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Safeguarding America's Nuclear Weapons & Materials
By SAR Staff

“To successfully defend against the larger terrorist threat contained in the 2004 Design Basis Threat by October 2008, Department of Energy and Energy, Science and Environment officials recognize that they will need to take several prompt and coordinated actions. These include transforming its current protective force into an ‘elite force’ - modeled on U. S. Special Forces, developing and deploying new security technologies to reduce the risk to protective forces in case of an attack....” Government Accountability Office Report GAO-05-611

Last month, SAR provided an introduction to the personnel, weapons and equipment of the Department of Energy’s Protective Forces. This critically important national security asset is undergoing a rapid transformation to meet the escalating threat presented by fanatical terrorist organizations. Training a flood of new Security Police Officers and upgrading the skills of current members of the force is a daunting task, made all the more difficult by dramatic changes in tactical doctrine and introduction of new weapons and security technologies.

While every aspect of nuclear asset safeguards and security is vital, SAR is most interested in specifics on weapons and practical training in their efficient employment. With frequent and invaluable assistance from DOE’s National Training Center (NTC) staff, we were cleared to visit the Protective Force Training Department (PFTD) at its impressive 725 acre range complex at an isolated location in the hilly, scrub desert wastelands of Kirtland AFB.

PFTD has been characterized as the “running and shooting school” at DOE’s National Training Center, the center of excellence for Security and Safety Professional Development. While managerial and supervisory personnel are studying things like classified material accountability and nuclear materials control at NTC’s sprawling main campus near Kirtland’s headquarters area, others are out in the desert putting rounds down range in high stress practical exercises.

The NTC staff gave us a quick tour of the place, consisting of seven ranges with a variety of stationary, timed, and computer- actuated targets, live-fire shoothouse, tactical training tower, and obstacle course. Six classrooms are strategically located among the ranges, along with an armory, ammo bunkers, maintenance/ fabrication facility, and administrative building. There, from an upstairs balcony, we could see workmen in the distance busily constructing the Integrated Safety and Security Training Evaluation Complex (ISSTEC), a mock DOE facility that will be used to conduct highly realistic force-on-force training.

SAR spoke with several NTC tactical operations experts and veterans of Wackenhut Services, which has held the prime contract to operate PFTD for many years. NTC explained during our in-briefing that the department’s 26 full time employees, augmented as needed by 48 part-time personnel, run twenty courses ranging from Basic Security Police Officer Training to Advanced Weapons Systems Instructor Certification. The 2006 course catalog also lists training in tactical entry, special response team, crisis negotiation, and precision rifle. It was explained that these courses are taught both at the NTC here and by Mobile Training Teams that go to various sites around the US.

View from the Top

This useful orientation provided a good background to our in-depth conversation with NTC’s contract Protective Force DepartmentManager (PFDM) who is a twenty year veteran in DOE Protective Force operations

SAR: What does the PFTD do?

PFDM: We review and analyze all the training that takes place for all the DOE and NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration). We’re responsible for maintaining curriculum and oversight of the DOE Protective Force training that takes place, whether it happens here or out at one of the field sites. They conduct many of their own courses so we go out on a periodic schedule to review and assess what they’re doing. If there’s a site out there that’s chosen to use a different type of weapon for any particular mission they’ve got, they will create a training standard for themselves - applicable to ours, our criteria - create a qualification course and all that goes with it. They’ll send that entire package to us to preview. We’ll test it, analyze it, and give them a judgement.

SAR: For example?

PFDM: There are a few sites that are trying to develop a good, applicable night qualification for 40mm delivery systems. Some have MK 19s, some M203s or H&K, a whole variety. These guys send in to us their recommended qualifications or training that goes with that or whether its going to be familiarization or qualification course of fire. We’ll take that, analyze it and determine if the criteria is good to go or needs a tweak here or there and make recommendations back on that. Once that judgement is given to them they’re now within regulation.

SAR: Who analyzes the threat and how does that drive the response techniques and training?

PFDM: Groups within DOE conduct vulnerability assessments and others develop the Design Basis Threat. In general terms, this is what the new threat is, threat level, and you must meet some type of protection strategy that can defeat the threat. That’s what drives everybody’s protective strategies, whether it’s the operational guys out in the field or us for training curriculum. Now we’ve got all these new requirements, new training that needs to take place, more weaponry, or different weaponry, so you need training on those kinds of things.

