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Posted on Mar 17, 2011 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 058 – Smoke in the Offense

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland



In our last article, we provided you a basic introduction to smoke operations. In our discussion we addressed such topics as terminology, why we utilize smoke, types of smoke operations, battlefield applications, delivery systems, and the impact of weather and terrain on smoke operations. Throughout our article we stressed the fact that successful smoke operations are a combination of art and science. Because of this, smoke employment is very challenging. Use it correctly and it will pay huge dividends. If you fall short in either the art and science and you will likely cause more harm than good to your unit.



OPFOR Defense of 876

We had been up all night fighting the recon / counter recon battle. Our defense was anchored on the east side of a rough and rocky hill riddled with hidden ravines and washes. It is marked as Hill 876 on the map (see above) and it’s a death trap for attackers. Hill 876 rises out of the flat desert like an island at sea. It dominates the flat and open desert all around it and since it sits in a valley; there’s no way to get around it without coming within range of the guns of its defenders.

We felt confident about our defensive position. We dug in 10 BMP’s (tracked fighting vehicles) and 3 T-72 Tanks and laced the wadi’s with dismounted infantry. The surrounding flats were filled with minefields and wire obstacles designed to cause the attackers to lose momentum and turn left and right, exposing themselves to our guns and artillery. The surrounding desert accommodated our construction of three devastating fire sacks (engagement areas) that would prevent the enemy from either bypassing us or over-running us.

We were facing a reinforced Brigade Combat Team (BCT), but we felt confident that this would be another rout for the ‘BLUEFOR’ by the Opposing Force (OPFOR)! We were in for a bitter surprise…

An hour or so after sunrise we saw a series of smoke rounds hit the ground followed by the emplacement of smoke generators and troops hauling smoke pots. They were out of direct fire range and the artillery smoke was just enough to make it difficult to pinpoint their location for accurate artillery fires. It was a cool morning so the smoke hung low and thick in the air and, to make matters worse, it drifted towards us. This time the BLUEFOR was really using its smoke well. We still figured we could hammer them during their dash across the flat desert floor.

The attacking BCT was patient. They allowed the smoke to build for some 30 to 40 minutes at the end of which, we heard the ominous rumble of engines. It was like hearing, but not seeing the Indy 500. It was apparent that the entire enemy formation was on the move. That meant some 60 plus combat vehicles from the deadly Bradley/Abrams team were on the move. We’d have to be quick on the trigger.

It turned out, we couldn’t be quick enough. The lead vehicle blasted out of the smoke blanket headed east at full speed with its own on board smoke blowing hard. It was an M1A1 and the obstacles we had built didn’t even slow it down—they’d been breached under the smoke blanket. In a matter of minutes two enemy companies had completely blown past us to the north and two more slammed us from the south. It was fast and furious and left most of our combat vehicles destroyed by enemy direct fire, their yellow ‘whoopie’ lights flashing thus, symbolizing their battle damaged status.

The only OPFOR left in control of the hill were the dismounted infantry. We still had plenty of guys in good positions and felt we could definitely hold the hill for some time, or so we thought. The entire battlefield was shrouded in thick grey smoke and the enemy tanks and Brads had disappeared to the west almost as fast as they had appeared in the east. An eerie calm settled in as we waited in the virtual darkness of the smoke for the enemy to make his next move. We didn’t hear any engine noise. Maybe they decided that they weren’t going to tackle the infantry fight thus leaving the hill in our possession. Although we didn’t hear anything, we did begin to see something emerging from the west—the opposite direction of the original attack. It was a line of infantry, on foot, that looked to be a kilometer long from north to south. There were Bradley’s to their rear providing overwatch. We were about to get are butts kicked for the second time in less than three hours!

This time, the defense of Hill 876 was a crushing OPFOR defeat. The BLUEFOR used smoke to cut down our range to such an extent that they were on top of us before we could fire. They breached our obstacles and got their vehicles and troops close to the hill without having to dodge our artillery. They added mass, everyone hitting us at once, and speed, not sitting still here and there consolidating. We had got whipped and clearly smoke was the key to our opponent’s success.


