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While demonstrating his ability to imitate improvised explosive devices at Quantico’s Urban Training Center on May 30, 2013, tactical training support specialist Randy Powell shows the fake mortar round that just threw up a cloud of talcum powder next to an imitation IED buried in a fake dead goat. An Explotrain OMG unit hidden across the street had produced the accompanying “boom,” while a Badger AK-47 simulator seemed to bring to life the shooter dummies in nearby windows. Powell operates all the devices by remote control.

Photo by Mike DiCicco

Training Support Center brings the boom to live battle simulations

30 May 2013 | Mike DiCicco Marine Corps Base Quantico

On a gravel road through a bazaar hung with decorative rugs and sides of beef, while a Muslim call to prayer echoes through the otherwise eerily quiet streets and the smell of rotting corpses occasionally wafts past, it’s easy to feel out of one’s element. A little nervousness can be forgiven, especially when it’s known that this is a demonstration of the Training Support Center’s improvised explosive device simulators, and the man holding the remote controls is unable to contain a mischievous grin.

That’s Randy Powell, a contractor and tactical training support specialist with the TSC, a part of the Range Management Branch. The center’s resident fake bomb maker, he gave a demonstration of his capabilities to a small audience at Quantico’s Urban Training Center on May 30, 2013.

“I can go and read a report on what’s being used [by the enemy], what the material is, how it’s functioning, and I can replicate it,” Powell said.

The idea is to reproduce, as closely as possible, the dangers war fighters will face in theater and to bring as much realism as possible to training scenarios at Quantico.

Powell had set up a display of the various replicas RMB owns, including explosives, pressure releases, initiators, battery packs, battery connectors and other devices, many of them made with household items like hacksaw blades, mouse traps or washing machine timers. Some are triggered by the victim, others by remote control.

“These are actual replications of functioning devices,” he said, noting that the only difference is they don’t actually contain explosives.

Instead, he has ways to imitate an explosion.

As the group made their way warily down the gravel road, machine gun fire broke out, and two shooters could be seen in the windows of a building ahead. The shooters were dummies, and the noise was from a remote-controlled Badger AK-47 simulator placed in the building.

An explosion suddenly rang out from under a cart full of mulch nearby, and the smoke obscured the view of the two shooters.  

In reality, the cloud was talcum powder flung into the air from a fake mortar round by a burst of carbon dioxide. The accompanying boom came from an Explotrain XO4 unit hidden behind the cart. The device’s canister fills with an oxygen and propane mix, which is ignited with a spark. The result is thunderous, but the machine is not considered a pyrotechnic.

Both these devices were operated by Powell remotely, but in training he would only have triggered them if someone had depressed the patch of tire rubber lying in the street, connected to the cart by an “ant trail” of gravel concealing a wire. This is how trainees learn what to look for in combat zones.

Ahead, a fake dead goat lying on the roadside with a couple of wires running out of it gave cause for concern. Sure enough, the detonation that appeared to come from the prone animal was powerful enough that the shockwave smacked the onlookers head-on. Again, the “smoke” was talcum powder, and the blast was from the Explotrain OMG hidden behind a building across the street. The OMG is similar to the XO4 but larger and more powerful.

Powell said it’s important to make sure the devices are concealed, even if it means stashing them across the street. “We don’t want you, as a trainee, to play the game of, ‘Let’s look for the training device,’” he said.

Meanwhile, the call to prayer that was ringing through the streets came from a tactical public announcement system that can be programmed with a wide variety of sounds. And the smell of rotting flesh came from a smell generator the TSC recently acquired.

“We have different signature smells,” said Noel Leon, operations manager at the Training Support Center. “We have sewage, garbage, burning tires …”

“The beauty of this is, you go to range control and you get this training solution that includes any and all of these training devices,” said Joe Dennison, head of the TSC.

Powell said the IED simulators have been used to support The Basic School’s eight-day war, the Infantry Officer Course and the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team.

“Any unit that wants support for IED capabilities, that’s what we’re here for,” he said, adding that the devices can also be used to simulate artillery.

Capt. Daniel Brock, commander of the Engineer Platoon at TBS, said his unit often uses these systems to bring realism to training exercises. “It provides that buy-in that they’re actually looking for something other than a rock we painted to look like an IED,” he said.

Together with the props and set pieces that give training areas like the Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility and parts of the Urban Training Facility the look of a Middle-Eastern city, Brock said the imitation IEDs help to imitate conditions in-theater and make training more effective.

“It makes it more realistic when you have those tangible things out there you can see,” he said, noting that trainees are forced to look for telltale signs of hidden dangers, just as they would in battle.

Most of the systems are relatively new to Quantico, said Leon. The smell generator just arrived. The Explotrain and Badger systems were acquired in the last three or four years, and the talcum powder dispersing system has been here slightly longer.

“These are all upgrades to systems that were in the Corps’ inventory in the past,” Leon said, adding that the older models were less reliable, and some had eventually stopped working altogether.

Any unit interested in training aboard Quantico ranges with these or the many other gadgets available through the TSC can fill out a request through the online Range Facility Management Support System or call the center for details.

Powell emphasized that the training support specialists do not teach war fighters but rather support leaders in training their units. “We don’t train — we make training better,” he said.

— Writer:

Marine Corps Base Quantico