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Posted on Apr 11, 2011 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 059: Smoke in the Defense

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after they occur.

General Giulio Douhet


The Defense of Australia
Australia is the nickname for a small hill complex in the southeast corner of Fort Irwin. To the west of Australia is a series of hills anchored on the twin peaks of hills 909 North and 909 South. My OPFOR Battalion was assigned the task to retain Australia against a BLUFOR Brigade attack from the west, out of the 909’s. If we could hold Australia then the OPFOR Regiment could complete its defensive preparations to our north, above a narrow pass nicknamed the ‘Whale Gap.’


The BLUFOR was tucked in on the west side of the 909’s‚Äîwe couldn’t see them, but they could watch us across the 12 kilometers of open desert that separated us. They could hide in preparation for their attack, while we had to dig in and emplace obstacles. There would be a persistent dust cloud over us throughout our preparation.

The terrain provided pluses and minuses for both sides. The attacker (BLUFOR) could see every move we made as we prepared our position, while we couldn’t see anything the attackers were up to. The ridgelines that hemmed in the valley provided excellent cover and concealment for the BLUE scouts. On the other hand, we in the defense (OPFOR) would see the attack coming all the way, day or night, and they would be out in the open vulnerable to our artillery for 9 kilometers before they could get into direct fire range against us. If they couldn’t shorten the engagement area, they’d get hammered by our artillery.

We finished preparing our defense late in the evening after having sent out our Listening Posts/ Observation Posts (LP/Ops). We were probed during the night, but not seriously although we had to assume the enemy had eyes on us. About an hour or so after sunrise, a thick smoke blanket began to build up around 909 South. It obscured the hill and the southern wall of the valley leaving the northern two thirds of the valley uncovered. The smoke was around 10 kilometers away, just on ‘our side’ of the 909’s. It was a great blanket, but I really didn’t know why the enemy was laying it down when and where they did.

As the smoke cloud expanded, a few of the VIP observers strolled over to my position. I was in a foxhole on the military crest of the hill where I could see the engagement area clearly and could call in the artillery. The ranking VIP asked me what I thought of the impressive smoke blanket and what effect it was having on our defense. I told them that I thought the smoke was in the south because they were working their way through the foothills to the north. I also figured that even if they were behind the smoke they would skyline themselves as soon as they headed east towards us. My guests were visibly disappointed—either my estimate was off or I had ‘read’ the enemy’s plan. It turned out to be the latter. The enemy kicked up quite a dust cloud as they shifted from their hide positions in the south towards their attack positions in the north. When they committed to the attack they popped out in the open desert without any smoke concealing their movements. They were easy to target and track so I laid the artillery fire on and walked along with them all the way towards our position. They zigzagged as best they could only to run head on into our obstacles. At the breach, where they really needed their smoke, they didn’t have any and we added direct fire to the pounding. Their smoke not only failed them, it helped us.

In last month’s article, we focused on the ways a commander can utilize smoke in the offense. We answered the following questions? 1) What effects can smoke (generated by the attacker) have on the defender. 2) What effects can smoke (generated by the attacker) have on the attacker. 3) What are some of the key considerations in the planning, preparation, and execution that the attacker should reflect on ? 4) How can you utilize decision points in determining when you should initiate your smoke? It was a pretty extensive article, but there was certainly much to cover.

We will shift sides this month and key on how the defender can use smoke to his advantage. Although many will say that smoke favors the attacker, there is no question that the smart defender can make his smoke a true combat multiplier. In this article, we will cover the following:

  • The ways in which smoke can assist the defender
  • The ways in which the use of friendly smoke can affect the defender himself
  • Planning for smoke in the defense
  • Preparing for smoke use in the defense
  • The execution of smoke in the defense


There are dozens of ways that the defender can utilize smoke to his advantage. Let’s address some of the key applications below:

  • Force Infantry to Dismount—The combination of smoke with artillery may force the enemy to dismount his Infantry much quicker than he planned. Consequently, the Infantry must make their assault of the objective at a far greater distance than anticipated. This can have a huge impact on the fighting ability of the Infantry. Additionally, they may dismount at a location which may not enable them to assist in the assault of their objectives.
  • Screen Vehicles from Enemy Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) Gunners —As we discussed last month, smoke can be very effective in hindering the ability of ATGM gunners to track and fire on targets. Just as smoke can affect gunners in the defense, it can do the same with gunners on the attack. Normally, ATGM gunners on the attack will have to halt their vehicles or dismount their systems to accurately engage. Smoke can dramatically hamper the ability of ATGM gunners in achieving their mission.
  • Slow the Advance of the Attacking Force —Smoke tends to make one cautious. As a unit hits smoke, it is human nature to slow down your rate of maneuver. Consequently, a unit maneuvering at a good rate of speed is going to cut it back once they move into the smoke. This can potentially take much of the momentum of the attack away.
  • Separate Echelons — When it is difficult to see, it can be very challenging to keep control of maneuvering formations. Many times, the lead vehicles of one echelon lose contact with the rear of the echelon they are to follow. This causes separation in echelons at a time when the Commander does not want this to occur.
  • Isolate Forces —If a unit is good with smoke emplacement, it can isolate certain attacking forces on the battlefield. This isolation must obviously make tactical sense. To isolate forces, you must have a combination of good intelligence and the timing of the smoke. Of course, be careful what you wish for. Your smoke may isolate a force and then you find you have lost contact with them. They may turn up somewhere you do not want them to.

  • Cover Displacement (Reserve, Counterattack Forces, Strike Force, etc.— As you are well aware there is plenty of maneuver on the defender’s side during the conduct of a defense. This could entail maneuvering a reserve, conducting a counterattack if the opportunity presents itself, or utilizing a strike force in a mobile defense. Whatever the case, smoke can be very beneficial in masking this maneuver. Of course, you must be careful that the smoke emplacement does not signal to your opponent the initiation of these actions.
  • Expose Enemy Helicopters —Smoke can affect the use of enemy helicopters in many ways. The overall effect is determined by the technology the helicopter possesses. The main result of smoke on helicopters is that it will normally force the pilot to fly his bird higher to avoid the smoke. The result of this includes: 1) It makes the helicopter more vulnerable to air defense weapon systems. 2) It may force the pilot to use a maneuver route he did not want to use to attack his targets. 3) It can take away the surprise element of the helicopter because it is not maneuvering nap-of-the-earth.
  • Disrupt Command and Control —Smoke can spark chaos in even the most trained and combat ready unit. You use smoke against a poorly trained unit and things can get a little precarious for the attacker.
  • Force Enemy to Mass —As we mentioned last month, smoke tends to draw vehicles together. As we know there is comfort when you have company. Forcing the enemy to mass prematurely is a good thing for gunners and artillerymen. In the case of gunners, as vehicles bunch up there is a high probability he can see two or three in a sight picture. A good gunner, with assistance from his track commander can make quick work out of these. As for artillery, there is nothing better than a group of vehicles!
  • Silhouette Targets —As we discussed last month, smoke is excellent in silhouetting vehicles. Effectively placed smoke on the attacker can be huge. As the attacker’s vehicles come out of the smoke they are perfectly set up for defender gunners. Of course, this must occur at a place where a preponderance of friendly fire can engage the enemy. If this occurs too early, you will give the attacker time and maneuver space to potentially readjust his maneuver plan. If this occurs too late, you will not have enough time to engage the majority of the enemy vehicles. They will simply begin to overrun your defense.
  • Conceal Logistic Positions —In the development of the defense you will place your logistical elements (maintenance, medical aid stations, etc., some distance to the rear of your fighting positions. If the situation presents itself, you may need to use smoke to conceal these positions from your enemy.
  • Conceal Command and Control Nodes —Just as with the aforementioned logistical positions, command and control nodes are normally positioned to the rear of the main defense. If the tactical situation presents itself (usually not good for the defender), smoke may be needed to hide these poorly defended areas from the attacker.
  • Buy Time —If you have to buy time in the defense that is usually not a good thing. It could mean pieces of your defense are not in place or even worse you are forced to withdraw from your defensive positions. If this is the case, smoke may assist you in buying time to get your things in order or do slow the attacker as he makes way to your location.
  • Support Deception —Smoke can be an integral part of any deception operation. Within the defense, there are many ways you may want to deceive your opponent. These can include:
    • Disguise the overall construction of the defense.
    • Confuse the enemy as to the types and mix of vehicles you are employing in the defense.
    • Confuse the enemy as to any maneuver you are or are not utilizing in the defense.
    • Disguise the role obstacles are or are not playing in your defense.
    • Disguise the types of units (armor, mechanized, light) that are defending.
  • Obscure Field Artillery Observers —A smart attacker (even a not so smart attacker) will send reconnaissance out early to read your defense. As part of that recon force, there will be somebody who can call for indirect fire. Smoke can hinder the ability of these observers in calling accurate indirect fire.
  • Conceal Obstacle Emplacement —An important part of many defenses is the obstacles the defender constructs. Obstacles can be of the simple variety or can be extremely complex. In either case, smoke can be extremely effective in concealing obstacle preparation. However, this must normally be done early during prep time. This can have an adverse effect on Operational Security (OPSEC).
  • Conceal Preparation of Defensive Preparation —Related to the above is that you do not want the attacker to know where your fighting positions are located. Depending on your degree of preparation, fighting position construction (especially tanks/fighting vehicles) can entail utilizing dozers and other earth moving equipment. The enemy can have observers in the vicinity watching this action. Smoke can conceal some of this activity from your opponent. Again, you have to weigh OPSEC considerations.
  • Conceal Logistical Activities —Depending on the duration of the defense, smoke can be highly effective in concealing your log actions from the attacker. If a resupply of supplies, ammo, chow/water I needed; smoke can conceal these activities from your enemy. During resupply activities, a unit is highly vulnerable to enemy indirect and direct fire. These actions (usually associated with increased activity to and from the fighting positions) can give away a defender’s location. Smoke can assist in concealing this from the opponent.
  • Signal —Smoke can be used in a variety of ways in the defense. It can be used to initiate fires, to stop fires, to lift and shift fires, to initiate maneuver of forces, to aid in linking-up forces, to indicate the location of a force, etc. Communication is obviously critical in this process. Units must have good commo with each other and know what the initiation of the smoke means.
  • Mark Targets —Many times smoke can used to mark targets for both direct and indirect fire engagements for the defender. Again, communication is the key to success. All concerned must be communicating with each other and understand what the smoke signifies.
  • Shorten Engagements —Smoke can level the playing field if the attacker possesses weapons with longer ranges. Effective smoke emplacement can make short engagements the rule in a battle.