In this month’s segment, we will address the ways a Commander can utilize smoke in the offense. We will offer some techniques on how the Commander can make the most of this important, yet many times mis-used asset. We will provide analysis on the ‘DOs’ of smoke in the offense. Just as importantly, we will discuss the DON’Ts of offensive smoke. There is clearly a fine balance of art and science in the planning, preparation, and execution of smoke in the offense. The Commander who understands the science and can apply the art can take advantage of this asset. Let’s get started.


Before we get into specifics, let’s highlight some of the general ways in which smoke can assist the Commander in the offense.

  • Smoke can be a tremendous asset in any deception efforts you may employ against the defender. These efforts can include:
    • Disguising the overall strength of the attack force.
    • Mask the maneuver techniques you are utilizing.
    • Make it difficult to determine the types and mix of vehicles you are employing in the attack.
    • Related to the above is make it challenging for the enemy to determine the types and mix of vehicles you are not employing in the attack.
    • Confuse the enemy as to the location of your main effort, supporting efforts, and reserve.
    • Disguise the precise time of the attack.
  • Smoke can blind the eyes of the defender’s forward reconnaissance. Take the defender’s forward eyes out early and the attacker possesses a huge advantage. You are now dictating the fight.
  • During an attack, it is highly likely that the attacker will face obstacles in his maneuver axis. Some of these can be very complex and others may be little more than a nuisance. If the obstacles tend to be on the complex side, smoke can greatly assist in the breaching of those obstacles.
  • Smoke can be a huge hindrance to enemy gunners in the defense. It can make it extremely challenging for gunners to track fast maneuvering vehicles in the attack. Weapon systems which have longer tracking times (many anti-tank weapons) are especially affected by smoke.
  • Smoke can make it very difficult for enemy fire support observers to spot vehicles in the attack. Consequently, this makes enemy indirect fire weapon systems (field artillery, mortars, etc…) much less effective.
  • Smoke can be utilized to protect assets. This may include logistical units (maintenance, supply, ammunition) that may have stopped maneuver to set-up support operations. This could also include command and control elements which may have halted.
  • Properly used smoke can be highly effective in silhouetting vehicles in the defense.
  • Well-timed smoke may make it difficult for the enemy to use maneuver in his defense. This maneuver could be the movement of its’ reserve or if the enemy is employing a mobile defense this could be the maneuver of its’ strike force.
  • Properly placed smoke can isolate enemy units and enable you to either focus your maneuver on that unit or make them irrelevant as you maneuver on other units.
  • Smoke simply can create chaos. This chaos can be seen in the defender’s actions, or just as importantly, lack of action.


Can Signal the Start of Operations – We can’t tell you how many times we saw units initiate their attack by ‘smoking’ their Line of Departure (LD). In their attempt to conceal their operation, they actually let their opponent know they were commencing their attack. Another thing that the smoke did was add chaos at the start of the mission. Many times the smoke was so thick that command and control and formations fell apart in the initial minutes of their maneuver. Certainly, not a good sign of things to come.

Silhouette Vehicles – As we discussed earlier, smoke is very good at silhouetting vehicles. If it is placed in the right location it makes vehicles extremely lucrative to gunners. As an attacker, you must be extremely careful with smoke. Poor usage of smoke can easily silhouette attacking vehicles or dismounted soldiers. This normally occurs when you overrun your smoke during the attack. Consequently, you maneuver out of the smoke buildup and vehicles/Soldiers are silhouetted. Nothing makes an enemy gunner happier than to see vehicles/Soldiers coming out of the smoke. This makes for highly lucrative targets. The lesson is to walk your smoke in. This of course takes good timing and synchronization of smoke/smoke employment assets/maneuver.

