Building a town for training foreign agents

A new training center gives US foreign service agents an opportunity to learn how to move and operate in an urban setting:

Take the 19 miles of intertwined roads that replicate virtually every type of automotive interchange, intersection, and interstate likely to carry the federal agents tasked with protecting US diplomats and citizens around the world. They include traffic-free driving circles, twisties, and long highway sections where agents learn to evade ambushes and intercept suspects. The tree-lined labyrinth is both a tempting playground and a post-apocalyptic vision of suburban emptiness.

The nearby off-road course includes a simulated rocky riverbed, a real sand pit, a craggy hill, and cement staircases. Agents weave Jeep Wrangler Rubicons through a field of moguls. Elsewhere on the 1,300-acre compound you’ll find a rappelling wall, an explosives range, and live fire “shoot house.” In the “smokehouse,” agents learn to escape burning buildings. In the tactical maze—a warehouse holding dozens of interconnected rooms—teams of agents practice security missions. They bust down doors and stalk their enemies, while instructors observe from catwalks.

All wild stuff, but nothing compared to the centerpiece of this new training center: the “military operations in urban terrain” simulator. Also known as the MOUT, this is a proper town, complete with back alleys, main drags, and a life-size US embassy compound. The multistory buildings sport rooms, stairs, balconies, and rooftops, all of which can serve as stages for faux bad guys or the agents securing the structure while managing a search, evacuation, or watching over a motorcade. The only thing missing is a Starbucks on every corner—or any other permanent set dressing. The town is a blank, reusable canvas that can be modded to play a global capital or developing nation’s unkempt urban center. Actors interact with agents; networked speakers replicate rumbling tanks, bleating goats, midtown Manhattan traffic, and more…

So much for having fun. A pronounced aura of menace colors exploration of even the empty facility, as I discovered during a visit the day before it officially opened. As I went from door to door and floor to floor at twilight, it was easy to sense what agents will face: uncertainty and unfamiliarity, speckled with chaotic radio chatter, aggressive crowds, small arms fire, even pyrotechnics. “It’s designed to make it as realistic as possible, in order for the brain to really make the synapses kick together and go ‘Yeah, this is real life,’” said facility director Bob Weitzel.

Having a training ground seems to make sense: executing maneuvers in a stressful moment could be easier if someone has tried something similar before. At the same time…

1. How much can a training ground like this really replicate complex communities around the world? Having the physical space is one thing but then adding the layers of people and meaning would be really hard to achieve. The article hints at the ways they get at simulating an experience but I would wonder how much it matches reality.

2. It would be interesting to know how much more successful agents are after training in a facility like this versus learning through other means. How much difference does having a tangible training ground make? How many hours does an agent need in the simulated settings to feel comfortable?

3. I wonder how this setup differs from a Hollywood backlot. Did the creators of the training ground borrow from what movie and television producers regularly do?

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