#50 – Max planning will reduce operations to simplicity. Max repetition of tasks in training will ensure rapid response to unforeseen circumstances. Use immediate action drills.
Why I Had This Thought
When I first took over my platoon as a young Lieutenant I had a tendency to over complicate tactics. I think as a consequence of reading a lot of military history while I was growing up and then the military art courses that we were taught at West Point that I saw myself as a great tactician or future great general. It took me a while to realize that at the platoon and company level the tactics need to be relatively simple. Basically, you have a base of fire, a maneuver element, and a reserve. And that’s largely true whether you’re in the offense or the defense, because even in the defense local counterattacks by fire are a form of maneuver.
During my platoon leading time as a result of the various training exercises that we conducted and then our experience at Fort Irwin I realized that simplicity was the key, and moreover repetition of tactical tasks was the key to success. Do simple things, but do them very well. The other thing I learned is that when the situation goes in a direction you did not anticipate, well trained units that can execute simple tasks, rapidly and effectively, are able to regain the initiative, survive, and win the engagement.
What We Did in the Troop
Basically, a cavalry troop can be given one of four missions. They can have a reconnaissance mission, a security mission, an attack mission, or a defense. Reconnaissance is further subdivided into three types: route, area, and zone. For a cavalry troop that is part of a larger force, such as a battalion task force or a brigade, the most often used recon mission is zone reconnaissance. Second most often used is the route reconnaissance, and in my experience except during counterinsurgency operations the area reconnaissance is almost never used by a mounted force. Similarly, the security missions are subdivided into three types: screen, guard, and cover. For the defense company-level organization such as a cavalry troop will most often defend a battle position. Rarely is a company-level organization given an area or mobile defense mission. So, the tasks that our cavalry troop had to master basically were route and zone reconnaissance, screen and guard, defense of a battle position, and hasty attack.
The theme of this particular blog is really simplicity and part of simplicity at the company/troop level is in standardizing to the extent that you can the task organization. Within the cavalry troop we had scout sections, tank sections and mortar sections. Generally, we kept the mortars consolidated at the troop-level to provide general support to the troop. But one of the things that I’d learned as a lieutenant was that in general terms reconnaissance missions and security missions both use similar organizations. In order to provide a wide front for a screen or guard or a zone reconnaissance the troop generally broke down into small pieces. The smallest element was the scout section which in the 80s consisted of two tracks; one armed with a TOW, which we still used today, and the other armed with the DRAGON which has been replaced by the JAVELIN. The tanks were broken down into two sections of two tanks each in each platoon. We paired tanks and scouts together so the maneuver elements of the platoon generally were two sections of two scout vehicles and two tanks. The platoon leader then was actually maneuvering two sections of four vehicles each. And so across the troop we had six of those sections.
We could then execute all three of the reconnaissance missions (route, zone, area) and the security missions (screen, guard, cover) using the same organization across the troop. This simplified our operations and our training greatly, as it enabled us to train using these small sections and we focused much of our training on this sectional training. Our best opportunities for troop-level training were when we went out for an alert, or when we were doing our training in Maneuver Rights Areas. Maneuver Rights Areas were portions of Germany that had been set aside for military training, since the Kazernes (German word for posts) were relatively small and did not have training areas of their own. We might have one or two days a month that we could do troop-level training after an alert was called and we rolled out to our Maneuver Rights Areas. That one or two days of troop-level, or company-level, training a month is probably consistent with what company-level organizations have even today. But, it did give us an exercise opportunity for training our sections and platoons and how we commanded and controlled troop-level operations.
One good thing about training sections is that you only really need a very small opposing force element. This can be a fire team, or even just one tracked vehicle, or back then a jeep, today a HMMWV. All you really need is the threat signature to be able to train the section element.
In our case, since we were defending Germany, our most important missions were the security missions screen, guard, and cover. So, once a month we tried to put the troop out on a screen line or a cover mission and then exercised the sections. The platoon leaders would go forward and turn around and pretend to be the enemy using their M113 platoon command vehicle, and sometimes we’d use our troop headquarters elements, such as the Supply Sergeant and his clerk in their jeep, or even the First Sergeant in his Jeep. We only really needed about three or four teams of OPFOR to exercise the whole troop because each team could probe, then retreat, and then probe again somewhere else. Not only did this exercise the sections in their battle tasks, but through their reporting and actions on contact it enabled us to exercise the troop-level operations, which included calling for and coordinating indirect fire, reporting, maneuvering troop elements, etc.
