In the middle of California’s Mojave desert, down a long, bumpy track that winds past barren hills and arid ravines, there is a town like no other. The first unusual sight is a golden onion dome poking up on the horizon, crowning a pale blue minaret. It rises above a cluster of boxy, tan-coloured buildings that form a network of narrow alleyways around a central street where a lively market is in full swing. Some of the buildings are topped with decorative crenellations, others have big plastic water butts on their roofs, some are adorned with plaster columns with a faintly Middle Eastern air. The buildings become simpler as they get farther from the centre of town, fading into blank grey boxes with window-shaped cutouts in the hazy distance.

It looks as if it could be a film set for Hollywood’s latest Arabian epic, or a new live-action Disney show, ready for Aladdin to swoop in on his carpet. But this is a theatre of a very different kind. It is not Aladdin but an Apache helicopter that suddenly appears overhead, its blades narrowly missing the minaret as a rapid volley of gunfire echoes through the streets. A tank rumbles around the corner, aiming towards a building on which armed figures patrol the roof. There’s a big bang, and clouds of smoke engulf the street. A human body starts convulsing on the ground, spurting with fake blood.

“Gunners are sweeping rooftops for enemy insurgents,” says a military voice over the PA. “Then they will conduct an attack on a house, which US intel reports houses three prominent improvised explosive device makers.”

A danger sign marks the border of land used for tank training at Fort Irwin military reservation. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

This is just another regular day in Razish, a fake village built by the US army to train its soldiers for urban warfare. It is one of a dozen pretend settlements scattered across “the Box” (as in sandbox) – a vast landscape of unforgiving desert at the Fort Irwin National Training Center (NTC), the largest such training facility in the world. Covering more than 3,000 sq km (1,200 square miles), it is a place where soldiers come to practise liberating the citizens of the imaginary oil-rich nation Atropia from occupation by the evil authoritarian state of Donovia. It is a place where fake landmines dot the valleys, fake police stations are staffed by fake police, and fake villages populated by citizens of fake nation states are invaded daily by the US military – wielding very real artillery.

“We have spent millions of dollars to replicate the complex realities of modern warfare,” says Brigadier General Curt Taylor, commanding general of Fort Irwin. I am here on a tour, with a group of reporters and soldiers’ relatives. Taylor is standing in front of a large screen in a briefing room, which has just played a Hollywood-style trailer for the training centre, a high-octane montage of helicopters, machine guns and explosions, set to dramatic music. “We create the most realistic environment that can best replicate what we think the next war is going to look like,” he says. “Drone swarms, dirty bombs, radar-jamming, fake news – this is way beyond just laser tag.”

A food stand in a mock Iraqi village at Fort Irwin training centre. Photograph: Ann Johansson/Corbis/Getty Images

The NTC opened here in 1981, born out of an increasing anxiety that, with the rise of the Soviet Union, the US could no longer rely on its superior firepower or the size of its military alone. As a 1976 field manual put it, the army would have to learn how to “fight outnumbered, and win”. Taylor says that lessons learned in Vietnam, and the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, woke up military leaders to the fact “that you could lose your army in an afternoon if you weren’t ready”.

The Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993, dramatised in the movie Black Hawk Down, marked another watershed. Eighteen American soldiers were killed, along with hundreds of Somalis, in a battle that showed the US army simply wasn’t prepared for warfare in dense urban environments. The military didn’t know how to predict the behaviour of people in the city, and had difficulty differentiating between enemy fighters, local sympathisers and civilians. Field training was adjusted, with a new emphasis on urban combat, and the importance of understanding local culture and counterinsurgency movements. War was no longer a game of equally matched armies slugging it out on expansive plains, but a messy, unpredictable free-for-all of missiles fired from apartment blocks and makeshift improvised explosive devices detonated in tangled mazes of tightknit streets, in situations where the nature of the “enemy” wasn’t always clear.

When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began in the early 2000s, the US government poured huge amounts of money into training, and Fort Irwin became the centre of a new kind of urban simulation. The fake town now known as Razish was originally built as the Iraqi town of Medina Wasl – modelled on satellite imagery of Baghdad, to approximate the right street widths – before evolving into the imaginary Afghan settlement of Ertebat Shar. It began as a series of sheds, bought from Shed World, a popular California retailer. Then came stacks of shipping containers covered with fake stone cladding. Over the years, the town has grown to 785 buildings, now mostly modular steel-frame structures clad with plywood and coated with thin layers of plaster and fake bricks. They are linked by a network of underground tunnels, through which the pretend insurgents can scurry unseen.

The welcome sign at the Fort Irwin centre. Photograph: Brian Cahn/Zuma Wire/Shutterstock

Step inside these buildings, and their Potemkin facades turn out to mask complex labyrinths of plywood partitions. There are holes cut between the rooms at different heights, and trapdoors cut into the floors and ceilings, so that surprise attacks can be staged at any moment. Warfare here is not just confined to the streets, but also staged indoors, with battles unfolding room by room.

