OpFor Vismods

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.

15 thoughts on “OpFor Vismods”

  1. So, will it be a problem when the Krasnovians’; combat power exceeds our own after sequestration? What if they invade southern California?

    Scratch that. They would not want to assume that kind of public debt.

    1. Oh, don’t worry about that, URR. I’m sure the LAPD would take care of them after shooting up a couple of civilians’ H3 Hummers.

  2. A couple of comments, having just left there, and comparing the OPFOR to my rotations in the 90s. In the 90s, in addition to the VISMODs, they actually had a small fleet of functional BMPs, MTLBs, and BRDMs to supplement the fleet. The Sheridan VISMOD tanks were very good representations, but the BMPs kind of sucked. Conversely, the current OSV (pronounced OSS-VEE) tanks suck but the BMPs are well done. It is almost impossible to tell the current tanks from BMPs at any kind of range, as the primary difference is the guntube, which is either either short and thin, ala the BMP2, or a real sized guntube like a tank. Some are all sand, some are sand with dark brown camouflage. The enemy there, per the “DATE” (Decisive Action Training Environment) is now the dreaded Donovians, who are a very large army to the north of the more humble countries of Atropia, Minaria and Gorgas, which look pretty much exactly like Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. In an interesting twist, our allies, the Atropians, are role played by OPFOR from 11th ACR, and actually roll in the same equipment as our common Donovian enemy. So the OPFOR not only fight us, but they fight each other. For units that are at NTC to train for Afghanistan (or formerly Iraq), the OPFOR would role play the Afghani or Iraqi partners. I have a couple pictures of a field of dead OSVs in front of my unit from last month, but the quality is very bad, unfortunately. On a different note, the quality of the OPFOR is not yet up to the level it was in the pre-war days, which may account for the fact that I smoked them on a defense and movement to contact. This was only the fourth DA rotation they have done, and have a lot of lessons to re-learn.

  3. What is that wood board on the Brad skirts in that picture of you? Some kind of map board for OPORDS?

  4. As to the M-551 Sheridan, for its weaknesses, was air droppable (all but one dropped into Panama self-deployed into operations), but since then the 82d Airborne, (that is to say the Army) hasn’t come up with anything that can do the same job. As a young Paratrooper with the 173d our local Cav unit, E/17 had Sheridans and they did provide comfort a couple of times during my tour.

Comments are closed.