Insights from the National Training Center’s Opposing Force, Pt. 3

Read Part One, Part Two of this series.

By Colonel John D. Rosenberger

It Is How the OPFOR Prepares for Combat Operations

How a unit prepares to execute its mission directly affects the battle outcome. The OPFOR has learned this and devotes most of its available time preparing for battle, not planning.

Once the operations order is issued, the preparation phase for combat begins. The regimental commander gives everybody a ten minute break; then all commanders return and backbrief him, which assures the commander that all subordinate commanders clearly understand what he expects them to do and achieve, when he expects them to do it, and where he expects them to do it. In short, he checks to ensure all subordinate commanders understand his intent.

Immediately after backbriefs, the regimental staff assembles and conducts staff rehearsals of each course of action. The chief of staff leads a mapboard exercise, placed flat with all staff officers surrounding, and they literally fight each battle from beginning to end, reviewing the employment and synchronization of every element of the combined-arms team, by phase of the operation. They rehearse every action each staff officer will take, and every action they must supervise for the commander during the battle given any course of action.

For example, they rehearse when and where rockets and close air support will be employed against high-payoff targets during Phase I fires, what positions they must occupy to place the batteries within range, when they must move to occupy in sufficient time to accomplish their task, and the number of volleys required to achieve expected effects. They rehearse when and where scatterable minefields will be employed to ensure reserves are interdicted prior to the enemy commander’s decision to commit them. They rehearse where artillery batteries from the division artillery group must be positioned, and the trigger point for shooting nonpersistent chemicals against forces at the point of penetration, just prior to closure of the forward detachment. They rehearse when the jamming systems will begin jamming enemy fire support FM nets to achieve maximum disruption and force protection. Watch this process and it’s easy to see why OPFOR staffs are considered an element of combat power whose performance is key to success. It is their hard work in the planning and preparation phases which sets conditions for synchronization of the combined-arms team, and ensures it is preserved during battle.

While this is going on, subordinate commanders are back at their units issuing oral operations orders to their units, with every vehicle commander in attendance, always supported by hastily constructed terrain boards which facilitate quick visualization of what they are expected to do, and how they will do it.

Seven to eight hours after the regimental order is issued, the regiment conducts a regimental combined-arms rehearsal-a disciplined battle drill that affords the opportunity to conduct detailed rehearsals of at least two, usually three, courses of action in a two-hour period. Attendants are the regimental commander and staff, all commanders of subordinate units, and all team commanders in the regimental reconnaissance company. The chief of operations directs the rehearsal, the chief of staff adjudicates the outcome of engagements by phase, and the regimental commander observes intently to ensure synchronization is correct, his intent is clearly understood, and all units are doing exactly what he expects them to do, when and where he expects them to do it.

The rehearsal is conducted on a large-scale terrain board, configured to scale, with known and expected enemy forces indicated by markers, and all regimental graphic control measures. On the board are the chief of reconnaissance, chief of rockets and artillery, chief of air direction, chief of signal, and all subordinate commanders-only those leaders who command and direct forces in battle. The rehearsal always begins with a detailed depiction of how the reconnaissance company will conduct their tasks to achieve their purpose. Recon team leaders physically move along the infiltration routes they’ve chosen, describing their actions en route, the observation posts they will establish, what critical information they will acquire, and the fire support targets they are responsible for shooting. Once it is clear to all how observation of the regiment’s entire battlespace will be established, the rest of the combined-arms team follows and briefs their actions in detail, beginning with their statement of task and purpose.

The value of this rehearsal method cannot be overemphasized. It is critical to successful accomplishment of the mission. While the operations order and graphics may be clear, the battle really doesn’t come to life in the minds of subordinate leaders until they rehearse together as a team. In the rehearsal, they can visualize the employment of the entire combined-arms team, understand the key elements of synchronization that must be achieved, and clearly see how their unit fits into the operational concept relative to their teammates. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing. This produces a powerful synergy, seldom matched by their opponents.

Finally, after the regimental rehearsal, subordinate commanders return to their units and conduct their own detailed rehearsals with every leader in their unit present, not just the officers. All vehicle/crew commanders participate in the unit rehearsal. This technique guarantees complete knowledge of the operation through the ranks of the unit, and ensures the execution of the mission is not affected by loss of the company commander, platoon leaders or platoon sergeants. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a junior sergeant or corporal commanding a platoon or a company at the end of a battle, organizing his remaining force on the objective.

Meanwhile, and equally important, as the officers work through the orders and rehearsal process, the NCOs across the regiment are conducting detailed inspections of their equipment and soldiers ensuring both are prepared for combat. Hundreds of things are checked and double-checked to ensure all is ready: fluid levels, track tension, radios, fire control systems, maps and graphics, nightvision devices, boresight, ammunition, weapons, the list goes on.

The point to this discussion is that extensive and detailed preparation for combat, conducted by the officers and NCOs of an organization, is also indispensable to achieving the full combat potential of a unit. Incidentally, this preparatory process is seldom embedded with discipline throughout the brigade task forces the OPFOR oppose-another substantial advantage the OPFOR enjoys. Here’s the final reason.

