The National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA originally had a fairly simple purpose. Units tagged to deploy to Germany in case of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe would face an incredibly steep learning curve. By putting them through their paces at NTC, that curve could be flattened somewhat. It was very similar to the Air Force’s paradigm of Red Flag operations that would give squadrons their “first 10 wartime missions.”
At the time, one of the more radical concepts of NTC was the use of a full time Opposing Force* to model the size, tactics, and visual representation of a Soviet Motorized Rifle Regiment. Traditionally, units training in the field would face off against a sister unit. Not surprisingly, those units tended to use American tactics. Worse, American units were equipped with American equipment, and distinguishing friend from foe on the battlefield was virtually impossible. One of the goals of NTC might be to sow confusion in the unit being trained, but that was taking it a bit far.
The OpFor at NTC went to great lengths to model themselves as the vanguard of the Evil Empire, going so far as to wear uniforms resembling the Soviets.
But equipping an entire Motorized Rifle Regiment (roughly equivalent to a US mechanized brigade) posed a bit of a challenge. When NTC opened in the late 70s, there wasn’t a lot of surplus Soviet equipment available on the market. What there were plenty of was M551 Sheridan Armored Reconnaissance Vehicles. Less than satisfactory as light armor or recon vehicles, there were plenty of them available to equip the OpFor. Unfortunately, they didn’t look very Russian.
But by adding various plastic, fiberglass and other panels, a Sheridan could be given the rough visual outline of either a Soviet tank or BMP fighting vehicle. Not surprisingly, these visual modifications quickly became known as VISMODS.
M551 Sheridan pretending to be a BMP-1 IFV
M551 masquerading as a T-80 tank
Now, even on the best of days, a Sheridan with with plastic wasn’t a dead ringer for any Soviet vehicle. But that’s kind of beside the point. It was sufficient that it was visually distinctive from American vehicles, and that the US unit under training could distinguish between tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and a few other types. That was important because the type and number of vehicles you see on any given spot on the battlefield can tell you a lot about what the enemy intentions.
And it didn’t really matter if the Sheridan’s weapon systems were very different from the vehicles they were portraying. Since the force on force gunnery at NTC was done via the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), switching out the control box would allow a Sheridan to replicate virtually any direct fire weapon system, from machine guns, to tank guns to guided missiles.
So the Sheridan served the OpFor well through the 80s and into the 1990s.
But, you say, by the early 1990s, there was a ton of surplus Soviet armored vehicles available for dirt cheap. Why didn’t the Army just use those instead of modified American tracks?
We could have easily brought back enough Soviet (and Chinese) armor from Desert Storm to equip the OpFor with real vehicles. The problem would have been spare parts. As reliable and rugged as Soviet designs were, they still needed a lot of spare parts. Providing a pipeline for those parts, training mechanics to repair new vehicles, and training drivers and crews for them would have been prohibitively expensive.
By the mid 1990s, the Sheridan fleet was getting pretty tired. The supply of spare parts was pretty close to exhausted as well, and keeping the vehicles running was becoming more and more expensive. A replacement was needed, but there wasn’t a huge budget for one.
What the Army needed was a vehicle that was in plentiful supply, with a large, established spares pipeline. Buying new vehicles was out. What was there in the fleet that would be suitable?
The trusty M113 filled the bill. No longer in front line use as an infantry carrier, thousands of them still serve in various support roles. But having been replaced in mechanized infantry battalions left plenty of them to equip the OpFor. But the square squat M113 didn’t look much like any Soviet vehicle.
A quick, relatively low cost program actually rebuilt about 120 M113s by adding some visual panels, but more importantly a power driven turret. Known as the M113 OSV (OpFor Surrogate Vehicle) these tracks form the backbone of the OpFor’s armored vehicle fleet. The basic M113 hull and powerplant were identical to those in service. Most of the components of the turret were from the M2/M3 Bradley, so service, operation and spares were relatively low cost. Changing some outside fiberglass panels allows OSV’s to represent either tanks or the BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
While the OSV isn’t the only presentation of Soviet vehicles the good guys are likely to see. BRDM recon vehicles are represented by modified Humvees.
The OpFor at NTC isn’t the only OpFor. There are also full time opposing forces at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk, LA (geared primarily to light forces), and the Combat Maneuver Training Center at Hoehenfels, Germany. And while the VisMods form the main body of the OpFor, the Army does have a limited number of captured vehicles either for familiarization or occasionally to act as OpFor.
The top frame of the pic is your humble scribe setting a Dragon missile simulator for the next mission.
Helicopters are also represented by the OpFor.
Often times, the permanent OpFor needs to be augmented by “normal” forces. To differentiate these interim OpFor from the friendly forces, some minimal modifications are usually made. In my days in Germany, we’d strap a painted 55 gallon drum on the top deck of our M113s. Tanks often carried drums on their rear deck, simulating the common Soviet Practice of carrying spare fuel there. Since the full time OpFor at NTC has morphed into a real Combat Brigade Team, in addition to its OpFor duties, it also has access to the normal complement of combat vehicles of the Army. These can also be used to simulate a Soviet equipped force, though with considerably less fidelity.
M1 KVT (Krasnovian Variant Tank) Krasnovia is the notional nation the OpFor represents.
In tight budget times, Opposing Forces are an attractive target for budget cutters. From a wide array squadrons, the Air Force, Navy and Marines have had their aggressor strength greatly diminished. But the effect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have actually worked to expand and diversify the Army’s OpFor , and while some cutbacks are inevitable, the Army will fight tooth and nail to maintain the core of its capability to present a realistic threat scenario to maneuver forces under training.
*Technically, now it is the Contemporary Operating Environment Force or COEFOR, but everyone still calls it the OpFor.