Tighten Formations – It is just human nature that smoke will draw formations closer together. Smoke can cause some uncertainty and discomfort with vehicle drivers/commanders and Soldiers. This in turn leads to less dispersion and more bunching up. This is a good thing for enemy gunners, provided they can see through the smoke!

No Visual Cues – For units which may use visual cues in their attack (hand and arm signals, flags, etc…), smoke can be a problem. This impacts not only mounted maneuver, but dismounted maneuver as well. Well-trained units will meet the challenge. Untrained units, well that is another story.

Cause Chaos – It is a simple fact that units not trained to operate in smoke will not operate well in smoke. Smoke can create uneasiness in some leaders. This uneasiness can be felt by Soldiers. When this occurs, an attack can quickly turn into a chaotic situation.

Can Create Over-Confidence – Contrary to the above, smoke can lead to over-confidence in some units. This can lead to some sense of invincibility and to assume more risk than normal.

More Maneuver Time – There is no question that smoke will result in taking you longer to get from your LD to your objective. This must be considered in execution timelines, synchronization of actions, etc… Failure to consider this can lead to piecemeal attacks and attacks which do not fully utilize all the combat multipliers available to a Commander.


Planning is critical in smoke operations. Effective smoke employment in the offense just does not happen. It takes much analysis and a combination of art and science. Below we will highlight some of considerations and decisions that must be addressed in the planning process.

  • The first thing you must know is the maneuver plan. The maneuver plan drives everything not vice versa. With an understanding of the maneuver plan, you can determine how smoke can be utilized to assist in mission accomplishment.
  • There are many questions you must answer before crafting your smoke plan. These include (for more detail on some of these subjects see last month’s article
    • What assets do you have available to produce smoke? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these platforms?
    • How well-trained are your units/assets in employing smoke?
    • How well-trained are your units in operating in smoke?
    • Have you utilized smoke against this enemy in the past? How effective or ineffective was it?
    • Does the enemy possess technology which can negate some of the effectiveness of smoke?
    • What types of countermeasures do you expect the enemy to use when you use smoke?
    • What types of terrain will smoke be employed in?
    • What time of day will smoke be employed in?
    • What will be the weather conditions during the planned time of employment? Wind Direction? Wind Speed? Temperature Gradients? Humidity? Precipitation? All will factor in your plan.
  • Although you will likely plan for deliberate smoke in an attack, do not forget to plan for hasty smoke. The best way to do this is to analyze the ‘what-ifs’. “What if this happens? How can hasty smoke assist us?”
  • When do you want your smoke to start? When do you want it to stop?
  • Within your plan you must plan for redundant smoke. If smoke is integral to the operation you can’t depend on one source to emplace that smoke. This can be very challenging and in cases, unachievable based on some of the distances you may have to emplace from. However, if an asset is unavailable for various reasons you should strive to have back-ups.
  • As in all areas of tactics, communication is critical. This is certainly the case in smoke operations. One of the key aspects of planning is to ensure that a communications plan is wired (sort to speak). It is imperative that the units emplacing the smoke, be it a smoke platoon, mortar platoon, field artillery battery have communications with the decision makers and units on the ground. If these links are broke, the results could be disastrous. As always, plan for redundant communication means.
  • You must plan early on for protection of your smoke emplacement assets. Resources such as smoke generators and smoke platoons may require added security (infantry squads) for protection. If these resources/units are attacked you should have a plan to maneuver forces to assist in repelling those attacks.
  • You must conduct your science work during planning. This includes calculating how much smoke you will need, the duration of smoke, the amount of fuel or supplies needed to generate the smoke you require. This is the stubby pencil work that must be done.


Making effective smoke in the offense does not just happen. Once planning is complete, you must prepare your assets and units to employ smoke. Below are some keys to making your preparation as beneficial as possible:

Moving Units Where They Need to Be – Depending on your smoke emplacement capabilities, you may need to preposition some assets to emplace smoke where you need it, when you need it. If this is the case, you must ensure these assets have the required security they need. A smart enemy will have reconnaissance assets looking for these assets. If they find them, they will take the necessary measures to deal with them.

