Three hours after the dawn battle began, the fight is
coming to a close. The 2d Brigade of the US Army's 2d Armored Division has made
a valiant stand, but now it is being overwhelmed by the Soviet 32d Guards
Motorized Rifle Regiment.
Both sides are suffering heavy casualties. On the US side,
the 2d has lost eight of its original eleven Ml Abrams tanks, twenty-six of
forty-one M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and most of its ten M901 Improved TOW
antitank vehicles. The Soviet unit also is getting mauled, having lost
twenty-one of forty-eight T-72 tanks, sixty of 106 BMP infantry fighting
vehicles, and five of nine BRDM-2 antitank vehicles.
In spite of their losses, however, the Soviet troops move
within reach of their objective—a facility that houses the 2d Brigade's fuels
and supplies. Then, having punched a gaping hole in the US line with help from
MiG-29 aircraft, Soviet attackers pour through the gap, advancing rapidly.
"OK," a voice crackles on the radio. "Change
of mission." Forces on both sides grind to a halt.
"A pretty typical battle out here," says Lt. Col.
James Etchechury, the Deputy Regimental Commander of the "Soviet" 32d
Guards. The Colonel, who is actually Commander of the US Army's 1st Battalion,
63d Armored, means that it is a typical battle at the National Training Center
at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Fort Irwin, home of the National Training Center (NTC),
covers nearly 640,000 acres of the blistering Mojave Desert, an area nearly
the size of Rhode Island. The NTC is the Army's ultimate training experience,
the closest the participants can come to war without firing a shot in anger.
Units spend up to a year preparing for their fourteen days in the field at Fort
Irwin. Though the NTC's main task is to give highly realistic training to Army
brigades and regiments, the Center also plays an important role in Air Force
"The NTC provides pilots and ALOs [Air Liaison
Officers] with the most realistic CAS [close air support] environment in the
US," says Lt. Col. Duane Knight, Commander of the 4443d Tactical Training
Squadron at George AFB, Calif. "All the players are in place to provide
that environment, both in concert and separately, like no place else."
The Starting Lineups
Two Army battalion task forces, their brigade headquarters,
and accompanying combat support forces are the "good guys" in each
of the fourteen training periods (called "rotations") held annually
at the NTC. The 3,500 to 5,000 troops being trained (known as the Blue Force,
or BLUFOR) usually fly to nearby Norton AFB, Calif., and are bused to Fort
Irwin. Some airborne units make a flashier entrance, dropping in by parachute.
The first three days of a rotation are spent in the Dust
Bowl, an area where the BLUFOR troops set up tents and draw food, ammunition,
tanks, and other gear and supplies. Rather than waste time and money bringing
their own assigned vehicles, BLUFOR units use a "rent-a-tank"
operation at the post, similar to drawing on prepositioned wartime stocks that
are held in Europe.
Day 4 marks the start of the action and first contact with
the Soviet‑style opposing force, or "OPFOR."
"The kindest thing you can say about [troops of] the
OPFOR is that they are an uncooperative sparring partner," says Colonel
Knight. Indeed the "bad guys" are the home team at the NTC. It is a
rare occasion when they lose a battle, although keeping track of wins and losses
is not deemed important. The OPFOR is actually the 177th Armored Brigade, but
for the purposes of the units that train at Fort Irwin, it is a Soviet
Motorized Rifle Regiment.
The OPFOR is thoroughly trained in Soviet tactics and doctrine.
Troops even wear Soviet-style uniforms. They ride into battle on American M551
Sheridan light tanks modified with fiberglass and aluminum panels to resemble
Soviet T-72s, BMPs, and ZSU-23-4 mobile antiaircraft guns. The units also use
"Hummers" (M998 high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles, or
HMMWVs) modified to represent the Soviet BRDM-2.
