Navy SEALs are known for their incredible abilities to sneak into well guarded places undetected and taking down enemy threats with incredible violence of action. One of the places they practice such capabilities is in a custom built city located on a secretive wind-swept island off the California coast.
*All photos and drawings shown are of the facility described in this article
Operation Iraqi Freedom changed the way America's military trains to fight. After the "Blackhawk Down" incident in 1993, urban warfare became something to be avoided almost at any costs as terms like "bloodbath" and "cluster-fuck" were closely associated with it. A decade after the tragic events in Mogadishu, we were mired in a seemingly never ending and largely urban-based war, and our forces were scrambling to adapt.
MOUT, or Military Operations in Urban Terrain, has been the central focus of US ground forces for the last decade. Iraq, and to some degree Afghanistan, with their archaic yet crowded cities and towns, have made the average American soldier train for battle in a much more dynamic and fluid fashion than ever before.
On an urban battlefield, every corner, doorway, window, rooftop, or even sack of garbage can be a major tactical vulnerability. Simply patrolling an area of responsibility can go from a slow-paced march, aimed at implying goodwill and a show of force to the local populace, to a chaotic firefight in a fraction of a second.
Service members of all levels and expertise have talked at great lengths about their urban warfare experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, where on one street they could have been handing out candy to the local children and on the next street the inhabitants would suddenly evaporate from view, just like in a high-noon spaghetti western movie, and in no time bullets and RPGs would start raining down on their position. The enemy could move from building to building, dropping weapons and picking up others as they go, and at any time they could simple melt back into the local populace.
With all these challenges in mind, the US Department of Defense and its industry partners have come up with creative ways to train for such dynamic and deadly war-zones, as well as developing technologies to help US soldiers survive engagements within a foreign metropolis' unforgivably dense cityscape.
MOUT training has been around for decades in some fashion or another, but since the aforementioned "Blackhawk Down" incident in Mogadishu, and especially after the Global War On Terror kicked off, it has grown in scale, complexity and scope. This can include everything from simulating standard patrols, riots, ambushes, hostage situations, EOD situations, embassy evacuation and even public affairs and psychological operations. Then there is one of the most challenging urban warfare missions of all: Neutralizing ghost-like enemy snipers.
These training events happen at MOUT facilities scattered around the US and overseas, where mock cities and villages, often built out of cinder blocks and shipping containers, simulate what troops may encounter on upcoming deployments. "Shughart-Gordon Town" was one of the first elaborate MOUT training facilities. It was installed at Fort Polk, Louisiana in response to what happened in Somalia. The name of the facility came from the pair of heroic Delta Force Snipers who sacrificed themselves in action during the Battle of Mogadishu, both of which were appropriately awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Over the last decade or so, the US Navy SEALs have risen in prominence within America's collective consciousness beyond their well established Hollywood presence. Multiple high-profile operations around the globe have reminded all Americans how lucky we are to have such dedicated and deadly warriors on our side. The known truth is that Navy "Frogmen" are not just plucked out of the masses, they are forged by more experienced warriors in painstaking fashion, and their development into deadlier warriors never ends.
In order to build and maintain such an elite fighting force the US Navy must provide special assets to the SEALs so that they can train as they fight and fight as they train, and there are few battlefields more unforgiving or fraught with danger than those where urban warfare is the name of the game.
In the past, there has been videos on the net of America's elite special forces units, namely the US Navy SEALs, training at MOUT sites on Army and Marine bases around the US. It would seem that at some point in time the SEALs realized that more conventional forces' facilities did not offer them the realism, and most notably the proximity to the ocean, that they require to adequately simulate their operational realities. Furthermore, these existing facilities were already in high demand as continuous deployments of America's conventional land forces resulted in the need for constant workups before units could be rotated in and out of both theaters. In other words, over the last decade or so the need to provide both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with fresh boots on the ground made accesses by small special forces units to these facilities and tailoring them for their particular uses problematic.
At some point in the mid 2000s the decision was made to build a specialized and elaborate MOUT training facility on the secretive and isolated Navy controlled San Clemente Island. San Clemente is part of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast, and is a well-known Navy testing and bombing range. It is also a known SEAL training enclave.
