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Posted on Feb 10, 2011 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 057 – Smoke Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland





In our last article, we concluded our discussion on military deception. After beginning our series with an introduction on military deception; we focused on the means and ways a commander has at his disposal to conduct military deception. Clearly, there is much available to a commander who would like to utilize deception in his operation. However, the commander must take these available means and ways and use them efficiently and effectively. He must synchronize them so that in combination they are believable to his enemy. Oh yeah, they must be focused at the right audience (the decision-maker) and be exposed to him at the right time and right place. That can be a tall order, but if achieved it can produce a large payoff!



Throughout our series (now nearly 60 articles!) we have touched on the use of smoke in operations. As we have highlighted, smoke can have a huge positive effect on your ability to achieve victory. Conversely, it can be extremely detrimental if not utilized properly. The utilization of smoke is part art and part science. In the next several articles, we will address the art and science aspects of smoke operations. We will begin with providing you the basics of smoke operations. These basics include the terminology, why smoke, types of smoke operations, battlefield applications, delivery systems, and the impact of weather and terrain on smoke operations. With an understanding of the basics, we will then delve into smoke use in the offense and then in defensive and retrograde operations. Let’s get started!


In a Galaxy (Desert) Not So Far Away:

We finished preparing the defense late in the evening and had established security to provide early warning for the coming attack. Our company (+) was facing an enemy Battalion Task Force three times our size with artillery and air support. The enemy would attack from a complex of hills and washes some 20 kilometers to the west. Their force consisted of two armor company teams; two mechanized company teams; and one Anti-Tank company totaling 15 platoons and 28 tanks to pit against our 6 tanks and 10 IFV’s. To complicate things, a group of high ranking VIP observers were put on our hill to watch the battle.

Our battle position was on a small cluster of hills surrounded by open desert. While this meant that no one could sneak up on us, it also meant that we were essentially defending an island and were subject to being isolated and surrounded. To win, we’d have to fire fast and be on target.

About an hour after sunrise, a thick smoke blanket began to build up at the southern end of the mountain range housing the enemy battalion. It completely obscured the south wall of the valley but left the northern two thirds of the valley uncovered. The smoke was a good 10 to 15 kilometers away from our position. A few of the VIP’s strolled down the hill to my position; I was in a foxhole on the military crest of the hill from where I could direct our artillery fires. The ranking officer asked me what I thought of the impressive smoke blanket. They seemed to be impressed with the display.

I told them that I thought the smoke was in the south because they were working their way through the foothills to the north and that even if they were behind the smoke, they would skyline themselves with the smoke at their back should they attack in the south. The VIP’s were visibly disappointed in my answer—either I had given them a poor estimate of the situation or I had accurately ‘read’ the enemy’s clever plan.

It turned out that the latter was the case. The enemy battalion kicked up quite a dust cloud heading to the opposite end of the valley. They popped out into the open desert and faced a hail of artillery fire. They zig-zagged their way through as best they could only to run into our obstacle network. They attempted to breach and bypass the toughest obstacles and were clobbered by direct fire over-watching the obstacles. We hammered them and held our position. Their smoke not only failed them, it actually helped us!

* The above highlights many lessons regarding smoke operations that we will address in great detail in the coming articles. These include: 1) You must know both the art and science of smoke operations to be successful. 2) Improperly used smoke can have a huge negative impact on your operations. 3) Weather and terrain play a significant role in smoke operations. 4) As with everything, you must have a distinct purpose in your anticipated utilization of smoke.


In doctrinally terms, smoke is an artificially created obscurant normally produced by burning or vaporizing another product. In far simpler terms, it is something produced in the air which affects the ability to see operations on the ground. However, make no mistake about it; there is significant science (as well as art) in the development and production of smoke.



Smoke is truly a combat multiplier. It can be extremely valuable in all types of operations – offense, defense, retrograde, deception efforts, etc… Below we will address some of the ways smoke can assist in achieving your mission. We will go into more detail on these effects in the upcoming articles on smoke.

