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Range Support: "We don't play well with others"

  • Published
  • By By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: The 1st Special Operations Support Squadron Range Support flight is dedicated to providing Air Force Special Operations Command, the 1st Special Operations Wing, joint and coalition units with realistic training scenarios in preparation for real world challenges. The flight is comprised of four departments: opposition forces, assault zones, maritime training, and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This is part two of a four-part series highlighting each of those divisions.

Armed with an M-16 rifle, half a dozen ground-burst simulators and a caseload of M-18 smoke grenades, Mathew Comeau, 1st Special Operations Support Squadron Range Support flight opposition forces member, looked like he was going to a war zone or coming right out of an action movie. In one of the pockets on his Vietnam War-era jungle fatigues, he carried a radio-control panel linked to an air-burst device and potential booby traps strategically placed throughout the urban environment.

After loading the ammunition into his weapon, he pressed the play button on his portable music device, adjusted his sunglasses and smiled.

"It's time to go to work," he said as he raised his rifle into the air and pulled the trigger three times.

Despite his formidable-looking arsenal, Mr. Comeau's bullets were blanks, and he wasn't heading into combat. And although he had a soundtrack playing in his ears, he wasn't acting for a role in a film either. But his actions--shooting each burst of rifle-fire or setting off another ear-splitting explosion--were the closest to real combat some Airmen may have seen this side of a deployment or outside a cinema.

With those three shots, Mr. Comeau kicked off the next phase of combat survival training at an undisclosed location in the Eglin Range May 13.

His objective: to make the next eight hours as unbearable as possible for the Airmen going through the course. Throughout the night, he and fellow OPFOR members detonated blasts in a simulated urban environment and later pursued teams undertaking a 3.4-kilometer hike in the woods.

Just as their name effectively states their purpose, OPFOR's motto, "We don't play well with others," and the skull and crossbones on their logo properly underscore their attitude toward each tasking.

"We try to replicate here what Airmen who are deployed downrange are seeing now," said Jeff Morrison, 1st SOSS Range Support flight OPFOR team chief. "We represent the threat to those on the ground and in the air, and we bring more realism to the training."

With assets including all-terrain vehicles, an armory of firepower and a vast array of pyrotechnics, OPFOR provides support capabilities to 1st Special Operations Wing aircraft and ground assets, and, when available, other AFSOC, Air Force and joint partners who request them. Depending on the needs of each assignment, the department can stage target acquisition devices, combat search and rescue assets, armed escort and reconnaissance, high value target pursuit and rotary or fixed wing infiltration/exfiltration. They can even stage anti-aircraft weapon simulation to better accustom aircrew to the potential dangers of being shot down.

While the combat survival training course is conducted by Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape instructors, the presence of OPFOR can add unpredictability and risk to any training scenario the way a classroom lesson or slideshow presentation may not fully convey.

"From a SERE standpoint, OPFOR gives us the ability to have the most realistic training we can out here," said one SERE instructor. "Our program is superior to similar programs, because other programs do not have this range or the OPFOR team. It's a nice relationship we have with OPFOR toward making the best training possible."

More important than simply playing an adversary, OPFOR members act as a safety net, placing the well-being of the students, no matter the severity of the scenario, above everything they do. While in the role of enemy stalker, OPFOR members will often offer corrections to Airmen who make flawed decisions, such as being too loud in the field, which could lead to severe consequences.

"We remind them to cover their tracks and not walk too close to the road because that's how we're able to find them," said Charles Stewart, 1st SOSS Range Support flight OPFOR member. "You can never take the easy way."

Like many of the Range Support flight members, OPFOR is made up of former military personnel like Tactical Air Control Party instructors and combat controllers. Any advice they give and the concern they show for the students is therefore rooted in the lessons each of the members learned from their own experience.

As this exercise came to a close, many of the SERE students agreed the added menace of being shot at and chased by Mr. Stewart and Mr. Comeau made the exercise on the range much more than just another day in the woods. But as intense as it was, it was only a small representation of what OPFOR can provide to Range Support clientele.

And for OPFOR members like Mr. Morrison, they say it's the best way to continue to feel connected to the ongoing Air Force mission.

"It's like we're still in the fight," he said. "We've already been through it at some point in our careers. So now we can concentrate on doing this for the benefit of the Airmen today."