Smoke and Mirrors at Fort A.P. Hill

By Ray Starmann


In February, 2014, the Internet was inundated with a myriad of stories concerning a strange, new U.S. Army training facility at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia. Article titles ranged from “U.S. Army Builds Mock City to Practice Military Occupation” to “Here’s the Army’s 96 Million, 300 Acre Fake City in Virginia.” The news outlets covering the story varied in popularity and in themes from survivalist websites to a popular libertarian radio show in Austin, Texas, to standard mainstream media outlets like The Telegraph from the United Kingdom.

A year later, questions still remain unanswered by the US Army and the Department of Defense. Why does the mock city resemble an American town? What kind of training is the army doing at the Fort A.P. Hill site? What units are training there? Who is responsible for operating the site? Are federal agencies also involved in all of this?

The search for information at the A.P. Hill facility led to the discovery of a new organization recently created by the Pentagon, the Asymmetrical Warfare Group(AWG) and their rapid ascent as a unit of notable importance in the U.S. Army.

The Urban Complex at the AWTC or Asymmetrical Warfare Training Center at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, opened in January of 2014 after two years of construction by the Army Corps of Engineers. The site cost 96 million and covers 300 acres at the busy training base, centrally located between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. The AWTC is quite unique, for it looks exactly like an American town; complete with a bank, a school, a white country church, U.S. road and parking signs, Washington, D.C., subway cars and signs, former Chicago Metra passenger train cars, a freeway, a stadium, a five story office or embassy building and perhaps in an act of political correctness, a mosque.

When asked why the AWTC resembles a U.S. town with crystal clear relics of Americana, Army representatives were quick to dodge the subject, provide canned answers, or not respond at all to the question. Bob McElroy, the genial Public Affairs Officer at Fort A.P. Hill gently moved away from the query by stating, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable answering that question.” He instructed me to speak with Lieutenant-Colonel Sonise Lumbaca, the Public Affairs Officer, representing the AWG. I posed the same question to her and she responded, “The urban complex provides a generic, modern and realistic appearance with structures that were purposefully designed to appear architecturally benign so that they can be modified to enhance development scenarios, allowing our leaders to better prepare for asymmetric challenges in the defense of our nation.”

Are Midwestern, Norman Rockwell-looking, Protestant country churches architecturally benign? Are Chicago Metra Trains? Are Washington, DC, subway cars?

Colonel John Petkosek, the commander of the Asymmetrical Warfare Group was asked by other media outlets why the facility looked American. With the adeptness of a boxer dancing in a ring, he stated, “This is a place where we can be creative, where we can come up with solutions for problems that we don’t even know we have yet. This is where we’ll look at solutions for the future – material solutions and non-material solutions…anything from how you’re going to operate in a subterranean environment to how you dismount a Humvee to avoid an IED strike.”

Why is the army training to operate in an American subterranean environment? Don’t IED attacks take place in the Middle East rather than Kansas?

Lieutenant-Colonel Virginia McCabe, the PAO representing the famous 82nd Airborne Division also provided a cue card answer concerning the purpose and look of the mock city. “The Asymmetric Warfare Training Center (AWTC) is a facility that was built to support the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group’s mission to identify capability gaps and provide rapid solution development within various complex operational environments. The AWTC is also a venue that provides unique training opportunities for the AWG, the Army and Joint Forces, and other government organizations.”

In fact, the American look to the Fort A.P. Hill AWTC is unique among U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps training facilities across the world. The Marines recently spent 170 million dollars on a mock city at the 29 Palms base in Southern California. Unlike the A.P. Hill facility, the 29 Palms site looks distinctly like a town in Afghanistan or Iraq. The U.S. Army’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex (MUTC) in Indiana is utilized by both the army and government agencies such as FEMA. The MUTC is truly generic in construction and does not resemble any geographical location. The U.S. Army’s site in Hohenfels, Germany, is complete with standard wooden buildings and looks remarkably unremarkable.

There is an old saying in the U.S. Army that “You train the way you will fight.” Therefore, one must logically conclude that army units are training to fight in some type of American environment, but against whom? There is certainly the ongoing threat from Islamic extremists who can bring terror to American cities in any number of ways from car bombs to suitcase nukes. There are emergency management drills mimicking natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or earthquakes. Finally, there is the darkest scenario – that the army and the Department of Homeland Security are planning for martial law in the U.S.

