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Marines prepare Georgian Soldiers for deployment to Afghanistan

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About half a kilometer away from two companies of Georgian Soldiers lies the objective—an old, run-down air traffic control tower. A cluster of off-white, weathered and tattered buildings, removed of all doors and windows, are the skeletal remains of Vasiani Air Base, a Russian-era military base about 15 miles east of Tbilisi that has been abandoned and unmaintained since the early 1990s. Inside the tower, hunkered down and fortified by opposing forces, sits trapped the objective—a hostage who needs rescuing. He sits atop the four-floor building with insurgents bunkered in around him.

In between the Georgians and this tower sits a series of abandoned hangars, hardened aircraft structures, good enough to provide cover and concealment from the tower’s line of sight, yet potentially dangerous hiding places for the insurgents.  These hangers are peppered throughout the airfield, in no discernable pattern, covered with mounds of dirt and knee-high weeds. From a distance, the hangars have the appearance of rolling hills from every direction but the front, where the large hanger doors visibly pose the most threat.

As the scenario unfolds, 2nd Lt. Anthony M. Choros, an instructor with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, and assigned to Marine Corps Training and Advisory Group (MCTAG), gathers his Georgian company commanders to provide them their briefing.  “We take a company through a scenario where they have to use the entire company to complete the mission,” said Choros, a Cresson, Pa., native.  “The mission is a movement to contact—a company raid. We gave them the mission—a U.S. Marine is captured, and the companies were given potential locations of his whereabouts. So they have to plan for two raids on two different targets.” Georgian Army Senior Lt. Gorgodze Zaza, Alpha company commander, 31st Light Infantry Battalion, gathers his soldiers and directs his focus to a makeshift sand table on the ground. He uses rocks, sticks and whatever else he could find to represent the tower, hangars and the terrain as he explains his plan. Gathering his men in a company school circle, he issues the mission orders. Along Zaza’s flanks, Choros and a team of Marine instructors listen and evaluate. These instructors are part of the Georgia Deployment Program in support of International Security Assistance Forces (GDP-ISAF). They are here to prepare Georgia’s 31st Light Infantry Battalion for an upcoming ISAF deployment in March. “Two companies prior have tried to do two simultaneous attacks,” said Choros. “This company chose to take out the larger of the two buildings first. If they don’t find the hostage in the first building, then they’re going to assault the second objective.” The two companies begin their raid, cautiously snaking their way toward the tower, followed by intermittent rushes of squad-size elements from hangar to hanger, taking advantage of whatever cover and concealment they can muster. They soon learn that some of the hangars are fortified with insurgents, and quickly clear the hostiles out. These companies are in the 11th week of a six-month training regimen for the Georgian’s 31st Light Infantry Battalion. The regimen will culminate with a mission rehearsal exercise, prior to their deployment, at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany, in January. This training is designed to prepare them to operate alongside U.S., NATO and other multinational forces in Afghanistan as part of ISAF. Georgia has offered four battalions to serve alongside U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. After many tactics and maneuvers, the team finds themselves face to face with the air traffic control building. Still hunkered down behind hangers, their position is quickly discovered, and they find themselves in a firefight with the insurgents in the tower. The deafening boom of hundreds of blank rounds firing simultaneously, coupled with the yells of coordination and confusion, replicate the sounds of battle and add to the realism of this exercise. Soon the Georgian team storms into the objective to clear the building one room at a time. “This is the kind of stuff they’ll most likely be conducting if they own their own battle space,” said Choros, “because you do platoon-sized, and company-sized cordoned searches, operations or raids.”  Throughout the exercise, Marine instructors—sourced from across the Marine Corps— continue to observe the Georgian’s tactics, techniques and procedures. “All the instructors, the lance corporals, corporals…just recently returned from Afghanistan, so they’re bringing a lot of real-world knowledge with them—they’re mentors,” said Lt. Col. Dan T. Thoele, deputy director of MCTAG and Officer in Charge of GDP-ISAF. “It’s not so much a teacher-student relationship; we’re mentoring, we’re coaching, and we’re advising the Georgian military, which is a very capable military, on how they can operate [in a counterinsurgency situation] better.” Amidst the fog and chaos of the exercise, the objective was met with the U.S. Marine captive found and rescued. “The movement to the objective wasn’t bad, they would’ve lost a couple of guys, but they successfully rescued the Marine detainee and they also captured the insurgent’s lieutenant,” said Choros. “At times they tend to bunch up and other times they tend to push out just one Soldier at a time when moving through an open area. However, their room clearing and the clearing of the building have been very good.” A Shift in Thinking The Georgian military, although known as a “very