Desert Warfare Training Pushes to the Extremes
Approximately 120 service members from the United States and France participated in desert survival training in early May, 2008 in the desert and mountains of Djibouti. The French have maintained a military presence in Djibouti for the last 150 years and have often use the unforgiving and rugged terrain to help train their troops for various engagements around the world. For the past two years, Americans deployed to Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa have been afforded the opportunity to participate in the French run training.
The officer in charge of desert survival training, French Marine Captain Emmanuel Nielly, 5th Regiment Overseas Infantry, spoke about how the training emphasized more then just surviving in the desert. "You need to be able to live for long periods of time to accomplish the mission with little to no logistical support in the desert," he said. "This training is designed to give you the tools to survive for extended periods of time, off the land if needed."
The training was broken down into two phases. During the first five days, the French cadre gave classes ranging from the slaughter and field preparation of a goat, to field cooking, to land navigation, to collecting water in the field. The second phase moved into the tactical portion, where students put into practice the lessons they learned in the first half of training.
The second night of training required the students to use the global positioning system to hike 17 kilometers through the Djiboutian mountains at night.
"The night movement was stressful, it felt like it would just never end," said Air Force Major Karen Davis, deputy director CJ9, CJTF-HOA. "The mountains and uneven walking surfaces combined with no illumination from the moon, made the movement extremely difficult. At times you were not sure where you were placing your foot. It made for a long night."
The daytime navigation course, a timed event, required students to race against the clock and each other.
Lance Corporal Tyler J. Barry, 8th Provisional Security Company, reflected on the two land navigation exercises, "This was a good chance for most of us to brush up on basic land navigation skills using a GPS. The night-time hump was hard, but having the GPS made it a little more bearable, it helped to keep us on course."
There was a downside to using the technology, added U.S. Army Sergeant Thomas I. Meade, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division (The Old Guard), from Phoenix, Ariz., "We relied on the GPS without having the maps to plot out our course. Taking a direct path might be the shortest path from point A to point B, but it is not always the wisest. Normally you want to use a topographical map in conjunction with a GPS to plan out your route to avoid obstacles or in this case steep climbs and drops in the terrain elevation."
The next few days focused on tactical operations.
"The French do things a little differently from the U.S. military, but there were enough similarities between our doctrines that most of us were able to adapt," Meade said. "But what really sparked my interest was the class on booby traps. Here the French taught us how to use fragmentation grenades and smoke grenades to mark our lines and help defend our positions."
The students also participated in a camel convoy class, during which they traveled by camel to haul heavy equipment through the desert and mountains.
"I did not think it was going to be that hard, our packs were light, but the terrain and the speed of the movement made the trip harder then I thought it would be," said Lance Corporal Ryan A. Wentzel, 8th PSC, Alpha Company. "The slow pace was coupled with frequent stops because of medical issues. We brought enough water for the hump, but with the added hours tacked on because of the medical situations most of us were running out of water by the end of the march."
The next four days allowed the students to apply the knowledge they learned in the beginning of the course. Meal time became a tedious chore of slaughtering, cleaning and cooking the goats supplied to them by the instructors. Everyone took turns. People were always fixing a fighting position, preparing the next meal, or going out on a patrol. In between each evolution, platoon members tried to catch a minute or two of sleep.
Additionally, the team's communications and response systems were tested in response to simulated attacks on the camp.
"The training was tough, there was no doubt about it," Davis said. "We pulled through and learned the human body can be pushed to the limits and then beyond. The lessons we learned will help us operate in the desert. It showed us we can not just survive out here, but succeed in our mission."