The same smoke you employ to affect the attacker will undoubtedly have some impact on you, the defender. This could include the following:

  • Can Challenge Preparation —If utilized during the preparation of your defense (to conceal your prep), it can make your preparation a bit more challenging. Additionally, it can make it more difficult to site in obstacles and conduct any large-scale rehearsals.
  • Weapons Utilization —Smoke on the battlefield will impact the effectiveness of weapons. Weapons that may have tracking times (versus fire and forget) will have trouble in smoke.
  • Identifying Reference Points —In order to effectively control fire distribution (direct and indirect) on the ground, good units will utilize reference points within the engagement area (these could be natural or manmade). These reference points could include:
    • Engagement lines —Marks where you will fire at the enemy or when you will initiate fires.
    • Target Reference Points —Can be used to shift fires or control fires

Smoke can certainly impact the defender’s ability to see these points on the ground.

  • Give Away your Intent —Earlier we mentioned that smoke can be utilized to mask the maneuver of your reserve, counterattack forces, or strike forces. Of course, the initiation of smoke could draw the attacker’s attention to the area where these forces are located.
  • Right Place Wrong Time —Related to the above maneuver is that smoke will likely slow the maneuver time of these forces. This must be taken into account when you synchronize their maneuver. Units may not get to where you want them in a timely manner.
  • Wrong Place Right Time —Smoke may make it challenging for these maneuver forces to get to the place where you want them. That is why it is critical you rehearse these actions under the worst possible conditions you can create.
  • Silhouette Vehicles —Smoke can silhouette defender’s vehicles in two ways. First, maneuvering vehicles can come out of smoke and as we have said before, become lucrative targets for gunners. Second, depending on the way vehicles are dug-in, smoke to the rear of these vehicles can silhouette these vehicles for the attacker.
  • Indirect Fire Challenges —Smoke can obviously make it challenging in the indirect fire arena. If it is difficult for observers to see; it is difficult to fire timely and accurate indirect fire.
  • Chaos —A common theme of our discussion on smoke has been that smoke can create confusion, discomfort, and at the worst case —chaos. When Commander’s utilize smoke they must be cognizant of the mental games it can play with his unit.
  • Fratricide —Many of the above potential factors can combine to result in friendly fire incidents. This potential is mitigated by things such as training, experience, leadership, communication, and everyone understanding the overall plan and the plan for smoke.


