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Posted on Mar 23, 2009 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 036 – The Delay

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

The Delay

”Retreats are certainly the most difficult operations in war. This remark is so true that the celebrated Prince de Ligne said, in his usual piquant style, that he could not conceive how an army ever succeeded in retreating. When we think of the physical and moral condition of an army in full retreat after a lost battle, of the difficulty of preserving order, and of the disasters to which disorder may lead, it is not hard to understand why the most experienced generals have hesitated to attempt such an operation.”


Antoine-Henri Baron Jomini

In our last article, we began our mini-series on retrograde operations. Our focus was on one of the three forms of retrograde – the withdrawal. We essentially divided the article into three parts – planning, preparation, and execution of the withdrawal. We concluded the article with some lessons learned from von Mellenthin on his experiences in conducting numerous withdrawals during World War II.

In keeping with our retrograde theme, we will focus on perhaps, the most difficult of all operations – the delay. The delay places incredible demands both mentally and physically on every Soldier involved. No more so than a unit’s Commander! It is the Commander who must decide when to engage the enemy and when to fall back. If the Commander makes a poor decision or an untimely one, the end result is the worst possible endstate – decisive engagement for his unit.

To dissect this operation, we will answer the following: 1) What is a delay? 2) What are the keys to achieving success in a delay? 3) What should you consider in planning a delay? 4) What should you consider in preparing a delay? and 5) How should the delay be executed?

What is a Delay?
This is a form of retrograde where a unit under enemy pressure trades space (terrain) for time. It does this by slowing the enemy’s momentum (physically and hopefully psychologically) and inflicting damage (casualties, destroying assets, etc.) on the enemy without becoming decisively engaged. (Decisively engaged equates to not possessing freedom of action). In the delay, the destruction of the enemy force is secondary to slowing his advance and buying you time. This time is critical in enabling the Commander to set the conditions for success in future operations.

There are numerous reasons why a unit may conduct a delay. These could include:

  • Time may be needed so the unit can regain the initiative by going on the offense. This time is often necessary to set the conditions logistically for the offensive.
  • Time may be desired to better prepare a defense.
  • A unit may simply need time to determine what the enemy plans to do.
  • A unit may be assigned a delay mission to enable other forces to withdraw.
  • To fix or contain an enemy attack on terrain that is not critical to the overall friendly plan. (Economy of Force)
  • To draw the enemy into an area where other forces will counterattack into the enemy’s flank.
  • As a deception operation to support the overall commander’s intent.

Principles/Keys to success
As we discussed earlier, the delay is an extremely challenging mission. Below you will find some principles that you must consider during the planning, preparation, and execution of the delay.

Centralized Planning – The delay is a complex operation involving many moving pieces to set the conditions for success. With this the case, a centralized plan must be developed to minimize at least some of the obvious chaos. The use of combat multipliers is critical to success in the delay. Centralized planning greatly assists in synchronizing all these assets.

Decentralized Execution – The execution of a delay is no time for micro-management. Split-second decisions are the norm during the conduct of a delay. You can not wait on your higher headquarters approval before making these timely decisions. Once the plan is developed; let the subordinates execute it!

Terrain is Crucial – In any operation, terrain certainly has a great influence on the outcome of any battle. Clearly, during the execution of a delay; terrain has a tremendous impact. Within the delay, the key terrain is that which controls enemy and friendly avenues of approach. Delay positions should be established on these locations.

Make the Enemy React to You – Although it is difficult due to the circumstances; you must ensure your opponent does not dictate all the action. You must utilize fire and maneuver to slow his actions. Slowing his actions sets the stage for you to exchange space for time. Timely indirect fire coupled with well-placed obstacles can physically and mentally slow down your enemy. Undoubtedly, physically slowing him down is good! However, if you can mentally slow him down; then you are well on your way to achieving success in the delay. Actions that make the enemy wonder what you are trying to do slow down his decision process and make him more tentative. A tentative enemy is much more cautious in action. This translates to gaining you time.

