The Opposing Forces in JWC-directed Exercises: The Realistic Challenge

By Colonel Peter Teeuw, Netherlands Army, Head of the OPFOR Branch, Joint Warfare Centre


The Opposing Forces (OPFOR) Branch at the Joint Warfare Centre has matured rapidly in the five years since its formation and is now an integral part of the combined effort to bring NATO exercises to life, simulating a credible, potent and challenging adversary to best enable the training audiences to meet their training needs.

When you type OPFOR into Google, some of the first search results are for example, “OPFOR makes the difference” and “a strong OPFOR makes a strong army”. These statements can be considered correct and are most likely based on experiences from the U.S. Army’s OPFOR units. Here at the Joint Warfare Centre (JWC) we have our very own OPFOR unit, which is valued for the realism it adds to the Centre’s complex computer-assisted command post exercises (CAX/CPX).

NATO’s OPFOR Concept is Born

The NATO Strategic Concept of 2010 highlighted NATO’s three essential core tasks, collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security, as the bedrock of Euro-Atlantic security. Based on the evolving set of challenges to the security of NATO’s territory and populations, the JWC adapted its exercise focus from expeditionary operations to increased preparedness. For the JWC this meant that the concept of high-intensity warfare had to be implemented into NATO’s command post exercises, and, subsequently, a simulated adversary was needed to portray a threat and/or enemy, replicating the most likely and credible threat. Thus, the idea of NATO’s OPFOR was born.

The first exercise in which the JWC used the concept of an OPFOR was STEADFAST JUNCTURE 2012. The small group of OPFOR officers came from the Content Branch staff. OPFOR’s lead planner at the JWC was Squadron Leader Colin MacPherson. At that time, there was neither an official description of the role, nor guidance or defined experience for working with OPFOR in NATO. MacPherson was responsible for developing the JWC’s working definition that is still relevant today:

“OPFOR is the intellectual application of coherent military and political activity designed to create a realistic, dynamic, and challenging opposing force to enable the NATO Force Commander to meet the agreed training objectives in order to demonstrate competence and confidence to undertake the role of the NATO Command Structure and NATO Force Structure deployed operational headquarters. OPFOR is a key element of the comprehensive approach to training and is also an integral part of scenario development.”

By mid-2014, it became clear that a more structured organization element was needed to satisfy the growing need for the OPFOR input to fulfil NATO’s most demanding training requirements.

In the ideal training and exercise environment, OPFOR should simulate all aspects
but allied and host nation forces that are being trained.

The Way Ahead

Defining OPFOR continued through 2014 and 2015 with the first official Chief OPFOR being appointed to lead the simulated adversary during the command post exercise portion of TRIDENT JUNCTURE 2015. The OPFOR team comprised staff from a variety of JWC branches for the duration of the exercise. However, the JWC was still relying on external support from the Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) and Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) to ensure OPFOR’s relevance and required staffing. The first exercise scenarios in which JWC OPFOR was played out were developed mostly like an extended MEL/MIL inject.

As already mentioned, the OPFOR Branch was officially set up in April 2017, making it today the second-youngest branch at the JWC after the Wargaming Branch. Initially an ad hoc unit made up of officers from all JWC branches and supported by other units. From setting conditions in order to enable the training audience to analyse OPFOR correctly during the planning phase of an exercise, to using all instruments of power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) during the execution, today’s OPFOR Branch is fully involved in all exercise phases and supports the Scenario Branch and the Content Branch, together with the CAX Support Branch and the Media Simulation team.

The JWC’s OPFOR Branch has personnel originating from nine NATO nations, including Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Türkiye, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Furthermore, the branch is substantially augmented during Phase IIIB executions, often tripling its numbers with augmentees.

In the ideal training and exercise environment, OPFOR should simulate all aspects but allied and host nation forces that are being trained. Simulating all instruments of power that an adversary could potentially use is quite ambitious for a newly established branch. In order to achieve this, it is essential that the JWC OPFOR Branch collaborates with other allied and national units and works closely with all other JWC branches. Only then are we able to bring new ideas and perspectives to the table.

Moreover, and in order to fulfil the complex requirements of this unit, the desired experience and background of each OPFOR officer must be clearly defined in order to create a realistic simulated adversary. Although the Centre’s first Chief OPFOR’s definition is still valid, we have, after continued development of the OPFOR concept, realized the key importance of the media environment during exercises. One thing is clear, however: Without a professional OPFOR unit, it will be difficult to simulate and create realistic representations of the real world in the JWC-directed exercises.