The Three Man Team

Combat effectiveness – a view from the outside in

Years ago while still in uniform, I was selected to take part in a large training exercise as part of the OPFOR.   The exercise was to take place in a high desert setting, not unlike the Afghan mountain areas, and involved a battalion plus hunting down our 12 man “insurgent” unit.

We were up against a battalion of infantry, augmented with a cav scout troop and a company of NATO soldiers. Their sole purpose was to find, capture and/or kill us.

We broke our team into four, three-man cells. We also had a HQ element and two sets of 81mm mortars with organic crews attached.  Besides our indirect fire assets, we were armed only with M4 carbines and frag grenades.

Ten days later we were being dressed down for the sin of rendering the battalion "combat ineffective" as well as destroying the TOC and killing most of the staff officers. 

All in all I found it to be a useful learning experience.  Without violating any OPSEC, let me break down some of the lessons learned…..

1) We spent the first few days avoiding contact and doing as much observation as possible. Whenever feasible we would use coded hand written messages left at a dead drop to pass information back to our HQ. Reason being that we believed the BLUFOR was actively scanning for our TX as well as attempting to DF us. This worked out rather well for us, as our flow of information went largely uninterrupted and we denied them any actionable SIGINT.

2) We traveled light and fast, relying on caches and rolling drops for resupply. We would have to huddle up close in the night time low temperatures to keep somewhat warm - one man sitting up on watch at a time.

3) One of our biggest fears was the BLUFOR’s use of their scout’s mounted thermal assets, especially at night when the ambient temperature fell and our body heat stood out like a sore thumb. Choosing good Hide/RON sites and smart route planning was essential. The few times we were spotted we were able to quickly move into terrain prohibitive to vehicles. 

4) Indirect fire assets are priceless. We quickly frustrated them with accurate fire missions on a daily basis. Terrain association, solid map reading skills and good pre-established TRP’s were put to devastating use.

5) The utility of harassment fire cannot be overstated. Again using the terrain to our advantage was essential. A few well-placed shots induced chaos and we made an exit as the unit went into a battle drill before they could ID our location.

6) Eventually we decided to let one of our cells get captured as we needed a peek close in and were fairly confident that we could affect an escape. This risky move turned out to be an intelligence goldmine for us. Our captured cell was able to make their escape that night before being moved to a more secured rear area. The random information they brought back proved very useful.

7) Based on our gathered Intel, we put a plan in motion that involved our last two cells (two had been captured or killed by day ten). One cell engaged a company far to the south of the Bn FOB as a diversion while my cell low crawled about a mile past the Bn FOB to a lightly guarded OP to the north. The soldiers there had seen no action at all and were bored and sleepy. We were able to secure the site and steal a hummer without firing a shot. We then drove into the FOB and began tossing grenades into GP mediums as we moved towards the TOC, where we “shot” the entire staff section.

I should note that the cells we lost were due to one being caught out in the open (huge danger area – poor route planning). The other was due to spending too much time close to a prominent terrain feature after calling in several fire missions. Some studious BLUFOR soldier thought about where he might put an OP and glassed them when he could see their bino’s catching sunlight.

For me, the experience proved useful the next time I was in an operational environment facing down an enemy that felt no compulsion to conform to any particular set of standards.


OPFOR = Opposition Force (bad guys)
BLUFOR = Blue Force (good guys)
HQ = Headquarters
TOC = Tactical Operations Center
TX = Transmission (radio)
DF = Direction Find
RON = Rest Over Night
TRP = Target Reference Point
BN = Battalion
SIGINT = Signals Intelligence
FOB = Forward Operating Base
OP = Observation Point


  1. It is worth noting that the BLUFOR's lack of air assets in this particular exercise gave the OPFOR an advantage they would not have enjoyed in a real world scenario. Just food for thought...