Obstacles are Good! Well-placed, Timely Obstacles are Better!! – One of the key ways you can slow down your foe is with obstacles. As we have discussed in earlier articles, you have many options in obstacle emplacement. These options include types of obstacles and the way obstacles can be emplaced. With time at a premium, the use of scatterable mines in a delay can be a true difference maker. However, the use of scatterable mines does come with associated risks. Since these types of mines are normally delivered by air assets or field artillery tubes, there is significant coordination that must take place before execution. The importance of this coordination is compounded by the fact that there is little separation between forces in this environment.

Maintain Contact with the Enemy – To succeed in a delay, you must know where the enemy is at all times. On this very dynamic battlefield; that can truly be a challenge. It is possible elements of the enemy can ‘get lost’ and the next report you receive is that enemy forces are attacking your flank or in your rear area. You must have continuous eyes on your opponent. These eyes can be of the human or technological variety or preferable both. Whatever the case, there can be no surprises.

Flank Coordination – As related above, a unit is highly vulnerable on its’ flanks during the execution of a delay. The terrain in between adjacent units conducting a delay is highly valued by the enemy. Once the enemy finds a gap, the results are not favorable for the friendly force. Consequently, coordination between adjacent units is at a premium. Flank coordination can be facilitated by a higher headquarter’s establishing coordination and contact points on graphics and orders. This ensures physical communication between units.

Avoiding Decisive Engagement – The ultimate failing in a delay is for a unit to have elements become decisively engaged with the enemy. Once this occurs, your ability to trade space for time is greatly diminished.

What can a Commander do if part of his unit becomes decisively engaged? This is truly one of the more difficult decisions a Commander will make on the battlefield. The Commander must make a quick decision, which weighs the potential outcomes of the actions he may take. In terms of these actions, here are some possibilities:

  • The quickest way for a Commander to begin assisting a decisively engaged unit is through indirect fires. Responsive fires can provide the impetus the unit needs to break contact. Consequently, once the unit becomes decisively engaged; they must be provided priority of indirect support. The longer this takes to occur, the more difficult it will be to break contact.
  • Depending on the location and proximity of flank units, a Commander may direct these units to shift their direct fires on targets forward of the decisively engaged unit. Direct fire control measures must be established to minimize the possibility of any friendly fire incidents. In a chaotic environment such as this; there must be clear communications as to locations of friendly forces.
  • Again, depending on the location and proximity of flank units, a Commander may direct these units to maneuver into the area of operations of the decisively engaged unit and conduct a counterattack. This places a premium on quality command and control and situational awareness. Risky – yes! However, this may be the only timely/viable option for the Commander.
  • In this situation, the Commander may decide to activate his reserve to assist the decisively engaged unit. During the planning of the delay, this should have been one of potential be-prepared missions you asked the reserve to plan for.

Three of the most important parts of planning the delay are determining the delay technique you will utilize, organizing your unit for success and establishing control measures to facilitate operations. We will address each.

It’s in the Technique
When executing a delay, there are two basic techniques utilized. These are: delay from alternate positions and delay from subsequent positions. There are many factors influencing the delay technique a Commander chooses. These include the dimensions of the area of operations, forces available, time available, and the enemy situation. We will spend some time discussing each of the techniques and advantages and disadvantages.

Delay from Alternate Positions
If a Commander has a fairly narrow sector (but sufficient depth) and has two or more units occupying it; he will normally execute a delay from alternate positions. In basic terms (as the name suggests); units alternate movement during the execution of delay. Here is how it works:

While one unit is fighting/delaying the enemy; the other elements are maneuvering to the rear to occupy their next on-order battle positions. Once the maneuvering elements arrive at the battle position, they prepare to fight from it (with the time they have available). Based on their preparation and more importantly the situation with the forward unit; the Commander will determine when to order the forward unit to fall back. After given the order, the forward unit will either pass through or around the stationary unit to occupy another on-order battle position to the rear of this one. This then starts a repeat of the above actions. The unit will continue this process until they have traded the space for the time they needed. Below is a graphical portrayal of the actions:

Advantages of the Delay from Alternate Positions – 1) If the enemy is utilizing a dangerous avenue of approach, this technique will provide more security for the entire force. 2) If executed properly, this technique enables the force to keep constant pressure on the enemy. 3) If executed properly, this technique is less likely to set the conditions for units to become decisively engaged.