  • It can deny the opponent intelligence about you (takes his eyes away).
  • It can dramatically reduce the effectiveness of your enemy in using indirect and direct fires against you.
  • Deceiving the enemy as to your intent in operations.
  • It can degrade the ability of your foe in operating rotary wing aircraft (particularly in Nap of the Earth flying).
  • It can disrupt enemy mounted maneuver. This can cause him to abandon certain maneuver techniques and dramatically slow down his maneuver times.
  • It can hinder your opponent’s ability to conduct coordinated operations.
  • It can make it far more challenging for your foe to exercise command and control.
  • It can increase the possibility of your enemy conducting fratricide within his units.
  • It can be highly effective as part of a deception operation.
  • It can simply add more chaos to an already chaotic battlefield.

Of course, these same effects can be achieved by the enemy on you through smoke. What’s good for the goose…


We place smoke into two categories – hasty and deliberate. Let’s discuss each below.


Just as the name implies, hasty smoke operations occur with very minimal planning. They generally occur when smoke is needed – NOW! For example, hasty smoke may be needed when you want to conceal the maneuver of a unit who is exploiting a window of opportunity. Vice versa, you may be in a defensive posture and are threatened to be overrun and smoke may be needed to conceal your maneuver rearward. In both cases, smoke would need to be generated quickly with very minimal planning.

Because the need for smoke is almost immediate, it is normally generated by a unit’s internal systems. This can include on-board smoke generators, smoke grenades, smoke pots, and perhaps, mortar smoke (if you have the time to allow them to shoot the mission). Again, you want to utilize systems that are under your control and can produce smoke quickly. (We will discuss delivery systems later in this article). Hasty smoke is usually produced in a small area for a short period of time.

As a caveat to the above, always have a plan to utilize hasty smoke. For instance, it is always wise to preplan some smoke targets in areas in which you believe smoke may be necessary. Additionally, ensure your internal systems are ready to provide smoke if the time comes. That means conducting some pre-combat inspections of your equipment and materials.


Deliberate smoke operations are characterized by much more detailed planning than hasty smoke operations. The use of deliberate smoke is generally preplanned and is normally a key part of a plan and its use is anticipated to greatly facilitate success. Since deliberate smoke is normally preplanned; it is usually tied to a specific time, event, or location during an operation. For example, during an offensive operation smoke may be utilized in an area of a known obstacle that you plan to breach. This preplanned smoke can greatly assist you in conducting the breach. In the defense, you may use smoke in certain areas to break up the formations of attacking enemy units or disrupt their command and control during their maneuver.

Deliberate smoke can be delivered by a variety of means. The biggest difference between delivery methods is that deliberate smoke is often produced by external systems (that means it is not organic to your unit). The major external system utilized is artillery delivered smoke. This is especially utilized when you may want smoke delivered to an area that is considerable distance away from your present location. Consequently, artillery may be the only viable means to deliver smoke at a distance. Because of the circumstances when deliberate smoke is utilized it is generally produced in large areas for a long duration.


Smoke can be utilized in a variety of ways. Below we will address the most common applications of smoke.


We use obscuring smoke on an opponent to degrade his ability to see us within and beyond their location. To achieve this, smoke is delivered directly on or in front of the enemy’s position. In terms of delivery systems, really anything is feasible (artillery, mortars, smoke grenades, etc… It all depends on the tactical situation. Consequently, obscuring smoke could certainly fall into the category of hasty or deliberate. Here are some examples of obscuring smoke:

  1. In the offense, you may be concerned about the anti-tank weapon systems your enemy has dug-in in his defense. A way to greatly diminish the effectiveness of these weapons (some with long tracking times) is to utilize obscuring smoke on or near these positions. Effective use of obscuring smoke could be a great asset in your attack.
  2. In the defense, obscuring smoke can be extremely beneficial when used against an attacking force. Properly utilized smoke can affect an attacking force in many ways. These include disrupting their maneuver tempo, forcing them to use other maneuver routes (inadvertently or advertently), changing maneuver formations and simply causing a little chaos or disorder). Obviously, the key in making this effective is getting the right amount of smoke at the right time and right place.