SAR: It has been mentioned that course revision is going on for almost everything.

PFDM: There is an entire shift happening right now within DOE Protective Forces (PF), protection strategies, a big upswing from what it has been in the past and they want greater capability, more weaponry, more personnel, (a force with) more advantages because technology has improved so much in weaponry, sighting systems, thermal imaging, armor. All the possibilities that are there now.

That’s going to make it necessary for us to revise every bit of curriculum that we teach. We’re going to revise every training course to meet the needs for what they’re calling “elite force training.” We’re also going to be developing at least three additional courses - maybe more than that. There’s a big upswing in PF training and it’s going to be here for a couple of years. Greater capabilities; they definitely want more paramilitary style tactics, response strategies, training, personnel. It’s the direction the Sec. of Energy has chosen and it’s where we’re going. So, we as an element of the headquarters department of DOE are in full support of that and we’ll push through the curriculum.We’re bringing in a lot of people with special experience to help us do some of this stuff, the type of people we’re after right now to retain as instructors also to meet the needs of the new requirements.

SAR: Any revisions to the program as a result of new hardware like Livermore’s Dillon Miniguns?

PFDM: Our courses and curriculum are ever changing, especially centered on weaponry. When we get into what DOE terms “Advanced Weaponry,” belt feds, grenade launchers, rockets, those kinds of things, the sites right now are in a huge upgrade in capabilities and what they’re looking for and what they’re going after for weaponry so that, of course, causes us to dive back into curriculum, into training programs and update ours as well to meet their needs.

SAR: Your facilities are excellent but with some limitations like not being able to fire HE (high explosives). How do you overcome this?

PFDM: There are a couple of sites that do HE training and have the capabilities, some that do live fire explosive breaching training. We do mechanical breaching here, it has to do with some of the regulations that the Air Force has for Kirtland.

SAR: The AF has some good ranges here for their security force. Is there an arrangement with them?

PFDM: Yes, they use our ranges primarily for all their small arms stuff. For belt fed guns they’ve got a range that’s located about four miles to the south of us, which we also have access to. It offers different capabilities. Not a greater distance necessarily, they can get an extra hundred yards for a total of four hundred, but because of their surface danger zone, they can shoot at almost 270 degrees. A lot more options where ours are a lot more narrow. We’ve got areas south, in central New Mexico, where we can train to do explosive work - live fire breaching, grenades or rockets. Any of that kind of stuff.

SAR: How about training in weapons mounted on armored platforms?

PFDM: Most of the sites at this point have armor and automatics on turrets. All that weaponry is available in the DOE community at this point and all of the major DOE sites employ armored vehicles. Instruction in effective employment of these is part of the curriculum upgrade we’re in the process of right now. And it will be taught here in all the areas we have available on Kirtland.

SAR: Tell us about the ISSTEC that’s under construction.

PFDM: Just on the other side of the mountain is the ISSTEC complex; a mock DOE facility with all the usual features like a fenced perimeter, central alarm station and vaults. It will have a 2 story DMC (dye marking cartridge) shoothouse for forceon-force training. The nice part about this is it’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in DOE right now. Think of it as a military MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) site. The entire site canbe used for force-on-force type training where currently in DOE we don’t have an area that’s like that, and especially one that duplicates the site with the same type of technology. It’s under construction right now and scheduled to be up and running in October. That’s going to be a very busy facility.

SAR: How do they pay to use this?

PFDM: The facilities are available for other government agencies at no cost. They are also allowed into our courses on a space available basis, that is if a scheduled course is not full. If we conduct a course specifically for another agency it is on a cost reimbursable basis.

SAR: There are a lot of interesting thank-you plaques in the lobby.

PFDM: We do put on training for other organizations and other times they just want to use the facilities. For about three or four years the US State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program used all our facilities, used our instructors to train foreign police officers.

SAR: What would you like to say to motivate readers of SAR and others to come into security in DOE?

