To Train Foreign Service Agents, You Must Build a Fake Town

Were it not for the deadly serious nature of the work conducted there, the State Department’s new Foreign Affairs Security Training Center in Blackstone, Virginia, would certainly be a cool place to hang out.

Take the 19 miles of intertwined roads that replicate virtually every type of automotive interchange, intersection, and interstate likely to carry the federal agents tasked with protecting US diplomats and citizens around the world. They include traffic-free driving circles, twisties, and long highway sections where agents learn to evade ambushes and intercept suspects. The tree-lined labyrinth is both a tempting playground and a post-apocalyptic vision of suburban emptiness.

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The nearby off-road course includes a simulated rocky riverbed, a real sand pit, a craggy hill, and cement staircases. Agents weave Jeep Wrangler Rubicons through a field of moguls. Elsewhere on the 1,300-acre compound you’ll find a rappelling wall, an explosives range, and live fire “shoot house.” In the “smokehouse,” agents learn to escape burning buildings. In the tactical maze—a warehouse holding dozens of interconnected rooms—teams of agents practice security missions. They bust down doors and stalk their enemies, while instructors observe from catwalks.

In a rather specialized take on driver’s ed, agents are shown how to ram a pair of vehicles out of the way, push a motorcade through a crowded thoroughfare, and to balance brake and throttle to get a vehicle up a seemingly impossible rocky incline.

Photograph: Eric Adams

All wild stuff, but nothing compared to the centerpiece of this new training center: the “military operations in urban terrain” simulator. Also known as the MOUT, this is a proper town, complete with back alleys, main drags, and a life-size US embassy compound. The multistory buildings sport rooms, stairs, balconies, and rooftops, all of which can serve as stages for faux bad guys or the agents securing the structure while managing a search, evacuation, or watching over a motorcade. The only thing missing is a Starbucks on every corner—or any other permanent set dressing. The town is a blank, reusable canvas that can be modded to play a global capital or developing nation’s unkempt urban center. Actors interact with agents; networked speakers replicate rumbling tanks, bleating goats, midtown Manhattan traffic, and more.

The goal is to help agents develop “hard skills” for the real-world situations they’ll encounter at the embassies, consulates, or other foreign service posts to which they’re assigned. “This is about building confidence as they’re getting ready to go,” says Wendy Bashnan, deputy assistant secretary of the Diplomatic Security Service, the State Department division charged with securing embassies and their personnel and ensuring the safety of Americans traveling abroad. “We’re instilling resilience, so you’re prepared when you have your worst day.”

The facility, built on the grounds of Fort Pickett, a Virginia Army National Guard base, will train the service’s 2,000 special agents on an ongoing basis, as well as up to 10,000 additional engineers, couriers, technicians, and security professionals from the State Department and the US foreign service community. It consolidates the work of 11 existing sites, making it the largest and most comprehensive of any US law-enforcement training resource.

The site, which opened this month after three years of construction, is meant to adapt to emerging security threats and imparts the lessons of recent traumas. The elevated median that runs down the MOUT’s main boulevard, a feature typical of African and Middle Eastern cities, is the kind that almost ensnared the vehicles of agents responding to the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. A seemingly harmless motor scooter by the side of the road holds an improvised explosive device of the sort that has menaced the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “smokehouse” too comes from Benghazi: It was fire that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens, and that training has been a priority for the service since. The facility also incorporates learnings from the simultaneous bombings in 1998 of the US embassies in Tanzania and Nairobi, which permanently altered the State Department’s presence overseas. Embassies have been designed more like fortresses ever since, and the security measures protecting them rigorously maintained..

So much for having fun. A pronounced aura of menace colors exploration of even the empty facility, as I discovered during a visit the day before it officially opened. As I went from door to door and floor to floor at twilight, it was easy to sense what agents will face: uncertainty and unfamiliarity, speckled with chaotic radio chatter, aggressive crowds, small arms fire, even pyrotechnics. “It’s designed to make it as realistic as possible, in order for the brain to really make the synapses kick together and go ‘Yeah, this is real life,’” said facility director Bob Weitzel.

This is no Call of Duty romp, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a game-like flow to the proceedings conducted here. After all, because the training areas are built in close proximity, instructors can link several together for single exercises—progressing, for example, from the MOUT and the smokehouse to the open roads. Once out here, agents are trained in one of the contexts more familiar to them and the casual observer: driving.

The site, which opened in November after three years of construction, is meant to adapt to emerging security threats, and imparts the lessons of recent traumas like the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Photograph: Eric Adams

But the training itself, whether in one of the 55 identical white Dodge Challengers, an armored vehicle, or a Jeep, looks nothing like the average track course. Learning to control the vehicle at high speed and power-sliding around wet corners is the basic stuff. Agents are trained to speed away from ambushes in reverse, to ram a pair of vehicles out of the way, to push a motorcade through a crowded thoroughfare, and to balance brake and throttle to slowly and steadily take a vehicle up a seemingly impossible rocky incline. Instructors go over the proper way to sit behind the wheel and where to look, as well as how to best employ your toes and fingers.

“We put as much into a 10-hour course as we possibly can, so when they walk away they have tools that they can use for that worst-day-of-your life scenario,” noted one of the instructors, speaking anonymously per State Department policy.

Yet for all the ramming and racing, agents are shown how to do it all without damaging their own vehicles. After all, that could be their lifeline in a crisis. In this mock world and the much scarier real one, the difference between success and failure can be applying one lesson well enough that you stick around to apply another two minutes later.

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