May 25, 2004

Army plans to send OPFOR troops to Iraq

By Dave Moniz and John Diamond
USA Today

The Army, pressing to meet the need for combat troops in Iraq, is making contingency plans to deploy an elite unit whose mission is to play the enemy in rigorous field exercises. It is the latest sign of the Army’s severe personnel crunch.

The 2,500-member unit called “OPFOR,” or opposition force, trains Army armored units in maneuvers at Fort Irwin, Calif., a sprawling base in the Mojave Desert just south of Death Valley where exercises are intended to simulate real combat.

Ali Bettencourt, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Irwin has not yet received orders to Iraq but is among those units being looked at.

“The OPFOR is among some of the best trained units we have in the Army and they are a deployable unit,” Bettencourt said.

Army officials briefed Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., whose district abuts Fort Irwin, and made clear the decision to send the OPFOR to Iraq is a virtual certainty, according to Jim Specht, a spokesman for Lewis. The unresolved issues are precisely when the unit will deploy and where in Iraq it will go. The Army is also considering leaving behind a nucleus of OPFOR to prepare whatever unit comes in to substitute as the enemy in upcoming exercises. Lewis was concerned the deployment would close the base but was assured by the Army that military field exercises will continue.

The deployment decision, Specht said, “will be made sooner rather than later,” and is driven by two factors: OPFOR’s ability to handle urban and desert combat, especially against insurgents, and what Specht said is the need “to give somebody else a break for a while” among the units that have had lengthy deployments in Iraq.

Maj. Chris Belcher, a Fort Irwin spokesman, declined to comment on the unit’s deployment plans, but said since it has been assigned to Fort Irwin, the unit has never been sent to combat. Its potential call-up highlights the strains on the 480,000-member Army, which has the bulk of the 138,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.

“The thought that OPFOR is now being thrown into the mix in Iraq is deeply shocking because it absolutely shows where we are now,” said retired Army Col. Kenneth Allard, an author and lecturer on military history and strategy. “We’ve always managed to maintain the basic integrity of the training base. That is the seed corn of the Army.”

There have been increasing signs that the Pentagon is finding it hard to meet the demand for fresh troops in Iraq. Pentagon planners recently decided to keep at least 135,000 U.S. troops there into next year to counter the stubborn insurgency. The Pentagon had hoped to cut U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 105,000 this summer. In another unexpected move to meet the need for more troops, military officials announced this month that they are sending a brigade of troops from South Korea to Iraq.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has warned of tougher fighting ahead. Gen. John Abizaid, overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has said the war in Iraq could require even more U.S. troops than 138,000 now there.

As OPFOR members learned they could receive deployment orders to Iraq, rumors swirled in Army circles that Fort Irwin would close until the unit returns home. Instead, if OPFOR is deployed, Army plans call for tapping National Guard and Reserve units to serve as the enemy force in the desert war games, according to Specht. These units, however, would represent a far less formidable opponent in war games, Allard said, lowering the quality of training.

Fort Irwin is one of the Army’s largest bases, covering 1,000 square miles of the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Calif. The Army rotates about 10 armored brigades of between 3,000 and 5,000 troops each through the base each year to test their mettle against a highly trained force that simulates enemy threats. Few Army units are able to defeat the OPFOR, and lessons learned in the exercises are designed to teach commanders how to react to guerrilla attacks and night fighting.

Beginning in the early 1980s, when OPFOR was established, the joke in the Army was that Fort Irwin boasted the world’s most capable Soviet motorized regiment, more capable, even, than any regiment in the actual Red Army. Allard called Fort Irwin “the Army’s ‘Top Gun’ school for tanks,” referring to the well-known Navy school for fighter pilots. As the Iraq conflict has evolved, OPFOR began including exercises with mock suicide-bombing attacks, out-of-control mobs and difficult negotiations with local “Iraqi” power brokers.

Until now, OPFOR has been considered off limits for deployment to foreign wars. The Army’s philosophy was, “the more you train in peace, the less you bleed in war,” Allard said.

The increase in violence in Iraq has forced the Pentagon to sustain a larger land force in Iraq than planned and for a longer — at this point, indefinite — period.

After meeting the need for troop rotations out of Iraq for rest and refurbishment, the demands of Army missions in Afghanistan, South Korea, Bosnia and elsewhere, and the imperative to hold at least some forces in reserve for sudden emergencies, the Army is essentially using every available soldier to meet the demands of the mission in Iraq. This has led to concerns that the demands of the Iraq mission are stretching the Army to the breaking point.

“We are in a period of great strategic vulnerability,” retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said. If current trends continue, he said, “the U.S. Army will start coming apart next year.”