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Posted on May 14, 2012 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 072 – Heavy-Light Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

Heavy-Light Operations


"A leader is a man who can adapt principles to circumstances."
—General George S. Patton, Jr

In our last article, we completed our look at reconnaissance operations. The focus last month was on the planning of reconnaissance and surveillance. We laid out the steps of R&S planning and provided some examples of products that are useful during the planning process. During our discussion, we stressed three principles which should be heeded by all. First, R&S planning must begin as soon as possible. If you procrastinate, you are giving the initiative to your foe. Second, your Priority Information Requirements drive your R&S planning. Assets are limited so they must be focused on acquiring information that can lead to mission accomplishment. Finally, R&S planning never stops. As conditions change (as they always do), so will your information requirements. This should force you to adapt your plan!


Starting this month, we will dedicate the next two articles on the integration of heavy and light forces on the battlefield. In our discussion, we will address the following: 1) Definition of Heavy-Light Operations 2) Why we use heavy-light 3) A concise assessment of heavy forces 4) A concise assessment of light forces 5) When would light forces benefit heavy forces 6) The challenges light forces bring to a heavy force headquarters. In addition, to the above we will weave a war story that provides a great example on how the heavy-light mix should be utilized. Lots of information this month, so LET’S MOVE OUT!



The Brigade Combat Team (BCT) was ordered to attack through a security zone placed in a narrow valley, blocking our access to their main defense to the west. Everyone agreed that the main defense wasn’t the problem—the security zone was the problem. The enemy put a Motorized Company (MRC) (-) consisting of 8 BMP’s and 3 T64 tanks inside a narrow valley over-watching an extremely dense obstacle network.



This particular valley had earned a fierce reputation, earning the nickname; Thermopylae Pass, the chokepoint where Leonidas’ Spartans held off the Persian hordes in order to save Greece. This was that kind of pass where very few could hold off very many. It is roughly five kilometers long and about a kilometer wide at the entry and exit points. For the majority of its length, it is only wide enough to accommodate two vehicles abreast…about 150 to 200 meters wide. Most tankers would call the pass a bowling alley. A tank trail snakes its way down the center, choking down to 80 meters at the narrowest point. It is this chokepoint where the defenders laid their mines, fronted by a small AT minefield and a couple of triple strand wire obstacles. Rocket- Propelled Grenades (RPG) toting infantry squads were dug in high up on the walls with battle positions nearby and tanks covering from the far side of the pass. Small wire and mine obstacles blocked navigable draws up the valley walls and observation posts had a clear and unobstructed view of the entry point.

The BCT was formidable in comparison to the meager MRC (-) security zone defenders. It consisted of a Mechanized Battalion Task Force (Bradley) and an Armored Battalion Task Force (Abrams) with a self-propelled artillery battalion in support and a mechanized engineer company providing mobile breaching ability. In spite of the apparent overwhelming advantage held by the BCT, the mission would be extremely difficult.

The Division Commander decided to augment the Heavy BCT with a light infantry battalion; thus creating a Heavy-Light Task Force. Back to the story later.



‘Heavy-light’ doesn’t refer to a low-calorie beer. It refers to an organization for combat where a heavy, or armored, unit has a light, or infantry, subunit attached for an operation. The ‘heavy-light’ headquarters comes from the armored force, mech infantry or armor, as does the bulk of the combat power. A ‘light-heavy’ force is the opposite—a topic for another month (how about next month).

So why mix tanks and Bradleys’ with foot mobile infantry? The two forces are inherently different. They have different strengths and weaknesses and are not built to accommodate a natural partnership. The infantry travels by foot, carry their weapons, and thus; are relatively slower at the tactical level, pack less punch on the objective, are vulnerable to artillery, and they need to borrow trucks to keep pace between missions. On the other hand; tanks and Bradleys are noisy, not very easy to hide, require roads for logistic support, struggle in rough and mountainous terrain and dense vegetation, require lots of fuel and are operationally slow to deploy.

So why marry the dog with the cat? The answer is to offset one force’s weakness by leveraging another’s strengths. There are clearly things the light guy can do that the heavies can’t and vice versa. Sometimes; contrast is the answer.

The way to determine when, why, and how to mix heavy and light forces is to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. As we highlighted above, we want to offset one force’s weakness by leveraging the other force’s strengths. Let’s dissect these strengths and weaknesses by looking at each force. We will to do this by utilizing the four elements of combat power: maneuver, firepower, protection and leadership.


The heavy battalion task force, mech or armor, is a high tempo ground force that deploys with a full spectrum combined arms team. The heavy force can attain and maintain a high rate of military operations combining tactical speed with powerful weapons systems that possess stand-off range. Operations, stationary or on the move, are conducted under armor. The heavy force delivers the shock and lethality of tanks combined with the versatility and speed of mobile/mounted infantry.

Maneuver is defined as the use of fire and movement to gain a relative advantage over the enemy.

Strengths. The heavy force can sustain a high rate of tactical military operations—OPTEMPO. Heavy forces are particularly effective in open terrain such as plains and deserts and they possess extended range. The teaming of mechanized infantry, mounted on infantry fighting vehicles, with tanks enhances versatility to the force.

Weaknesses. The heavy force is generally road-bound when operating in mountainous and/or densely vegetated terrain. Heavy forces are vulnerable and their roles are limited when executing military operations in urban terrain (MOUT). The heavy force requires extensive logistics support that is mostly truck and road bound. Heavy forces require frequent resupply of fuel and ammunition.

Firepower is defined as the destructive force that can be brought to bear to degrade or destroy enemy capabilities, equipment and manpower.