Disadvantages of the Delay from Alternate Positions – 1) Requires continuous coordination throughout the delay. 2) Requires several passages of lines which in itself is a difficult endeavor. 3) With many moving pieces, it does afford more potential to friendly fire incidents.

Delay from Subsequent Positions
If a Commander possesses a much wider area of operations and does not have sufficient forces to split them in two or more elements; he will likely employ the delay from subsequent positions technique. In basic terms, the unit in its’ entirety maneuvers from one on-order position to another. Here is how it works:

As the delay begins, all elements occupy positions in a battle position in defensive posture. As the enemy maneuvers, the Commander and his staff track their progress. Utilizing both art and science, the Commander determines ‘a line on the ground’ where once the enemy crosses this signals his unit to begin falling back to its’ next position. This line (phase-line) is hopefully developed far enough away from friendly forces so it does not set the conditions for decisive engagement. Once the criteria are met, the unit will begin maneuvering rearward to its next planned positions. During this action, the Commander will stagger maneuver so not all elements are maneuvering at the same time. (If all units are maneuvering at the same time, it is likely you will lose contact with the enemy). Once the unit reaches the next position, it awaits once more for the trigger to fall back. The unit will continue this process until they have traded the space for the time they needed. Below is a graphically portrayal of the actions:

Advantages of the Delay from Subsequent Positions – 1) Affords the unit the ability to mass fires more effectively. 2) Less complicated because there is no passage of lines. Thus, it is much easier on command and control. 3) With less overall moving pieces, there is less potential for fratricide incidents.

Disadvantages of the Delay from Subsequent Positions – 1) Less depth in the area of operations than Alternate Position technique. Consequently, the potential for an enemy breakthrough is greater. 2) There is normally less time to prepare the on-order than the Alternate Position technique because elements are consistently on the move. 3) Limited ability to maintain pressure on the enemy because of more maneuver.

Summary of Delay Techniques

Organizing for Success – During the planning of the delay, the Commander will normally organize his elements into a security force, a main body, and a reserve. Within these elements he will ensure each possesses the needed combat support and combat service support elements to achieve their purpose/task.

Security Force – The Commander utilizes his security force to screen forward of the main body to facilitate their rearward maneuver. As a reminder, the definition of the tactical task screen is to provide early warning to the main body, impede and harass the enemy with supporting indirect fires, and destroy enemy reconnaissance elements within its capabilities. Depending on the variety of unit, there are several types of elements suited to conducting a screen. These include a divisional cavalry squadron, a brigade reconnaissance troop, or a battalion scout platoon. These units train for this task and have the mental mindset to accomplish the mission. As a side-note, as with all elements conducting the delay; it is imperative these units do not become decisively engaged.

Reserve – We have stressed many times the importance of a reserve to assist the Commander in exploiting success or denying failure. This is no different in a delay. It is imperative the Commander designate a reserve in order to assist him in influencing the operation where needed. In a delay, the reserve must possess the necessary speed, mobility, and firepower to be a difference maker. There are a number of ways a Commander may utilize his reserve in a delay. Some of the most common include: 1) Block or defeat any enemy penetrations of the area of operations. 2) Assist any sister units which may have become decisively engaged. This action could take the form of support by fire or as a counterattack. 3) Conduct a spoiling attack if the opportunity presents itself.

Main Body – Once the security force and reserve have been determined; the remaining forces will compose the main body. The composition of the main body depends on the delay technique utilized. If he uses a delay from subsequent positions, he will generally move the main body as one entity. If he executes a delay from alternate positions, he will normally split his main body into two roughly equal groups.

