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From Oakland to Playas, New Mexico: domestic military training operations

"Playas sits curiously between nation, state, and county borders, surrounded by the continental divide that winds both east and west of the town. This is a dystopic playground of potential future disaster that lies on the fringe of the romantic Southwest. Bracketed by ruins of native civilizations and the cold war, by petroglyphs in cliff dwellings and decaying isotopes beneath the crust where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated, Playas sits and waits for its day in the sun."

Steve Rowell, Center for Land Use Interpretation


"Cities…are the places where radical ideas ferment, dissenters find allies and disconnected groups find media attention."
US Marine Corps.

The following photographs depict soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington state, taking part in training operations in February and March 2012 aimed at quelling domestic unrest — a "domestic quick reaction force." The army's "5th Mobile Public Affairs Department" posted the following photographs and text on its Facebook page. (h/t Public Intelligence)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, WASH. – The Soldiers in a closed formation bang their batons in cadence against their shields as an angry mob approaches.
“When I initially picked up my shield, the thought of the movie 300 was the first thing that came to mind,” said Spc. Kyle Wilhelmi.
Teams of Soldiers assigned to 3rd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade conducted civil disturbance training here March 13. The Soldiers, though not quite Spartans, are effectively training to hold their line and successfully control crowds if called upon for a civil disturbance.
Soldiers with shields, batons and rifles pushed through and maintained a dominant stance against a mob of about 40 civilians. The riot escalated as the crowd began throwing snowballs, slurred profanity and made offensive gestures at the Soldiers. The more forceful members of the mob charged the Soldiers but were easily pushed back, as many often fell to the icy surface.
The overall goal of riot control group (RCG) is to control the crowd using less than lethal force.
“When I joined the Army, I never thought that I would do something like this,” said [one soldier]. “I enjoy it!”
Domestic enemies, domestic war fighting

In a (mock) prelude to what US warfighters would do to the Iraqi city of Falluja years later, US Marines in 1999 "invaded" the city of Oakland, California in a training exercise called "Urban Warrior." On the website for the project, which is still up and looks like it hasn't been changed since 1999, Col. Mark Thiffault, Director of the Joint Information Bureau of the Urban Warrior project says:

Our enemies, having watched Desert Storm on CNN, know they cannot engage the United States with conventional methods. These potential foes view cities as a way to limit the technological advantages of our military. They know that cities, with their narrow streets, confusing layout and large number of civilian non-combatants, place limits on our technological superiority and especially our use of firepower. We have to develop technologies that allow us to win while minimizing collateral damage.

Among these tactics deployed on the streets of Oakland were: 

  • the deployment of more than 6,000 Marines on land and stationed on ships off the northern California coast;
  • "an amphibious landing, helicopter assault and mass casualty drill in response to an incident involving chemical or biological weapons"; and, ominously
  • "a mid-intensity combat operation in an urban environment against a backdrop of civil unrest, [to] restore order."

Ten years later, in 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered "his top department leaders to conduct a broad review to determine whether the military, National Guard and Reserve can adequately deal with domestic disasters and whether they have the training and equipment to defend the homeland."

Since then, the US military has doubled down on its domestic urban war fighting and "unrest" quashing capabilities. As we've repeated here many times, the military has conducted two large scale training operations in US cities over the past year, in LA and Boston. But it appears as if these operations are only the tip of the iceberg, and that the US military is far from the only well funded, secretive entity pursuing "homeland defense" initiatives.

The Department of Homeland Security is in on the domestic war fighting preparations, as well. Much has been made recently on the internet about DHS' purchase of 450 million rounds of hollow point ammunition. But DHS has been buying lots of ammunition for a while, and that's not all. It's also leased an entire town from a New Mexico college, Playas, to use for domestic military training exercises.

From the Center for Land Use and Interpretation:

In 2004 New Mexico Tech (NMT) purchased Playas outright from Phelps-Dodge, using a $5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to begin converting the town into the nation’s primary counter-terrorism training facility. Training will include first responder and hostage negotiation, urban warfare and WMD exercises (including simulated nuclear, chemical and biological attacks) as well as terrorism related border security programs. Citizens of Playas and surrounding areas, indeed much of New Mexico, are thrilled at this much needed inflow of cash and jobs. The nation’s burden of war and debt has a direct, positive effect on this corner of the union.

UPDATE: Apparently the Department of Homeland Security has been sponsoring urban paramilitary training exercises for police officers throughout the nation, not just in Playas, New Mexico. The Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) is a major funding stream providing hundreds of millions of dollars to major metropolitan areas in the US for surveillance technology systems; it has also been providing funding for urban warfare training exercises like the one depicted below, which took place in Alameda County in 2010:

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© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.