  2. So, given this experience, how would your gameplan have changed if BLUFOR had CAS and Artillery support?

    1. I neglected to mention that while the BLUFOR did not have air, they did have indirect assets (mortars), which is how the cell spotted near the terrain feature met their demise. So throughout the exercise, being spotted by an FO was an appreciable concern. If air assets were in obviously would have made things more difficult for us in some ways and possibly easier in other ways. We would have had to move slower and been very picky on our route selection, as well as adding more listening halts and possibly dedicating a team as a centralized air watch. The other side of the air factor is that it could be argued that the BLUFOR soldiers would have a more relaxed level of situational awareness (especially the guard force) because they had "big brother" in the sky looking out for them. The modern military has developed such an overwhelming dependency on air could say that that very factor was demonstrated during the exercise.

    2. K-

      I agree re: reliance on air power.

      The thought of the enemy controlling the skies never once factored into any training I saw in 8.5 years in the Army.

      It's just taken for granted.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. After ten years of active duty Army, what I find most disturbing, though not surprising, was the
    "Ten days later we were being dressed down for the sin of rendering the battalion "combat ineffective" as well as destroying the TOC and killing most of the staff officers."
    Yeah, gotta love that "Army of One," shitting on soldiers
    for performing as warfighting soldiers should.


  5. If you were on the mats in your first Karate class, and your sparring partner was a black belt, he had better dumb things down so that you can properly train. This is why Kyle was called to the carpet for making a BN combat ineffective, because the OPFOR mission isn't to "win" it is to "train."

    Training is designed to allow the BLUFOR to actually train in as realistic manner as possible. Invariably when we task our highly trained and imaginative Soldiers to play OPFOR we have to ask them to "dumb it down" or they will use their knowledge of BLUFOR systems, TTPs, and OPTEMPO to dominate the battlefield.

    By not using radios they denied the SIGINT section the ability to train at all. This denied the S2 the ability to analyze intelligence. This caused the Command Team (BN and CO) to be stuck in the "O" portion of the OODA loop for most of the exercise. This means that a whole BN of Soldiers wasted valuable training time trying to read the minds of an OPFOR that knows how to exploit all the weaknesses of the BLUFOR.

    Something to think about when you are designing "force on force" training to get people up to speed.

    1. I don't recall seeing in this post that the unit being trained was a newbie unit. What the OPFOR did in this case was to reveal how combat ineffective this Battalion was.
      The OPFOR mainly served to reveal that our military (as do other militaries) tend to train utilizing battle doctrine formed in the last war. The OPFOR disrupted the Command Team's OODA loop. This was actually very good training for this battalion. Hopefully the Battalion Commander saw the need to train his officers to think on their feet and be ready to change tactics that don't work.
      Not be concerned that the OPFOR didn't rubber stamp his battle plan and give him an atta boy letter to drop in his file.
      As for the OPFOR being disciplined I read about a naval exercise where the OPFOR behaved in a similar manner, utilizing unorthodox methods and beat the Naval Battle Group. That OPFOR was also disciplined. The sad part is that the OPFOR was utilizing known tactics that the Iranians would deploy.

  6. Let the military figure it out on their own. If they wanna play by certain rules, then more power to them. As was noted, their tactics are more geared from the last war. OPFOR was indeed training correctly, conducting the best methods of what will become and has become established tactics for the immediate future. That is what training is all about, NOT following some routine tactical guidelines from pretending officers who are fighting the last war.
    I will add that at this point in history it is probably best that such OPFOR units should not tilt their hands in demonstrating such tactics today. Showing such weaknesses now only serves for the military to increase their knowledge and understanding of how to better control the scope of modern tactics which WILL shortly be used against civilians in the USA. (Our former soldiers that opposes this federal monster needs every advantage it can get.) It's simply better that some things, the military needs to remain ignorant over. Meaning don't rock the boat, especially if you're on it. Take it two ways: Don't question military doctrines.
    Fore knowing them may be to your advantage later when such exercises may be for real and you're actually on the receiving end in real life.

  7. Two anonymous comments saying that the OPFOR is meant to train to be OPFOR and that the BN just sucked. First off the OPFOR isn't there to generate new tactics (and trust me there is no such thing). It doesn't matter how "experienced" a BN is because the ARFORGEN cycle exists to take experienced members of a BN and switch them around the Army to meet the needs of the force. In the training cycle ALL BN's are "new" and "inexperienced" because between deployments you get a New Commander (at all levels), new Operations Officer (the S3) new Intel Officer (the S2) not to mention a minimum of 40% turnover across the enlisted side of the house.