Generally, our focus was on actions on contact. At the time the Army had just introduced the idea of training for the seven forms of contact (now I think there are eight). These included: direct fire, indirect fire, chemical, air, obstacles, electronic warfare and NBC. Even a small, one-vehicle OPFOR could engage the section that was being trained with many of these forms of contact, using direct fire (blank simulators), artillery simulators, smoke grenades, and even jamming by putting the radio on a single frequency and putting the microphone close to the speaker and keying it. This enabled us to train the sections in the basic forms of contact internal to the troop. Using the platoon leaders, First Sergeant, and myself, as the OPFOR had the advantage of providing for a ready-made critique and After Action Review. This was because the leaders themselves as the OPFOR were able to observe the sections response to these forms of contact. Usually in the one or two days of training that we had we were only able to exercise each form of contact once or twice, but since we were rolling out to an alert every month in the year, that meant that over time we were training each of those battle drills 15 to 20 times. This provided sufficient repetition to actually get good at those absolutely critical tasks.
What I Did Later in My Career
This thought of using simplified organizations, tasks, repetitive training, and battle drills was a staple throughout the rest of my career, and has consistently remained a priority for the Army at the small unit tactical level. Even at levels above the Troop, primarily at Battalion Task Force level, the principal still apply.
When I was a Major we left behind the defense of Europe when the Cold War ended and turned our attention to Iraq and more broadly CENTCOM after Saddam invaded Kuwait. At the battalion level we organized our four companies into combined arms teams, and then used the standardized formation we called the “Desert Diamond” which was a lead company, two flank companies, and a trail company with Battalion command element and mortars in the center and Battalion trains trailing by 5 km or so. We could maneuver the Desert Diamond in order to react to contact out of that diamond using standard operating procedures and Battalion Task Force-level battle drills. For example, the lead company almost always set a base of fire, the flank companies would maneuver to envelop the enemy and the trail company would be a reserve. The principals and SOPs applied whether we encountered the enemy head on, or from the flank, or in theory even if we were engaged from the rear. After months of repetitive training in the desert and the execution of Desert Storm, when we went to the National Training Center we employed the Desert Diamond. Of all the rotations that I ever did at the National Training Center, that one was the most successful in terms of being able to defeat the Opposing Force (OPFOR). In that rotation for two weeks every one of our battles was conducted as a series of out of the Desert Diamond.
When I went to Battalion Command, we spent most of the time deployed in the Balkans. There the mission changed from warfighting to peacekeeping, but the principles remained the same. If you are executing a peacekeeping mission, you spend a lot of time conducting patrols, checkpoints, and reacting to different forms of contact. Although it was peacekeeping we still had the potential for direct fire against us from snipers, so we had to be able to execute those battle drills. Also, at the time Yugoslavia was the most mined place on earth, so we had to be able to execute actions on contact with mines, and our platoons performed that task almost on a daily basis. There were new forms of contact, for example when a vehicle was approaching a checkpoint. Even though it was a civilian vehicle, in theory it could be full of soldiers, or contraband weapons, or other threats. Still another form of contact was that with groups of protesters, or rioters, who were often armed with sticks, bricks and stones, or other hand-held, non-military weapons. Our troopers had to be able to respond to this form of contact, protect themselves, and continue their peacekeeping mission. So, we had to develop new battle drills on how we performed new tasks, train in the field on those battle drills, and then execute them when confronted with those threats to the mission.
By the time I was a Colonel, Brigade Commander, and later Chief of Staff in Iraq the threat had again changed. Post-9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan there was a significant IED threat, indirect fire threats from mortars and rockets, and direct fire small arms threats. Again, the principles remain the same. We organized our patrols and convoys to be able to counter the most likely threat which was IEDs, but also to be able to react to the direct fire threats. The development of simple battle drills for reacting to, avoiding, or clearing IEDs was unfortunately done on the fly after the campaign had already started. But, small units developed those SOPs, and then trained repetitively on our Forward Operating Bases before sending out patrols and convoys. At the same time, in CONUS we developed the formal training processes, SOPs, and integration of new systems for use at home station in preparation for deployment. Again, the principles of this thought: simple plans, standardized organizations, effective battle drills, and repetitive training are the keys to what all small units ultimately have to achieve, so that they can make contact with the enemy, defeat that enemy, and then continue their mission.