#36 – Make FIST have target list and give to platoons. Use hasty bracket adjustment.
Why I Wrote This Thought
Maybe it was because my Dad was an artilleryman. Or, maybe it was because I was inspired by the week of field artillery training we had when I was a cadet at West Point. Regardless, I have always been drawn to the unique combination of military art and science that is indirect fire. That, and if you are armor, infantry, cavalry, engineer, signal, air defense, aviation or any other branch, it is artillery that is going to get you out of trouble when things are looking bad.
Indirect fire planning has two purposes. One is to make sure that you have the targets developed and that they have been coordinated with the guns and that observers, fire direction centers (FDC) and guns/mortars are all prepared to execute each target. But, there is another and perhaps more important purpose. And that purpose is to think your way through potential engagements, understanding how you will maneuver, fight and employ combined arms to accomplish the mission, defeat the enemy and protect the force. Fire planning is a key catalyst for thinking through the fight because it forces you to consider what you want to accomplish at that point in time and space, how fires will contribute to accomplishing that objective, and how fires will be integrated with the other warfighting functions.
Thus, each target must be considered and developed deliberately and completely.
What We Did in the Troop
Perhaps no graphic control measure is better for training and educating than a single target reference point (TRP). Used as an artillery target, it enables a leader to train subordinates on almost every facet of tactical operations. During the Cold War we spent much of our time planning how we would defend West Germany against the Warsaw Pact forces. Some of the planning was done in garrison, pouring over maps and considering how we would fight each hill, each valley, each danger area, each village and on and on. Our covering force mission started with a delay, but included both defense of battle positions and counter attacks. Each of those tactical operations, applied to each of those different types of terrain, required the integration of fires with maneuver and the other war fighting functions. And so of course we spent much of our time in artillery fire planning.
In our Cavalry Troop we were blessed with a great Fire Support Officer, then Lieutenant, later Colonel, Buzz Munster. Buzz was one of the most technically competent field artillerymen or women I ever met. As such, he was able to coach myself, the lieutenants and sergeants on how to employ indirect fires to best advantage. I never met anyone who is better at selecting individual targets in support of specific purposes.
Our General Defense Plans (GDP) were updated every month. Updates were required for a variety of reasons, including: new intelligence coming in about potential Soviet tactics, operations, or deployments; changes to our own capabilities; changes to NATO defense of plans; new doctrine; or even civilian aspects such as new construction by the Germans. Each company or troop had a battle book, that included all the details for their defense, or in the case of our troop the Covering Force mission. But, in addition to deliberate planning, the monthly updates to the GDP offered a tremendous opportunity for leader development. Each update allowed for serious and deep professional discussions about how we fight, our capabilities, our enemy, our allies, and all the factors that go into an engagement or battle. Accordingly, I took at bottoms-up approach in which the Platoon Leaders and Platoon Sergeants would do their planning and then we would review it at the troop level. This enabled our platoons to have input to the actual plan, but at the same time offered tremendous opportunities for professional development. And, in many cases that all started with a single artillery target.
We would gather in my office or in the day room and each Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant would present their updates. When they got to the targets, the 20 questions would start. Say for example a target was placed on top of a hill, a favorite place to put targets by military everywhere. What do you expect to see at the target? What enemy will be there? Will it be tanks or motorized infantry that will engage our forces? Will it be an observation post to call artillery fire on us? Will it be an air defense unit trying to shoot down our helicopters or fast movers as they counter attacks? Might it be a communication or a retransmission site? What they expected to see at that target went a long way towards determining what type of fires we would need to employed there. When we first started, the Lieutenants and Sergeants First Class had rarely thought about those questions, but with each successive month they came to the update better armed with the answers.
Next, we would talk about exact positioning of the target. If it was against tanks or motorized infantry that might engage us, how would they deploy along at hilltop? If it was against an anticipated enemy observation post, where could we position the target best to be able to obscure our positions or suppress them? If it was an enemy air defense element, where would they be positioned to engage our helicopters as they moved through the valley or our fast movers as a transit our area of operations? If it was a retrans state where would it position best for coverage? The highest point on a hill is not necessarily, in fact is almost never, the best place to position your TRP. A hundred meters north, south, east or west may not seem like much, but it can be the difference between destroying or suppressing the enemy, or hitting nothing but dirt. Often as we considered a particular target it turned out that there might be multiple uses. In that case we would determine the location that had the best likelihood of serving multiple purposes.
