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Posted on Apr 13, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 048: Encirclement – Part Two

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


"All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us…they can’t get away this time."

Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller


In our last article, we began our discussion on encirclement operations. We concentrated in two main areas. First, we provided a general overview of encirclement. Included in this was a brief (very brief) history of encirclement. Second, we focused on encirclement in the eyes of the attacker. Specifically, we looked at how you encircle your opponent and then detailed the methods and techniques you may utilize if you must destroy your encircled foe. Our discussion last month sets the conditions for your understanding of this month’s topic.



Obviously, the prospect of being encircled is not an inviting one. However, all is not lost. A unit does have some options left for him. These options will quickly go away if they are not executed in a timely manner. Our focus in this article is in two areas. We will first look at the actions a unit should undertake once their enemy has encircled them. Next, we will dissect how a unit executes a breakout of the encirclement. Let’s execute!

Encirclement – How does it Happen?

There are several scenarios placing a unit more at risk for encirclement. These include the following:

· During offensive operations when the enemy conducts a counterattack.

· During offensive operations when the unit is the overall lead or trail unit.

· During retrograde operations when the unit is executing a delay or withdrawal.

· During the defense when the unit is defending a strongpoint.

· If the unit is forward of the parent organization executing a form of reconnaissance.

· If the unit is defending an area that is isolated from sister units.

· If the terrain the unit is operating in is very restricted.

The ‘so what’ of this is that the prudent Commander should consider the possibility of encirclement if his unit is involved in the above scenarios.

So You are Encircled – Now What?

You are the Commander and the tactical situation is not good. Your understanding of the friendly, enemy and terrain situation leads you to believe you are danger of becoming encircled or have already been encircled. For you, the next minutes and hours are critical. Your decisions will determine the future of your unit.

Once encircled, you have some options. First, you can decide to defend the terrain in which you are encircled. Second, you can conduct a breakout of the encirclement. In other words, you will execute an offensive action to bust a hole in the encirclement.

There are several key questions the Commander must answer in determining his course of action. These include:

· Terrain. Is the terrain conducive for you to defend? Is the terrain conducive for you to conduct a breakout? Is the terrain conducive for the enemy to conduct his encirclement? What are the air avenues of approach into your position?

· Friendly. What is your combat power? What types of forces do you have? What is the morale of your unit? What is your logistical status? Can you be resupplied from the outside? What is your higher Commander’s intent? Does he anticipate sending forces from outside the encirclement to assist you?

· Enemy. What size/type force are they utilizing to execute the encirclement? Are they occupying an inner circle? Are they occupying an outer circle? What is the morale of their units? What do you anticipate their actions to be? Do you believe they will attempt to conduct an attack against your encircled forces?

With these questions answered (at least as best as possible with the information available), the Commander determines the ‘Now What’. Below we will address the critical pieces of the planning and execution of the available courses of action.


Figure D-6. Encircled Armor Division's Perimeter Defense

Once a unit becomes encircled, it is imperative they take the necessary actions to construct the best defense it can. Obviously, time is of the essence. There cannot be any delay in this. Every wasted minute makes it that much easier for your opponent to attack you if he decides to. Vice versa, every wasted minute will make it that much harder for you to execute a breakout if the decision is made.

In forming the defense, there are certainly many critical tasks that must be completed. In many of our previous articles, we have discussed these. Within the context of the encirclement defense, there are several key tasks and decisions that must be accomplished immediately. These include:

1) First of all, the chain of command must be established. In any environment or situation there must be an understood and functioning chain of command. This is especially true in the encirclement of a unit since there is the distinct possibility that there may remnants of units or soldiers without leadership. Before anything is done or decided; a chain of command must be in place. There must be an overall Commander in charge of the encircled units.

2) Security must be set immediately. As always, the principle of gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy must be adhered to. You must have eyes on the enemy. This enables you to determine his next move. Just as importantly, it allows you to plan for your next move.

3) Reorganization is key. As mentioned above, it is highly likely that units can become fragmented and soldiers can become separated from their parent organization. The overall Commander must get control of these personnel. Everyone must work and fight for someone. This is important in maintaining morale.

