OPFOR Perspective

Posted By: Jonathan Niemerg Professional Content,

 OPFOR Perspective

By: MAJ Jonathan Niemerg

In 2015 I was the Battalion Fire Support Officer (FSO) for 1-509th PIR, which is the opposing force (OPFOR) for the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). During my initial counseling, the battalion commander informed me that he was giving me all the responsibility to plan OPFOR fires, including how we employ our mortars, attack aviation, attached batteries, and conduct targeting. This was immensely empowering because our success (or failure) in employing fires was truly on me. However, this was also daunting because I had no officers or NCOs to assist me in planning fires. This meant I had to do all that work myself, but it also meant I would not have to deal with the diffusion of responsibility common among large organizations.For my first rotation, I took this responsibility seriously and went to great lengths to ensure the plan I created was complete and doctrinally correct. This included hours of military decision-making process (MDMP) and making detailed FSTs/FATs, FSCMs, schedule of fires, overlays, and ensuring that our unit conducted targeting that maximized the use of Fires. So, it was a great surprise to me that my plan was utter garbage and ineffective when we finally implemented it. At the time, I did not understand that struggling with your first JRTC rotation is common for OPFOR, just like many leaders in Rotation Training Units (RTU) at JRTC. However, the opportunity I had that RTU did not have was the ability to try it again, which I did over nine more rotations. Over these rotations, I learned many valuable lessons, but the most important among them was how planning is about the process and not the plan and the importance of balancing mission requirements against risk to force. These lessons changed me as a Field Artilleryman, and I still use them daily even though it’s been over seven years.

It’s about the Process

The first lesson I learned as the Fires OPFOR planner is the importance of emphasizing the planning process and not necessarily the plan or products. After the ineffectiveness of my first rotation, I reflected greatly on my shortcomings. I mean, the battalion commander had trusted me to provide fires. Even though I had tried my best, I still felt I had let him and the unit down. During my reflections, I realized that my performance was because I had planned in a bubble. I had focused on the science of fire support and forgot about the art and human dimension of planning. Even though I had planned alongside the other staff and sat through the same planning sessions, I did not routinely interact with them to gain their perspective on the unfolding scenario. Additionally, I had made an overly detailed and inflexible plan and the products I created were highly directive and restrictive rather than enabling and supportive. Due to this disjointed and strict plan, the fire support plan immediately fell apart when we executed our operation. This is because the staff, commanders, and the company FSOs did not understand the intent behind my planning and did not have buy-in. Ultimately, I focused on creating the products and not the process. I failed to realize that all plans tend to fall apart after you cross the line of departure, and it’s not necessarily the plan that makes a unit successful but the resourcing and understanding that the plan generates. For example, it doesn’t matter if you can select the perfect position area for artillery (PAA) because the weather may go bad and the PAA may be untenable; likewise obsessing over the exact location over a target can be overly directive because the enemy may not go the way you expected. However, if your subordinates understand your intent and you have generally placed them in the right location with the right people and equipment then they can refine the situation to get steel-on-steel and achieve the intended effect. After realizing this, I made a pact with myself to no longer plan in a bubble and I would simplify my planning. In this way, I only created control measures or requirements that needed to exist to prevent fratricide, enable maneuver, or make operations more permissive. I also focused on resourcing the fight rather than directing what exactly must happen with each asset. Finally, I deliberately increased my interactions with the other leaders in creating my plan. Some examples of this include: 

  • Integrating fires with the battalion operations officer (S3) and ensuring I didn’t oversell our capabilities. 

  • Conducting targeting in conjunction with the battalion intelligence officer (S2) to the point that we were essentially the same cell. For example, I involved myself with collection to assist in increasing the accuracy of locations, and it got to the point where I often debriefed intel human intelligence (HUMINT) assets. 

  • Assisting the engineer officer in planning obstacles to maximize effects and our engagement areas. A good fire support plan factors the obstacles and terrain just as much as the maneuver you support. 

  • Validating our supply rates with the battalion sustainment officer (S4) based on current throughput to ensure the ammo arrived when I needed it and adjusting attack guidance when supply rates changed. 

  • Coordinating with the battalion signal officer (S6) to ensure the fires architecture was given just as much emphasis and redundancy as the command architecture. 

  • Discussing the upcoming operation with company FSOs and commanders to understand their perspective and generate buy-on for the battalion fire support tasks (FSTs). 

  • Emphasizing the importance of rehearsals within the battalion. I made companies and observers brief the intent behind their targets in their own words rather than regurgitating products. We also went over contingencies, risk to the plan, and used the combined arms rehearsal as well as the fires technical and tactical rehearsal to validate and assess our plan rather than as a check in the block. In that regard, if you thought something wouldn’t work, then leadership expected you to bring it up. 

  • Integrating all the warfighting functions (WFF) during MDMP by having everyone gather around a physical map rather than slides. This was immensely helpful during friendly and enemy course of action (COA) planning when we would use an extra overlay to conceptually brainstorm and mark up before making the actual COA overlay. 

