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Together with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment OPFOR, the aircrews of B Company, 2916th Aviation Battalion provide the U.S. Army (and sometimes allied and other U.S. forces) with a credible enemy threat on the simulated battlegrounds of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin.
Providing American fighting forces with enemy-threat training is an important part of keeping them prepared for worldwide military operations. These challenging opposing forces help ensure a proper level of readiness for units in each branch of service.
For aviation units, the United States Navy and Air Force have aggressor fighter squadrons that fly enemy tactics to challenge their aircrews. The U.S. Armys aviation opposing-force units, meanwhile, replicate the capabilities of near-peer competitors. The idea with all these enemy units is to employ tactics representative of the potential threats the U.S. forces could face around the world.
Where It Takes Place
The National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin is one of the leading combined-arms training centers for the U.S. Army and joint and multinational formations. Located near Barstow in the Mojave desert of Southern California, the base offers about 1,000 square miles for combat training that enables the complexity of maneuver warfare across the full range of conflict for both ground and aviation forces. Each year, the U.S. Army rotates 10 brigade size units and their enablers through NTC for training. Naturally, enemy-threat and opposing-force training is a key component of these exercises.
The unit that provides helicopter enemy-threat training at Fort Irwin is B Company, 2916th Aviation Battalion. (Starting in 2011, B Company assumed the enemy-threat role from the NTCs Aviation Company, which also used to perform the support and air ambulance roles that have now been assumed by A Company and C Company, 2916th Aviation Battalion, respectively.) B Company flies the contemporary operating environment force, or COEFOR, mission, which was formerly known as OPFOR, or opposing force, and has also been historically referred to as Sokol (Russian for falcon or bird of prey). After operating the Bell JUH-1H Huey Hind (a UH-1H modified to represent a Russian Mil Mi-24 Hind) for more than 25 years, B Company now flies seven uniquely painted and equipped Eurocopter UH-72A Lakotas, using them to replicate foreign attack-helicopter doctrine and tactics, thereby providing a simulated attack-helicopter threat to the battlefield.
Our job is replicating the air threat in-theater, and possible hybrid threats, for tomorrows conflicts, explained Capt. Aaron J. Pluto, commander of B Company. With the end in sight for both Iraq and Afghanistan operations, we are looking to the future and what threats may be foreseeable. Highly motivated pilots, demanding training and continuous refinement of tactics make Sokol crews formidable adversaries for Army units training for the next generation of conflicts.
How It Began
To learn more about the history of the aviation side of the OPFOR/COEFOR mission, Vertical 911 sat down with a former U.S. Army pilot, retired chief warrant officer 4th class William Butts, who was one of the first section leaders during the development of the OPFOR mission. Butts recalled that the OPFOR aviation element was introduced at Fort Irwin in 1985, with the purpose of adding simulated Soviet Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters to the Soviet-like OPFOR ground forces already well-established at NTC.
Said Butts: In early 1985, two UH-1M Mike models were selected for the OPFOR aviation mission. It was quickly learned that they were not suitable for the rigors of the desert environment (performance concerns mostly). Soon after, four UH-1H models were identified, modified and painted with an authentic Soviet paint scheme. A composite nosepiece was attached to extend the aircraft silhouette (with the model later re-designated JUH-1H). It took some time, but several sets of Vietnam-era wing stores mounts were found and acquired. These wing mounts would hold laser-emitting equipment to simulate rocket and 30-millimeter gun engagements. The aircraft was affixed with the multiple-integrated laser engagement system/air [to] ground engagement system (MILES-AGES) sensors required for battlefield participation. So, like other battlefield participants, the Hinds would have the ability to kill and be killed.
He continued: Four Cobra pilots and four Huey pilots made up the initial OPFOR aviation element that would fly the Hinds in concert with the Soviet-like ground forces. . . . Before beginning operations, the pilots underwent training to familiarize them with Soviet attack-helicopter tactics. The training was conducted in Fort Irwin and Fort Hood, Texas. Periodically, the pilots would travel to Fort Hood to fly the Cobra simulator. It was felt that this simulator experience would be valuable to the Huey pilots, who were not familiar with attack-helicopter tactics and weapons engagement.
