Top 5 Lessons in DATEing: An OPFOR Platoon Commander’s PerspectiveBy Isabella Baldwin July 21, 2019
In May and June this year, I had the unique privilege of acting as an opposing force (OPFOR) platoon commander for the Tactical Effects Simulation (TES) phase of Exercise Prairie Storm, the British Army’s major armoured exercise held at the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada.
BATUS is equipped with in excess of 1000 vehicles including a full complement of Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles allowing the exercising troops to fight a near peer OPFOR combined arms battlegroup.
I am currently on exchange with G Coy, 7 RIFLES - a Reserve Battalion based around London and the south of England, made up of roughly 500 part-time Riflemen. We were able to field a composite platoon made up of Riflemen and Lance Corporals from various companies around the battalion.
I was attached to the Delta Dogs - D Coy, 5 RIFLES, commanding a platoon of Riflemen acting predominantly as dismounts operating out of troop carrying vehicles (TCV’s) and Warriors.
As a light-role platoon commander, I learned a number of important lessons in tactics which I would not have had the advantage of learning another way. It was my first time working with armoured infantry and I had the added gift of shadowing an armoured infantry platoon commander.
Playing OPFOR gives you a unique perspective an insight into the efficiency of the tactics and procedures that are employed by the British Army - which are not at all dissimilar to our own. As OPFOR, we had some interesting advantages including:
- Higher degrees of flexibility allowing us to take more risks, including dispersing our forces in ways we wouldn’t as blue forces (BLUFOR - the term for friendly forces on an exercise) .
- A disregard for the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and the use of artillery regardless of the risk of collateral damage.
- The ability to be sneaky and a bit cheeky (which one of our lance corporals took advantage of during an urban defence to attach himself to a BLUFOR section, catching them unawares and wreaking havoc).
Overall, this exercise is a hugely successful example of regular and reservist integration and a great example of how reservists can be used to effectively bolster numbers and contribute to operations.
Top 5 Lessons learned:
Lesson 1: In an armoured battle, deadly Anti Armour (AARMD) dismounts get ignored.
On our first day we were dispersed in a defensive position as the Officer Commanding's (OC’s) “stop gap” between two of his Warrior call signs. When the BLUFOR arrived, we managed to destroy two Warriors and one Challenger with our Next Generation light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAWs) after which our sharpshooter made short work of nine dismounts. The BLUFOR were much more focused on the armoured battle, leaving us free to destroy everything in our range before being ordered to withdraw having suffered zero casualties.
Later, during the “Battle of Bahramtepe” (a small village in Suffield purpose-built for urban training) the battlegroup’s javelin teams were responsible for the devastation of the BLUFOR’s Challenger tanks, leaving one left alive out of eighteen, before any dismounts ever set foot in the village.
I don't think anyone expected our small force to have much of an effect in an armoured battle. In a battlespace dominated by high value targets (HVT's), our "puny" dismounts presented a low psychological threat despite the fact we were able to wreak destruction uncontested. We were either unnoticed in the first place or outright ignored by BLUFOR vehicle commanders who had bigger fish to fry.
I would be very interested to experiment further with this in future combined arms exercises and suggest it might be a better use (in certain circumstances) of the dismounts who would otherwise be rattling around in the back of an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) while the battle rages around them.
Lesson 2: Blank firing exercises don’t prepare soldiers for employing their small arms effectively.
On our second day, our call sign was forced to dismount after encountering a Challenger en-route to the airfield we were meant to be securing as part of a company attack.
This led to a short battle where we destroyed one Challenger and four Warriors with NLAWs, leaving a platoon’s worth of disoriented dismounts, eleven of whom were picked off by our sharpshooter, to clear through our location after moving across 200m of open ground. We were eventually killed off, but at a very high cost.
One BLUFOR soldier expressed astonishment that most of our call sign was still alive. However, these soldiers simply weren’t shooting accurately enough to kill us while firing moving … and vice versa. The only person having an effect was our sharpshooter who was both stationary and an exceptional marksman.
The TES is very effective at demonstrating how deadly our small arms can be, but also how tiny a bullet really is and useless if it’s fired wildly at the empty space next to your target. One of the benefits of TES is that it can detect near misses and tell when you’re being suppressed – which we weren’t.
