Small Wars Journal

Train to Outthink, Outmaneuver, and Outfight the Enemy

Sun, 01/23/2022 - 10:01pm


Train to Outthink, Outmaneuver, and Outfight the Enemy

By Hyun Jun Chang



  • A near-peer adversary with capabilities similar to or better than ours.
  • An enemy who wants to win as bad as we do, with an untethered opposing, hostile and independent will.
  • An enemy that learns and adapts to how we fight.
  • An enemy that needs to be “hunted” through reconnaissance.
  • An enemy that cannot be predicted.

Above are some descriptions of the enemy we are likely to face in future conflicts. But do we train to fight and win against such an enemy? No. Instead, in most of our training, we fight an opposing force (OPFOR), a role player who is often scripted and told to act a certain way in order to (IOT) enable the training unit (TU) to achieve a training objective. Our missions are usually terrain focused – to seize key terrain – with an enemy that is either on the objective or inbound. But terrain doesn’t move or think. Is there a better way to train? Yes. Free-play force-on-force (FoF) exercise, where each side is precisely the enemy described above. It is the superior way to train, and how we should train every time. It trains a unit to “outthink, outmaneuver, and outfight the enemy,” instead of “pursuing perfection in method rather than obtaining decisive results.”1, 2

Free-Play Training Is Not Something New

Free-play exercise isn’t a novel concept. William Lind describes in his book 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, that free-play is the “best training” and that it “must constitute the bulk of the curriculum” for officers in preparation for war.3 He also says that “most training should be FoF free play because only free play approximates the disorder of combat.”4

Free-play training isn’t just a concept that resides in books, and it isn’t new. In 1941, in preparation for World War II, the U.S. Army conducted the Louisiana Maneuvers, FoF exercises that involved around 400,000 Soldiers over 3,400 square miles. And some of the officers present later became very influential generals such as Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Walter Krueger, Samuel E. Anderson, Lesley J. McNair, Joseph Stilwell, and George Patton.5

So free-play isn’t something new, and we have trained this way before. But why did we stop? Contemplating why we don’t train this way anymore isn’t the purpose of this article. Such an endeavor would be too extensive and would only lead to a depressing and disappointing conclusion of how not training that way anymore doesn’t make sense.

Instead, this article aims to show you how effective free-play training is, based on an actual free-play FoF exercise, called Rifle Focus, conducted in 2021 by a Stryker Infantry Battalion task force (TF). From the planning phase of the exercise, it was bluntly obvious how the concept of free-play exercise became so foreign to the U.S. Army – when seeking support, it was met with higher institutional reluctance and skepticism. Despite the lack of external support, the TF commander, LTC Craig A. Broyles, had the vision and determination to provide Soldiers with the best training possible. He enabled the TF staff to plan, prepare, and facilitate a true free-play FoF exercise, where company teams entered an arena to fight one another in a competitive environment. What was the result? According to CPT Trey A. Botten, a company commander who participated in the exercise, it “was the most effective training ever experienced.”

Everyone should train like this, but no one does. So we will tell you how to do it.

Photo 1

Figure 1. Commander's Intent for Rifle Focus

What Was Rifle Focus?

Rifle Focus was a 15-day free-play FoF exercise conducted in 2021 by TF DARK RIFLES from the Washington Army National Guard (WAARNG) during its deployment to Poland, as the framework nation for NATO Battle Group Poland (BG-P). Why the name “Focus”? We focused on training BG-P’s mission essential tasks (METs): expeditionary deployment operations, such as Alert/Marshal/Deploy (A/M/D), area security and defense, and attack. Special focus was on interoperability, “our ability to integrate and operate in a NATO environment alongside our allies.”6

Each of the three rifle companies formed a company team, and they fought one another in a competitive environment. Company teams included all elements of the BG-P, to include MGS and ATGM Strykers, a field artillery platoon, Romanian Gepard short range air defense platoon, Croatian multiple rocket launchers, U.S. combat engineers, and Polish combat engineers. Our allies were eager to be a part of this competitive FoF exercise.

The 15 days of exercise consisted of three 5-day rotations, where the first 2-days of each rotation was reception, staging, onward-movement, and integration (RSOI), and later 3-days of “being in the box.” Each company team was in the box for all three rotations, two as a TU, and one as an observer, controller and trainer (OC/T) team.