4) Communication with the outside. An encircled unit must at some point get support from the outside. In order to receive the right support, there must be communications between the encircled unit and the outside. Depending on the capabilities of the unit; this can relatively easy or extremely difficult. The encircled unit cannot be satisfied with just one form of communications established. It is critical to develop redundant means of communication. A smart opponent will strive to take away all means of communication from outside to inside.

5) Maintain or Improve Morale. Perhaps, more than anything, morale is the key to the future of the encircled unit. Certainly, knowing you are encircled by the enemy cannot be a happy feeling. Fear can sit in and fear can lead to paralysis in thought and deed. The key to maintaining good morale or to boost slipping morale is with leadership. Leaders must circulate amongst the unit and connect with their soldiers. If this is not achieved, soldiers will quickly lose faith in their leaders and their unit.

Having One of These on your Side is Always Good for Morale

With these achieved, the Commander now focuses on the other tasks and decisions related to his defense. With an understanding of the terrain, the enemy and himself, he now plans his defense. Below are some critical considerations:

· You must capitalize on the strengths of your available forces. If you have long range shooters – utilize them. If you have dismounted infantry – utilize them. The same principles apply as in any defense.

· With that said, you must position those forces in the terrain that takes advantage of those capabilities. Consequently, there may be times where the encircled force may have to fight to seize that terrain. If the terrain is that critical to establishing the defense; then this limited attack must certainly be considered seriously.

· In setting up the defense, you must anticipate the enemy’s next move. In last month’s article, we highlighted the methods and techniques an attacker may use to destroy his opponent. This must be kept in mind when developing the defense. Just in all defensive planning you develop enemy courses of action and determine at least his most probable and most dangerous.

· In your planning, do not forget to designate a reserve. A reserve in this operation is just as important (or even more so) as in any operation. Positioning of the reserve is critical.

· Forces outside the encirclement can be of significant value to the defense. If the proper coordination can be worked out; then assets such as attack aviation, fixed wing air, and field artillery can be of immense benefit. Obviously, the big risk here is friendly fire.

· In terms of the encircled force; all field artillery assets should centralized under the overall commander’s control. In this situation, the big concern is ammunition consumption. If nothing is coming in (supply-wise) then when it’s gone – it’s gone. There must be tight control on approval of all fire missions.

· As in any defense, engineers will be busy. The priorities are obviously counter-mobility and survivability. Engineer assets must be centrally controlled with a plan for their utilization.

· An encircled unit must also have a plan to react to the enemy’s use of chemical or biological weapons. In many cases, the encircled unit is in a pretty confined area. If the enemy has the capability and desire; the encircled unit can make for an extremely lucrative target.

· As mentioned earlier, supplies are a huge issue. If at the present time, you cannot get resupplied from the outside; then there must be tight control of everything. This is where discipline is critical. All units must understand the situation and comply with any directives sent by the commander. Available supplies must also be protected. A crafty enemy will be hunting for stockpiles and striving to destroy them by direct or indirect methods.


The other primary course of action an encircled unit has is to conduct a breakout. As the name implies, a breakout is the maneuver of the unit outside the enemy which is encircling them. This maneuver can be around or more than likely through the enemy. There are many reasons why you may conduct a breakout. These include:

· Of course if you are ordered to by your higher commander; you are likely going to conduct a breakout.

· Available combat power goes to both extremes. If a unit determines it does not possess sufficient combat power to defend itself; it will likely be forced to attempt a breakout. It might be their only possibility to avoid destruction. Vice versa, if a unit believes it has the needed combat power to conduct a breakout they will likely pursue it.

· Terrain is a huge consideration. If you do not have the necessary terrain to defend yourself; you cannot stay there. Consequently, the only way to get out of the situation is to conduct a breakout.

· As discussed several times, your supply state is a key factor in determining your course of action. If supplies/ammunition/fuel are in short supply and no help is imminent; you do not have the capability to stay in the defense for any extended period. Thus, the only other alternative is to conduct a breakout.


There are numerous decisions that must be made during the planning of a breakout. Below we will discuss some of the more important ones.

When to Execute?