Information Flow – Once the plan for smoke is set, it must be disseminated. Units need to know the timing and location of smoke emplacement. If marking smoke is to be utilized, then those on the ground must know what specific smoke stands for.

Logistics – Sustained smoke can tax some portions of your logistical system. You must prepare to resupply these assets and units. During prep time, get them the required fuel (this includes fuel to run vehicles and generators), ammunition, etc… they will need during execution. Some types of supplies can also be prepositioned forward if the tactical situation allows.

Pre-Combat Inspections – Pre-combat inspections are a necessity. Before crossing the LD, you must ensure you have the right equipment, supplies etc… to fight the fight. Minutes before firing up the smoke generators is not the time to find out you forgot something essential to emplacing your smoke. Forgetfulness is unforgiving. Proper pre-combat inspections can assist greatly in this.

Security – Throughout the preparation phase of the attack, you must focus on security. This security is two-fold. First, you must be vigilant in the security of your smoke units/equipment. A smart enemy is always looking to take out early any of his opponent’s unique role vehicles. This could be done by direct and/or indirect fire. Consequently, it is critical units conduct patrolling, set-up observation posts, prepare to repel enemy attacks, and disperse their vehicles. Many of these are significant challenges since these type of units usually have minimal manning and capabilities. Second, units most exercise sound operations security (OPSEC). This means not tipping your hand too quick as to your intentions to utilize smoke.

Link-Ups – It is not a wise decision to let your smoke assets maneuver alone during the attack. This can make them very susceptible to a lot of bad things. One way to mitigate this risk is to attach them to a maneuver unit during their maneuver to the location where they will initiate smoke. If the decision is made to do this, the link-up of the smoke elements and maneuver units should occur in the preparation phase. Attempting to conduct this link-up just prior to the attack is a recipe for disaster.

Rehearsals – In any operation rehearsals are critical. In smoke operations, there are several rehearsals that smoke operations must be addressed. First of all, smoke must be discussed in the maneuver rehearsal. It must be understood how smoke will be utilized during execution. Second, those units who are actually emplacing smoke must hold their own internal rehearsal. It is here where we ensure everyone understands the plan and their role in execution.

Testing the Winds – In our last article, we stressed the affect of winds on smoke. During the preparation phase, you must be continually checking wind direction and speed. After this past winter, meteorologists may not be a personal favorite of many. However, when it comes to smoke emplacement, the ‘combat’ meteorologist must be listened to.

Reconnaissance – Reconnaissance is good in any operation or action. Depending on the technology a unit possesses you can do a pretty thorough recon of an area from a good distance. Certainly, you want to know the terrain as well as you can. This assists you in determining how smoke will react with the terrain.

Maintenance – Maintenance of your vehicles/equipment/weapon systems never ends. This is particularly true with smoke emplacement vehicles/equipment. It just seems that smoke units are particularly vulnerable to ‘gremlins’. They only way to not let these gremlins do a number on you is focused maintenance. During prep time, is a key period for this maintenance to be conducted.


Planning and preparation are over. It is now time to execute. As you are well aware, things do not go as planned.

Timely Decisions – We all know the criticality of making timely decisions in combat. Seconds wasted in decision-making can have a fateful impact. This imperative is also so true in smoke emplacement during execution. As we have addressed, there are many variables that can influence the application of smoke during the attack. It is almost inevitable that one or more of these variables will arise and consequently your smoke plan needs to be relooked quickly. If a change must be made, then the decision must be made immediately. Changes that could occur include:

  • Wind speed/direction changes may result in a need to adjust your smoke plan. This could be shifting locations or even smoke emplacement assets.
  • A smoke emplacement asset could become destroyed, become maintenance down, or may not get to the right location at the right time. Obviously, this means making a decision on shifting assets or even having to discontinue your smoke plan.
  • Because of success of your attack or unfortunately success on your foe’s part, you may change your maneuver plan. A change in the maneuver plan will likely result in a change in the smoke plan.
  • Vice versa, because of your success or the enemy’s success the result could be a change in the enemy’s plan. If your intelligence determines this, the result could be a change in the smoke plan.