PFDM: I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work not only in DOE but also with other govt. agencies, as a member ofa police SWAT team, and working with a lot of foreign military and police people. I would say this about the DOE forces; (they are) extremely professional, very professional programs involved. The amount of training that you get is greater than any of the police organizations I have been involvedwith or trained or taught. Larger funding, more rigorous criteria for training and very high standards. With regard to the shooting capabilities, DOE teams compete in a lot of the military and police competitions and do well every time.

Precision Rifle

We had previously asked PFTD to time our visit to coincide with some tactical training. The NTC chose the Precision Rifle/Forward Observer Team as a representative course to observe while in progress turned out to be particularly goodin several ways. We spent a few hours on the ranges as a half dozen students went through two physically and mentally demanding live fire practical exercises. It was their last day of the course and shooting to standards was a make or break trial.

The two week program for designated members of site Special Response Teams combines classroom instruction with numerous practical exercises and a comprehensive written examination. The curriculum includes realistic workplace simulations and roleplaying exercises that induce stress and emotional response, similar to what is known to occur in real-life situations.

The first ordeal of the day took place on Rifle Range 1, extending to 300 yards over naturally rough terrain dominated by two tall structures that replicate typical urban shooting situations. It was a timed exercise with each rifle-toting student running 100 yards, climbing to the top of a very tall watch tower, and engaging a steel target from bipod-supported prone position at maximum distance.

Then, down from the big tower, across the way and up another set of stairs to the first of the small windows in a rappelling and tactical shooting tower. These openings are intentionally located so that awkward physical positions are necessary, adding yet another degree of difficulty. These are closer shots but no easier because the steel swingers are proportionally smaller. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to hit a fist sized circle at 75 yards hasn’t done it with heaving lungs, rubbery legs and no way to get a good cheek weld as the clock runs out.

It took a couple of the students two runs through the course but in the end everybody made the grade.

There was no time to relax for students and their instructors who soon moved next door to Rifle Range 2 for the final practical exercise of the day and the course. This is the notorious “stress shoot” that tests the extreme concentration, patience and quickreaction pinpoint marksmanship that are absolutely necessary to decisively end many hostage situations.

Somewhat comfortably sitting at benches behind rifles with bipods extended, shooters sighted in on head-sized paper targets mounted on turning frames positioned 50 yards away. The targets were then rotated 90 degrees, leaving little to see through the rifle scopes but empty desert. Success in what followed depended on maintaining the same body position and sighting point for an hour, intently waiting to take fleeting shots. At four randomly spaced intervals the targets would snap back into position for just a few seconds, to place one precision round inside a three inch circle.

Those who performed to standard could put their rifles aside for cleaning later on and go up the hill to the final hurdle, a written exam to demonstrate their mastery of all the theory and practical applications from two weeks of intense instruction.

A Student Perspective

We spoke with one of the students during a short break following his success the second time through the obstacle course and tower shoot. He is a 32 year old exmarine that has been on the security force at BWXT Pantex near Amarillo, TX, for four years. He is currently assigned in the Precision Rifle slot for this NNSA nuclear weapons storage and maintenance facility’s full time Special Response Team. He is a former USMC sniper and shooting instructor, formally trained at both Quantico and Pendleton.

SAR: You have a real good perspective on the differences between USMC sniping and how they teach it at NTC.

Student: The difference in how they teach it here is you’re more in an urban environment like where I work; buildings, houses, rooftops, and so forth. The military sniper school also teaches this but mostly operations such as jungle training, desert training.... You’re in a position that you could be behind a rock for several hours or on a mountain somewhere. You’re not taking shots at 100 or 200 yards but taking shots at 500 up to 1,000 yards. That’s the difference between military classes and this one.

SAR: What was the hardest part of what you just went through?

Student: Not the running and not the first tower, but I would say the second tower because you have to get into positions that you would not normally use. First elevation there is on the stairs and I had to be on my right knee. The second elevation was in prone but it was kind of awkward because you couldn’t get a good buttstock to the pocket of your shoulder and cheek weld. You kind of have to game it a little bit but you still have to be precise in order not to miss. Uncomfortable positions.

SAR: Have they given you enough training and hands-on time to get used to that?

