“Created to be the meanest, toughest foe troops will ever face”, Opfor is the “enemy” which the US military trains against to hone their skills. Picture: Mike Knaak/AP.
In a vast, isolated stretch of Californian desert, the enemy waits.

A brigade of 2500 soldiers. Always up against bigger armies. With more advanced tech, more brutal firepower.

But the desert brigade almost always wins. Because?

They learn fastest, on the run. That’s their killer weapon.

The brigade is the US Army’s own mock “Opposing Force” - Opfor.

“Created to be the meanest, toughest foe troops will ever face”, Opfor is the “enemy” which the US military trains against to hone their skills.

“Every month, a fresh brigade of more than 4000 soldiers takes on this standing enemy, which may play the role of a hostile army or insurgents, paramilitary units or terrorists. The two sides battle on foot, in tanks and in helicopters, dodging artillery, land mines and chemical weapons,” say Marilyn Darling, Charles Parry and Joseph Moore in the Harvard Business Review.

The US Army are masters of “Learning in thick of it” - in the midst of battle. And it’s the under-resourced underdogs, Opfor, who show the rest of their military brothers and sisters how it’s done.

Their core technique is “After-Action Review” (AAR)”. Their rigorous habit ensures all their failures don’t end up repeating themselves.

AARs are not just post-mortems, static reports. AAR is not a noun, but a verb.

“Opfor treats every action as an opportunity for learning” what to do. And, more important, how to correct thinking.

“Absolute candour is critical senior leaders are the first to acknowledge their own mistakes.

“By creating feedback cycles between thinking and action, AARs build an organisation’s ability to succeed in a variety of conditions.”

And here’s the killer point:

“In a fast-changing environment, the capacity to learn lessons is more valuable than any individual lesson learnt.”

Even from situations for which they did not train, or had not even imagined.

In South Africa, the warnings have been clear for years.

In this column, in June 2016 we quoted Mohamed El-Erian, chairperson of Barack Obama’s Global Development Council.

After Brexit, and six months before the looming US presidential election, he warned: “People have lost trust in the establishment, in the business elite, in the politicians, in the expert opinion - and for good reason.”

And in that vacuum, “strange things start to happen”.

Two years later, South Africa teeters on the edge of a populist precipice.

Staggering around with a vicious hangover after a decade of gluttonous overindulgence at the state trough.

Scary new territory. A dangerous vacuum, indeed.

The teams learning fastest, smartest, on the run, will win.

* Murray Williams’ “Shooting from the Lip” column appears in the Cape Argus every Monday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus