Army Trainers to Become Fighters in Iraq
For years, The Box has been a stage for the Army’s elite “opposition force” Ã¢€” soldiers expert at assuming the roles of enemy fighters, be they the Taliban or Iraqi insurgents. Their mission is to toughen new soldiers with elaborate simulations Ã¢€” staging sniper fire, riots, suicide car bombings and potentially dangerous culture clashes.
Staging such scenes has long been the work of the fabled 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, or Black Horse Regiment. But starting next month, the 3,500-member unit will begin shipping out to Iraq from the Ft. Irwin National Training Center, near Barstow.
Deployments are nothing new in the Army, of course, but there is a special sense of urgency about dispatching the Black Horse to tackle situations that it has trained roughly 500,000 soldiers to handle since 1994. Now the bombs and bullets they encounter will be all too real.
“No one ever thought the Black Horse would be taken out of the National Training Center; they are just too valuable here,” said Maj. John Clearwater. “But the Army is stretched too thin, and Iraq is a big mission.”
Phil Carter has a reaction similar to the one I had when this was first floated a few months ago:
Deploying the OPFOR is like eating your seed corn. This unit is responsible for training other units and raising their level of expertise and combat readiness. The 11th ACR is being replaced by a National Guard unit. That’s like replacing the Dodgers with a high school baseball team. Sure, they can both play baseball and wear the uniform Ã¢€” but one is a whole lot more proficient and experienced at its job. The OPFOR has a reputation as a tough enemy, and that’s a good thing because it forces units training at the NTC to become better themselves. By replacing this unit with National Guard troops, the Army has hurt its ability to produce good units for Iraq in the future. Suffice to say, National Guard and active units that go through Fort Irwin aren’t going to get the same tough experience they would have with the Blackhorse regiment as OPFOR Ã¢€” and that means they’ll be less ready for combat when they get to Iraq. This is a desperation measure, and I think the Army will come to regret it.
On reflection, though, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. For one thing, the need for constant rotations through NTC is less obvious in a wartime Army. It made sense in the 1980s, when most of our senior leadership–let alone their troops– had never been to war. Now, most of our soldiers are battle hardened. Furthermore, it’s not tank-on-tank battles that we’re fighting in Iraq but rather counter-insurgency. And, for that matter, it makes little sense to keep one of our most elite units out of harm’s way in an era when we’re sending National Guard units off to a second combat tour.
The thing that doesn’t make much sense to me, however, is replacing the Black Horse team with Guardsmen. Why not backfill them with a unit recently rotated back from the combat zone? They could incorporate the lessens learned from their warfighting experience into the scenarios they teach the units rotating through and, at the same time, be guaranteed several months of stability in their work and family routine.