In last month’s article, we provided numerous areas that must be addressed in the planning of smoke in the offense. These areas were a mix of both art and science. Many of these same basic areas are addressed in defensive smoke planning. These include:

  • As with all combat multipliers, you must have complete understanding of the overall plan. In the case of the defense, there are several critical pieces to this. First, what is the intent of the defense? Is it terrain or enemy focused? What does the Commander consider the decisive point of the operation? Does the defense have a maneuver element to it (counterattack or strike force)? These are some of the questions you must answer. Unless you have a complete understanding of what is supposed to occur on the ground, your smoke planning will be of little value.
  • Before developing your smoke plan, you must do your analysis. This analysis includes knowing the following:
    • What smoke producing assets are yours to utilize? What can you get from your higher headquarters? (Remember, the assets you personally control are far more responsive than someone else’s).
    • What is the experience level of those emplacing the smoke?
    • What is the experience level of your units fighting in smoke?
    • How important is smoke to the overall success of the plan?
    • What is enemy’s experience level in fighting in smoke?
    • Have you used smoke against this enemy in the past? How successful?
    • How will the enemy react to your smoke?
    • What logistical support do you have to support your smoke use?
    • Is the terrain favorable for smoke use?
    • What time of day do you anticipate using smoke?
    • What is the projected weather during the period you anticipate using smoke? (Remember, wind speed and direction, temperature gradients, relative humidity, cloud cover, precipitation, etc., will all influence smoke).
  • Plan not only for deliberate smoke, but for hasty smoke. You can’t forget the contingencies. Things may go better than expected and things may go not as well. When things are not going as planning, have smoke ready to assist.
  • There is much science in smoke planning. You must do the number crunching and determine what you can do and just as importantly, what you can’t achieve.
  • Ensure you have thought out how you will protect your smoke producing assets while they are executing their mission. Depending on the location, they can be extremely vulnerable. You must plan on their protection —likely Infantry.
  • There may be times when your smoke producing elements may be forward of some of the obstacles you have constructed. Because of this, you must plan how these assets will maneuver through these obstacles once required. This can be a significant endeavor and must be thoroughly planned.
  • How long is the smoke required? Does it need to be dissipated at a certain time?
  • Based on the effect needed, what type of smoke is necessary (haze, blanket, or curtain)?
  • If smoke is integral to the overall plan, then plan for redundant means to emplace it. In many cases, you may not possess the assets to have redundant means. If you are fortunate —plan it!
  • Communications is always critical in battle. In the emplacement of smoke, a solid communications plan is a necessity.
  • Smoke may not be needed or even wanted in different places within the defensive area of operations. You must ensure smoke does not travel where it is not needed.


Defensive smoke preparation usually has two advantages over offensive smoke preparation. First, in general (not always the case) you will have more preparation time in the construction of the defense than in preparing for the attack. Second, your defensive prep is usually done in the location of execution, whereas, this is not feasible in offensive preparation. These two advantages certainly assist in preparing the unit for smoke emplacement. Below we will highlight some of the key actions you need to complete during prep time.

  • Rehearsals —During preparation, one of the most important actions that must take place is rehearsals. Rehearsals within the defense focused on smoke operations take many forms. These include the higher headquarters rehearsal which details how smoke is integrated into the overall mission. Additionally, those units who are emplacing smoke will hold their own rehearsals focused on their actions.
  • Timelines —Directly related to the above is ensuring all concerned understand the timelines regarding smoke emplacement. For example, smoke emplacement assets know at a certain time (based on a decision point) they will generate smoke. They must know what time the required smoke effect must be generated.
  • Communication —Soldiers on the ground must know that smoke will be utilized by friendly forces during the defense. This will clearly affect different aspects of their own conduct of the defense. This information must be disseminated during prep time.
  • Coordination —Preparation time is filled with a great deal of coordination. One of the key pieces of this coordination is that between smoke assets and the unit in which they are operating. Smoke assets are not going to be assigned terrain to own. Thus, they will locate themselves in terrain owned by a maneuver unit. Obviously, there must be significant coordination between these elements. This will greatly aid in mitigating any fratricide incidents. One action that may be coordinated is if the maneuver unit has constructed obstacles that the smoke asset may need to pass thru when required. This coordination should include routes thru the obstacles and recognition signals.
  • Link-ups —It may be decided that a smoke asset is attached to a maneuver unit. This would be done for a variety of reasons including logistical support or security (we will discuss these areas next). If this is the case, the link-up of these units should be done early.
  • Security —As stated several times, your smoke emplacing units are not well-suited to repel enemy attacks. If they are positioned forward, they must have security with them. If not, they are very vulnerable to the enemy (even recon forces). Security should be established during prep time.
  • Logistics —It is during prep time that you ensure you have sufficient log support to achieve your mission. In regards to emplacing smoke this can include placing fuel forward (for generators or vehicles), extra parts for equipment that may go down, or supplies and ammunition for the Soldiers who are part of smoke emplacing unit.
  • Maintenance —Prep time is an excellent period to conduct maintenance on your smoke emplacing assets. These pieces of equipment are rode hard and can be neglected at times. Any spare moment should have Soldiers conducting preventive maintenance or fixing problems.
  • Pre-Combat Checks (PCIs) —PCIs are crucial in battle. In regards to smoke operations this is certainly true. Smoke units must ensure they have everything they need to accomplish their mission. Just prior to execution is not the time to discover you are missing an important element required to emplace smoke.
  • Reconnaissance —Once your smoke elements know their purpose and task, they must conduct a recon of the terrain to determine where they should locate themselves. A higher headquarters will assign them a general location. It is up to the smoke experts to fine tune this. This must be achieved early on.
  • How’s the Weather? —We have talked at nauseam the impact of weather on smoke. Consequently, throughout preparation you must monitor and analyze the conditions. If things change, then your smoke plan must change accordingly.