capable” military force, operates within a centralized command structure where senior officers carry all the responsibilities and make all of the decisions. Most western-style military organizations, such as U.S. forces, practice decentralized leadership where the commander’s intent is issued out and all levels of subordinate leadership are allowed the flexibility to make decisions as long as it supports the commander’s intent. Although the GDP-ISAF training focuses specifically on the need of the Georgian forces to operate in Afghanistan, it is also designed to prepare the Georgian Soldiers to be interoperable with other NATO and ISAF partners. Now, Marines are also providing noncommissioned officer development. “Their previous doctrine had them very centralized—the old Soviet doctrine; however, we’re trying to teach them to be decentralized…where the company is running a patrol base,” said Thoele. In a typical Georgian military unit, the officer is responsible for everything, and the NCO is responsible for nothing, according to Georgian Army Capt. Alex Tugushi, battalion commander, 31st Light Infantry Battalion. Officers run every aspect of the battalion. “Under the suggestion of Col. Cottrell, he recommended we give the NCOs more responsibilities,” said Tugushi. Col. Scott C. Cottrell is the director of MCTAG. The GDP-ISAF began NCO development training and made NCOs team leaders and squad leaders: armory NCOs were placed in charge of the armory, and transportation NCOs in charge of vehicles, etc. “The Marines’ recommendation wasn’t an easy one, but we tried, and I think it’s working,” said Tugushi. “Although they [NCOs] had no experience in leading, we were all surprised. They were surprised to be given the responsibility and right now squad leaders know it’s up to them to lead, to talk to leaders, collect intelligence, and [communicate] with higher [headquarters] to lead the entire squad.” At the request of the Georgian Army, the Marines with the GDP-ISAF continue to conduct NCO development: NCO course, squad leaders’ course, platoon leaders’ course, supply NCO course, armory NCO course, etc. “We were all surprised how they [Georgian NCOs] accomplished the mission,” said Tugushi. “The new NCOs, new sergeants—they are motivated and eager to receive more experience and education.” Marines Training the Georgian Army is Not a New Concept In June the Chief of Defense for Georgia offered the U.S. government four battalions to go over to Afghanistan. These four battalions would be trained one at a time for six months each, consecutively, over two years.  “It’s basically the building block approach,” said Thoele. “We focused on individual training, then section, platoon, company and finally battalion.” Prior to the GDP-ISAF, Marine Corps Forces Europe and MCTAG led an assessment. They identified some of the things they need to work on, and based on that, built the six-month training plan. “We have to train them the best we can because they’re going to serve alongside U.S. Marines in combat,” said Thoele. “Each and every Marine takes that seriously, because if we don’t train them as good as we train Marines, then that’s a chink in our armor and the enemy could break through.” The GDP-ISAF not only trains the Georgian Soldiers on infantry tactics, techniques and procedures, they also train these Soldiers in all aspects of being self sufficient: they’ve schooled 73 Georgian soldiers in an M1151 up-armored humvee driving course; they’ve qualified 16 medics in the combat lifesavers course, so they can train others; they’ve conducted communications training and planning on all applicable radios; and they’ve conducted an intelligence gathering course. “Every Soldier, regardless of their MOS [military occupational specialty], is being trained,” said Thoele. “The first month [training] was infantry heavy…but the rest of the training was in their specialty. If you’re a Motor [transport] guy, you’re going to learn to be a Motor T guy. Again, they have knowledge; they’re a functioning military battalion. We’re just trying to make them that much better to work alongside U.S. Marines in a counterinsurgency environment in Afghanistan.” However, the GDP-ISAF is not the first time the U.S. Marines have trained with Georgian Forces.  Georgia was one of the first countries to offer its full, unconditional support to the U.S. in the fight against terrorism. As a result of the partnership, on Dec. 15, 2002, MarForEur assumed control of the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) from Special Operations Command, Europe. Georgia Train and Equip Program, too, was a time-phased training program focused on enhancing the capabilities of the Georgian military. In essence, the GTEP, which also lasted two years, was designed to protect the Georgian force’s homeland from terrorist threats while promoting peace, security and stability in Georgia and the Caucasus region. Then, in 2005, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili offered to send troops to Iraq. Thus, the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operation Program (GSSOP) was born. The GSSOP was, also, a time-phased, two-year training program. While GTEP was geared toward providing Georgia the capability of meeting an internal terrorist threat, the GSSOP was focused on training the Georgian military to prepare and execute stability operations in Iraq. Many of the Georgian Soldiers who are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan are veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As the GDP-ISAF continues, the 31st Light Infantry Battalion will complete its training in February and deploy in early spring; the next battalion begins training in March.