Army Trainers to Become Fighters in Iraq

Army Trainers to Become Fighters in Iraq (LAT)

For years, The Box has been a stage for the Army’s elite “opposition force” — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    I was training at NTC in 2001. Some of the most valuable learning experiences were from simply getting your unit into the field, working and maneuvering together. I suppose it can be said that just being at NTC is good for a unit.

    Another large component of the training was the after action reviews (AARs)with your unit’s assigned observer. This encouraged troops to discuss what happened, why, and what could be done differently.

    Neither of these learning experiences are affected much by the OPFOR.

    Now there is also a new training opportunity: Iraq seems to be about as real-world as it gets. I believe much of the train-up for this mission is at JRTC, not NTC. It also seems highly likely that most units will rotate through Iraq or Afghanistan at some point.

  2. Paul says:

    It strikes me as beyond stupid and if we are this desperate, it might make me rethink how well Iraq is/is not going.


  3. LJD says:

    The 11th ACR was deployed in support of Desert Storm, along with tens of thousands of IRRs.

    The decision was neither stupid nor desperate at that time. The unit is a resource, available for call-up. The Army is juggling resources, to avoid the negative BS you hear on the news about troop rotations, extensions, stop loss, etc.

  4. Frank says:

    Do we know that the replacement guardsmen that will be doing the training are not “battlehardened”?

  5. Attila Girl says:

    Will the Black Horse guys be coming back at some point, and integrate their experiences in the Middle East into the training they give? In the long term, that might be a good thing.

  6. TM Lutas says:

    Opfor effectiveness needs to be measured intensively and we should constantly be striving to try new things to see how they will work out. If cultural, 4th generation warfare sensitivity is so important, how much will adding actual Iraqis to the Opfor improve results?

  7. Garry Owen says:

    Nope, not ‘eating seed corn’ at all.

    The OPFOR is *not* the trainers at NTC (or JRTC – the light training center at Ft. Polk or CMTC the euro-version of NTC). The real trainers are the Observer Controllers (OC’s) who watch, record, coach and teach. The OC’s run the After Action Reviews, and help the training unit do some discovery and self learning.

    Dont get me wrong – the 11th ACR is a tremendous organization and their tactical skill – the challenge they provide – is in large part responsible for the exceptional training performance of our Army.

    But the ‘enemy’ they portray is different today. With active combat in a stability kind of situation there is no need to ‘roll the regiment’ or put 500 combat vehicles assaulting thru US defenses, or to set up a Motorized Rifle Battalion defense, with rows of obstacles and heavy artillery. The OPFOR needed now is 15 guys with RPG’s in a convoy ambush, or 2 with an IED. Then a mortar hit-and-run during the night. We dont need an entire regiment with T-90’s and BMP-2’s to fight. So the deployment will not take the teeth out of the NTC.

    God Bless them – and may they all come home safe.

  8. Robert Martin says:

    The army is getting great “combat training” in Iraq daily. There is no need to rotate units into California to “train” against a heavy Soviet formation. In fact, the Blackhorse regiment itself needs to get training in the close quarters combat needed in future conflict.