Through these changes, it became apparent that the real art behind fire support and planning is about effective cross-communication and bringing the team together rather than making products. Don’t get me wrong, there still needs to be a plan, and products need to exist. However, if you know that the plan can and will fall apart after crossing the line of departure (LD) then your priority is to make sure it is flexible and that those executing have what they need. Additionally, creating a solid conceptual plan that everyone understands is just as important as the details. When you fail to explain your concepts, leaders cannot understand how to execute or refine the details. Once you realize the importance of incorporating leaders, peers, and your subordinates into your fire support plan and getting their buy-in, you start making truly good plans. 

Balancing the Mission against Risk to Force 

The biggest lesson I learned as OPFOR was the importance of balancing deep and close mission requirements against risk to force/ culmination. Survival is a great motivator, even in a training scenario. However, I was surprised that during my first few rotations in 2015, RTU still had a counterinsurgency mindset despite the rotation being in a decisive action fight. In that regard, they initially failed to change their tactics techniques and procedures (TTPs) and defaulted to not using fire support coordination measure (FSCMS) or displacing from their fire bases to shoot counterfire and FSTs. They would even continue to do this after OPFOR indirect fire (IDF) massed on their position. OPFOR did not have it easy, though. We only had about a 

battery’s worth of sections that were not organic to the battalion and augmented each rotation. We also did not originally have a firefinder radar, which meant we could afford to get in prolonged counterfire fights with the RTU FA battalion and had to use our HUMINT to locate IDF and radar assets. These disadvantages led OPFOR to develop survivability tactics so that the indirect fire systems could survive long enough to counterfire RTU IDF and complete their fire support tasks. Some of these tactics include displacement after each firing mission, strict target selection standards/unmasking criteria, PAA management to prevent occupation patterns, and dispersion of the batteries into individual sections. OPFOR Fires also placed substantial emphasis on TTPs that reduced the signatures of the battery through the use of hide sites when not firing, created numerous decoys, incorporated cache sites for ammunition, had trucks turn off their engines when not in use, and reduced radio and cell phone signatures to an absolute minimum. The intent was for no one to detect our signature until we fired the IDF, and then immediately displace. Additionally, if we could not get the firing assets out in time, we focused on withdrawing the personnel and returning for the equipment later. These learned tactics, some of which may seem obvious now, were not immediately apparent and became incredibly successful due to trial and error but were only possible due to the climate of trust the battalion commander instilled within 1-509th. Due to our success, we were able to target RTU’s IDF and counterfire capability, which pressured them to change their TTPs to compete. This was especially challenging as OPFOR because as we developed tactics, we also shared them during the final after actions review (AAR) at the request of the senior fires observer coach-trainer (OCT). Often the RTU would then give these new tactics to upcoming RTUs who developed counters to the new OPFOR tactics, which created further demand for new OPFOR TTPs and fostered an escalating cycle of evolving tactics. These escalating tactics were further amplified once JRTC restructured OPFOR fires to be near-peer, and they allocated OPFOR a firefinder radar and more IDF assets. With the new radar we incorporated conservative radar queueing schedules to enable its survivability, massed fires at a stifling scale, and even figured out ways to bait IDF and aviation to unmask. Figure 1 is a snapshot of this fires tactical mindset when I left OPFOR in 2016. 

Fundamental to these evolving tactics was the balance of fires requirements against survivability. Through lots of blood, sweat, and tears, we learned that no ideal survivability criteria existed for the batteries. Instead, we needed them to be capable of conducting any of our TTPs, which created training requirements with the augmented battery before each rotation. We also created information requirements about the threats that I had the Fires and Intelligence cells continuously try to answer and refine. Key to this was not just the location of the RTU Fires Assets but control measures and their effectiveness. I found it oddly easy to figure out when a unit pushed their CFL too far forward. It usually resulted in a slower rate of clearance and counterfire for the RTU, which allowed OPFOR IDF systems to push towards the forward line of own troops (FLOT) inside their coordinated fire line (CFL) and increase our survivability due to the RTU no longer having permissive counterfire missions in that area. We could then use this increased survivability to mass fire missions against identified targets and displace before deconfliction would occur. Understanding this and the other threats to my assets also allowed me to continuously adjust our TTPs against requirements. Depending on the exact mission requirements would dictate whether we occupied PAAs as sections, platoons, or batteries. They also influenced the time and effort we put into survivability and signature reduction. For example, once I neutralized the RTU counterfire capability, I often didn’t displace the firing platoons so they could process more fire missions and mass more IDF on the RTU. Figure 2 is a conceptual representation of the constant balance I made when determining our survivability criteria. 

My experience as OPFOR taught me the critical importance of focusing on the planning process, not the plan. It also helped me realize the importance of balancing mission requirements against the risk to force when employing fires. These lessons may be from over seven years, but I feel they still are just as relevant then as they are today. 

Since being the OPFOR BN FSO for JRTC, I have also been a BN FSO and BTRY CDR for 3/10 MTN, BDE LNO to the DIV Strike Cell in Iraq, BTRY CDR for A/1-30th FA (428th FAB), FACCC instructor, and I am currently completing AOC(CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. - MAJ Joe Niemerg