Photo 2

Figure 2. 15-Day Exercise Schedule

Each 3-day rotation “in the box” consisted of three battle periods (BPs): (1) A/M/D and receipt of the mission; (2) meeting engagement; and (3) defend/attack to destroy. In the first BP, each company team received an alert from the BG-P HQ to deploy into the tactical assembly area (TAA), upload their ammunition and establish a defensive posture. Then they received their order to destroy the enemy. Once each team received the mission, the second BP began. Each team began the TLP process, and executed their mission to destroy the other team. Once the meeting engagement was over, the last BP began when both teams received a fragmentary order (FRAGORD) to either defend in sector to destroy the enemy, or to attack to destroy the enemy.

Since there was no BLUFOR or OPFOR in the exercise, each team was assigned as either Gold or Black Team. IOT distinguish different teams, each vehicle was marked with gold or black flags on the antenna, and each Soldier wore a gold or black armband.

Each team’s leadership from squad leader and above had an OC/T assigned. IOT minimize artificiality and number of OC/T vehicles trailing TUs, only six HMMWVs were used for each OC/T team, and all OC/Ts for squad leaders rode inside the Strykers of the squad they coached.


Photo 3

Figure 3. TF Dark Rifles Training Planning Guidance

Photo 4

Figure 4. Rifle Focus Task Organization

Training without MILES

            Rifle Focus was conducted without the use of multiple integrated laser engagement systems (MILES). With the experience of being the first battalion TF sized element to be the primary training audience at the National Training Center (NTC), TF DARK RIFLES knew how much logistical support is needed to integrate MILES into FoF exercise of such echelon. Also, given the heavily vegetated terrain where the BG-P was training to fight in, the lasers of MILES simply wouldn’t be effective. So instead, BG-P developed extensive exercise standard operating procedures (EXSOP) which outlined how OC/Ts were to adjudicate casualties and effects during the exercise.

In the end, exercising the adjudication process was valuable training on its own. IOT adjudicate accurately, each OC/T needed to understand the effect of each weapon system to include all indirect fire (IDF) assets, and how cover, distance, and an element’s posture effects the damage done to it.

Rifle Focus Was Based on Four Ideas

            Rifle Focus was based on four ideas from the following books and article: (1) competition drives excellence, from the book Top Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman; (2) champions are built by consistently training at the threshold of failure, from the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; (3) only free-play training brings in the central element of War: free creative will of the opponent, from the book Maneuver warfare: An anthology by Richard D. Hooker; and (4) you learn the most when you teach others and IOT teach, you must know what you’re talking about, from the TIME magazine article “The Protégé Effect” by Annie Murphy Paul.7, 8, 9, 10

1. Competition Drives Excellence11

            Rifle Focus was designed to bring out the competitiveness in every company commander and soldier. Months prior, we announced that at the end of the 15-day capstone exercise, there could be only one winner. They were to conduct training to accomplish the mission of Rifle Focus, to find and destroy the opponent. This allowed the subordinate units to prioritize training to discover their own ways to outthink, outmaneuver, and outfight the enemy.12 Each commander truly assessed and trained the real needs of their element, instead of checking the boxes on a checklist of things to do.

Photo 5

Figure 5. BEAR Company's training plan leading to Rifle Focus

During training meetings, each commander briefed their training plan to prepare their units to be more efficient at fighting the opponent. The entire TF, to include sustainers and staff, were intent on meeting the objectives of the capstone training event, either to fight to destroy the enemy or to enable company teams to do so. The focus was on “obtaining decisive results,” not “perfection in method.”13

            The competitive environment not only created effective training plans, but created excitement and motivation among the formation. According to CPT Brandon G. Legg, the Commander of the field artillery battery, at the end of each rotation, his soldiers were: “discussing how the battle went, often leading to discussions about how one platoon or gun was faster than the others, and how many times one platoon was able to take out the other platoon.

Results, Not the Process

            Rifle Focus incentivized results, not the process. The winner of the 15-day exercise was determined based on who was the most efficient at destroying the enemy. The scoring system was developed to incentivize destroying the high payoff targets (HPTs) that will cripple the enemy, rather than just killing more troops/vehicles – Figure 4 is the scoring matrix. Once personnel/vehicle were killed, the regeneration process began, where personnel killed or vehicles destroyed had to conduct movement to the personnel holding areas (PHAs), and wait 4 hours until released back to the exercise.

