The Secret Service has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons lately, with hookers, drugs, fence jumpers, a guy entering the White House with a knife, drones running amok and now even drunken crashes into the White House gates making headlines. The answer, at least partially? A long overdue $8 million replica White House to train on.
The fact that the US Secret Service does not have any sort of White House replica training tool is an indication of mixed up priorities when it comes to the century and half old Presidential protection and counterfeiting enforcement force.
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy pitched the need for such a facility earlier this week during a Congressional hearing:
"Right now, we train on a parking lot, basically... We put up a makeshift fence and walk off the distance between the fence at the White House and the actual house itself. We don't have the bushes, we don't have the fountains, we don't get a realistic look at the White House... It's important to have a true replica of the White House so we can do a better job of this integrated training between our uniform division officers, our agents and our tactical teams. The Secret Service currently uses a rudimentary, not-to-scale simulation of the north grounds of the White House, using bike barricades to act as the fencing. There are no structures, vehicle gates, lighting or other aids to enhance the training simulations."
Mr. Clancy is absolutely right that the Secret Service needs such a tool and that current training facilities are inadequate.
The US Military, from elite special forces units like the US Navy SEALs down to Army and Marine grunts, have fake towns, and even full cities, built to train for urban combat and specific role-playing scenarios. These are known as Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) complexes.
Medina Jabal, just one of the elaborate MOUT complexes at Fort Irwin. Facilities larger and even more elaborate than this are located at bases around the US and abroad.
MOUT complexes can be as simple as an arrangement of stacked containers that are crudely modified to act as different buildings, to long-lasting and elaborately detailed "tactical villages" filled with live action role players, automated targets, live fire "kill houses," dynamic lighting and sound as well as video and data monitoring systems used for detailed debriefs.
MOUT training centers, which rose to prominence after the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu in 1993 and saw an explosion in usefulness due to the Global War on Terror as well as the challenges of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not just a US creation. Some of the most detailed MOUT complexes and counter-assault training facilities can be found overseas.
Although a rare occurrence, for certain missions that are incredibly challenging or are absolutely crucial to national security, top tier counter-terror units have had replicas of their target structures built for them to train on.
Most famously, this happened with SEAL Team Six and their mission to take out Bin Laden in his compound located in the semi-rural suburb of Abbottabad, Pakistan. In fact, for that mission, two mock-ups of the Bin Laden compound were built based on highly detailed imagery. One was located at the CIA's operations training facility in North Carolina and one was located out west, presumably on the Nellis Test and Training Range, where SEAL Team Six integrated with the highly classified stealth Black Hawk helicopters they would use for transportation on the mission. The western mock-up was used as a real-world conditions proof of concept and training analogue for the actual mission, which allowed the White House to sign off on the assault plan before ordering the team to leave the US for staging in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Construction of a scale mock-up of the Bin Laden compound at a CIA training facility in North Carolina caught on satellite months before the historic raid to place.
If multiple mock-ups of a target that America's most elite counter-terror operators will hit only once was good enough to take out Bin Laden, then a mock-up of the White House, the most consistently threatened piece of property in the United States, is good enough for the President, not to mention national stability.
The Secret Service is no stranger to MOUT type complexes, and in some ways they were innovators of the concept. A full mock-up of a small town's main street, an aircraft's forward fuselage, a replica of Marine One and high-speed and low-speed driving tracks, including overpasses and other obstructions, have been in the Secret Service's training aresenal for decades. These, along with the vast majority of the Secret Service's more traditional physical training elements, are located at the James J. Rowley Training Center located in Beltsville, Maryland.
Even though these facilities probably look impressive to most people, by modern day MOUT facility standards they are not. And although they still may be adequate for training how to defend the President against attack while traveling, they are a far cry from an adequate representation of the challenges of defending the White House.
President Obama watches tactical sniper training at the Secret Service's James J. Rowley training complex.
Building a mock White House, even a low fidelity one that is aimed at training both plain clothes Presidential protection detail officers as well as uniformed officers and tactical counter-assault teams, would be a massive training capability increase over what the Secret Service has now, which is basically nothing. This is especially true when it comes to countering emerging asymmetric threats. Everyone from K-9 units to snipers, and even point air defense units, could benefit from honing their tactics on a scale model of the place they defend daily.