Besides the above, the Commander must also ensure he organizes his combat support and combat service support to facilitate the delay. This includes the following:

  • Position his internal fire support assets so they are responsive to his needs. Additionally, request external support to assist in covering the extended frontages and ranges characteristic of a delay.
  • Rotary and fixed air can greatly assist in providing indirect fire support for a Commander. Obviously, these assets can’t become decisively engaged like field artillery units can.
  • Engineers are vital in the delay. They must be organized so they can focus on counter-mobility and mobility tasks. These tasks will likely shift throughout the conduct of a delay.
  • Logistics support in a delay is vital and extremely challenging. Ammunition expenditures can resemble those of a defense. Fuel consumption can mirror that of an offense. Consequently, combat service support elements must be dispersed throughout the formation. Any gaps in logistically support can greatly diminish your potential for achieving success in the delay.

Control Measures Facilitating Success – Since the delay is such a fluid operation, it is important analyzed control measures are developed and understood before execution. The heat of battle is not the time to develop and then try to convey control measures to subordinates. In a delay, there are several control measures critical to facilitating success in the delay. We will discuss these next.

Phase Lines – One of the most essential control measures used in a delay is the phase-line. The phase-line has many potential roles in executing a delay. It can dictate maneuver, fires, command and control and articulate the intent of the Commander. Below are some of the common uses of the phase-line.

Delay Line – is used to show subordinates the terrain where the enemy is not allowed to maneuver across during the delay until a specific date and time has passed. This date and time will be depicted under the phase-line. For example, in the above graphic the Commander does not want the enemy to cross certain terrain until after midnight 0n 12 Jan. Thus, he has developed PL PAT (delay line) with a date/time requirement of 120030 Jan.

Trigger Line – is used to show subordinates where to initiate and mass fires into an engagement area. Doctrinally, once the enemy crosses this trigger line, then friendly forces begin engaging the enemy with indirect and direct fires. Trigger lines should be located on identifiable terrain that crosses the engagement area and at a predetermined range so the preponderance of the unit’s weapon systems can fire on available targets.

Disengagement Line – is used to show subordinates when they should maneuver to their next rearward position. Once the enemy crosses this terrain, this starts friendly forces maneuvering to the rear. Again, disengagement lines should be located on identifiable terrain. Additionally, the engagement line must be positioned far enough away so friendly forces can not become decisively engaged.

Battle Handover Line – is used to show subordinate forces where on the terrain that responsibility transitions from the stationary force to the moving force and vice versa. This is important because someone must have ownership of the terrain. There can not be two tenants on a piece of ground. Someone must be in charge!

Sectors/Boundaries – As related to the above, someone must have responsibility of terrain and thus, control the fire and maneuver in the area. Sectors and boundaries do this graphically. The key is that units understand where these are on the ground.

Battle Positions – A delay has many of the characteristics of a defense. Consequently, units will occupy initial battle positions before the delay starts in earnest. As the delay begins, they will them maneuver back to on-order battle positions. During planning, these battle positions should be defined and placed on graphics. As a sidelight, these battle positions (especially the on-order positions) will not be prepared to the extent of normal battle positions because of time constraints. However, every minute that a unit is occupying a battle position should be utilized to accomplish an established priority of work.

Engagement Areas – Tied to the development of battle positions is the necessity to establish engagement areas. In conjunction with the placement of battle positions should be the establishment of engagement areas. As we have discussed in prior articles, a battle position without an analyzed engagement area does not set the conditions for success in the defense.

Target Reference Points (TRPs) – Timely and accurate fires (indirect and direct) are crucial in trading space for time in the delay. Pre-planned TRPs depicted on graphics assist in making this happen. These TRPs should be easily recognizable on the ground and can be either of the natural or manmade variety. Units will utilize the TRPs (normally positioned inside the engagement area) to initiate, distribute, and control fires during the delay.