Per Vehicle Destroyed

Per Person Killed

Bonus Points






Recon elements detects the other Team first




Team Leader


Excellence observed by TOP 5 (CDR, CSM, XO, S3, OPS SGM)


Gepard (ADA)


Squad Leader


INTEL Exploitation


CV / LHS / Wrecker




Trauma Intervention




Co or 1SG


Faster SP out of motor pool


Volcano / M777














Figure 6. Scoring Criteria for Rifle Focus

            During Rifle Focus, it didn’t matter if company teams artfully completed all the correct steps and processes. The only thing that mattered was if they could accomplish the mission to find and destroy the enemy. The company commanders and platoon leaders weren’t restrained to and graded on a checklist, such as all the correct elements of the TLP process. Instead, as soon as the commanders received the battalion order, they were free to immediately begin reconnaissance (or not, the choice was theirs) and develop and issue an order as extensive or bare as they felt would optimize their chance of winning combat.

2. Training at the Threshold of Failure14

            Rifle Focus was designed to train the companies at the threshold of failure, by creating a training environment they’ve never experienced before.15

First, all missions during the exercise were based on destroying the enemy. For the first time in their career, the company commanders were fighting a real peer-threat with the same capabilities as theirs, free thinking, and with an untethered opposing will. No one knew where the enemy would be or where the battle would occur. Each team had to “hunt” (outthink) the other team using reconnaissance.

Secondly, additional stress was added by giving company commanders troops and equipment in an amount they’ve never commanded before, increasing “the number of decisions [they] must make”.16  Each company team included its own MGS and ATGM Strykers, a field artillery platoon, Romanian Gepards short range air defense, Croatian multiple rocket launchers, a U.S. long-range surveillance (LRS) team, U.S. combat engineers, and Polish combat engineers, with total of approximately 40 vehicles and 200 Soldiers. IOT efficiently and effectively command his unit, each commander had to fully exercise mission command, and decide on their own how to do this – what extra responsibilities to entrust to the XO, 1SG, FSO, and other subordinate leaders, and how autonomous they made their attachments.

That meant each attachment leader had to recommend to the company commanders how best to utilize their capabilities and areas of expertise. An example of this was how to properly employ the RAAM/ADAM family of scatterable minefields, or FASCAM. The U.S. combat engineer squad leader attached to each company was required to utilize the 17-line scatterable minefield request (SCATMINREQ) for proper FASCAM authorization. This typically would be completed by the engineer PL/PSG in support of the maneuver commander or coordinated by the TF Engineer. Placing these tasks on the engineer squad leader challenged this leader to perform at a higher level of responsibility, and the maneuver commander in turn gained experience in how combat support can shape their scheme of maneuver. Through multiple repetitions of employing FASCAM over the course of the exercise, each echelon of leaders gained a better understanding of the planning and coordination necessary for enabler authorizations from higher headquarters.

Lastly, additional mental stress was imposed upon the commanders by constant pressure to provide reports to paint an accurate picture of the battlefield to the TF commander. By design, each team wasn’t the main effort in their battalion’s mission. That meant if they wanted to request battalion’s assets, such as UAV from the Polish unit that volunteered to join the exercise, or constructive close air support (CAS) from the joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs), each commander had to articulate to the TF commander through accurate reports why he should grant them additional assets in support of the battalion mission.

Staffing Two Battalions with One Battalion Staff

The idea of training at the threshold of failure was equally true for the staff. IOT make the exercise work, every staff section had to solve for “yes” with a great attitude, usually resorting to a new and creative idea that hadn’t been tried before. The exercise was planned using the joint exercise life cycle (JELC), and the staff officers were taught and coached by the TF commander about the process.


Photo 7

Figure 7. Rifle Focus JELC Timeline

During the planning and preparation processes, staff created two different battalion orders, two Road to War/WARNO/OPORD/FRAGORD briefs, and task organized to be able to battle track and support two teams. Sometimes a single person had to wear two hats, to be the S2, S4, or S6 for both Gold and Black team. Upon rigorous assessment by appointed safety officers, exercise map was created with BN checkpoints and phase lines, and the S2 created a world for company teams can fight in. To eliminate as much artificiality as possible, all boundaries and restricted areas had to make sense – labeled as the AO for adjacent units, enemy minefields, etc. Due to the safety measures and coordination in place, 15-day exercise was conducted without any serious injuries or accidents. There were real-life vehicle recovery situations, but they all added to the training value by providing opportunities for the utilization of all recovery assets/personnel, and the stress placed on the command teams in coordinating recovery during combat.

