Looking back at the OPFORs

In the early 1990s, the US Army released a set of documents describing the “capabilities-based OPFOR” (Opposing Force), a stand-in enemy force that could be used in training exercises. The documents describe the organization and tactics of both a “Heavy” and “Light” OPFOR nation.

As reference tools, they remain extremely valuable. While obviously dated given their age, listing the basic organization, formation, and tactics of conventional militarily units from top to bottom is extremely helpful for understanding the process of mechanized war. While the OPFORs are obviously based on a Soviet system, Western-based ones are not so completely different that the documents lose all their value. (Often stereotyped as inflexible, Soviet doctrine focused primarily on focusing the flexibility at a different level.)

In the decade of peace between the fall of the USSR and 9/11, there was uncertainty as to what the army would-do. This uncertainty (deliberately, to allow many training situations as possible) shows in the organization of the two OPFORs. The “Heavy OPFOR” is a highly thinly-veiled stand-in for Russia-its units are the most Soviet, and its equipment charts list material found in no other country at the time of writing. The “Light OPFOR” is more reminiscent of (former) Soviet client states given second-line gear, and to potential opponents that remained for the US to fight.

The Light OPFOR’s manual shows the trend towards unconventional war well underway. While its unconventional actions go under the Cold War heading of “People’s War”, the use of asymmetric tactics against a superior adversary that its leadership knows it has no chance against in a straight-up fight are covered. One part of it-of scattered and bypassed soldiers in the regular army turning to unconventional warfare, came to pass in the Iraq War, although due to the circumstances of the conflict rather than by Saddam’s choice.

However, it is not a nation-building manual and focuses purely on the battlefield aspects of unconventional tactics. This is not surprising when one knows that is intended for short-term exercises.

I may be overthinking the OPFORs, putting too much value into understanding something aimed at providing a “heel” (to use the pro-wrestling term for an antagonist) for exercises. But the OPFOR pamphlets are readable and educational nonetheless. Probably the most “useful” are the organizational ones (if one looks at them with the knowledge that even the best-maintained force will never have its exact on-paper strength in the field) and the lower-level “tactical” ones, both heavy and light. But even the less “realistic” ones have much value.