Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Mar 15, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 047: Encirclement – Part One

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

In our last article, we continued our series on tactical enabling operations with a discussion on the relief in place. We keyed on answering the following questions: 1) What is a relief in place? 2) What is the purpose of a relief in place? 3) What should you consider during the planning of a relief in place? 4) What are the key actions you should conduct during the preparation of a relief in place? 5) What are the keys to success in executing a relief in place? As the article stressed, the relief in place is one of the most challenging missions you can take on. However, if the challenge is met, the result is normally preserving a force for future use on the battlefield.


Our focus this month is on encirclement operations. Because of the complexity of encirclement we will devote two articles on the subject. In our first article, we will focus on two areas. First, we will provide a general overview on encirclement. Second, we will dissect offensive encirclement. In other words, how does a force effectively encircle its’ opponent? In our next article, we will shift sides and look at encirclement in the eyes of the force that has been encircled. Let’s execute!



What is an Encirclement?

Stalingrad 1943An encirclement occurs when one force loses its ability to maneuver because of the actions of its’ opponent. This normally occurs when the force is isolated and at the present time cannot be reinforced. This isolation is generally achieved by two actions. First, the unit’s ground lines of communication have been totally severed. Second, the force is completely surrounded by enemy forces.

The opportunity to encircle an opponent usually presents itself during a successful attack. In particular, once the attacker has moved into an exploitation or pursuit, its’ foe is clearly susceptible to encirclements of its’ subordinate units. These opportunities may be discussed in the planning process (plan for success) or more than likely be a window of opportunity.

There are two typical ways in which an encirclement transpires (we will talk this later). First, the attacker conducts a double envelopment around the force. Once the forces meet, they begin tightening the grip they have around the opponent. Second, instead of two forces converging, the attacker utilizes major terrain to assist in the encirclement. For example, the defender may be pinned against mountainous terrain or water. Consequently, the attacker then uses its forces to block the enemy from moving out of the area away from the terrain.

There are two potential outcomes of the attacker once the encirclement has been put in place. The ideal outcome of an encircelement is to force the defender into surrender. This way the attacker does not expend precious resources while attacking the defender. As history shows, attacking into the defender can be costly. The other outcome is for attacker to defeat, or potentially destroy the defender. As mentioned earlier, this can be extremely time consuming; with the possibility of heavy casualties and expending large amounts of ammunition for the attacker.

A Little History of Encirclement

History is filled with examples of the encirclement. In essence, since man began fighting with each other there has been encirclement. Clearly, someone has always been backed against a corner. That person had few options. He could plead for leniency, fight and get his tail kicked, or conduct his own breakout and kick the tail of his opponent.

Perhaps, no encirclement has had more of an impact on warfighting than the Battle of Cannae fought around 216 BC. It was here that Hannibal and his forces executed their own double envelopment and destroyed the vastly larger army of the Roman Republic. Since that time, Commanders have always dreamed of executing their own Cannae. Germans in particular were clearly consumed by the battle. In fact, as many of you are aware, the “Schlieffen Plan” devised by Alfred von Schlieffen was a take-off on Cannae. This plan was developed in anticipation of a future war waged on European soil.

World War II was full of encirclement battles. You can almost look at the Eastern Front as one seemingly endless battle of encirclement. The Battles of Moscow, Berlin, and Stalingrad quickly come to mind as encirclements. Each of these was characterized by staggering amounts of casualties and destruction.

Although the environment was vastly different, Vietnam had its own version of encirclements. Within this encirclement, one of the preferred techniques was the old hammer and anvil method. We will touch on this method later in the article.

In today’s operations, the encirclement is still present. Many of the battles within the cities of Iraq were forms of encirclements. Of these, the most publicized were the two Battles of Fallujah.

There are several takeaways from analyzing the history of encirclement. First, as you can surmise from above; an encirclement can take place in any environment. The jungle, the desert, the plains, and urban areas have all seen their share of encirclements. Second, there are countless examples of successful encirclements. Third, there are numerous examples of units breaking out of an encirclement. Finally, there is nothing more dangerous than an enemy who believes his only option is fight to the death!

Russian prisoners and guns captured at Tannenberg


The remainder of this article will look at encirclement in the eyes of the force attempting to encircle his enemy. We will spend the majority of our time discussing the planning and eventual execution of the encirclement.

How do you Know?

As with most things associated with tactics, timing is everything! During the heat of a battle, a Commander must wrestle with much information to determine if an encirclement is possible and feasible. These include:

· The Commander’s mission (what is he to achieve now and the future).

