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Boom Boom Goes the Tank: The Circle Trigons

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

By Colin Salt

One amusing-in-hindsight Cold War footnote and object of my fascination has been the Circle Trigon Aggressor Force, used by the U.S. Army for around thirty years. So-called “Opposing Forces/OPFOR” exercise enemies have been a strange interest to me. They provide a summary of doctrine in a fairly accessible (if still written in field manual-ese) format, and particularly with hindsight, it is very interesting to compare them to the opponent they’re simulating, to see how close they got.

Unlike the boring modern Krasnovians and Donovians, the Circle Trigons were weirder.

The Circle Trigon Aggressor background was made in a series of field manuals from 1947 to the 1970s, being formally abolished and replaced by an obvious Soviet stand-in in the 1977 edition of FM 30-102. The various editions of FM 30-102, Handbook on Aggressor Military Forces, served as the key source document on these ‘heels’ (professional wrestling term for a doomed-to-lose villain). The size and detail

of these varied considerably. The most notable of these are:

- FM 30-102 (1947). The first Aggressor manual and in many ways the most slapdash, this was not, like others would become, a stand-in for the USSR. The influence was definitely there, but in some areas (particularly echelons above division), its organization was less Soviet, and there were more than a few instances of the manual stating that it “follows American doctrine” in some areas. The 1950 edition and subsequent ones made them more Soviet.

- FM 30-102 (1955). The largest and most detailed of all the Circle Trigon manuals, it remains one of the best sources for a Western interpretation of Soviet-style doctrine of the time period, and much of it holds up.

- FM 30-102 (1960). Previous Circle Trigon manuals had used weird but slightly similar calibers of weapons to refer to an obvious stand-in for the Soviet equivalent (ie, 80 mm instead of 76mm). This standardized them on the real values of Soviet equipment.

- FM 30-102 (1973) The final (to my knowledge) Circle Trigon manual, it’s interesting to see how comparably outdated it was compared to the Soviet-style formations that fought in the Yom Kippur War that same year. It and the 1977 edition of FM 30-102 are night and day.

The most interesting thing about the Circle Trigon Aggressors is not their printed doctrine. It’s their worldbuilding.

First, their high-level rank structure was neither American nor pseudo-Soviet, but rather based on a system used by Spain, France, Italy, and several South American countries where it’s “General of Brigade/Division/Corps/Army” instead of the “Brigadier/Major/Lieutenant/General” or “Major/Lieutenant/Colonel/Army” structure. This caused a bit of an issue when the Soviets switched to a unit system of making multi-division formations “armies” instead of “corps”. When the increasingly Russified Trigons followed, they used the term “General of Army” for a three-star general and the clunky “General of Armies” for a four-star one.

The insignia of the Aggressors was also distinct, a mixture of limited resources and imagination. For the first edition, chevrons were merely flipped upside down. Every high rank used a mixture of major’s stars and cavalry branch twin-swords. The second edition used various combinations of bars. And then there were the classic “put a wooden comb on ordinary helmets” headgear they used.

But the craziest part is their backstory, especially the early backstory, where a cabal of “Circle Trigons”, including Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann (who was missing but not yet confirmed dead at this point), created a state that seized most of Western Europe and promptly proceeded to repeatedly invade the continental United States. They had a strange fixation on U.S Army training areas as objectives. I wonder why.

And, of course, they had Esperanto as their native language (at least in theory). My personal favorite detail is the pay scale and retirement benefits Circle Trigon soldiers of various ranks received.

In practice, the Aggressor system was highly criticized. One historian stated Aggressor exercises in practice “smacked a lot of cowboys and Indians, with very stupid, indolent Indians.” Another was even more scathing. “The end result of the program was predictable. The Aggressors were never employed in accordance with the goals established in the regulations. No one ever read the dreary volumes of Aggressor data dreamed up by the intelligence agencies, much less ever took the time to play the role as Aggressors. As a consequence, the Aggressors frequently fought like Americans, albeit dressed like Ming-the-Merciless, or worse yet, did not fight at all. The entire meaning of the word "Aggressor" began to connotate someone who did not fight; a simple target who lit fires at base camps to ensure that friendly patrols found them.”

(Army Rotary-Wing Aggressors: The Key to Counter Helicopter Training, pp. 132-33, Maj. Greg R. Hampton, 1990)

Thus the Circle Trigons were unceremoniously swept out as part of the post-Vietnam War reforms. But they live on as a strange historical footnote, and not just a military one. The Circle Trigons also stand as an interesting example of Esperanto in ‘action’.



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