Army training doesn't take place just on the ground. Units
with aviation assets such as Bell OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters, Bell AH- 1 Cobra
gunships, and McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache attack helicopters regularly take
part in the BLUFOR combined arms team. The OPFOR uses a pair of visually
modified Bell UH-1H Hueys to simulate the actions of Mi-24 "Hind"
USAF involvement at NTC takes two forms—in the air and on
the ground. The flying program is called "Air Warrior." During each
rotation, three Air Force units deploy aircraft to George to provide air
support during the battles. Typically, the Blue Force at Irwin will be
supported by crews flying seven A-10s for close air support and four OV-10s or
OA-10s as forward air controllers (FACs). The OPFOR's air support comes in the
form of five pilots whose F-16s are used to represent MiG-29s.
The Air Force ground element in the training at Fort Irwin
comes in the form of ALOs assigned to specific armored units. The ALOs are the
eyes and ears of the fighter pilots and are the ones who plan for and call in
air strikes or provide last-minute targeting information to the incoming
"I have to have a good understanding of the maneuvers
and the battle as it takes place," says Capt. Dave Brown, a 24th Tactical
Air Support Squadron OA-37 pilot who, as an ALO, is assigned to the 2d Armored.
"I am talking to the pilots all the time. Because I am a pilot, I can go
right from hearing what the
Army commander orders to saying what the pilots need to
Some participants in the battles are not really participants
at all. They are the observer controllers (OCs), who play several roles. There
are at least three groups of OCs at any battle. One group (radio call sign
"Scorpion") monitors the infantry, while the "Cobras"
monitor the armor. The third group, the "Ravens," is the second Air
Force element in the ground war. The Ravens, members of the Air Force's 4445th
TTS, serve as air operations monitors.
During engagements, OCs act as referees and have the power
to declare a tank or vehicle "dead" if the crew strays out-of-bounds
or suffers a malfunction of scoring equipment. They also help ensure the safety
of the operations. After the battle, the OCs coach the crews and help them
evaluate their performance.
During a rotation, the two BLUFOR battalion task forces are
trained separately and as a group. While separated, one task force moves to the
NTC's northern corridor, where it participates in a live-fire exercise.
Meanwhile, the second task force is involved in force-on-force engagements
against an OPFOR with vastly superior numbers in the southern and central corridors.
After four days, the task forces switch assignments. The remaining six
training days of the rotation are spent with both task forces combining to
engage the OPFOR.
The OPFOR is a formidable opponent. Soviet attack doctrine,
though rigid, does provide commanders with two or three options in any given
situation. Detailed knowledge of the terrain, of the OP-FOR Commander's
options, and of how he uses them allows the OP FOR to bedevil the BLUFOR.
On the battlefield, virtually any tactic is legal. On one
occasion, an OPFOR Scout team in a BRDM sneaked into a BLUFOR convoy at night.
About the time that the BLUFOR discovered what was going on, the Scout team
(members of which had dismounted, except for the driver) launched a surprise
attack on the BLUFOR tactical operations center.
The live-fire range consists of more than 1,000
solar-powered, computer-controlled targets. The targets, sited in open pits,
mount frontal or lateral silhouettes of Soviet equipment. They pop up in sequence
to simulate the movement of the Motorized Rifle Regiment. Tank gunners get a
chance to use their thermal sights, as heat collectors are built into the
The targets can also "shoot back" through the use
of Hoffman charges that produce a flash and smoke similar to the firing of the
main tank gun. Other targets really do shoot back. Styrofoam GTR-18 Smokey
SAMs—or, in the words of the troops, "Nerf Rockets"—are actually
fired up and in the direction of the BLUFOR vehicles to simulate the Soviet
AT-3 "Sagger" antitank missile.
The deployed Air Force units also make use of the live-fire
range. In fact, many of the east coast fighter units expend a large part of
their yearly allocation of live ordnance during Air Warrior training. The crews
launch 2.75-inch rockets and AGM-65 Maverick missiles, using both
electro-optical and imaging-infrared seekers. They also get to drop both Mk.82
(500-pound) and Mk.84 (2,000-pound) bombs. A-b pilots routinely fire their
GAU-81A 30-mm cannon and often destroy two or three targets per rotation.