When looking at a map or aerial photo of the island it is clear why the SEALs chose the northern tip of San Clemente Island for their elaborate urban warfare training facility as it is situated between various forms of shoreline and a US Navy operated auxiliary airfield. It is all surrounded by barren, almost martian-like terrain, with a large plateau jutting up at the southern end of the MOUT complex, which is perfect for pattern of life surveillance and sniper training. Not only is such terrain challenging for the SEAL's cloak and dagger missions, but it is also similar to what they would find over in the arid climates of the Middle East where vegetation is sparse.
The sprawling concrete facility, seen above while under early construction, is said to feature a six-story hotel like structure, a city hall, central square, police station complete with a jail, a bazaar like market, large embassy, hotel, school, church/mosque, motor-pool and all the other features of a major town in a third world country. It also has a nearby rural village like those found in Afghanistan. Dozens of blast proof buildings with meandering corridors that sit on tight streets were modeled after real patterns of urban sprawl in developing countries. Like many of the SEALs tools and training devices, the whole city was custom designed with great detail to make every corner, stairwell, roof-line, deck, street, room and window present some sort of unique challenges that a SEAL may be confronted with during real urban operations. The heavy-duty structures allow for explosives to be detonated inside them with minimal resulting damage, which is pretty important considering SEALs are known for blasting their way into their objective if need be.
When you look at the facility as a whole, its location reminds one eerily of Beirut and its layout is reminiscent of a micro-Baghdad. Overall, it would appear that the SEAL's own isolated and dedicated MOUT facility is virtually the perfect place for America's super-warriors to secretly cut their teeth on direct action, reconnaissance and snatch-and-grab urban combat scenarios.
Since SEALs often operate in denied territory, it can be as much of a challenge getting to their target as accomplishing their objective once they have arrived. With this in mind, the facility's perfect access via sea, air and land offers spectacular training flexibility that caters to the SEALs' varied insertion capabilities.
It may seem odd that the US military and its private contractors have now become master builders of towns where nobody lives, but the SEALs, with their highly challenging mission sets, have always found such full scale replicas of particular targets beneficial, as have other counter-terror units from around the globe.
It is well-known that SEAL Team Six trained on a full-scale mock-up of the Bin Laden compound in the months leading up to the historic raid in not just one, but two locations. This unique training no doubt came in very handy when things did not go as planned after the teams arrived on-target in Abbottabad.
The MOUT training facility on San Clemente Island can come in extremely handy not just for practicing the general skills needed to win at urban warfare and clandestine operations, but it also offers a unique, reconfigurable complex where actual high-value missions can be trained for and virtually executed before they even take place. This is especially valuable when it comes to the methods of infiltration and exfiltration to and from the target area.
By discovering issues in a mission plan ahead of time by actually running the mission in a simulated manner, SEAL mission planners can refine their plans, and in the process not only ensure a higher probability of success, but also possibly save the lives of the operators involved. Furthermore, delivery assets and their operators, such as helicopter or submarine crews, can become comfortable with the unique aspects and timing of a particular SEAL mission in advance of that actual operation.
As we enter into the age of budgetary austerity there is a real danger that the high-end training assets and facilities we have built over the last decade, and at great cost, will wither and become dated and thus less relevant to tomorrow's wars. Even worse, they may not get used as much as they could due to a lack of training funds. This is a dangerous road for America to travel down as you can have the most expensive weapons available, $150M F-35s, the latest man portable UAVs, top-of-the-line night vision goggles, and the best swimmer delivery vehicles money can buy, but if you have no money to train with them regularly, or the budgeted training scenarios lack cutting edge threats and realism, the tactical edge that they offer will become highly degraded.
It is essential that as America comes down from our defense spending "sugar high" of the last decade that we do not sacrifice quality training for the latest and greatest in weaponry, as our real power projection edge does not reside primarily in the latest stealth fighter or armored fighting vehicle we develop, but in the quality and experience level of the warriors who fly those stealth fighters and drive those armored vehicles into harms battle.
The investment made by the Navy on the almost Disneyland scale San Clemente Island MOUT facility is money well spent and we can only hope that such a facility continues to grow and becomes even more useful for the warfighters we send on our most dangerous missions.
You can see the completed facility towards the end of this video showing a C-17 tactical approach to San Clemente Island:
Some video of SEALs training on San Clemente Island:
Additional information on the complex can be found in this PDF.
Photos via US Navy/DoD, Contractors including IE Pacific, Vasquez Marshall Architects.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com