· The status of his forces (personnel, equipment, and supplies).

· How much time is available.

· The terrain in which he is operating.

· The status of the enemy as you can determine (personnel, equipment, and supplies).

· The intentions of the enemy (what do you believe he wants to do).

· How costly would the execution of the encirclement be in terms of losses in personnel, equipment and supplies.

With these things principally in mind (and a myriad of other factors), the Commander determines if his unit will begin to initiate the encirclement.

The Phases of an Encirclement

An offensive encirclement will normally follow the following pattern:

1) During the attack, the attacker has achieved significant success. This success has led to the attacker transitioning to an exploitation or pursuit.

2) The attacker determines that elements of his enemy are isolated from other sister elements. These elements may have been bypassed earlier in the attack or intelligence indicates that these units are forward of the current attack.

3) The Commander determines that his unit will conduct an encirclement of the enemy.

4) The Commander maneuvers part of his forces on two converging axes to begin the encirclement.

5) The Converging forces link-up and establish an inner ring surrounding the enemy.

6) The Commander utilizes part of his remaining forces to establish an outer ring (outside the inner ring). These forces ensure the enemy cannot be reinforced from the outside.

7) The Commander determines if the enemy will surrender to him. If not, he will begin operations to destroy the enemy inside the inner ring.

Let’s dissect two key phases of the encirclement. First, we will look at how you conduct the initial encirclement of the enemy. Second, we will discuss some of the options available to the Commander if he decides to destroy his encircled enemy.

Tightening the Noose

The decision has been made to conduct an envelopment. So, how do you do it? Below we will lay-out how you execute a typical (if there is such a thing) encirclement of the enemy. We will utilize the following graphic to assist our discussion:

Figure D-1. Inner and Outer Arms of an Encirclement

Once the decision has been made to execute the envelopment, time is at a premium. Obviously, the longer it takes to form the encirclement; the more opportunity you are providing the enemy to slip away. When the order is given to execute; units must execute. As always, it is critical everyone understands their purpose and task within the operation.

The first step in achieving the encirclement is to form the inner encircling arms. To achieve this, you want to send forces that can get there quickly and have the firepower necessary to deal with uncertainty. With these parameters, the optimal forces are your armor and mechanized infantry. They can cover ground quickly and have the firepower to deal with whatever comes their way.

In forming the inner circle, you will develop two encircling arms that will eventually meet to create the circle. When directed, the forces comprising the arms (again, preferably heavy forces) will maneuver on separate axis to envelop the enemy. Each force continues their maneuver until they meet and achieve a link-up. Once this link-up is accomplished, the encirclement of the enemy should be achieved.

This is depicted in the above diagram as follows: TF 1-73 Armor maneuvers on AXIS BILL and TF 2-87 Mechanized on AXIS SLICK. Each will continue enveloping the enemy until they meet and conduct link-up. The maneuver is controlled by a Brigade Headquarters, who ensures link-up is established and fire control measures (direct and indirect) are in place to mitigate any potential friendly fire incidents.

Once the link-up is established, the Brigade (the encircling arms) has two key tasks. First, they must quickly occupy terrain which enables them to fix the enemy within the encirclement. Second, they must have eyes forward to watch any enemy maneuver to assist the encircled enemy. Hand in hand with this; is to have a plan to repel any enemy attacks.

During the action to set-up the inner circle, the unit has several concerns. They are:

· During the initial maneuver, units must be continually aware of obstacles. A smart enemy, who knows they are in a precarious situation, will inevitably throw-out hasty obstacles (particularly mine-fields) to slow maneuver.

· There is also the potential that the enemy, if he has the capability, will utilize a chemical or biological agent on a maneuver route. To mitigate this, the Commander may stagger the maneuver of his units so if agents are used; not all of the unit will become contaminated. The Commander may also attach agent recon and decontamination vehicles with his units.

· The Commander must be prepared for the enemy to attempt to cut off the maneuver of the encircling force with a counter-attack. If the enemy is successful; the encircling force could potentially have some of his own forces encircled.

With the inner circle in place the Commander must decide if he will emplace an outer circle. The purpose of the outer circle is essentially to protect the inner circle forces to enable them to continue encircling the enemy. There are two determining factors in the decision to construct the outer circle. First, does the Commander believe the enemy will attempt to assist the encircled forces from the outside? Second, does the Commander possess sufficient forces to construct the outer circle?