Student: Oh yes they give us plenty of time; we did it yesterday and the day before and we’ve got plenty of rounds and plenty of opportunity to go through there. When I went up on the third level the firsttime I was using a different position yesterday than the day before, it was more stable. But when I went up there the first time today it didn’t work. So when I went up there again I went back to my old position and it worked. They gave us the opportunity to find positions that worked for us.

SAR: What in particular have you learned here that will be valuable to you when you go back on the job at Pantex?

Student: Hostages will probably be the most important when you get out there. You’re still shooting the bad guy but now that you’re in a civilian type paramilitary world that’s where the hostages come. So you have to be so precise to hit that subject, to put him down without jeopardizing the hostage. That’s more important in today’s society than it was when I was back in the military. In the military you’re going up against the bad guys. One shot one kill. That’s it, no hostage or anything. Here you’ve got to be precise - on the mark and on the money. You’ve got two lives and you’ve gotta take one to preserve and keep the other.

SAR: What rifle and scope combination are you using?

Student: A Remington 700 and Leupold fixed ten power scope with mil-dot reticle and shooting 168-grain Federal Gold Medal Match ammo. I had used this same rifle - the M40 - with a Unertl ten X and mil-dots in the Corps so that kind of gave me a head start here. But if there is any difficulty here I would say it was the math. Because you’re going from minutes of angle from hold off inches and clicks and that’s the hard part I had to break. I had been out of the military for nine and a half years and I still had that discipline inside me - hold off inches and clicks. And all of a sudden its minutes of angle and I was kind of like ... what? I had to shift gears but I got used to it. This is the same combination I’ll be using when I go back on the job at Pantex.

SAR: Any thoughts on other rifle and scope combinations that DOE might want to look at for you guys to use?

Student: Whatever we’ve got and using in this class right now is the same as what we’ve got over there and I don’t see that there would be any reason to transition.

SAR: Wind can be very serious out here and I understand that you are shooting out to a maximum of about 300 yards. What do they teach you for wind estimation, hold off, etc.?

Student: Here on the range we can see the flags and we use the clock system. But out in the real world you watch blowing dust and that kind of thing because you’re not going to have a range flag out there. They teach you to look on the ground and your surroundings. The trees are swaying back and forth and you’re probably looking at ten to fifteen (MPH). That gives you the ability to go back and start doing the math inside your head - multiplying and dividing everything down. If it’s blowing this much, I figure how many clicks right or left I need to move.

SAR: Is there anything they need to add to the course to help make it easier to do your job when you go back?

Student: I can’t think of anything. I’ve been out of the Marines for nine and a half years and when I got here they were just so on command and so verbal. They really go all the way to teach you the course. There was some stuff that I did forget since I got out of the military but it wasn’t the major stuff like windage. But here it was how to be precise when there is a hostage.

SAR: We saw a lot of positive reinforcement from the instructors here. Is that the teaching style here?

Student: Very much the style here. Sometimes when you took a shot and missed they would say “You can do it next time. You’ve been showing us for two weeks that you can.” Real encouragement.

SAR: Tell us about the instructor staff. Do you have confidence in their ability in the real world that allows them to teach you and the other students what to do?

Student: I have every confidence in all our instructors here. Every one had his own style and way of giving you information; how to make you better. But just because it was different didn’t mean it didn’t all equal up to give you the same benefit. Another instructor may have said it one way but that still brought you to that equal point in the middle that helps you to make a good shot.

SAR: Did they do anything to let you know about their real-world backgrounds to give you confidence in them based on their professional experience?

Student: The first day here everybody got some time to introduce themselves, to tell about what law enforcement or military backgrounds they had. SAR: How did you land the Precision Rifle slot on the Special Response Team at BWXT Pantex?

Student: We were told about it a year or so ago that there would be openings for sniper because some of the salty dogs from SRT and sniper teams were getting off sous younger guys were getting that opportunity. We went through an interview process and they went by the results of that interview along with experience and background, physical standards, and rifle scores. That’s how I ended up here.

SAR: Where do most of the men on the security force come from?

Student: DOE has beefed up the standards so the majority are from law enforcement and the military.

SAR: What advice do you have for readers who might be interested in the kind of job you are doing?