Facilitating the exercise required creativity, especially from the S6 section. They engineered the JBC-P system so each team could not see the other teams’ locations on their JBC-P. The TOC and TAC had to monitor and receive reports from both teams with one set of BN equipment. IOT make this happen, the S6 shop instrumentally used parts from the Command Post Platform vehicles to establish two separate command posts systems. They supported both TUs with one retrans team, as well as creating two communication plans. Despite all planning and preparation, once the exercise commenced, S6 had to adapt to unanticipated changes such as thick vegetation of the AO forcing retrans to collapse inwards to support the vastly limited range of VHF communications. When one TU’s communication plan was acquired by the other team, S6 had to quickly create another one (although the exercise director rewarded capturing intel by awarding points and allowing the capturing unit to exploit the other side’s communication card for several hours). Overall, the unpredictable nature of free-play FoF exercise created abundant opportunities for the staff to solve problems under pressure. 

3. Fighting a Free Thinking Enemy17

            Every effort was made to make this a true free-play exercise. Other than safety measures in place to ensure the exercise could be executed safely, everything was in play. Companies were given their constraints and restraints during the orders brief, and were allowed to use their creativity to find and destroy the enemy.

            Executing a true free-play exercise had many unique characteristics, one being TUs experiencing the difficulty of finding an intelligent, moving enemy that is trying to avoid detection in a massive, heavily forested training area. Since there was no OPFOR who was alerted of the approaching TU, sometimes TUs circled each other, or fought a ghost enemy they assessed to be at a certain area – which would be a realistic when fighting a real enemy. In such cases, the exercise director played a delicate role in keeping the momentum going. As an example, once TUs spent enough time being pressed by the TAC to determine the enemy’s location and intent, the TF Commander would occasionally inject enablers. The enablers provided intelligence to the TU with better reports of assessed enemy’s commander’s intent. Or, sometimes, the TF commander shifted the main effort to a TU and set a no later than time to attack across a phase line, forcing a decision in combat.

4. Teachers Learn the Most18

            Lastly, Rifle Focus was based on the idea that you learn the most when you teach others.19 The rotations were intentionally built to give every company an opportunity to become the OC/T.

            All leaders knew they had to train and coach by the rules, so leaders at all levels intently studied the EXSOP. And to everyone’s surprise, the idea that OC/Ts are hated proved untrue as all OC/Ts did their best to coach and facilitate the exercise, and the TUs cooperated, each knowing their turn to trade places was coming. Since everyone knew they had to be OC/Ts at some point, leaders showed respect and professionalism towards their peer OC/Ts.

            The effectiveness of OC/T teams was made possible by the 3-day OC/T academy conducted with a full participation of all team leaders and above. All leaders were on the same understanding that there may be a lot of friction points, but we’re going to figure it out. And this was required of all peer OC/Ts: to be a fair and impartial professional.

The Result

Rifle Focus accomplished precisely the training objectives of the exercise: to become better at outthinking, outmaneuvering, and outfighting the enemy. As the exercise unfolded, each company team learned to be better at incorporating fire and maneuver, using reconnaissance to find the enemy then using indirect fire assets to attack the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities. IOT accomplish this, company teams drastically increased their emphasis on finding the enemy. They fully utilized infantry to conduct reconnaissance missions and called for fire. During the exercise, more than 150 fire missions processed, and this also fully exercised the logistics assets by creating the need for LOGPACs and caches.

Company teams learned the importance of operating dismounted and conducting anti-armor ambushes. Dismounted ambushes abounded in later rotations, and were the primary way direct fire kills were achieved. In one of the rotations, a platoon sergeant from Cobra Company, SFC Schuyler D. Sampsonjackson, led his platoon dismounted through thick vegetation, found the enemy commander’s Stryker, destroyed it using AT-4 and Javelin fire, and then called for fire to mask his exfiltration out of the area – outthinking, outmaneuvering, and outfighting the enemy, beautifully employed.

The Rifle Focus was a true testimony of how free-play FoF exercise is a superior way to train. Every company team experienced exponential growth from their first rotation to the next. They weren’t afraid to learn from each other, taking what works and immediately implementing them to improve how they operate. One example is how one company team was able reduce their time to A/M/D from almost 4 hours down to 52 minutes, in just two days. That required meticulously fine-tuning how they drew all weapons from the arms room, completed communications check, and moved 40+ vehicles and 200+ soldiers out of the motor pool. That was a true testimony of how our formation is capable of figuring it out to win the race, to outmaneuver the enemy.