Even so, the land battle is the NTC's stock-in-trade. Six
basic engagement scenarios are conducted: movement to contact, hasty attack,
deliberate attack, defend in sector, defend from battle position, and meeting
engagement. Force ratios between the OPFOR and the BLUFOR imitate, in numbers
and types of equipment, what one might expect to see in a European conflict.
Battles tend to flow from one day to the next. After the
battle in which the 2d Armored was defeated, for instance, the OPFOR stopped,
regrouped, moved to another part of the central corridor, and dug in to defend
its position. The 2d Armored, bolstered by a second task force that had just
completed live-fire training, staged a massive counterattack two days later.
When change of mission was called nearly five hours after that battle began,
the BLUFOR was only about 3,000 yards from its objective.
In joint Air Force/Army AirLand Battle doctrine, one
cardinal tenet is that the Air Force must support the Army. That task gets
harder to accomplish as the battle progresses. The speed at which events move
in these battles points up the need for the airborne FAC. "There is great
value in having that guy up there," says Lt. Col. John Higgins, the Director
of Operations for the 27th
TASS, an OV-10 unit based at George. "He can see how
the battle is going, and he can react to what he sees."
The highly dangerous battlefield of today has pushed the
slow and somewhat vulnerable OV-10 and its crews into the secondary role of communications
relay or airborne command post. The Bronco can still do the job in a
lower-threat area The 27th TASS plays in every other rotation and is frequently
called on to clear the fighters in during airborne live-fire operations.
The heavily armored A-10 has now been pressed into the role
of fast FAC. "The OA-10s operate the same way we do," notes Colonel
Higgins. "They are faster, better armored, and have a bit more maneuverability,
and they are a little better suited for self-defense." The only difference
between an OA-10 and an A-10 is in their employment. A-10s fly into combat
fully loaded. OA- 10s are armed only with white phosphorous target-marking
smoke rockets and a 30-mm gun.
Safety regulations rob the "air war" over Fort
Irwin of a bit of realism. But the tradeoff is fair. Aircraft have to perform
"dry CAS," that is, without armament, for the obvious reason that it
is dangerous to drop bombs. Also, unlike in war, no aircraft are allowed to
fly below 300 feet, and no helicopter can fly above 200 feet. A major task of
the Ravens is to resolve conflicting demands for the airspace over the battle.
Sets the Stage"
"Without their 'eyes,' the OP-FOR is just as blind as
the BLUFOR, and they'll do dumb things," says Capt. Gary Cleland, a former
OC who now works in the administrative section at Fort Irwin.
In the darkness before the OPFOR's regimental attack on the
2d Armored, the latest intelligence reports were read under the eerie, luminescent
glow of chemical light-sticks. A key scout had been "killed" at about
0100 hours, and the OPFOR did not know the location of a particular BLUFOR element.
That element, it turned out, had moved to a strategic location, and the dug-in
M2, along with two concealed Bradleys and an M1, took out a sizable portion of
the OPFOR as it came through.
"Intelligence sets the stage," says Capt. Greg
Stanley, an Army ground Liaison officer permanently assigned to 4443d TTS at
George. Captain Stanley briefs both Blue Air and OPFOR Air pilots, one group at
a time with the other side's maps concealed. By using the same map that Army
forces use and by studying a three-dimensional model board, pilots get a good
mental picture of what they will likely find in battle. Captain Stanley and
the Air Force intelligence staff also gets reports during the course of a
battle to update later flights.
The Army's firing of artillery and launching of battlefield
missiles are simulated. Fire-support teams simulate artillery by driving their
Hummers to the spot where shells would have fallen had they been fired; once
there, the teams drop flash charges to show the results of the barrage.
Small flash charges at the rear of the two main antitank
missiles in use, the FGM-77 Dragon and the BGM-71 TOW, and of the FIM-92
Stinger antiaircraft missile, simulate the blowback the missileer would
experience. Main tank-gun firings are simulated by Hoffman charges, and the
rapid rate of fire on the Bradley's 25-mm Bushmaster chain gun is simulated by
a strobe light.