Student: Do it. But don’t just come out here to the sniper course just because you want to be labeled a sniper. You have to believe in the mission.

(Editor’s Note: Protective Forces personnel include DOE employees along with those of private contractors like BWXT and Wackenhut. Employment opportunities may be found on their respective websites as listed at the conclusion of this feature.)

Instructor Perspective

The course we observed, like many others at PFTD, was being conducted by an experienced cadre of part-time instructors. We spoke with an Assistant Instructor who has taught the Precision Rifle Course for approx. 10 years.

SAR: How many students started the course and what’s happened since?

Instructor: We had sixteen students start and thirteen to successfully complete the course. Their problems were passing the mandatory qualification shoots. I think everybody here is a good shooter but a combination of little things can cause problems. Probably running the course too slow. A couple of things contribute to that, running the course as fast as you can however slowing down so you’re able to catch your breathing when you are required to take the shot.

SAR: Are these guys in bad shape?

Instructor: I think they are in excellent shape. It’s just for the class and the requirements to complete the practical exam with the precision rifle there’s self induced stress. Maybe a combination of getting excited, self applied stress of passing the overall course, anxiety, weighed in as being a little jerky on the trigger and thus missing shots. Or probably not running the course as fast as they should have even though their physical capabilities would have allowed them to go a little faster.

SAR: Where do these students come from?

Instructor: The classes I’ve been in volved with here have taught all areas to include local law enforcement, state, municipality and county entities, federal entities, all branches of the military send personnel to go through this course.

SAR: All the services have their own sniper courses. What’s unique about the Precision Rifle taught here?

Instructor: I don’t know that it is particularly unique vs. getting the same course of instruction from different instructors probably in a different environment such as the Southwest environment here where it’s dry and the elevation is very high at six thousand feet. A lot of the students who come here don’t realize what a major role that six thousand feet plays in the situation. Not only your projectile factor - bullets fly differently in the less dense air - but also your physical conditioning is also affected.

SAR: We understand that this course is oriented toward precision shooting in an urban environment. Tell us about this vs. military style long range sniping.

Instructor: I think most of the students who attend this course come from a law enforcement background. So your Rules for Engagement, I think, are a lot more stringent in law enforcement environment vs. a military environment. This course portrays the urban environment. You were with us today and you know that shooting from a couple of towers is a setting that places you in a household or commercial building environment. Shooting through ports that could be considered door or window openings. I think that kind of setting with different angles, different distances, and unorthodox shooting positions from those particular ports all combine to make up the urban environment. Many people don’t realize when you’re shooting in a confined spot like that vs. an open, outdoor rural environment; it does have an effect on how shooters place their shots.

SAR: But downrange is still open space. There isn’t a mock building with windows that you’re shooting through and this sort of thing. Comment?

Instructor: Of course all types of training is needed. In this particular environment it’s on our wish list. It would be good to have a mock building where you could shoot through window openings or thresholds with doors and things like that. I think that is one of the Precision Rifle training components that needs to be implemented.

SAR: What feedback do you get from the students about what they like or dislike? Instructor: We get critique sheets from each class and some of the things I expect to see from this one will ask for it to be a little longer, maybe one week longer. I would say they would love to get into fieldcraft; teaching how to use shadows of buildings, maybe cheesecloth to camouflage yourself on rooftops.

SAR: How about specifics from some of the guys who will be going back to particular facilities?

Instructor: Probably the ability to implement some of the training - get some shooting time back home at their facilities. To become more familiar through shooting time with their particular (assigned) weapons.

SAR: What would you like to say to SAR’s readers about what you and your fellow instructors are doing here?

Instructor: To put it short and sweet, precision shooting - sniping - is an art. People don’t realize that it is a refined art. You have to consider your equipment, your environmental conditions, your knowledge of your weapon, trajectory, a little bit of math to calculate how much minute of adjustment is needed in order to make your hits.

Tools of the Trade

PFTD’s large on-site Armory is a full service weapons depot, providing not only a large inventory of various current-issue small arms for use by students, but also sophisticated gunsmithing services. Its spacious, orderly, and remarkably well equipped workshop serves a full range of necessary activities from routine maintenance to fabrication of critical parts. Don’t make the mistake, as we did, in casually referring to its four man staff as “armorers.” This was good-naturedly correctedby a gunsmith-instructor. The NTC gunsmith capabilities include the ability to provide precision accurizing for DOE’s diverse inventory from pistols to large caliber sniper rifles used in competition as well as more critical applications.