“You can lose a brigade in here very easily,” says Taylor. “A hundred enemy soldiers can defend the town for a long time.” After preparing for their exercises for about a year, brigades of about 5,000 soldiers come to Fort Irwin from across the US on month-long rotations, bringing all their vehicles and equipment with them. Each month, several trainloads of military hardware are route-marched across the desert, from the Marine Corps logistics base near Barstow, 50 km (30 miles) to the south. Once here, camping in the desert for weeks at a time, the brigades must face the resident enemy: the 2,000-strong 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, known as Blackhorse. “They are the world’s best at ground manoeuvre warfare,” says Taylor. “They fight this scenario every month and they know the desert like the back of their hands, so they’re really tough to beat.”

Over the years, the training simulations have adapted to incorporate new technologies and respond to new threats. Fort Irwin introduced a Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (Miles), a kind of military laser tag, in the 1980s, so that every (blank) bullet fired and every (pretend) casualty could be accurately recorded. The data is fed back to a computer centre on the base, known as the Star Wars building, which tracks the movement of every vehicle, weapon and soldier, to allow for in-depth post-battle analysis. “We put everything up on the screen and have hours of brutal conversation about what could have been done better,” says Taylor. “It’s a very humbling experience.”

The battle simulations put the military’s technology to the test, too. Being in such a remote location, where the army controls the airspace up to 8,850 metres (29,000ft), allows the NTC to do things such as jam the radar, GPS and radio signals of its aircraft (to the occasional annoyance of Nasa’s deep space communications complex next door). Back on the ground, it operates a fake cable news channel, on which officers are subjected to aggressive TV interviews, trained to win the media war as well as the physical one. Recently, it even introduced internal social media networks, called Tweeter and Fakebook, where mock civilians spread fake news about the battles – social media being the latest weapon in the arsenal of modern war.

In one recent exercise, the enemy knew they were about to lose their town to US forces, so they launched a (pretend) rocket attack on the town and its civilians, but filmed it in a way that made it look as if the Americans were responsible. “They put it on social media and created this story about the US forces destroying their city,” says Taylor. “So we simulated the White House calling, demanding to know what happened. The public affairs officer did a pretty good job, getting all the data from our radar systems and tracking every round that was fired, to prove it wasn’t us.” Contemporary warfare, he adds, is about being first with the truth. “That’s what we’ve seen in Ukraine: in the opening days of the fight, they did a masterful job of winning the narrative and being first with the truth.”

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The war in Ukraine has transformed the nature of this fake village once again. Razish may still have a Middle Eastern look, but the actors hawking chunks of plastic meat and veg in the street market speak not English or Arabic, but Russian. The music blaring from their hi-fis now has a distinctly eastern European flavour. The US army is rehearsing possible battles with Russia in a fantasy simulation of Baghdad, minarets and all.

“We’ve tried to rename and retitle things to make it fit,” says Taylor, noting that the town’s sign is now written in Cyrillic. “But changing the buildings around is not necessarily required.”

What has changed more is how the troops are using the landscape. The conflict in Ukraine has seen the return of trench warfare, so they have responded accordingly. “We’ve got people digging holes all over,” Taylor says. “We now have a pretty elaborate trench line system near one of our towns, 7ft deep and more than 200 metres long. You can get lost down there.” He says the Blackhorse Regiment has also been replicating Russian military formations, and its vehicles have been adapted to look more Russian.

“The Russians have spent the most time building doctrine and really thinking hard how they’re going to fight the Americans,” he says, explaining that the training regime is adjusted according to the most likely threats.

Iraqi men gather by a make-believe mosque in a mock Iraqi village. Photograph: Ann Johansson/Corbis/Getty Images

But we won’t be seeing a Ukrainian model village built here any time soon. It is clear that the NTC doesn’t quite enjoy the ample funds for elaborate contextual scenery that it once did under the Bush administration. As one officer tells me: “We used to have hundreds of actors across the entire city, but they cut our budget.”

I try to ask the actors where they are from, but they refuse to break character: “Razish, of course!” one responds, offering me a plastic baguette. “Buy my bread and please save us from the Donovians!” We are introduced to the local mayor and his chief of police, accompanied by a translator, but they also stick firmly to the script. “Dobryy den’,” the police chief grins, from behind his dark glasses.

A search on an employment website reveals numerous job ads for these roles, all run by private companies, including one for “professional civilians on the battlefield” required to “enable military units to simulate real-world cultural interactions” – with Arabic or Russian language skills required. The actors are bussed here to play the roles of villagers, governors, merchants, shepherds, imams and doctors, often living on the base during their employment. It has become a big business. An NBC news investigation in 2019 found that this military role-playing industry has ballooned since the early 2000s, now comprising a network of 256 companies across the US, receiving more than $250m a year in government contracts. The actors are often recent refugees, having fled one real-world conflict only to enter another, simulated one. Some have said that working 12 hours a day, up to two weeks at a time, can make it easy for them to forget they are in a simulation.

Back on the battlefield, the enemy insurgents have retreated and the US emerges victorious, once again. Our group, meanwhile, is invited to explore the “petting zoo” of tanks and shoot blanks from a range of machine guns. The weary citizens of Razish file back on to a bus to go home to rest, before the next day’s invasion begins.



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