Passage of Lines Control Measures – As we discussed earlier, there will normally be several passage of lines conducted by units in a delay. To make this as smooth as possible (in a very chaotic environment), a Commander must establish control measures to assist in this difficult event. These include the following:

Contact Point – Before the actual passage of lines, the involved units should physically meet to work out last minute details. A pre-established contact point on the graphics shows where this meeting will take place.

Passage Points – The commander should graphically depict where on the ground the passing unit will pass through the stationary unit. This control measure is the passage point.

Routes – Pre-established routes for the moving unit to pass through the stationary unit’s positions are critical. This is especially true since the stationary unit may have emplaced obstacles within their area of operations. These established routes will take away some of the inevitable confusion and keep the momentum of the operation continuing.

Additionally, contact points and coordination should be established on the flanks of the adjacent units. These will assist in units discussing the potential gaps the enemy may exploit in between units.

Preparation time in a delay is typically very minimal. Consequently, every available minute must be utilized to its’ fullest. Below are some key actions that should be executed during the preparation phase of a delay.

  • Reconnaissance of future routes and battle positions is critical. This removes some uncertainty. Occupying a battle position ‘cold’ does not assist in setting the conditions for success.
  • Related to removing uncertainty is conducting rehearsals at all levels. Because preparation time is at a premium, a unit may not be able to conduct a full-up rehearsal. However, this does not mean a quality rehearsal can not be conducted. A well-orchestrated radio rehearsal (utilizing the technological visualization tools available) can reap benefits. Some of the key events or subjects you will want to rehearse and confirm are:
    • Direct and indirect fire plans throughout the delay.
    • The synchronization and timing of critical maneuvers during the delay. These include discussing disengagement criteria, the initiation of battle handover lines, and passage of lines details.
    • Be-prepared purposes/tasks of the reserve.
    • Execution of any situational obstacles you plan to utilize.
    • Movement times, routes, and positioning of all CS and CSS assets.
  • Reconnaissance and rehearsals by the reserve are key. The reserve is critical to the success of a delay. The Commander of the reserve must recon potential routes he may utilize as time permits. Again, as time permits he should rehearse his potential missions. In both cases, he should receive guidance from his higher Commander as to the priority of these be-prepared missions.
  • Pre-Combat Inspections (PCIs) are a must in any mission. A delay is no different! Units must make sure they have the right ‘stuff’!
  • During preparation time, do as much coordination between adjacent units as possible. Units must understand each other’s plans as much as possible. It could be critical during execution.
  • A delay can consume high amounts of ammunition. During preparation time, caches of ammunition should be placed in key areas to resupply vehicles/units. It is recommended these caches be placed on vehicles to assist in mobility. A stock of ammunition placed on the ground, could very well become your opponent’s during the delay.
  • Related to the above, is the necessity to preposition fuel along the delay routes. A delay can consume large quantities of fuel. Vehicles (especially tanks) burn massive quantities simply idling. Do the science (number crunching) and place fuel trucks where anticipated.
  • Finally, preparation time is a window for leaders to circulate the battlefield. As we mentioned earlier, there is much apprehension within a unit regarding conducting a retrograde operation. Leaders must strive to cut the edge off some of this anxiety.

The only sure thing to say about the execution of a delay is that it will never go as expected. However, there are several actions during the execution of the delay that if taken, can greatly assist you in accomplishing this most difficult of missions. Let’s highlight these actions.

Indirect Fires – The effective use of indirect fires is critical during execution. Throughout the delay, indirect fires must be utilized to physically and psychologically slow the tempo of the enemy’s maneuver. Indirect fires can plant the seed in the enemy’s mind that they are preparing to face a well-prepared defense. Indirect fires are a major contributor in trading space for time.

Defensive Preparation – Throughout the delay, elements will occupy defensive positions for various periods of time. These elements must ensure they utilize every minute available preparing their positions and conducting priorities of work.