It is my sincerest belief that our soldiers spend far too much time on blank firing exercises where an arbitrary amount of bangs are sent down range before DS decide the enemy has been killed. I am not arguing that blank firing exercises aren’t an important training tool to aid in fine tuning formations and the mechanics of the attack – but anyone who has observed soldiers in training would have noted a tendency in trainees to just go through the motions of looking down the scope, without bothering to actually aim and shoot.
This means that unless soldiers have been on TES exercises (and, of course, combat deployments), they aren’t necessarily in the habit of sending down well-aimed shots while firing and moving. This is a very difficult skill, requiring the ability to shoot straight and quickly while your heart is thumping, sweat is pouring into your eyes and some bastard is shooting back at you.
Either our riflemen need to be better shots while firing and moving (highlighting the value of TES exercises and battalion combat shooting concentrations), or they need to send even more rounds down range to suppress. In that particular battle, a solid gunner on an light support weapon (LSW)** would have done a better job of keeping our heads down leaving the riflemen to clear through much more quickly and effectively.
**It’s worth noting that most light-role Rifle battalions in the British army have dispensed with LSW’s or machine guns organic to a Rifles platoon, preferring specialised machine gun platoons as part of a company where sections can be detached where necessary. The merits of keeping machine guns in a standard infantry platoon is a debate unto itself.
Lesson 3: A good sharpshooter is a massive force multiplier.
As mentioned above, our sharpshooter, on loan to us from D Coy, accounted for the bulk of our dismounted kills. For commanders, I recommend prioritising the placement of your sharpshooter and building him solid defences in his primary and alternate locations with whatever time you have until the enemy arrives.
This isn’t at the expense of your remaining Riflemen, rather it gives you insurance that the bulk of dismounts coming for you are killed before they ever reach the rest of your soldiers.
Lesson 4: The best way to integrate a platoon of Reservists is to disperse individual Riflemen into the regular platoons.
I am sincerely grateful to the OC and the CSM of D Coy, 5 RIFLES, for ensuring our reserve soldiers were welcomed and taken on by the Riflemen of D Coy. I was impressed by the willingness of the soldiers in D Coy to absorb veritable strangers and treat them like their own. They, in turn, were pleased with the enthusiasm and work ethic of our own riflemen who were very keen to be there.
Integration was accomplished by dispersing the reservists as much as possible into the Warriors and sending regular riflemen into the TCV’s. We wasted no time in breaking down the reserve platoon and sending them off the moment the Warriors rolled into the leaguer. Any delay would have been pointless and counter-productive.
The lesson for commanders who have a contingent of reservists is to make sure they integrate these riflemen as soon as possible and treat them the same – trust them with the same tasking and be assured they have no skill discrepancies.
To aid in the integration, our TCV callsign was lent a highly experienced JNCO from D Coy, 5 RIFLES, for the duration of the TES phase. He possessed a level of experience in working with armoured vehicles and anti-armour weapons that was not present in our reserve platoon.
In addition, our riflemen were encouraged to buy and wear D Coy flashes as honorary “Dogs” for the exercise. This small gesture worked wonders in building pride, unit identity and acceptance.
Lesson 5: The DATE tactic of hunter-killer teams is golden if you have a small force against an armoured threat.
Hunter-killer teams are used in Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) doctrine primarily as anti-armour groups, capable of moving independently and discreetly across a battlefield under fairly loose mission command and lots of initiative.
At times I only had a group of 16 to command and dispersing them into hunter-killer teams of two to three men made them deadlier than they would have been if left in traditional eight-man sections.
This makes them more vulnerable to attack, but this risk is mitigated by their dispersal and mobility. To employ this tactic effectively, your riflemen need to be excellent at employing their weapons at maximum range, trusted to positively identify enemy vehicles by day and night and have solid actions on and RV locations for when things inevitably go belly up.
Overall, I strongly recommend all reservists to participate in a combined arms exercise if the opportunity arises in the future. My experience working with the British Army has taught me that the robustness of our ARES training is second-to-none and our reservists are capable of augmenting regular units with ease.
Playing OPFOR was highly educational as well as being enormous fun. For future reserve platoon commanders acting as both OPFOR and BLUFOR, I recommend brushing up on your DATE doctrine, especially the chapters on battle drills and hunter-killer teams.
I am sincerely grateful to OC D Coy, 5 RIFLES, Major Kempley Buchan-Smith, for hosting our platoon, and my own chain of command at Darwin Squadron, NORFORCE, for the professional development opportunity.