If the decision is made to develop an outer circle, the execution is very similar to the inner circle. Two outer encircling arms will maneuver on separate axis outside the inner circle. These forces continue maneuver until they meet and achieve a link-up. Once the link-up is accomplished, the outer circle is complete. The concerns for executing the outer circle are basically the same as we addressed earlier in the inner circle discussion.

This is depicted in the above diagram as follows: TF 1-34 Armor maneuvers on AXIS GOLDEN and TF 2-50 Mechanized on AXIS RULE. Each will continue their maneuver until they meet and conduct link-up. The maneuver is controlled by a Brigade Headquarters, who ensures link-up is established and fire control measures (direct and indirect) are in place to mitigate any potential friendly fire incidents.

We’re Going In

If surrender is not an option for your enemy; the Commander must decide if he will begin offensive actions to destroy the enemy inside the encirclement. There are several factors that influence the Commander’s decision. First, does he have the time available to conduct the operation? Second, can the Commander afford to expend the ammunition and supplies necessary for the attack? Finally, is the execution of this operation worth the potential casualties that might incur?

If the Commander answers yes to the above questions he then decides on the method and technique he will use to attack the encircled forces. As always, there are numerous considerations in determining the method and technique. They include the terrain and weather, the status of the enemy, and the status of friendly forces.


There are two methods a Commander can select when he decides he will attack (or reduce) his enemy. The first is reduction by fire. As the name implies, this method relies predominantly on the unit’s indirect fire systems to attack the enemy. Thus, systems such as field artillery, mortars, close air support, and attack helicopters can be used. The clear advantage of this method is that the risk of casualties to your forces is greatly diminished. However, there are several disadvantages to the method. These include: 1) The potential for using a great deal of ammunition. 2) This can take a significant amount of time to achieve results. 3) This method may not achieve success alone. As we’ve seen throughout history, a unit can withstand days or weeks of indirect fire. 4) As we’ve also seen throughout history, it can be a challenge to determine the results of indirect fire.

The other method a Commander can choose is to attack (reduce) the enemy by fire and maneuver. Of the two methods, this is the one that has a greater chance of success. Certainly, the combination of lethal fires and skilled maneuver is far superior to simply fires alone. Each plays on the strength of one another. The combination places great pressure on an encircled enemy and places the initiative on the attacker. Of course, the major disadvantage of the method is the loss of casualties.


Once the general method has been established; the technique can then be chosen. There are many techniques a Commander has at his disposal. Below we will highlight some of the most popular:

Fire Strike – This technique focuses solely on using indirect fires to destroy enemy forces that have been encircled. It is a synchronized use of a force’s indirect systems to mass against enemy targets. Thus, you will utilize assets such as field artillery, mortars, and if available, fixed and rotary air. During the execution of the fire strike, you will focus first on destroying high-payoff targets such as his command and control elements, indirect systems, and air defense assets. Once these are destroyed, you move to the other elements. Obviously, this method is the most ideal method because you do not have to maneuver forces into the defense and it is the quickest. Unfortunately, unless your fires are highly effective; you will eventually have to use your troops.

Squeeze – This technique utilizes attacks from numerous directions into the defense. These attacks are highly coordinated and strive to hit the enemy in multiple areas at the same time. During the squeeze, you try to combine effective indirect fires with maneuver from your ground forces. Clearly, this technique has a degree of risk to it. The squeeze can be time consuming for the attacker to execute. However, it is probably the one technique which if conducted effectively will methodically destroy the opponent.

Figure D-3. Squeeze Technique


Hammer and Anvil – The old hammer and anvil technique certainly gained in popularity during the Vietnam War. Within this technique, a Commander uses two forces as the name reflects. The Commander places some of his forces as the anvil. The purpose of the anvil is to essentially block the enemy. If at all possible, you will want to tie in the ‘anvil’ to terrain reinforcing the block. The Commander then utilizes the majority of his remaining forces as the hammer. The purpose of the hammer is to conduct an attack to force the enemy to move towards the anvil. In most cases, the hammer will conduct the eventual attack on the enemy (with the anvil fixing the enemy). However, it is also feasible for the anvil to conduct the attack as the enemy moves towards them. In either case, well-understood control measures are paramount during this technique.

Figure D-4. Hammer and Anvil Technique


Wedge – Within this technique, you are attempting to divide and eventually conquer the enemy. The goal of the Wedge is (as the word implies) is to drive a ‘wedge’ into the encircled enemy. This in turn creates the conditions for the destruction of the enemy. In execution, the Commander will utilize one designated force (preferably tank heavy) to conduct a quick attack into the enemy (at a designated location). The rest of the forces remain in position and put pressure on the other enemy forces inside the encirclement. The purpose of this is to ensure these forces cannot reinforce the enemy being attacked. Once the enemy has been destroyed by the ‘Wedge’ force, the Commander now has significant options available to him to destroy the rest of the encircled enemy.