This is a difficult decision. Obviously, you want to conduct the operation as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the enemy continues to tighten the noose around you. However, you do not want to execute until you have the conditions set for potential success. It is truly a fine balance. Depending on your equipment, you also want to begin execution during limited visibility. However, if the opponent is more technologically equipped than you; this may not be a viable option.

Where to Execute?

Of course, the best location to conduct your breakout is through the enemy’s weakest point in their encirclement. This weakest point may be terrain occupied by a weaker equipped or manned force or may be a gap within the encirclement. The key to determining this is with reconnaissance. This may your own reconnaissance or may be supplied from forces outside the encirclement. If possible, you also want to execute your breakout in the direction of friendly forces. This allows you to conduct a linkup and potentially receive valuable assistance.

How Do I Organize?

Organizing Your Force for the Breakout Figure D-7. Organization of Forces for a Breakout Operation

In organizing your force for the breakout; you have two key considerations. First, you want to organize your forces so that they have the best chance of achieving the breakout. Second, you want to consider how your forces will be configured after the breakout preparing to conduct your next operation. With these in mind, the commander has some options on the different groups he may break his force into. Below we will address these groups.

Rupture Force:

The critical action in achieving a breakout is creating the hole (or holes) in which to maneuver through. The element which is assigned to create the hole is termed the rupture force. The rupture force has three principal tasks. First, as mentioned above, they must open the hole. Second, once the hole is opened they must continue to widen it. The wider the hole; the quicker the breakout. Finally, they must ensure the hole remains open. This can be a challenge since the enemy will attempt to close it as soon as they can.

These are significant tasks and consequently, a commander must resource the rupture force with enough combat power to achieve success. The thinking is the force should be about one-third to two–thirds of the commander’s total combat power.

The keys to success for the rupture force is pretty clear, but difficult to accomplish. They must first attempt to achieve some surprise. Second, they must be organized and prepared to breach any obstacles they will encounter. The enemy is likely to construct obstacles as part of their encirclement. Finally, the unit must be prepared and organized to utilize significant firepower immediately during the breakout attempt.

If the rupture force is successful in their mission, they will normally fall in with the unit’s rear guard. If there is not a rear guard designated, the commander must utilize the rupture force as the rear guard.

Follow and Assume:

If a commander has sufficient forces, he may decide to assign forces in a follow and assume role. This force (as the name suggests) follows the rupture force and has several potential tasks. These are: 1) If the rupture force needs a little extra combat power to achieve their mission, the follow and assume force can provide this. 2) If the rupture force has taken heavy casualties and can no longer continue their mission; the follow and assume force can do exactly that – assume the rupture force mission. 3) If the rupture force is successful; the follow and assume force passes through them and continues the momentum of the operation. They will likely continue maneuvering forward until they link-up with other friendly forces.

Main Body:

The main body generally consists of the main command post, most of your combat service support elements, and any of your combat support units not task organized to your other elements. As a group this is obviously the element that is your slowest moving and least protected. Because of this you must ensure that the elements forward and following them are prepared to assist them if necessary. Another consideration within this group is command and control. It is a high probability that the main body will have many small elements in it. You must ensure that someone is in charge of their maneuver.

Truck LMTV Graphic

The Main Body will Contain many Wheeled/Soft-Skin Vehicles

Reserve Force:

If a commander does not standup a follow and assume force; he will generally designate a reserve to be prepared to conduct the aforementioned tasks. If there is a follow and assume force, then the reserve will be given be prepared missions that are related to continuing the momentum of the breakout. As is the case with any reserve, you want them to be mobile enough and powerful enough to get to where you require them quickly and with sufficient firepower to be successful. The reserve will normally position themselves behind the main body

Rear Guard:

Again, as the name suggests, the rear guard is the trail element in the breakout force. It usually consists of elements that were protecting the unit as they began the breakout. The main purpose of the rear guard is to protect the force from any attacks from the rear. In a breakout, this is quite common since the enemy completely surrounds you. As discussed earlier, if the commander has limited resources; he may have the rupture force assume the role of the rear guard after the rest of the unit has passed through them. The rear guard can have a very difficult job. Depending on the strength of the enemy, it may have to conduct a wide array of missions. This could include delays, withdrawals, and counterattacks. This is made even more challenging because often the rear guard is comprised of remnants from various other units. Consequently, command and control can be complicated.