We use screening smoke on an enemy to degrade his ground and aerial observation of us, conceal friendly maneuver, facilitate breaching operations, or concealing key locations such as assembly or supply areas. To achieve this, smoke is delivered between friendly and enemy forces. In regards of delivery systems, we normally utilize smoke generators, smoke pots, and various aerial smoke delivery systems. We break down screening smoke into three categories. These are:

  1. Smoke Haze – As the name implies, a haze is a relatively light concentration of smoke utilized to screen. Its purpose is to hinder the enemy’s ability to observe you, while not disrupting your ability to conduct operations.
  2. Smoke Blanket – A smoke blanket is far more dense concentration of screening smoke. When a Commander wants the maximum amount of smoke to conceal his actions or location of his forces from enemy observation (ground and air); he will want a smoke blanket. Because of the denseness of the smoke, a commander does take some risk when determining a smoke blanket is needed. This is, of course, that the smoke intended to affect the enemy may have the same effect on you.
  3. Smoke Curtain – A smoke curtain is a dense vertical concentration of smoke aimed at preventing or degrading the enemy’s ground observation of you. A commander will not prevent observation from the air. Thus, you will normally use a smoke curtain when you have air superiority or parity. This will then allow you to observe the enemy from the air.


In our past couple articles regarding deception we mentioned many times the impact smoke can have in your deception efforts. The use of smoke itself is very unlikely to deceive a smart foe. However, smoke, in conjunction with other means can be extremely effective in selling a deception story.


Unlike the above applications, there are some uses of smoke that are of a much shorter duration. One of these is marking smoke. Units may use marking smoke for a variety of reasons. These include marking targets, drop zones/landing zones, friendly positions, obstacles etc…. There are truly numerous ways in which smoke can be utilized in marking. Of course, the critical aspect of this is ensuring there is clear communication between those marking and those observing the marking. Marking smoke can be delivered by a wide array of means. Probably, the most common is the old reliable smoke grenade.


The last major use of smoke is in signaling. On a chaotic battlefield when verbal communications may be challenging; the use of smoke in the signaling mode can be critical. Signaling smoke can be used to shift fires, to start an assault, to end an assault, communicate to aircraft, etc… Again, the critical aspect of this is ensuring there is clear communication between those marking and those observing the marking. Certainly, smoke grenades are valuable means for signaling. They are especially versatile because of the variety of colors that can be used.


As we have discussed earlier, there are many means available to a commander to deliver smoke. We place them into the categories of projected smoke, self-defense smoke, and generated smoke. This is not to say you will only use one type of delivery system in an operation. Obviously, you will likely use several types of systems to capitalize on the strengths of the particular system. Let’s discuss each.

Projected Smoke

This is your long distance smoke. When you have a requirement for smoke and the location is some distance away; you will need projected smoke. Projected smoke can be produced by several systems. These include: artillery rounds, mortar rounds, fixed wing aircraft, and naval gunfire. As noted above, the key advantage of projected smoke is the distance in which the systems can deliver smoke. However, there are some disadvantages to their use. First, projected smoke munitions are lethal munitions. Thus, if they physically fall on friendly vehicles or troop concentrations they can cause casualties. Second, the munitions to fire smoke are fairly large. Consequently, if you want to sustain the smoke you may have some logistical concerns. Finally, the firing of smoke munitions can tie up tubes which may be needed to fire other types of munitions. Because of their advantages and disadvantages, we normally use projected smoke in producing obscuring smoke and to begin screening smoke operations.

Self-Defense Smoke

As you would surmise, self-defense smoke needs to be generated quickly. Because of the need for responsiveness, it is produced mainly from individual vehicles. You will find many vehicles are equipped to produce smoke. These vehicles normally will generate the smoke in two ways. First, they may have smoke grenade launchers attached to the vehicle. Normally, the launching is triggered by a switch inside the vehicle. Grenade launchers are clearly responsive. However, they do come with some drawbacks. These include: 1) Once the grenades are fired; the launchers must be reloaded. To do this, a Soldier must go outside the vehicle and load the grenades. This makes the soldier very vulnerable. 2) The firing of the grenades (projectiles) can be dangerous to friendly soldiers outside. 3) The firing of the launchers can also produce signatures which can give the vehicle’s position away to the enemy.