Should a real attack ever occur, training on a replica of the White House would decrease response times and lessen the chances of innocent bystanders being injured during the subsequent tactical response/counter assault. This could be done using live role players and complex scenario-based training situations, something that makes a lot of sense considering all the various threats, thousands of visitors and unique events the White House sees in a year. Additionally, new technologies could be tested far from the public's eye and under much more realistic conditions that take into account the unique challenges that the White House's physical plant and dense urban setting represents. This is especially relevant as laser defenses become a staple for VIP protection against small aircraft, drones and commercially available remote controlled aircraft.
As far as cost goes, an $8 million price tag for a scale White House mock-up sounds like a lot of money, but considering that such a facility will pay back its worth over many decades, it is a bargain. More so, in the grand scheme of Presidential lifestyle and security, $8 million is actually a tiny drop in the bucket.
Consider this: a single VC-25A (the modified 747-200 that is mostly used as Air Force Once) costs more than $200k per hour to operate. This means that a single trip from Washington DC to Los Angeles, one that President Obama makes regularly, costs $2 million round trip.
Keep in mind that the motorcade has to be flown out on a C-17 and a pair of Presidential "White Top" VH-3D or VH-60N helicopters used as Marine One have to be transported too, even if they are not used. This amounts to a bare minimum of two C-17s full of cargo per stop, but it's usually three. Just transporting the President's gear to LA for a single stop costs at least $600,000 round trip assuming the cost per flight hour is about $25,000 for each C-17. This does not take into account the many dozens of Secret Service, White House and DHS personnel that fly out commercially in advance for each Presidential site visit, nor does it include the MV-22 Ospreys that are used to move the media and White House staff around if Marine One is the President's mode of transport that day.
On some trips, and all trips outside the US, the President's VC-25A is accompanied by at least one spare aircraft, usually the other VC-25A, or if it is not available, a C-32A (most commonly Air Force Two), and a C-20C or E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post. Often, multiple spares are involved, especially if the Vice President and Secretary of Defense are coming along. Multiple examples of Marine One and their support MV-22s attend to move everyone from point to point in addition to the Presidential motorcade that also has to be flown out, sometimes in multiple sets for multiple locations.
With all this in mind, and considering the President takes close to 200 flights each year, the bargain basement price of three one-stop trips to LA on a VC-25A alone would pay for the the Secret Service's mock-up of the White House. Hell, the price of operating Air Force One for Obama's 2013 Hawaii vacation was $8 million in itself.
This is not an argument against the cost of moving the President around the world, it just gives some perspective as to how $8 million is actually a drop in the bucket for the White House's annual spending. The money is there it just needs to be prioritized.
Is there something wrong with the Secret Service? There do appear to be some rough cultural issues that remain unsolved. Yet aside from the few screw-ups that have happened in the public eye, it is astonishing how well they do their jobs every single day. It really is a tireless position that actually has self sacrifice in its job description.
The reality is that the Secret Service has to be perfect all the time. Nobody hears about all the measures that go into protecting the President at every successful stop when traveling or every single day at the White House, they only hear about when something, anything, goes wrong, which is incredibly rare. It is a serious business, one that requires at least the same level of training support as our military.
Full scale replicas and tactical mock-ups are proven ways to lower mission risk, improve response times and familiarity for operators and increase an overall force's effectiveness. There is probably no more relevant of an application to use this training concept than when it comes to defending the White House.
In fact, it is very puzzling that the fat spending years of the Bush Administration didn't produce any sort of White House replica. Especially since other White House replicas exist all over the globe, with differing scales and levels of detail. The hard truth is that this Secret Service initiative to build one is coming only after multiple breaches in security have occurred. This has been needed for a long time.
Going forward, if the agency says a mock-up of the White House is what it needs to keep the First Family safe, and ensuring the stability of our nation in the process, then there should be little debate as to the validity of such a basic request. This is not a trillion dollar fighter program or a new aircraft carrier. It is hard to think of a better investment, both in its relevancy and return on investment over many years, than giving the Secret Service such a proven and logical training facility that mirrors such a high-profile, sensitive and tactically challenging locale.
Now, what Congress should be asking Director Clancy is not why an $8 million White House replica is needed, but how quickly one can be built.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who 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