FORT IRWIN, CALIF. –- Officials at this isolated training
center are trying to maintain the balance between preparing troops
for current guerilla battlefields while practicing for large-scale
The danger, according to officials at Fort Irwin’s National
Training Center, lies in the chance that the next war might be the
opposite of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, against a foe
armed with the full array of modern armor, artillery, reconnaissance
platforms and communications.
“There’s kind of a double task here,” said National
Guard Maj. Scott Cunningham, operations officer at the NTC.
Cunningham is in charge of the opposing force, or OPFOR, during
training. His job is to teach the U.S. units, called BLUFOR, by
running them through hell in the desert.
Cunningham said Pentagon officials shared the view that the fights
of the moment—and the need to prepare the troops heading into
harm’s way—are the centers of attention.
“We’ve seen no focus (on high-intensity conflict training)
coming out of Washington,” Cunningham said. “I don’t
think there is a lack of desire; there are limited resources. The
biggest limit is time … The problem is you have must-do’s
The obvious musts include training foot soldiers to survive counter-insurgency
operations. Keeping a sophisticated red team running full scale
tank battles is a less pressing need.
“We need to maintain the capability to operate in a high
intensity environment,” asserted Cunningham, adding that the
U.S.’ military clout in any scale of fight serves as a deterrent
to aggressive moves by potential foes.
In late May, the training center was abuzz with activity as the
Nevada National Guardsmen from the 221st cavalry, who play the OPFOR
role, prepared for an upcoming tank-on-tank high-intensity conflict,
referred across the base as “hick.”
The 4th Infantry Division begins its rotations at the NTC this
month to slug it out with the OPFOR units. The training center will
host four HICs in a row to accommodate the full divisions. Training
here involves a single brigade at a time.
Cunningham pointed out that Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, who commands
the 4th Infantry Division, once served as the top officer at the
NTC. That experience, Cunningham said, gives Thurman an appreciation
for the full training potential at Fort Irwin.
The OPFOR will field about 40 combat vehicles, plus a slew of support
platforms, while visiting armored divisions will sport three or
four times that. Those exercises will incorporate the urban centers,
forward operating bases and set piece tank battles. Experienced
troops will face challenges at all three—a hostile town in
rebellion, attacks on their base and tank battles in the desert.
Drones will crisscross the sky, tanks will clash in dusty engagements
and helicopters will use thermal imagers to scan for trouble in
mock cities. It will be a total war, as opposed to the smaller counter-insurgency
training missions now routinely run at Fort Irwin.
Yet even the counter-insurgency training features some larger battles.
The analog in Iraq, NTC officials said, was the transition from
patrols and raids conducted in a single sector to a larger offensive
against Fallujah in late 2004.
“Every rotation has some HIC-type training with the out-of-sector
missions, but we will continue to focus the training on the types
of theaters our training units are preparing for,” said Maj.
Carl Michaud, secretary of the general staff at the NTC. “The
National Training Center continues to maintain the capability to
conduct HIC, but our current calendar is focused on mission rehearsal
exercise rotations for at least the next 18 months.”
The last HIC was held in June. A wave of promotions, deployments,
reassignments and retirements has left the current opposing force
at Fort Irwin out of practice in large battles.
This summer’s HIC will be “just as much of a training
exercise for us as the BLUFOR,” Cunningham said. “We’re
getting rusty on these skills.”
Equipment also must be made ready. In the tank yard, crews from
the Nevada National Guard’s 221st Cavalry work feverishly
to prepare their vehicles for the coming battles. On top of making
sure the M113 vehicles and M1A1 tanks function, the crews also need
to acclimate to the cosmetic changes made to increase the exercise’s
fidelity. The M113s will sport a longer nose and the turret of a
Bradley fighting vehicle to approximate the look of a Russian-made
BMP armored personnel carrier. Personnel said that the turrets make
the vehicle top heavy. The roughly 30 cosmetically modified M1A1s,
the bulk of the armored forces, are dubbed Krasnovian variant tanks.
In the vehicle yard, the tank crews know the HIC is fast approaching.
On top of fixing the vehicles, the crews must practice maneuvers
in simulators and field runs. “It’s fast paced,”
said Lt. Mark Theodor, of the 221st Cavalry’s mortar platoon.
“We’re in the shallow end of the pool, but the deep
part is coming and we have to be able to swim.”
Theodor noted that the controls and tactics remained the same no
matter which vehicle they controlled, but added that he was lucky
to have a couple of mechanics skilled in Bradleys to assist with
maintaining the turrets.
The OPFOR teams said they are used to getting overspill work. “We
wind up doing what needs to be done for the mission,” he said,
The mission for the National Guardsmen stationed at Fort Irwin
is to put up a good fight against the regular and reserve units
that train there. That includes strategic preparation, Cunningham
said. Profiles of commanders’ fighting style, equipment and
levels of troop experience are all evaluated.
“We will closely examine units before they come here,”
he said. “When we look for a weakness, we look for an angle.
We look for something to exploit.”
Planners also consider psychological aspects, including the morale
among the U.S. citizenry. Given the chance to eliminate a sophisticated
tank or 20 support personnel, Cunningham said his troops would go
for the higher body count. That is the nature of the enemy, so that
is the nature of the OPFOR at the National Training Center.
“The United States is very casualty averse,” said Cunnigham.
“Now we concentrate not on who we kill, but how many.”