Figure D-5. Wedge Technique


Escape Route – This technique involves a little old fashioned trickery. In the escape route, you put out a treat and hope the enemy takes the bait. In execution, the encircling force purposely opens up a few holes within its ‘perimeter. The hope is that the enemy will take the bait and believe that a breakout is possible. After a determined amount of the enemy has moved out of their defensive positions through the gaps; forces outside the encirclement attack the enemy. Obviously, this technique can be a challenge to pull off. However, the reward could be numerous moving targets in the open awaiting your call to initiate direct fire engagement!

Planning the Encirclement
Before we conclude this article, let’s spend some time discussing the planning that goes into executing an encirclement. We will provide you with some key nuggets and discuss control measures.

As mentioned previously, the planning of an encirclement can be pre-planned before the attack or be done in a matter of minutes if the opportunity presents itself. Below we will highlight some key considerations during planning:

· You can never plan too early for an encirclement. During the initial planning for an attack, discussions should arise regarding potential encirclement operations. As always, plan for success!

· Gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy is critical. In planning, you want to designate your forces best equipped to achieve this.

· If forces are available, you should plan to rotate forces executing the encirclement.

· You must have dedicated assets watching the enemy outside the encirclement. You must know how the enemy plans to assist the encirceled force. Assistance can come in the way of logistical support, fire support, and even attacks.

· The Commander must have a plan and forces available to counter-act that assistance.

· Any plan must keep the enemy mentally and physically engaged. The longer you let an encircled enemy do what he wants inside the encirclement; the more dangerous he becomes.

· During planning, you must get in the mind of your opponent. What do you anticipate his state of mind will be once he is encircled. His mental state leads directly to his potential courses of action.

· As a rule of thumb, the encircling force must be of at least equal strength of the force it is attempting to encircle. If the plan is to eventually destroy the enemy, more forces are likely needed.

· If available, use air assault or airborne forces to seize terrain that can assist in cutting off the enemy from any support.

· Do not forget determining how you will handle prisoners of war and displaced civilians during the execution of the encirclement. They can quickly tie up your assets and attention.

· Your plan for indirect fires must be three-fold. First, you must a plan for how indirect fires will support your maneuver into the inner and outer circle. Second, you must determine how indirect fires can repel any outside enemy attacks into the circles. Finally, you develop an indirect fires plan to support any subsequent attacks into the encircled enemy.

Control Measures

As always, one of the key actions during planning is to determine control measures. Control measures are imperative during the conduct of an encirclement. Since the execution of the encirclement is primarily an extension of an offensive operation; the control measures are very similar. Critical control measures include: 1) Boundaries to separate forces 2) Designated Battle Positions (BPs) to occupy around the enemy 3) Restricted Fire Lines (RFL)to ensure forces do not fire direct fire weapons into sister elements 4) Free Fire Areas (FFA) that enable all forces to fire direct fire weapons into and 5) Indirect fire measures such as target reference points and coordinated fire lines. Below you will find an example of typical encirclement control measures:

Figure D-2. Encirclement Control Measures


In this month’s article, we had two main objectives. First, we wanted to provide a general overview of the encirclement. Second, we sought to detail how a force executes an encirclement of its’ opponent. Within the article, we stressed the following key points:

· The Commander must determine if executing an encirclement is feasible and worth the resources it will require.

· Once the decision is made, execution must begin immediately. Every minute wasted is time the enemy can utilize to prepare for you or set conditions making the potential encirclement impractical.

· Control measures must be developed quickly and understood by all.

· During execution, you must be prepared for a variety of actions the enemy may attempt.

· Do not let the enemy to his own devices once he is encircled. He must be under constant pressure mentally and physically. If ignored, he will figure out a way to breakout.

· If you can get the enemy to surrender, all the better. This saves precious resources for the Commander.

· If the decision is made to go in; the Commander has several techniques he may utilize.


We will conclude our discussion on encirclement next month. Our focus is on the actions of the force that is encircled. We will focus on the options that are available to the force. We will highlight these options and then discuss the planning and execution of the option. It may be a bleak situation, but history is filled with units who were able to get out of this seemingly hopeless condition.

1 Comment

  1. kanye west: yo united states, im really happy for you and ima let you finish, but the germans had the best encirclements of ALL TIME!!!