ISAF area of operation, the addition of an IED lane would allow us to better prepare Soldiers to detect and react to IEDs, thus hopefully increasing survivability," said Prihoda.

"The more realistic training they have here the better their reaction time is going to be," added Rogers.

Concepts like the IED lane come from recommendations from local commanders. "We're open to any command suggestions. We know we exist for them, and we're capable of doing so much," said Rogers.

"The more we can get input from commanders who have Soldiers just coming back, the better. Their intel is the most valuable because over the years there have been significant changes," said Rogers who previously served in Iraq.

While the JMTC manages the training area, the majority of the funding comes from IMCOM, and Lehane said the Benelux is looking into the IED addition.

"It's a requirement that tenant units have asked about to meet training and to add realism," he said. "Now we're doing the analysis to come up with courses of action to see how and if we can support that."

In the meantime, the current facility is scheduled for training on a regular basis. The 650th MI Group/ACCI just completed its latest Mission Rehearsal Exercise - the exercise that launched the training area development in 2008.

St. Cyr said over the past year, units have all increased their participation in the MRX, making it a more complex exercise. "The whole backdrop allows units to meet their unit specific requirements," he said.

"The upgrades that the USAG Benelux Training Support Center was able to make to the training area, plus the 650th MI Group's invitation to participate during their MRX, enhances the training experience for our Soldiers by providing more realistic and challenging scenarios than we could do by ourselves," added Prihoda.

"As we gear up for the FY10 training year, we plan to use the training area more often especially for situational training exercises that test Soldiers competence in Army Warrior Tasks and Drills. The STXs will help maintain Soldiers' combat skills, so that they remain ready to deploy in support of NATO contingency operations," she continued.

The increased use of the Alliance Home Station Training Area is exactly what the Benelux encourages and what leaders envisioned in 2008.

"Now, the vision, in coordination with JMTC, is to keep expanding it and make it a premier training facility not only for us but NATO and joint forces for contingency operations," said Lehane.

"The fact that we continue to strengthen the community is rewarding," said St. Cyr. "We are fully preparing men and women who deploy."

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