The other way a vehicle can generate smoke is through its’ exhaust system. There are several types of vehicles out there equipped to do this. These vehicles contain systems which produce smoke and the end product travels through the vehicle’s exhaust. These systems can be very effective in not only producing self-defense smoke, but can also generate screening smoke if needed. These systems do possess some negatives. These include: 1) The generation of smoke from the rear of the vehicle can silhouette the vehicle to the enemy. This can make the vehicle an extremely lucrative target for your opponent. 2) Smoke can only be generated when the vehicle is running. 3) On most vehicles, the utilization of this system can burn an extra gallon of fuel per minute. This adds to the requirements of your logistical system.

Generated Smoke

One way to augment your projected and self-defense smoke is through the use of generated smoke. Generated smoke is produced primarily through smoke grenades, smoke pots, and portable smoke generators. Generated smoke is particularly impacted by the weather – especially winds. Use the winds smartly and generated smoke can be very effective. A change in wind direction or wind speed can make generated smoke useless and many times, a hindrance. In regards to portable smoke generators, you must take into account security for the Soldiers who operate these generators. They can be extremely vulnerable to enemy direct and indirect fire.

Obviously a Great Way to Produce Generated Smoke”


There is much to consider in the implementation of smoke. For a Commander and his staff there are many factors that affect the placement of smoke. Many of these fall into the areas of weather and terrain. Below we will discuss some of the key elements that must be considered in the planning of smoke. These factors have a huge impact on the ultimate effectiveness of your smoke.


Wind – Direction and Speed are Critical”

Wind Direction – As you would expect wind direction is critical in the management of smoke. You must know the wind direction as you prepare to utilize smoke and if this direction will change as you produce your smoke. This can obviously be a significant challenge dealing with Mother Nature. Swirling, constantly changing winds can make the use of smoke almost impossible. Knowing your wind direction assists you deciding where to initiate your smoke so it flows where you want it to. This is clearly a lot of art and science, with a touch of luck. When we discuss wind direction, we categorize winds into the following:

Head Winds – These blow from the objective to your smoke source. Obviously, these are not conducive to smoke operations.

Tail Winds – These are the winds you hope for when you want to use smoke. These winds travel directly opposite as a head wind. Thus, they move from your smoke source to the objective.

Flanking Winds – These winds blow across your objective and your source of smoke.

Quartering Winds – These types of winds blow between your tail winds and flank winds from your smoke source to the objective.

Wind Speed – Just as critical as the wind direction is wind speed. As you would guess, you want some wind speed to enable your smoke to drift from source to objective. The ultimate wind speed for smoke is from 5- 10 miles per hour. If wind speed is lower than that you will find that it will linger far longer at the source. Thus, it may not get to where you want it, when you need it. If winds are too strong, smoke will move far too quickly across your objective. When winds are very strong, but smoke is a necessity, you will want to use a source that can produce significant smoke. The likely source for this is a smoke generator. One additional thing to remember is different types of smoke will react differently to wind speed. For instance, in higher winds, white phosphorus (WP) smoke will react differently than hexachloroethane (HC) smoke.

Temperature Gradients – It may be surprising to some, but temperature itself has little impact on smoke operations. However, what is critical in smoke operations is what we call the temperature gradient. The temperature gradient is the difference in air temperature at half a meter to that at four meters. It is this increase, decrease, or no change which impacts your use of smoke. Let’s look at each.

Increase in Temperature. When there is an increase in temperature we call these stable conditions for producing smoke. This limits air movement and consequently, keeps smoke low to the ground. This temperature gradient is ideal for utilizing smoke as long as there is variable wind speed and direction.