Prepare for Counter-measures – A good enemy is not going to sit back and let you put in your smoke and maneuver when you are ready. Consequently, you must be prepared during execution for his counter-measures. There are two likely counter-measures the enemy will employ. First, is an increase in his indirect fire use. Now we did not say effective indirect fire. However, if the enemy can’t see you his is apt to fire more indiscriminate artillery/mortar rounds at you. Another counter-measure commonly utilized is that your smoke use perpetuates enemy smoke use. What’s good for the goose …

Smoke at the Breach – As we discussed earlier, smoke can be a great benefit during the breaching of obstacles. It obviously conceals what you are doing and where you are doing it. However, that same smoke can make your breaching efforts a little tougher. Timing is critical (isn’t it always!) with smoke emplacement. It can’t be emplaced too early or too late. It must be emplaced where you need it to be effective. It must be a sustained smoke so it doesn’t dissipate while you are still breaching. Smoke must also extend past the breach site to the enemy locations. If it only covers the breach site, vehicles will quickly become silhouetted after they maneuver through the obstacle to the enemy. One way to achieve this is to emplace smoke both on the enemy battle positions and between these positions and the breaching force. This smoke must be continuous. As with any obstacle, you must be aware that it will be covered by enemy indirect and direct fires.

Enemy counterattacks – Smoke does not know who emplaced it! Thus, during execution the enemy may take advantage of your emplaced smoke. This may mean using the smoke to conduct a counterattack into your flank.

Resupply during execution – As the battle progresses, the need may arise to resupply smoke units and equipment. This is always a challenge during the heat of battle. However, if proper planning and preparation have been conducted this can be much easier. During any potential resupply, you must ensure there is good communication between the supplier and the supplie. Things that must be coordinated are resupply location, link-up actions, signals, etc…

Watching the Smoke – Trusted agents on the ground must determine if the smoke is doing what you want to. Tied directly to this is ensuring those trusted agents have good communications with those who can make changes to the smoke.


Smoke is all about timing. Emplace it too early and it is useless. Emplace it too late and it is useless. Smoke and maneuver must be synchronized. Making this much easier is to determine decision points on the ground. Determining these points is clearly a mix of art and science. Below we will describe how you can arrive at these decision points:

  1. First, you must decide on how smoke can assist you in achieving your maneuver plan.

  2. Decide on the effect (type of smoke) you require.
  3. Determine the location where you want your smoke at.
  4. Determine how long it will take your assets to produce the smoke effect you want.
  5. Decide how long it will take your maneuver units to maneuver to the location where smoke is necessary to assist in their mission.
  6. With this information you can now craft up some decision points. Here’s an example: We determine that it will take 30 minutes to emplace the smoke we need. With this figure, we then look at our maneuver times to the smoke location. We draw a phase line on our map which is 30 minutes, maneuver time away. Thus, when our lead maneuver unit hits this phase line, we begin generating our smoke. By the time the maneuver unit reaches the objective, our smoke build-up should be complete. This is not precision, but it is battle-tested.


Smoke can be a tremendous multiplier to the offense. However, its effectiveness is highly dependent on the planning and preparation conducted prior to execution. We hope in this article, we provided some information that will assist you in the planning, preparation and execution of smoke in the offense. Smoke use is tough stuff. The combination of art and science make it a challenge for any Commander and his staff. If the challenge is met, you have made mission accomplishment a bit easier!


With our discussion on smoke in the offense complete, we will turn our attention next month to smoke use in the defense and in retrograde operations. Although it has been said by many that smoke favors the attacker; it can certainly pay huge dividends to the defender. Our next article will address how you can make the most out of that smoke.