When asked whom the Army considers a threat during exercises at the Fort A.P. Hill site, the Army refers to various “asymmetrical challenges.” Since asymmetric warfare is defined as, “Warfare in which opposing groups or nations have unequal military resources, and the weaker opponent uses unconventional weapons and tactics to exploit the vulnerabilities of the enemy,” one must assume that the threat is comprised of various terrorist factions or perhaps, armed American insurgents.

The army did inform me that the 82nd Airborne completed an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise (EDRE) at the Fort A.P. Hill site that started with an airborne insertion with a follow on mission of non-combatant evacuation operations. Apparently, units from both the Virginia and Maryland National Guard are planning on conducting unspecified training there in the future. Also, federal agencies are training at the AWTC, including the Department of Homeland Security.

The AWG…

The unit in charge of the AWTC is the Asymmetrical Warfare Group, which was created in 2004 to help the army find ways to combat IED deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2004, the unit has grown in size from 66 to about 350 soldiers, many of whom are deployed across the world. The army innocuously describes the AWG as their thinkers; people who can help soldiers fix their night vision goggles under fire, or instruct troopers in the proper use of a rope bridge, the kind of brainy people who might enjoy participating in a Gettysburg roundtable.

Their official mission is to “provide operational advisory and solution development support globally to enhance soldier survivability and combat effectiveness and enable the defeat of emerging threats.” The AWG is apparently the operational arm of TRADOC, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Historically, TRADOC has been responsible for everything from ROTC training to the production of field manuals to the creation of air land battle doctrine. It seems an odd place for a unit with the same organizational structure as the elite, anti-terrorist unit, Delta Force.

Strangely, the AWG, which denies that it’s a Special Forces unit, has the same British structure as Delta’s, which was created by its founder, the late Colonel “Chargin’ Charlie” Beckwith, who served for several years with the elite British Special Forces unit, the SAS (Special Air Service Regiment). When asked why the AWG has Delta Force’s organizational structure, Lieutenant-Colonel Lumbaca stated, “The AWG structure is like many conventional army structures.” This is simply false, Only Delta and the AWG use the British structure. As in Delta and the SAS, the AWG’s unique squadrons are commanded by majors. In fact, the AWG uses the old WWII phonetic alphabet when referring to their squadrons, Able thru Easy, unlike the standard NATO alphabet in use by the U.S. military today.

While the AWG does not fall under Special Forces Command or SOCOM, many of its soldiers are Special Forces qualified and are experts in the type of unconventional skills you would find in SF or Delta, such as evasive driving, demolitions, advanced small arms marksmanship and counter-insurgency tactics. As in SF or Delta, all AWG soldiers must obtain a Top Secret clearance before joining the unit. In fact, AWG teams currently operate in Afghanistan, instructing conventional soldiers about guerilla warfare tactics.
The AWG will not comment on any expansion of the unit’s size, although soldiers from the AWG are actively recruiting at Army bases around the globe.

The unit is scheduled to move from its temporary headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, to a new, gigantic four building complex on the post, a mile down the road from the NSA. The complex, which is currently under construction by Skanska USA, includes; a 75,000 square foot headquarters building (a structure the size of a Costco warehouse), a 2,700 square foot visitor control center, a 7,000 square foot maintenance facility and a 15,000 square foot building for an unspecified use. Skanska USA’s Co-Chief Operating Officer Bill Brennan was contacted at the company’s headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey. Mr. Brennan denied involvement in the project, even though he was at the ground-breaking ceremony where he was quoted. He also refused to answer any questions confirming building sizes or any information about the project in general. When also questioned, the company’s East Coast communications director, Pamela Monastra, refused to answer any questions on the grounds of “national security” and directed me to the Army Corps of Engineers who never returned my calls.

Adding to the many questions surrounding the AWG is the unit’s operations and training with various government agencies, most distressingly, the Department of Homeland Security. This has led some to believe that the AWG may be evolving into a domestic counter-insurgency unit. Still others speculate that some aspects of the training at the Fort A.P. Hill site, the involvement of the DHS and the possible domestic counter-insurgency mission of the AWG may be unknown to members of Congress.

Most likely the Army is using the Fort A.P. Hill site for only harmless emergency evacuation drills or in training for any number of foreign-sponsored terrorist situations; all things vital to the nation’s defense. But, one must wonder why the Army can’t answer a simple question. Why does the site look like an American city? Also, why do they refuse to answer any questions considering new asymmetrical threats? Is the Army hiding something truly nefarious from the American public and from under the guise of Congress itself? The Army must emerge from the shadows and tell the American people the truth.


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