Tiered Readiness is coming.

Today, under the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) plan, Brigade Combat Teams  (BCT) go through a cycle where they are deployed or ready to deploy, recovering from a deployment or readiness term, or are training up to regain their readiness to deploy. For the most part, all BCTs in the Army have, for the last decade or so, shared equally in cycle. The large numbers of BCTs needed for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan dictated that almost every  BCT would sooner or later get its turn in the barrel.

But with Iraq over, and Afghanistan winding down, fewer and fewer BCTs are being tapped to deploy overseas. Particularly, the heavy BCTs, with tanks and Bradleys, aren’t deploying to Afghanistan.

More importantly, the Army is running out of money. It has already made the choice to shutter a large number of BCTs (though the remaining BCTs will gain an additional maneuver battalion).

But even with those cuts, the budget for manpower, training, and operations is under pretty severe stress.

So the Army, despite promising itself it wouldn’t do so, is going to take something of a strategic risk.

Cancelled training. Deferred maintenance. Grounded aircraft. That’s been the damage to military readiness from the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration in 2013. Now the Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army says the service may have to keep many units at lower levels of readiness for years. This is not a short-term expedient but new policy.

“We’re looking at having certain number of brigades at a higher level of readiness,” Gen. John Campbell told me last week. “Many of our units will go down much lower.”

“Some people would call that tiered readiness, where we said we never were going to go again,” the Vice-Chief went on, referring to the Cold War practice where units not in West Germany or South Korea sometimes never received their full allotment of troops, equipment, and training dollars. “I’d call it progressive readiness.”

A preliminary plan may be ready for public discussion within weeks, Campbell said. “We’re working through that now,” he said, as the service builds its 2015-2019 budget plan, the Program Objective Memorandum.

Campbell’s remarks suggest new willingness on the Army leadership’s part to shift it position on readiness, one that’s been urged by many thinktanks.

“While Army leaders have avoided cutting readiness to every extent possible, it is no longer feasible under current budget plans – even before sequestration moves into year two,” argues Mackenzie Eaglen, one of the think tank experts who recommended cutting readiness levels to guarantee the military’s ability to develop and buy new weapons.

“There is already a readiness shortfall this year that is being funded through war spending and additional untold readiness gaps based on all the services receiving fewer resources than expected when Congress finally passed a defense appropriations bill for 2013,” she said.

It is hardly a perfect solution, but then, it’s also the world I knew back in my own days of service.

Some BCTs will still receive the money and manpower to stay at full readiness, known sometimes as C-1. Fully manned, and trained in all the essentials of the commanders Mission Essential Task List, and having gone through a cycle of training from individual skills to full up BCT sized operations in the field at one of the Combat Training Centers against a dedicated Opposing Force.

Other BCTs… not so much.

They’ll have less money for fuel and maintenance for their equipment. Fewer spare parts. A smaller allocation of ammunition for training. Likely, exercised at battalion and BCT level will be cancelled or curtailed. They’ll get fewer rotations at the Combat Training Centers. They’ll be last in line for receiving new equipment.

And perhaps most painfully, they’ll get fewer people.

We talked above about some units being fully manned. But the truth is, no unit is ever really fully manned. Let’s say a rifle company has an authorized strength of 100.  The Army says it will be fully manned. But you’ve got people transferring out, and waiting for new bodies to come in. Then you’ve got people on leave, at various Army schools, people who are sick or injured (they still count toward you being fully manned, but aren’t available for duty), troops who are awaiting discharge either for completing their service, or because they’re unsuitable for the Army. Then there are the demands placed from above. It is not at all unheard of for a higher echelon to levy units for manpower, either for a temporary tasking, or for extended periods. Our notional rifle company might be lucky to have 75 troops present at morning formation.

My first two duty stations, I was assigned to units that were fully manned. My third wasn’t quite as lucky. We were constantly understrength. While we always had enough people to fully crew our Bradleys, we had only enough troops left over to field a single, understrength rifle squad per platoon. We needed another 10 to 12 troops, per platoon, to be fully manned.

We had enough money and assets to train on individual skills, and small unit collective skills. But it is hard to train a platoon to fight properly when every bit of doctrine that governs employing the platoon assumes a much larger unit, with a good bit more tactical flexibility.

The Army’s reasoning is that for the foreseeable future, should these lower tier BCTs be needed for a fight, they’ll have time to plus up their manning, and their training. We can only hope they’re correct.

If not, we can always ask the survivors of Task Force Smith how things worked out for them.

Thoughts on the Greywolves, OpFor, and NTC.

As Esli mentioned in the comments on this post,

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.

It’s simply a fact of life that US units will operate alongside allies and coalition partner nations. The only truly unilateral action since before World War II that I can recall is Grenada.

As fractious as the US/British alliance was during World War II, in fact, it was a model of successful allied operations. Very few armies in history can claim such a level of cooperation and success. And since that time, the US and Britain have often operated side by side. Other notably successful partnerships include Australia, and Canada. Non commonwealth nations that we have close relationships with include counties such as South Korea, where for 63 years, Americans and South Koreans have served side by side.

The biggest, most obvious example of allied interoperability is, of course,  the NATO alliance, one so successful, it never had to fight to fulfill its original mission.

While the US has a good track record working with several friendly nations, the fact is, most actual combat alliances are extemporaneous.  And while other nations may well be willing to fight alongside us in any number of campaigns, it important to remember that they do so for their own reasons, not ours.

Aside from describing how our nation anticipates winning campaigns, doctrine exists primarily to provide a shared vision of how wars will be fought.  Every battalion and Brigade Combat Team in our Army fights under the same doctrine. When units that have never trained together before are thrust into combat together, they still have a great deal of interoperability built in due to a single doctrine.  But our allies in any given battle may have their own doctrine. And their own political objectives, as well. And few things are more likely to enhance the fog of war than divergent goals.

Battles make strange bedfellows. Don’t forget, Syria sent two armored divisions to fight alongside against Iraq during Desert Storm. Whether Syria genuinely wished to thwart Iraqi territorial ambitions, or just wanted to bask in the goodwill of other coalition nations, for whatever reason, a nation with historical enmity to the US, equipped as a vassal state of the Soviet Union, found itself fighting alongside the US, Britain, France and other nations that have historically been considered its foes.

Command of foreign forces is always more nominal than real. Just as we shudder that the thought of US forces under the command of a foreigner, so to would any ally. Further, no matter what the putative chain of command is for  an operation, allies are still sovereign forces, answerable to their own government. Further, it is a very rare foreign force that shares our current doctrine of Unified Land Operations.

So while theoretically, the OpFor in the Greywolves rotation was a net positive in the available combat power, differences in national goals, doctrine, and sheer bloody-mindedness can see a foreign force taking actions that can catch a US commander of guard. Foreign forces may not attack with the zeal US commanders are accustomed to. Or they may actually attack so fast as to find themselves far from support of US forces, and vulnerable to local counterattacks. Or maybe their attention to the laws of war and treatment of prisoners isn’t as fastidious as our own.

US commanders will have to learn to operate alongside foreign troops that vary wildly in their equipment, training, doctrine, support for the rule of law, and ability to operate on a decisive battlefield.

Now for the first time, US leaders are being exposed to the challenges of this in training, rather than having to devise solutions while actually upon the field of battle.

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.