Logistics – The key to logistically supporting the execution of a delay is flexibility. Hopefully, during the preparation phase you have been proactive in placing ammunition/fuel/supplies in caches in places they are needed. However, this is not the extent of logistical support in the delay. Maneuver and Logistical Commanders must be thinking ahead during the delay as to logistical needs. If this happens, support during the delay can be proactive not reactive. Proactive logistics will be a huge benefit during the delay.

Decisive Engagement – We have discussed this subject several times in this article. A Commander must execute the delay striving to not allow any of his elements to become decisively engaged. On the flipside, he must always have contingencies in place, if this does indeed occur. With this in mind, we will highlight next what things a Commander should be thinking during the conduct of a delay.

Commander’s Thoughts – There are few missions that mentally challenge a Commander as much as during the execution of a delay. Decisions must be made quickly. A Commander who can not make timely decisions or unfortunately can not make decisions at all will obviously not succeed in the delay. The Commander must continually assess the current situation and how it relates to his future decisions. In order to assist him in this process, there are some questions the he should be continually asking himself and his staff during delay execution. Below are some recommendations:

  • What is the strength, composition, location and intention of the enemy attacking force?
  • Are elements of the unit threatened with decisive engagement or bypass? If so, what are my viable options and how long will they take to execute?
  • What is situation on my flanks? Does this affect my ability to accomplish my purpose and task?
  • What is the status of my forces in terms of personnel, equipment, supplies, and just as importantly, morale?
  • What other assets can I request from my higher headquarters if needed? What is the lead time?
  • Are my fires (indirect and direct) being effective? If not, how do I improve their performance?
  • Are my indirect fire assets positioned to support my maneuver? If not, how much time is required to get them in position?
  • Are my current obstacles effective? What is the status of any obstacles I am emplacing in subsequent positions? Do I see the potential need for scatterable minefields (emplaced by artillery or air) to support the delay?
  • How strong are my current positions in comparison to future positions I have planned for my forces to occupy?
  • Has the enemy done anything to the routes I have developed for my units to displace on?
  • What can I do to trade space for time?
  • What mission do I anticipate my unit being assigned next?

A delay operation will not last forever. At some point, it will eventually transition into something else for the unit. If things are not going well, this usually amounts to becoming decisively engaged and thus, heavily involved in fighting the attacking enemy. However, in the ideal world (not that one exists) the delay should result in the unit conducting the following:

  • Passing through another unit and preparing a defense.
  • Maintaining contact with the enemy so another force can conduct a counterattack.
  • Transitioning to a withdrawal or retirement to prepare for future offensive operations.

Throw in a dash of offense, a cup of defense, and a bunch of challenging decision-making and you have the ingredients for a delay. We hope we have portrayed the difficulty of executing a delay. The first thing a Commander must determine is that a delay is necessary. So many times, a Commander will believe if he continues to duke it out with his enemy and the situation will reverse. Unfortunately, this mindset usually turns the situation from bad to worse. Once the Commander makes this determination the keys to success are a flexible plan, disciplined units, and timely decisions based on appropriate intelligence and information. The delay – clearly one of the most difficult missions a unit will execute and a Commander will lead!

“A retreat, even when executed in the most skillful manner and by an army in good condition, always gives an advantage to the pursuing army; and this is particularly the case after a defeat and when the source of supplies and reinforcements is at a great distance; for a retreat then becomes more difficult than any other operation in war, and its difficulties increase in proportion to the skill exhibited by the enemy in conducting the pursuit.”

Antoine-Henri Baron Jomini

In our next article, we will talk transitions. Specifically, how a commander transitions his unit from the defense to the offense and vice versa. We will address several issues including: 1) The physical actions that must occur. 2) How do you determine when the window of opportunity is there to transition from defense to offense. 3) How to take advantage of the opportunity. 4) How do you know when it is time to transition to the defense? History has shown numerous times Commanders who did not see the window open to transition to the offense. It has also shown Commanders who would not transition to the defense when they should have. We will cover it all in detail next month!