Butts concluded, This assignment was a rare opportunity to participate in providing U.S. ground combat soldiers [with] the training to confront and defeat a Soviet-like ground and air force in the most realistic environment possible.
For the next 26-plus years, OPFOR UH-1H and JUH-1H helicopters operated at NTC, before finally being retired in late December 2011 (see sidebar on p.39).
The Next Generation
The seven UH-72A Lakotas that fly the COEFOR/Sokol mission today carry on the proud tradition of the OPFOR Hueys. The most eye-catching feature of the Lakotas is their paint scheme: a special tan, off-yellow-and-green camouflage that resembles the Soviet desert camouflage scheme. Explained Capt. Pluto, Operationally, since we are representing the opposing force, the UH-72As unusual look and unique paint scheme gives our enemy the training effect of being stalked and engaged by a threat helicopter. This gives soldiers an opportunity to become aware of and prepare for enemy air threats, something that U.S. forces havent really been training for in the last decade.
The Sokol UH-72As are equipped with an EDM (electronic data manager) that gives crews situational awareness of other COEFOR air and ground assets, and a SMODIM (smart onboard data interface module) that allows NTC to track the progress and position of each enemy and friendly vehicle during the training scenarios. The helicopters are also equipped with MILES, which allows them to engage and be engaged by targets during training exercises. The MILES equipment consists of four sensors on the skids that can document every time the aircraft has been hit by enemy weapons (lasers). These sensors can be programmed to record a variety of weapon-type hits, including anything from rifle fire, to cannon fire, to shoulder-fired missile systems. When the enemy scores a hit, the rotating beacon on the helicopter will flash to notify everyone that the aircraft has been taken out of the fight.
Although the Sokol UH-72As could be used to replicate pretty much any rotary-wing threat profile, B Company has chosen to use the performance attributes of the Mi-24 and Mi-8/17 as the basis for their training, because of these models prevalence. Said Pluto, We cannot afford to focus our training on only one theater of operations. The attack-aviation threat we replicate is being developed and refined, but the Russian-built Mi-24 has been utilized around the world and continues to be a viable future threat.
Consequently, for the Mi-24 simulation, Sokol UH-72As have been given the ability to replicate four different weapons systems: anti-tank missiles, 2.75-inch rockets, 30-mm cannons and .50-caliber machine guns. Although these are American-specification weapons, they closely imitate their threat equivalents for simulation purposes.
While the Lakotas shoot-back ability is currently limited, there are plans to procure nose-mounted, gimbaled laser turrets that will allow the Sokol UH-72As to better replicate the capabilities of the Mi-24D and other current and future attack helicopters. Said Pluto: Quite a few countries have attack-helicopter variants, and of course there are the Russian Mi-28 Havoc and [Kamov] Ka-50 Hokum, which might end up being sold around the world. We have a responsibility to understand our oppositions rotary-wing threats and have the ability to replicate them as closely as possible.
Performance-wise, Pluto said the UH-72A Lakotas rigid rotor system gives the aircraft excellent controllability and input response. So far, the new model is serving B Company well in the COEFOR role and is proving to be a very reliable platform. After retiring the Huey, he said, we are adapting to the UH-72A, which has its own unique strengths and challenges. It is perfectly capable of doing the mission, and is proving to be able to do what we ask of it.
The aircraft is comfortable and relatively quiet, is responsive and maneuverable, has a small footprint making it good for inserting recon teams [and has] excellent cockpit displays and communication capability. Its a terrific IFR [instrument flight rules] platform and performs well when we fly under night vision goggles [NVGs]. Although, as with any military helicopter, we would always like more power; so far, we find the UH-72A a good compromise between power and economy of operation. In nearly a year of operation, the UH-72As are performing to our expectations in the NTCs harsh, high-desert environment. As we become more familiar with the UH-72A, we expect only good things to come from the integration of this new airframe.