It Is How the OPFOR Executes and Controls Combat Operations

Although their planning and preparation techniques and procedures create the ability for the OPFOR to win their battles before they fight them, there are certain techniques employed during the execution of battle which also serve as means of achieving the full combat potential of the combined-aims team. First and foremost is the regiment’s aggressive conduct of reconnaissance and surveillance operations.

The first condition any commander must set on the battlefield, if he wants to win, is the ability to see through the depths of the battlefield. If any reconnaissance team fails to reach its assigned observation post, a replacement team is immediately dispatched to replace it, or other teams are repositioned to reestablish coverage of that portion of the battlefield. In contrast, the brigade task forces they oppose are inadequately equipped with reconnaissance capability and have been for years. Brigades have never been provided the reconnaissance forces and capabilities necessary to establish and maintain complete and continual observation of their battlespace. From the OPFOR’s perspective, it’s the most serious organizational flaw and warfighting deficiency in our brigade task forces today. The OPFOR knows, through hard experience, that effective reconnaissance and surveillance are the key to success during execution of the battle, and remain the most powerful of many advantages they enjoy over their opponents.

Equally as important as reconnaissance, the OPFOR establishes multiple FM radio retransmission teams on terrain which will ensure FM communications capability is provided through the depth and width of the battlespace. Immediate, responsive FM communications are absolutely required to sustain common situational awareness, prevent fratricide, preserve flexibility, control the tempo of operations, and preserve synchronization of the combined-arms team in the close fight. If you can’t talk, you can’t fight on the modem battlefield. It makes no difference if you can see the battlefield in perfect detail. Forces at the tactical level of war cannot be accurately employed without sustained, reliable, instantaneous real-time communications.

Another key to the remarkable synchronization the OPFOR is able to achieve, and consequently its overwhelming combat power, is the use of a small staff to control the combined-arms team, and preserve synchronization. Positioned forward, working out of a one-vehicle command post, off one map, are the chief of staff, chief of reconnaissance, chief of rockets and artillery, and chief of air direction. This small team, the same team that planned and rehearsed the operation, orchestrates the entire battle, thereby freeing the regimental commander to move to a position where he can see the critical events unfold on the battlefield, see his decision points, and control the employment of his force as the situation develops. This technique of command and control-a small, mobile staff, armed with near-perfect situational awareness, empowered to direct the combined-arms team – virtually ensures the regimental commander can operate at a tempo of decisionmaking his opponent cannot match, and a level of synchronization his opponent cannot match.

Having said this, nothing is quite so influential to the outcome of a battle as the constant crosstalk between all commanders and the regimental staff. Listen to the regimental battle command net during a fight, and what you hear is a constant exchange of information between subordinate commanders. Occasionally, you will hear the regimental commander on the net, usually to seek clarification, or get specific information required to make his anticipated decisions, or issue the one or two decisions he must make during the course of battle. Most of the time, you will hear adjacent and following commanders talking to one another describing the enemy and friendly situation as it unfolds on the battlefield. Often, you will hear regimental reconnaissance leaders passing them critical information about enemy actions. That’s it. The regimental commander spends most of his time eavesdropping on his net, tracking the progress of the fight from the voices of his most trusted agents, his commanders on the ground. The chief of staff does the same thing, picking up his cues from commanders’ descriptions, and directing employment of lethal and nonlethal fires at the time and place required to set conditions for their success.

This cross-talk between commanders and staff is the principal reason the OPFOR is able to sustain accurate, real-time situational awareness of what’s happening on the battlefield. Nothing is more important during the execution of battle, amid the smoke, confusion and chaos. If a commander can see his battlefield, see the strength and disposition of his enemy, and see the strength and disposition of his own forces in near-real time, he can’t be whipped, if he has a speck of tactical competence and the forces available to win. Moreover, cross-talk virtually eliminates fratricide within the combined-arms team. Through eavesdropping, everyone knows where everyone else is located on the battlefield.

And finally, when all else fails, when subordinate units lose communications, when the key leaders are killed or injured, all units continue to fight guided by the commander’s intent-the overarching concept of what all must do to achieve success. Commander’s intent is an indispensable means of imposing control on the battlefield. Many battles are won each year based solely on adherence to commander’s intent, stated up front in the planning process, and reiterated to all leaders in the preparation phase. Leaders know what to do, what must be accomplished, and they do it, despite the fact they can’t talk to their commander.

In sum, techniques for imposing control and maintaining common situational awareness during the execution of operations are also key to achieving the full combat potential of a combined-arms team. It is disturbing that few of these techniques are observed or routinely practiced by brigade combined-arms teams the OPFOR opposes. This takes lots of training as one team under actual field conditions. Our brigade task forces do not have the opportunity under the conditions we serve in today.