Diversionary Force:

The final potential element a commander may designate is called a diversionary force. The goal of the diversionary force is simple: deceive the enemy as to the location of the rupture point and the time of execution. It attempts to achieve this by conducting a show of force at a different location. It is important that this is a location which the enemy believes is feasible to execute a breakout.

Certainly, the ability of the diversionary force to achieve their mission can be instrumental in the overall success of the breakout. If they can direct the enemy’s attention away from the rupture force (and the rupture point); they have greatly improved the potential for success.

Since the diversionary force mission is in essence a mission of deception; there are several things they can do to assist in their efforts. These include:

1) Utilizing smoke to draw the enemy’s attention and to hide the true combat strength of the diversionary force.

2) Firing artillery/mortars into the false rupture point.

3) Greatly increasing the amount of activity near the diversionary force to draw the enemy’s attention.

4) Increasing radio traffic on the communication nets of the diversionary force.

In summary, you are trying to portray the diversionary force as the rupture force in the enemy’s mind.

One final point to discuss is the possibility of success for the diversionary force. While the diversionary force is executing their mission; they may determine that there is a real chance they can successfully create the rupture point. If this is the case, the commander has a big decision to make. He may decide that the conditions are right to exploit success and thus, sends his unit through the rupture point created by the diversionary force. Vice versa, he may determine to keep his initial plan intact. If this is the case, the diversionary force will fall back and follow the rest of the unit through the rupture point created by the rupture force.


As in any planning, one of critical tasks to accomplish is the determination of control measures. The key control measures in a breakout are similar to those in any offensive-based operation. These include an axis of advance, a line of departure, phase lines, objectives, and a limit of advance for forces. Additionally, you will want to plan link-up points for the force to meet with forces outside the encirclement.


Below are some other areas that must be addressed in planning:

· Without question, one of most important areas that must be addressed in planning is casualty evacuation. In an environment such as this, casualties are almost inevitable. Obviously, leaving casualties behind is not an option. You must have a viable way to take your casualties with you during the breakout and get them the treatment they require outside the encirclement.

· Chances are during the breakout, you will not be able to take all your equipment and supplies with you. There will be vehicles that are broken down and other things that just cannot be transported. Consequently, you must develop a plan to destroy them during the breakout. You must be sure you do not destroy them too early or you may tip your hand.

· You must spend quality time in developing your reconnaissance plan. It is your ability to understand the strengths of the enemy and to determine where the most viable place to conduct the breakout that will set the conditions for success.

· Early in the planning process, you must decide how you will protect those elements that have challenges protecting themselves. These elements include your command and control nodes, your logistical units, and small combat support elements (signal, air defense, etc…). This is tough because your combat power is thin.

· During the planning process, you must keep a firm handle on what is going on outside the encirclement. These events will impact heavily on what you can and cannot do.

· Depending on the environment, there is a strong possibility that you may have displaced civilians in your area. You must consider how you will handle them and ensure they do not impact your breakout.


A Successful Breakout Requires Focused Combat Power at the Rupture Point

As we all know, no matter how detailed the planning is; the execution of any operation will not go as we planned. This is certainly the case with the breakout. However, if there was a perfect world; the execution of the breakout would look something like this:

1) The diversionary force would first set the conditions by conducting operations to deceive the enemy as to the location of the true rupture point and the time of execution.

2) Based on the tactical situation, the rupture force will then begin to maneuver to the rupture point. Their mission is to open up a hole, widen the hole, and then provide security as the rest of the force maneuvers through it.

3) The follow and assume force follows the rupture force. It is prepared to assist the rupture force if additional combat power is required. If the rupture force is successful on its’ own, the follow and assume force will quickly maneuver through the hole as the new main effort. Their mission is to now lead the force to the planned objective. In many cases, this will be to conduct a link-up with friendly forces located outside the encirclement.