    It may not be a "newly stood up" BN, but it is a new team as far as leadership and staff is concerned. That is why you don't want an OPFOR that thinks their job is to play RAMBO in an environment where the consequences of "dying" are simply being removed from training. When the terrorists have real bullets flying at them they take different tactical risks than a 3 man team of GI's in a training exercise with MILES.

    That is why the OPFOR needs to understand what the training goals of the BN they are supporting are, so that they don't go all crazy trying tactics that the real enemy doesn't use. If you want to be a black belt in Karate, it doesn't help to train against a wrestler.

    At the end of the day, the OPFOR killed exactly zero of the BLUFOR, and the BLUFOR killed exactly zero of the OPFOR. Had the bullets been real I expect that different tactics would have been used by the OPFOR. Trust me, everyone goes back to "bread and butter" tactics when their ass is on the line.

  8. I can't disagree with with your post except for this one last line,
    "Trust me, everyone goes back to "bread and butter" tactics when their ass is on the line."

    History is choke full facts, people and battles where this is not the case. One of the main rules of warfare is DON'T fight by the other man's rules. This includes fighting the way your opponent thinks and plans you'll be fighting him. It's simply a matter of adapting tactics and strategy that the current systems cannot understand and deal with at the time. Modern warfare does not simply evolve because of new technology! It also evolves too include new ways in dealing with new technology as well as the new tactics developed to employ that new technology!

  9. Not to knock your informative posts
    However, my disgust remains the
    same; browbeating soldiers for
    soldiering well is BS.
    That far to often occuring nonsense
    is symptomatic of the PC cesspool
    that the Army (all the service branches)
    has become; thankfully the Corp has suffered
    the least ill effects of this detrimental


  10. Anon, really? You want to make the argument that it is the job of the OPFOR to advance military science?

    As a historical point, the 11th ACR actually did deploy to Iraq, and given their experience as dedicated OPFOR at NTC you would think they would be hot shit on the ground right? No, they were like any other unit pounding sand. You would think that with their training on how to think like the enemy they would have been extremely effective at countering an actual enemy.... But reality makes up her own mind sometimes.

    The maxim, "professionals train until they never get it wrong" isn't just a platitude, it is the truth. And the professionals aren't practicing anything too wazoo or outlandish, they are perfecting the basics, over and over again. The bread and butter moves.

    Cavmedic68W, OPFOR management is serious business. I've had my ass chewed for sending my OPFOR soldiers where they weren't supposed to be (such as against the BDE TOC, nobody told me not to test FOB defenses). An ass chewing is just a concentrated training event where the Commander makes his point perfectly clear in a direct manner. Something that I'm sure more than a few Soldiers and Marines are familiar with.

  11. I'm not criticizing or debating the
    necessity for productive "ass chewings"
    every now and again.
    Again, I am solely expressing my disgust
    for browbeating good soliders for soldiering
    My opinion/belief is that OPFOR, short of actually
    injuring and killing, should conduct themselves
    as actual enemies intent on attack and killing
    an enemy force in the field.
    "A few well-placed shots induced chaos and we made an exit as the unit went into a battle drill before they could ID our location."
    I've seen that far too many times, as I'm sure you have.
    For me, comprehensive and vital training includes proficiency
    and understanding of the conventional, as well as the unconventional.


  12. Army training can be demotivational. During our unit's mobilization to Iraq in 2007, the TTP's we were taught by the warriors of 1st Army were so out dated, we had soldiers that returned from a deployment over there redeploy with us and call some of them out, which was unprofessional I admit. Then when we hit Kuwait the first thing they told us was "forget everything you learned back in the states, things have changed." Using the tired doctrine we learned from 1st Army would have gotten us killed. The problem I saw was a lack of imagination and flexibility on behalf of the cadre. They were more interested in telling us war stories and showing off their combat patches to really keep up on changing tactics and doctrine in the field. Predeployment training needs to be revamped, what we received was a joke more concerned with using the correct color ink on the sign in sheets than actually keeping anyone alive.


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