            The true value of Rifle Focus was the opportunity to genuinely assess our units. Each rotation was manifestation of how effective our past trainings were. After each rotation, each unit had internal after action reviews (AARs) at squad and platoon levels, and facilitated AAR at the company team level. During each AAR, the focus was on identifying what we’re good at, what we need to train at each echelon, and what it meant for our way forward, how we should drive our future training based on our self-evaluation. Leaders were focused on how to change the outcome, how to be better at outthinking, outmaneuvering, and outfighting the enemy. The focus was on making ourselves better as an organization, not the exercise.

The following is a testimony of CPT Trey A. Botten, the Commander of the Bear Company, the winning team of Rifle Focus 2021.

            Rifle Focus was different from other exercises simply because we had the opportunity to be creative. It was the first time in my military career when I was not limited to a lane, a scenario, or left and right limits. I had the opportunity to employ different forms of maneuver, at different periods of the battle, exploit when able, retrograde when required and was only limited by my imagination and combat power. It was a tremendous opportunity to test my strengths and limitation in task organization of enablers and I had the opportunity to think critically how my opponent would fight, then find a way to beat him.

This was the most effective training I have ever experienced and I am grateful my company had the opportunity to be a part of it. We gained a better understanding of terrain sense, separating the mundane from the important, building a common operating picture through reporting and mission command systems and fighting an opponent that wanted to win, just as much as we did. We also had the opportunity to employ decentralized methods to achieve my intent, due to limitations of operational timelines and changes of the battle period. This forced me to move away from the traditional TLP process and get back to 3-0 tactics in finding the enemy, identifying the opponent’s intent, developing and executing a course of action as opposed to going into the fight with a well refined, well-rehearsed plan. As a CO, I very much observed that I was the training audience and was tested in every capability- training at the threshold of failure. The competitive atmosphere encouraged us to take the training seriously and give every ounce of effort at every echelon to win. I did everything I could to determine the opponent’s course of action, develop a plan to beat him and then impose a creative will against him. It was awesome.


Contrary to all doubts, once the exercise commenced, the entire BG-P began operating like a single unit, engaging and utilizing every part of the machine. It required flexibility at all echelons, from the rifleman to staff, and all the way up to the TF Commander. Leaders at all levels learned to adapt, and figured it out to keep going and accomplish the mission.

Rifle Focus created precisely what William Lind described as the ideal training to produce adaptive leaders, placing leaders in “difficult, unexpected situations, then require them to make decisions and take action under pressure.”20 Above all, it created and engraved in future leaders a mental model of what effective training should look like: a free-play FoF exercise. Once you experience it, you won’t want to go back to STX lanes. Everyone should train like this.





  1. Headquarters, Department of the Army. ATP 3-21.8, Infantry Platoon and Squad. Washington, DC: 23 August 2016.
  2. Leonhard, R. R. (1994). The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and Airland Battle. Presidio.
  3. Lind, W. S., & Thiele, G. A. (2015). 4Th generation warfare handbook. Castalia House.
  4. Ibid., 75.
  5. Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 2). Louisiana Maneuvers. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:30, October 30, 2021, from
  6. Dark Rifle 6 Training Guidance, LTC Craig A. Broyles, 2021.
  7. Bronson, P., Merryman, A. (2014). Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. Twelve.
  8. Coyle D. (2020). The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Random House Business.
  9. Hooker, R. D. (1993). Maneuver warfare: An anthology. Presidio.
  10. Annie Murphy Paul. “The Protégé Effect.” Time. Last modified November 30, 2011.
  11. Bronson, P., Merryman, A. (2014). Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. Twelve.
  12. Infantry Platoon and Squad, ATP 3-21.8, 12 April 2016.
  13. Leonhard, R. R. (1994). The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and Airland Battle. Presidio.
  14. Coyle D. (2020). The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Random House Business.
  15. Ibid., 4.
  16. Headquarters, Department of the Army. ADP 5-0, The Operations Process. Washington, DC: 31 July 2019.
  17. Hooker, R. D. (1993). Maneuver warfare: An anthology. Presidio.
  18. Annie Murphy Paul. “The Protégé Effect.” Time. Last modified November 30, 2011.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Lind, W. S., & Thiele, G. A. (2015). 4Th generation warfare handbook. Castalia House.

About the Author(s)

1LT Hyun Jun Chang is currently serving as the Future Operations OIC in 3-161 Infantry Regiment, 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Washington Army National Guard. His previous assignments include rifle platoon leader and rifle company executive officer. He commissioned in 2017 through the University of Washington ROTC program.