The realism continues well after the battle.
"Casualties" are given cards that describe their "wounds,"
and the medics have to treat them accordingly. Some "wounds" must be
treated within a certain length of time or the soldier will "die."
Curiously, the most common wound in one recent battle was getting shot in the
Another set of cards that is handed out describes what
"maintenance" actions must be taken. Tank mechanics have to go to
their supply area and get the "part" needed to fix the problem. The
Army has charts that detail how long a repair is supposed to take, and the
tank or vehicle is out of action for at least that length of time. A
"disabled" vehicle can only be "towed" (driven behind) a
vehicle that is capable of towing it. For example, a Hummer can't be used to
"tow" an M1 tank.
The pace of planning and fighting the battles takes a toll
on BLUFOR commanders. Many times, brigade commanders have had to order their
subordinates to get some sleep. That's how realistic the training gets.
The Ultimate Classroom
Though fighting the battles is a valuable learning tool, the
keys to effective training at the NTC are the mechanical and human debriefing
The traditional "I-shot-you-first-no-you-didn't"
argument during training battles is resolved by the use of the Loral MILES
(Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) equipment. MILES transmitters,
attached to every rifle, machine gun, and missile in use at NTC, emit
invisible, eye-safe pulses of laser radiation to simulate live rounds. Each
MILES set has its own code, arranged in a hierarchy, so a rifle can
"kill," say, an infantryman, but not an M2. A 102-mm main tank gun,
on the other hand, is effective against anything.
Receivers are attached to a band wrapped around the helmet
and on a vest the soldiers must wear at all times. When hit, the receivers
sound a strident tone that can only be turned off with a key. Once
"keyed," the soldier is out of the battle.
On vehicles, receivers are attached to exposed areas and
vulnerable points. The equipment calculates "near misses,"
"hits," and "kills" by taking distance and firing angle
into account. Results are announced by a bright, flashing, amber light on top
of the vehicle.
MILES data and real-time position data on every vehicle on
the range are fed back to the Operations Center (or, as the troops call it,
"the Star Wars complex"), where they are displayed on terminals and
recorded. Ten to fifteen monitors are needed to keep tabs on each task force.
At the end of the battle, the system can print a complete, chronological,
shot-by-shot record of the action, as well as a list of other significant
Atop Tiefort and Granite Mountains, the NTC has installed
permanent TV cameras, which tape every battle. Five mobile TV trucks are
placed in strategic locations to capture the battle during the fighting.
Technicians in the Operations Center also monitor and record transmissions
from eighty of the ninety available radio nets, including secure ones. All
data from all of the battles are assembled into a take-home package the units
can study at their home post.
The human debriefing system is nearly as elaborate as the
mechanical one. After a battle, both the OPFOR and the BLUFOR commanders hold
sit-down, no-holds barred After-Action Reviews (AARs) with their subordinates.
First, intelligence gives a full report on the other side's
battle plan. Then all the company commanders, including those of support
forces, such as the engineers, talk about what they think they did right, what they
did wrong, and how they can improve. The senior commanders and OCs then meet
with their opposite numbers and repeat the process. A final AAR is held at
the end of the rotation with all of the players, including the Air Force, present.
At George, the aircrews have their own AARs, get briefed by
Captain Stanley, and talk by phone to the Ravens to get an evaluation of how
they did. Because there is virtually no MILES equipment for the aircraft, the
Ravens play a key role for the pilots. The aircraft OCs determine which
aircraft were in a position to get shot down, which ones got shot down, and how
effective their bomb runs were. The crews are not always perfect, but they
gain knowledge with every sortie.
At the NTC, there are many different levels of learning.
From the screech of MILES gear in his ears, the infantryman learns that he can
be killed if he sticks his head out of his foxhole at the wrong time. The Army
lieutenant who will one day be a general sees the ability of Air Force pilots
and aircraft to lend him support, and the pilots get to see firsthand how
important their help is to the ground forces.
Photos by Guy Aceto,
Air Force Magazine Art Director
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