4) The main body maneuvers behind the follow and assume element. If this element is committed at the rupture point, the overall commander will designate another element to lead the maneuver to the objective.

5) The reserve follows behind the main body. It has several be-prepared missions that it may be required to execute to assist the unit in achieving the breakout.

6) The final element is the rear guard. It will continue to be the trail element and provide security for the force. During the breakout, the unit is highly susceptible to attacks from the rear. The rear guard prepares to repel these attacks.

To assist in achieving success in the breakout, there are many things a unit can do. Below we have provided some of these:

· As highlighted earlier, the use of a diversionary force can pay huge dividends for a unit. Above, we stated that the normal use of the diversionary force is to utilize it before the rupture force begins its’ mission. However, you may also use it after the rupture force begins execution. Additionally, you may also designate multiple diversionary forces if you have the resources.

· The rupture force and the follow and assume elements (if designated) must have sufficient engineer assets with them. It is highly likely these forces will have to breach obstacles during their maneuver.

It is highly likely that breaching obstacles will be part of a breakout.

· During the execution of the breakout, the commander must be prepared to balance several operations at once. There is potential for some elements to be attacking, while others are in a defensive posture, and still others conducting a delay. It all depends on the tactical situation.

· You must have overwhelming combat power at the rupture point. This is vital to your success and you cannot be conservative with your resources.

· One of the most important decisions a commander will make is what to do with the follow and assume element. If there is any question that the rupture force may have difficulty in opening the rupture point, then you must have the follow and assume force assist them.

· Once the rupture point is open, it is all about momentum. In this regard, it is just like breaching an obstacle. Many units simply grind to a halt after a breach. They lose their energy and their focus. In the breakout, the forces maneuvering through the point must continue the momentum all the way to the designated objective.

· To assist in keeping this momentum, a commander must make prudent use of his indirect fires.

· As the execution phase begins, the commander must be flexible in his organization. Based on the tactical situation, tasks could change for his elements. For example, the rear guard could wind up assisting the rupture force and the diversionary force then becomes the rear guard. In this environment, anything is feasible.

· During the maneuver, you must protect your soft-skin vehicles (command and control, logistics, etc…). They are lucrative targets for the enemy.

· During the breakout, the force in total is a prime target for enemy air. The air defense assets must be positioned accordingly.

Below we have added two graphics which illustrate a division beginning the breakout and then showing the rupture point open with elements maneuvers through.

Figure D-8. Breakout by an Encircled Mechanized Division

A Division Beginning the Breakout

Figure D-9. Continued Breakout by an Encircled Mechanized Division

The Rupture Point is Open


Time is clearly not on your side once you are encircled. A commander must analyze the enemy, the terrain, and his forces and determine his next move. His options are not the best. He can defend in his current position and await assistance from the outside. He may elect to conduct a breakout and penetrate the enemy with hopes of linking-up with outside forces. If a breakout is executed, there are several key factors that assist in achieving success. These include:

1) Deceiving the enemy as to your intentions.

2) Conducting quality reconnaissance to determine the specific rupture point.

3) Concentrating combat power at the rupture point. and

4) Keeping the momentum of the maneuver throughout the breakout.

No matter if you are defending or conducting a breakout, leadership is critical. Despite the apparent ‘gloominess’ of the current situation; leaders cannot let the morale of the unit plunge. If this occurs, the ability of the unit to help themselves is almost non-existent.

Want to Learn More About Breakouts?

Below is an excellent pamphlet (20-234) the U.S. Army published in 1952 detailing how the Germans planned, prepped and executed breakout operations on the Eastern Front during World War II.


Our next article will begin a mini-series on airborne operations. During the series, we will cover terminology, doctrine, planning and execution. We will begin the series with a general overview of airborne operations. This will set the conditions for our subsequent articles. In preparation for the series, we want all of you to get in the gig-pit!


  1. This is great stuff. Thank you for providing the information. Recent graduate of ILE. New XO. Training a very green staff. I’ve been using all of your monthly articles as part of my training curriculum. Again Thank you.

  2. They are verry useful material on Tactics at all levels. I keep reading them everynow and then, and I dont get tired

    Please keep it up