Implications for Our Army and Landpower in the 21st Century

How does the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (the OPFOR) develop and sustain its ability to fight and defeat its opponents in almost every battle at the National Training Center? How does the regiment, fighting with 1960s-1970s technology, routinely defeat brigade task forces equipped with the most modem weapon systems and technology our Army can provide? How can the regiment do it given the same soldiers, the same personnel turbulence (about 40 percent turnover each year), the same leader development challenges, and the oldest fighting equipment in the active Army? There are the answers. There are the insights. From my perspective, the implications for our Army today and into the 21st century are profound. Why? Because the conditions which have afforded the opportunity for the OPFOR at NTC to achieve its full combat potential do not exist in our active Army today.

As an Army, we don’t organize the way we intend to fight. We have decided to bring the full weight and combat power of the combined-aims team to bear at brigade level, yet we don’t organize the brigade as a combined-aims team. It doesn’t matter that much for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, but it matters in combat. It’s the only way to achieve the full combat potential of the enormous investments we’ve made in combat systems and capabilities. Although nobody can match us on the current battlefield, we’re far less effective than we can be.

We don’t train anymore with the rigor and frequency in the field necessary to develop and sustain full combat potential. Shortage of money, shortage of time, shortage of leaders and soldiers, peacekeeping operations and other factors conspire against us and deny us the ability to train soldiers, leaders and units at the frequency necessary to develop and sustain proficiency in mission essential tasks. For that matter, we don’t measure our combat readiness in terms of our ability to accomplish our mission-essential tasks, which is a direct function of the frequency with which we train. We measure it in terms of the number of leaders and soldiers we have, the amount of equipment we have, the maintenance posture of equipment, and available training resources. Granted these are components of readiness, but it is training that tums these resources into combat capability, and it’s the frequency of training that develops and sustains a unit’s full combat potential.

We don’t train and certify that combat-arms commanders and their staffs at battalion and brigade level have the knowledge, skill, ability and intuition to employ a combined-arms team in combat before we place them in those critical positions. None must prove their competence through objective examination of any kind. It’s not a requirement for selection. Moreover, we have no training programs within our Army which will develop and provide our soldiers fully competent combined-arms commanders, S-2s (intelligence officers), S-3s (operations officers), S-4s (logistics officers), fire support officers, and other key members of combined-arms battalion and brigade staffs. It’s ironic. We wouldn’t let a surgeon touch us with a knife unless we were absolutely sure he or she had earned the credentials and was certified competent and skilled by tough, rigorous board certification. Yet we entrust the lives of our soldiers to officers who are not required to undergo equivalent competency evaluation. Consequently, we are far from being what we can be and need to be to achieve the full combat potential of the soldiers we lead.

We teach our officers to plan combat operations, but we don’t teach commander and staff teams how to win our battles before we fight them, nor how to set conditions for effective synchronization of the combined-arms team during the planning process. At advance courses, Combined Alms and Services Staff School (CAS3), and Command and General Staff College (CGSC) we teach officers how to conduct METI-T analysis and write a five-paragraph order, complete with a dozen annexes, but we don’t teach them how to synchronize employment of the combined-arms team-the most critical outcome which must emerge from the planning process; the thing that brings the full combat potential of the force to bear on the battlefield. Nor do we train and teach the critical preparation and execution techniques the OPFOR has learned and continues to employ, which are really nothing more than what our best warfighting units learned to do in combat throughout the last half of this century. We’re good, but we can be better.

Also implied in this essay is the pressing need for our Army to develop new organizational, resource and training strategies which can restore or create the conditions we need to achieve our full combat potential in the years ahead. In short, we must strive to create the same conditions the OPFOR enjoys-conditions which have become unique in the force. No positive enhancement in our combat capability will occur unless we do. It matters little if we throw Crusader gun systems, the tactical internet or Comanche helicopters into the force. They will lie there only as combat potential. Their effective employment and effectiveness on the battlefield will hinge upon a couple of imperatives. First, it will hinge upon mastery of the fundamentals of warfighting at crew and small-unit level, the opportunity to learn these fundamentals under realistic field conditions, and training at the frequency necessary to develop and sustain performance standards. In turn, this demands and compels us to change the way we measure combat readiness. Second, it will hinge upon combined-arms commanders and staffs who possess a proven complement of tactical knowledge, skill, ability and intuition, derived through long experience. We will have to change the way we develop and train combined-arms commanders and warfighting staffs.

In conclusion, in the context of this essay the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment-the Opposing Force at the NTC- serves only as an example of what our Army can be and illuminates many of the components of warfighting necessary for a combined-arms team to achieve its full combat potential at the tactical level of war. You can choose to dismiss, agree with or dispute these things. But one thing is certain. If we ignore the insights provided by the soldiers and leaders of our OPFOR regiment these past few years, then we will be far less than we can be. We will fall far short of our full combat potential, and we just might jeopardize our landpower dominance in the years ahead. Let’s roll up our sleeves.

Colonel Rosenberger is currently serving as Commander, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Irwin, CA.

The above was originally published by the Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute for Land Warfare Studies as a part of its Landpower Essay Series. Read it in its original form here.

Featured Image: Troopers of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment perform coordinated training operations in support of highlighting the U.S. Army to the Fox Sports Network on 26 OCT, 2013 here at Fort Irwin, Calif. (Photo taken by Capt. Chad E. Cooper, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Public Affairs Officer)

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