Behind the Arms Vault Door

Among the most satisfying privileges of the magazine feature trade is being invited behind the scenes to observe exciting things that are normally hidden to the public. PFTD’s large arms vault gets highest marks for this distinction and SAR is most appreciative for the official permission to bring our readers along as we stepped in side its massive steel doorway.

Except for narrow aisles to allow efficient retrieval of the weaponry, wall and floor racks in this rectangular, climate-controlled cavern take up nearly every inch of space. They hold pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, battle rifles, sniper rifles, and squad automatics, all neatly categorized by type and model. Larger weapons, including various light and heavy machine guns, along with a few US and foreign rocket launchers, are shoehorned into various openings here and there.

As one might expect, the largest number of weapons by type are those in current use by SPOs throughout DOE. SIG and Glock pistols, Colt M4 carbines and FNMI SAWs fill rack after rack, in high demand for use by the steady stream of students being run through basic and advanced shooting courses. The NTC gunsmiths also explained that in addition to their daily job functions they are all instructor certified to conduct Basic and Advanced Armorer Certifications for DOE facilities.

Although most showed evidence of hard use in the field and on the range, the weapons we observed seemed to be well maintained. This was, we learned, the result of the staff’s personal dedication to DOE’s strict standards for care, cleaning and periodic mechanical inspections. Also, there is adequate funding for necessary replacement parts and few bureaucratic obstacles in the procurement supply chain; positive circumstances not to be taken for granted.

Antiques and Exotics

Our biggest surprise inside the vault came in encountering a treasure trove of vintage guns along with some unusual foreign military weaponry. Among the delightful discoveries were a 1928A1 Thompson submachine gun, a Belgian D Model BAR, a suppressed Ingram MAC- 11 and a 1919A4 Browning. A representative lineup of more recent arms from overseas included assault rifles from China, Romania, Finland, Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

The gunsmithing staff explained that the AK’s, Valmet, Model 70, FNC, and G3 had, over the last few years, been obtained for evaluation by various elements of the Protective Forces. Either with an eye to understanding the capabilities of likely opposing forces or to determine if they might offer features and benefits superior to DOE’s current stable of arms.

Makes sense, we said, but how in the world have all those fine museum pieces found a good home in your armory? And, we hesitantly inquired, how have they been spared the cutting torches that have been so energetically employed by previous regimes?

All three smiths jumped right in on this one, first citing the usefulness of these significant historical examples in teaching armorers the differences in basic operating principles behind various designs currently in use. Just as important, they assured us, is the essential need to convey a sense of history to their students. For example, personally handling the iconic Thompson, long a symbol of the FBI’s famous “Gangbusters” and proudly serving with DOE’s predecessors, can be a very memorable experience.

SAR understands this and strongly encourages the preservation and continued use of classic firearms as instructional aids.

As a matter of fact, we asked each gunsmith to select his favorite weapon to hold in their “portrait” photos. These young men know guns inside and out and so much is revealed when one gunsmith held the Model D BAR, another the 1928A1 Thompson, and the other the HK21.

Bigger and Better

Information received from DOE sources after our visit indicates some of the sweeping changes that are underway for the National Training Center and its PFTD as the “Security Elite Force concept” is being implemented. Most notable to the scope of this feature is completion of the ISSTEC that the staff told us about. This sophisticated mock DOE facility with Simunition shoothouse for dynamic force-on-force training is now in use. Additionally, NTC has identified the need to further advance all future training and has developed a concept paper that if funded will be the start of an Advanced Training and Evaluation Facility (ATEF) that will provide state of the art simulation technologies. ATEF will train and test a wide variety of Safeguards disciplines including Nuclear Materials Control, technical surveillance and countermeasures.

Find out More

Department of Energy:
Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance:
The National Training Center has its own website, with links to the Protective Force Training Department and all of its other major components:
National Nuclear Security Administration:
BWXT Technologies, Inc.:
Wackenhut Services, Inc.:


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