Neutral Temperature. As the name suggests, no change in temperature means we have neutral conditions for smoke. When the temperature is neutral, the conditions are best if you want to produce smoke blankets or haze.

Decrease in Temperature. When there is a decrease in temperature we term these unstable conditions for producing smoke. This is because this leads to turbulence in the air and causes your smoke to rise. When smoke rises it begins to break up.

Humidity – The humidity in the air plays a big part in smoke effectiveness. Here’s a little Tactics 101 science: Smoke particles will absorb moisture from the air. Thus, the more moisture in the air; the more the smoke particle will absorb. The result is that the smoke particle expands and contributes to making your smoke denser. Translation: The more humidity you have; the better for your production of smoke.

Precipitation – The actual effect of rain on smoke is not really dramatic. However, precipitation does enter into the equation in smoke planning and the potential for its use. Rain in itself is excellent for reducing visibility. The harder the rain the better for reducing visibility. So if rain is going to significantly affect visibility, there is no need to expend resources in generating smoke. If smoke is used in the rain it usually assists in having the smoke hug the ground and tends to spread it out over a larger area.

Clouds – When you want to use smoke take a look at the sky. If there are plenty of clouds in the sky, then the conditions are more conducive for smoke use. If there is a clear sky, the conditions are not as suitable for smoke.

A Clear Sky – Not Good for Smoke”


As with everything in tactics, terrain has a huge impact in smoke usage and effectiveness. There is some terrain that is made for smoke usage. On the other hand, there exist types of terrain that do not assist smoke effectiveness or in some cases negates it. Let’s discuss these ramifications below.

Plain, flat terrain with little variance – This type of terrain is not the best to utilize smoke. Without any obstructions, smoke particles (streamers) just take longer to form together and make effective smoke. Here’s some more science stuff: Without some type of obstruction (trees, buildings, etc…) it takes longer for the individual streamers to spread out and then subsequently form with the other individual smoke streamers. As these streamers combine, your smoke becomes more effective.

Over Water – Smoke flowing across open water has the same issues as in flat terrain. Better to just wait for the fog to roll in!

Wooded Areas – As we discussed above, smaller obstructions are good for producing effective smoke. In semi-scientific terms, here is how it works. Smoke streamers are traveling along (slowly) and then they hit an obstruction (tree/trees). This causes the streamers to quickly break apart as they hit the tree. After the streamers pass the tree, they quickly reform. This reformation makes the streamers stronger than they were before. The result is a more dense smoke and a smoke that forms much more quickly.

Large Hills/Mountains – These of course are obstructions as well. However, they are a little bigger than we would like for producing smoke. In this case, as the smoke streamers hit these features they begin to disperse, but since these features are much larger it just takes too long for them to reform. Consequently, this results in a very uneven smoke buildup.

The Time of Day

The time of day will impact on the effectiveness of smoke. The best period of time to use smoke is from one hour before the sun completely sets at night to about four hours after it has risen the following day. That is why you normally see smoke being produced right at dawn. The next best time is from around 10 to 12 in the morning. The least favorable period for smoke effectiveness is from around noon until late afternoon.

Sunset or Sunrise are Great Times to Use Smoke”


We covered quite a bit of stuff in this article. Here are the takeaways: 1) Smoke is a true combat multiplier and can assist a commander in numerous ways. 2) There are many systems available for a commander to deliver smoke. Each has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of achieving the effect you would like. 3) Weather plays a significant role in the effectiveness of smoke. If you do not consider weather in your planning and in execution you are simply wasting this resource. 4) Smoke will behave differently in various types of terrain.


In our next article, we will focus on two areas. First, we will address some of the key questions the commander should ask himself as he plans to use smoke. Second, we will discuss the art and science of utilizing smoke in the offense. Obviously, smoke can be a huge combat multiplier in the offense. However, it must be synchronized with the overall maneuver plan. If a commander and his staff can effectively synchronize its use, he has certainly increased his potential for victory. Next month, we will talk about how you can take advantage of smoke in the offense.



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