It is not surprising that things will not ultimately go as you planned. Because of this, units must be extremely flexible during the execution of smoke emplacement. This flexibility is tied to the following:

  • Decision-Time —When conditions change on the battlefield, timely decisions must be made. Remember even if you do not change anything that is still a decision. Within the scope of execution decisions during smoke emplacement, the following situations may occur:
    • Smoke’s chief nemesis, weather, may dramatically alter the effect of smoke. In many cases, this may mean altering the plan in mid-stream or even turning smoke off.
    • As addressed earlier, smoke equipment tends to be a little fickle. If equipment goes down during the fight you may have to utilize redundant means (if available).
    • Smoke assets can be destroyed or personnel manning the equipment may become casualties during the heat of battle. This may cause you to utilize redundant means or to get additional personnel forward to assist in manning equipment (of course, there may not be others who are trained (semi-trained) on the equipment.
    • Based on the flow of the battle, an opportunity may arise where you can conduct a counterattack into the enemy. This may require the necessity for smoke to assist in this maneuver.
    • Based on the flow of the battle, the enemy may change his plan. This may cause you to terminate the smoke plan you had in place or to adjust it for another location.
  • Enemy Counter-Measures—Once an attacker determines he will be maneuvering into smoke; three counter-actions may occur. First, he may counter your smoke with his own smoke. This is especially the case if he feels his vehicles could get silhouetted. Second, smoke will usually perpetuate more artillery fire into what the enemy perceives as your main defense. This is because he believes his direct fire may not be as accurate. Third, related to the above, is that since direct fire is not as accurate the tendency is to fire more rounds than you normally would. This can be a factor later if vehicles start running out of ammo sooner than anticipated.
  • Keep your Eyes Open—During execution you must keep constant watch on how the smoke is behaving. If it is not behaving as you want, you must make changes. Remember, there are plenty of things you can not control that can control your smoke.

  • Resupply—Although you should have planned and pre-positioned logistical support for your smoke assets; things just happen. If the situation dictates, you may have to send resupply forward. This, obviously, would be a significant challenge.
  • Out of Trouble—As we mentioned earlier, your smoke assets are extremely susceptible to enemy attack. If smoke assets come under attack while emplacing smoke (usually by enemy reconnaissance forces) you will likely have to maneuver forces to assist them.
  • Maneuver during the Defense—If you utilize a counterattack or strike force during the execution of the defense, you must understand the effect of smoke in their maneuver. This could result in: 1) Increased maneuver time to get to where you want to go. 2) Disruption in command and control. 3) May not get to the location you want to go. 4) A disruption in the maneuver formation you want to attack the enemy with. 5) An increased potential for fratricide.


Smoke in the defense can be a huge asset for the defender. It can truly shape the battlefield for the defender and give the attacker fits. There are many challenges to utilizing smoke effectively in the defense. A good unit can meet these challenges by conducting quality planning, taking advantage of available preparation time, and being flexible during the execution phase. If these challenges are not met, then the Commander is wasting a valuable asset. It is also highly likely that your enemy is the one taking advantage of your smoke.

Our next article will begin a mini-series that we will call ‘The Anatomy of the Operations Order.’. These articles will focus on a variety of subjects tied to this subject. These include: 1) Basics of the Operations Order. 2) What goes into an Operations Order. 3) The keys to crafting a quality Operations Order. We believe the series will be beneficial to you in the future and will be of assistance in understanding operations in the past.