As we advanced in our leader development we began to consider whether the TRP was stand-alone; or was part of a group or series? If the latter, how does this TRP support the intent of the group or series and is it positioned correctly to achieve that purpose? Does it need to be moved to better support the group or series?
Next, we had to consider how the target fit within the broader squadron or battalion Covering Force missions and plans. Is there a squadron or battalion target close by that conflicts with ours? If so, can we deconflict so that both the higher headquarters and our troop or company objectives are achieved? Does our target need to be grouped into a group or series with those from battalion, squadron, or other headquarters? Are we looking at the target for suppression, while another element looks at it for destruction or obscuration? Each of these issues are resolved during the planning process, particularly if you are blessed with a great fire support officer. But, for my purposes I wanted the Lieutenants and the Sergeants First Class to be thinking about these issues. That was the main effort of these mini-LPDs.
Today, much of our Army is in transition. After 17 years in which the main effort of the Army was preparing for and executing counter-insurgency operations, we are gradually shifting focus towards large scale combat operations against peer competitors. In other words, after chasing terrorists and insurgents through Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, we are now considering and preparing for, how we would fight the Russians, or the Chinese, or the North Koreans, or the Iranians. This transition applies very much to the fires war fighting function. For the last 17 years we were primarily employing one gun of fires to shoot one stationary target, usually a bad guy who was holed up in a building, a vehicle or someplace else. Much of our planning and coordination for the last 17 years then was focused on avoiding collateral damage, i.e. not hurting civilians, and ensuring that our particular fire mission was legal in all aspects. We were blessed with the luxury of having time to do deliberate planning and to go through all the necessary coordination because we were controlling the tempo of operations and therefore we were able to determine when and where we would employer or indirect fires. That is not to say that there weren’t times that we were shooting at a higher rate, or in a very time compressed planning and execution schedule, or that we didn’t employ more guns to shoot suppressive or killing fires if necessary; for example, to defend one of our combat outposts. But as a general rule fires were employed in a limited fashion and for very discrete purposes.
However, today most of the Army is engaged in preparations for future conflict in large scale combat. Not all, as we still have forces in harm’s way in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But, at our Combat Training Centers and Home Station we are re-learning how to employ distributed, massed fires, in a compressed schedule, against a moving enemy, who is firing back at us with indirect fires. That is an entirely different training requirement.
And, like all training, we need to begin with the basics. And the basics start with a single indirect fire target, and the 5Ws of putting that target on the map. In that respect, little has changed since I was a Troop Commander on the Inner German Border 30 years ago. The good news is that conducting leader development in fires planning takes almost no resources whatsoever. For the initial work, all you need is a map, protractor, and an alcohol pen, I would start the training using just those tools in the crawl phase having discussions such as those outlined above. Then in the walk phase, I would add in those digital apps that you can apply to fires planning, to integrate cognitive thinking with the mechanics of our mission command systems (and OBTW, every officer ought to have a basic knowledge of how AFATDS works – an excellent class for your FIST to give).
Then in the run phase I would go out onto the terrain. If you’re smart about it, you can just use the map of your local installation for the fire planning, and then walk out your back door and go look at where you drew the targets. So, you do the map recon first, plan your fires, and then look at them on the ground, as if conducting a leader’s recon from the Troop Leading Procedures. You can discuss the target, while you’re standing on that target on the actual terrain. That is the best way to learn. So, if one of your lieutenants said that they were going to have their primary observer for the target at a certain grid, you can stand on the target and look back towards that grid to see if you can actually see from there to the target. Or does the point of observation need to be adjusted? If you planned on using a linear target for smoke, you can have two of your leaders go to the ends of where the linear target would be and then consider whether that particular target as laid out on the map would accomplish your purpose. All of this cost nothing more than a little bit of your leader’s time. But, what will happen is that when you engage in collective training for Platoon Situational Training Exercises, or Company Fire Coordination Exercises, or Battalion Simulations Exercises; or when you deployed to the Combat Training Center; your leaders will be ahead of the game. They’ll already be able to plan and coordinate fires, so you can focus training on the combined arms integration that can really only take place in large scale collective training.
The bottom line is that today, like yesterday, company commanders can conduct a tremendously powerful leader development session simply by focusing on the detailed planning of a single target. The key is to get into a professional discussion on the 5Ws of that target and to conduct multiple reps so that each time the quality of the thinking about both the art and science of combined arms operations improves.