Flying the Mission
B Company has a total of eight flight crews for its seven aircraft. A crew chief is carried onboard for most operational flights, in addition to the two pilots. All crewmembers are night-vision qualified and more night missions are being asked of the Sokol crews during each training rotation. As we become more comfortable, we will be doing more NVG operations, said Pluto, with progression to more complicated night mission profiles.
As far as personnel recruitment, B Company accepts pilots from all backgrounds in Army aviation. Said Pluto: Our pilots come from the Kiowa Warrior [OH-58], Chinook [CH-47], Black Hawk [UH-60] and Apache [AH-64] communities, but we specifically try to recruit aviators from the OH-58 community because of the similarity in mission and airframe. We like to pair a Kiowa pilot with a lift [Black Hawk or Chinook] pilot whenever possible, to allow cross-training and depth of experience [that] these aviators can share with each other. This combination of experience and thought process gives us an excellent insight into various aspects of U.S. Army helicopter operations. Our aviators, many with recent combat experience, bring their unique communitys operational mindset to B Company, and it helps us progress with the development of COEFOR tactics and techniques.
At NTC, crews are familiar with hot, high and heavy operations. The major weather challenges are extreme heat, high winds and turbulence. We can have months of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees [Fahrenheit/38 degrees Celsius] and this affects helicopter and crew performance. We might have to lower the Lakotas fuel load on the hottest days to maintain the performance of the aircraft. High winds and turbulence are also normal environmental conditions that challenge aviators at NTC.
With the transition to the UH-72A, Sokol crews have had to spend time understanding the capabilities and limitations of the new helicopter and its mission equipment. In fact, during the first quarter of 2012, B Company completed an in-depth training and development phase that focused on crew training and the identification of strengths and weaknesses in tactics and techniques in replicating the COEFOR threat.
B Company also continues to develop its tactics on the whole, to be able to provide the most realistic enemy-threat simulation it can during both day and night operations. Explained Pluto: We are looking at all potential aviation threats and refining and redeveloping our tactical profiles from the previous Sokol profile, but we are definitely looking to the future and are preparing ourselves to replicate as many threats as possible. This is a challenging mission, as the next air threat America will face is unknown. However, the more we refine the mission the better our crews will become at providing realistic training. We are determined to become the best enemy possible, and Im confident our crews are up to the task. The realistic training that we can provide for the soldiers here at NTC will pay big dividends for our nations security in the future.
Pluto then told us that B Company has a larger and broader mission profile than just the attack role: We will also provide support for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment [ACR] that represents the OPFOR ground units. We also support security and reconnaissance operations in support of the 11th ACR as they replicate a threat division tactical group. We will also provide the 11th ACR with air insertions of regular- and special-purpose forces, to extend the depth of the battlefield. We will insert these small teams during both day and night operations around the mock battlefield, to conduct reconnaissance, raids and employ long-range indirect fires.
During Vertical 911s visit, Col. Robert Brown, chief of staff at NTC, took a moment to share his thoughts on the advantages of having committed opposing-force aircraft at the base: The contributions of B Company (Sokol) and its predecessor unit to the National Training Center over the past 25 years have directly contributed in creating a unique, complex training environment. No other environment like the NTC exists that stresses our brigade combat teams, joint and multinational partners, and their leaders under tough, realistic and challenging combat-like conditions. Our ability to exploit the full range of ground, air and electromagnetic spectrum enables this replication of combat operations. This training has paid enormous dividends for our soldiers operating on battlefields from Desert Storm to operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. We expect the very best of our men and women in uniform, and to ensure their success we have created the best training environment to hone their warrior skills here at the NTC.
For over quarter of a century, the Sokol OPFOR and now Sokol COEFOR mission has provided U.S. Army fighting units with an understanding of how an enemy attack-helicopter force would be brought to bear upon them. This has given them the ability to counter this threat and understand how rotorcraft can affect their maneuvers and operations on the battlefield. As such, the Sokol crews have provided the Army with a realistic threat-helicopter representation that has ensured units training at NTC leave as a much-better prepared and lethal fighting force.
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