Strengths. The heavy force carries a wide array of weapons, both mounted and carried. Vehicular weapons can achieve standoff and sustain a high rate of fire. The Tank round and Bradley TOW are extremely powerful and have excellent range and accuracy when fired on the move and stationary.

Weaknesses. Most heavy force weapons are vehicle mounted, limiting dispersion and methods for getting them in proximity to the enemy. The high rate of fire of heavy weapon systems consumes lots of ammunition thus, generating a significant logistical burden.

Protection is defined as the ability of the force to evade or survive threat firepower.

Strengths. The heavy force operates under armor that provides cover from indirect fire. The high speed of heavy maneuver provides natural protection from indirect fire while attached engineers provide survivability, mobility, and counter-mobility capabilities.

Weaknesses. The heavy force is highly visible with a high signature. It is noisy, dusty and easy to spot thus, heavy forces rarely achieve the element of surprise via stealth.

Leadership is the intangible element that provides purpose, motivation, and direction to the force.

Strengths. The heavy force possesses a robust network of command posts that are well equipped with communications that can match the range of the forces ability to maneuver. Headquarters are under armor.

Weaknesses. The heavy force tends to be more centralized in execution. While subordinate units are capable of executing independent operations, it is not always standard. The heavy force tends to operate at the battalion and above levels.



The light force is all-terrain capable, stealthy, and is expert in limited visibility operations. Dispersion and infiltration allows the light force to move within close proximity of its intended target and achieve surprise. Decentralized command and control allows the light force to execute multiple, simultaneous, and mutually reinforcing missions from a single parent unit. There are several types of light forces which bring different capabilities to the fight. These include airborne forces, air assault forces, and straight-legged infantry.


Maneuver is defined as the use of fire and movement to gain a relative advantage over the enemy.

Strengths. The greatest maneuver strength of the light force is its ability to traverse all types of terrain and all weather conditions at night. Their ability to go anywhere from the cliffs of Point du Hoc to the jungles of SE Asia make them a truly versatile force. Their ability to disperse and move in small units allows them to close on their enemy and achieve surprise through swarming.

Weaknesses. Light forces cannot move quickly relative to motorized and mechanized forces and their range is limited. Light force tempo and endurance is also limited since it is subject to the fatigue of the individual soldier. The light force relies on external truck support for mobility between combat missions. During missions they can get near or on objectives via aircraft (airborne, air assault, etc…).


Firepower is defined as the destructive force that can be brought to bear to degrade or destroy enemy capabilities, equipment and manpower.

Strengths. The light force is heavily equipped with portable anti-tank (AT) weapons, which allows them to strike targets from low signature and unexpected locations. They also carry a full array of small arms that can be fired in limited visibility. They carry their own man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and their own indirect fire mortars complete with smoke, illumination and high explosive rounds.

Weaknesses. Light force weapons are man portable and consequently, tend to have decreased range and penetration capability.

Protection is defined as the ability of the force to evade or survive threat firepower.

Strengths. Light infantry’s ability to move through ‘no go’ terrain in limited visibility is its greatest advantage. Their added ability to successfully employ infiltration as a form of maneuver means that the force is distributed and dispersed and less vulnerable to catastrophic losses if compromised.

Weaknesses. The lack of armor protection means that the light infantry is easy to disrupt and attrite when identified by artillery observers. Their slower rate of movement makes it more difficult for them to evade fires once they are acquired.


Leadership is the intangible element that provides purpose, motivation, and direction to the force.

Strengths. Decentralization and distributed operations are empowered by the ability of light infantry small unit leaders to operate independently. Squad leaders on up are able to maneuver and direct combat operations independently as part of the larger unit effectively and efficiently. Command and control is augmented by visual and audio signals that are well known throughout the units.

Weaknesses. Light infantry small units carry their communications and use handsets to transmit and receive orders. Unlike mounted forces, not everyone can hear all the ‘traffic’ so word is passed from the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) to the leader and from the leader to subordinates in close proximity. The verbal transmission of orders can become difficult during the noise of battle and instructions have a higher probability of being miss-communicated.


Let’s address some of the types of missions where you might augment a heavy unit with light forces. For our purposes, we will begin with a heavy brigade and then augment it with a light battalion. In our example, we will start with the operation the heavy brigade is conducting. Below the operation, we will discuss how the light battalion can assist in achieving success.

Movement to Contact
If you know there is a piece of restricted terrain on your maneuver route that you must maneuver through (and you are concerned the enemy could make things difficult); you may deploy light forces early to clear and secure the restricted terrain. The obvious choice for this is air assault forces. They can potentially get there very quickly and achieve their mission. The key here is timing. If they arrive too late; this can certainly disrupt the timetable of the heavy force maneuver. If they arrive too early; they can be left to their own devices for a significant period until heavy forces arrive. This is not to say the light forces can’t handle themselves, but if the enemy sees this as an opportunity, they could deploy a substantial force against them.

Hasty Attack
The use of light infantry in a heavy brigade hasty attack can be a challenge. The reason for this is obvious – time. As we have discussed in earlier articles, a hasty attack usually presents itself while you are conducting a movement to contact. Consequently, during the planning of the movement to contact you should anticipate locations and events where light forces may be needed. During a hasty attack, one of the best ways to utilize light forces is to position them in terrain where they can fix enemy forces. Again, the key is to get them in place at a time where they can be effective.


Deliberate Attack
It is in a deliberate attack where light forces can really be a huge benefit to the heavy force. Because of the potential for significant time to get the light force to the location where you need them; there are many possibilities for the light force. First, they can be a great reconnaissance asset. They can get to places stealthily and provide great intelligence. Second, they can be used in an infiltration mode to seize a piece of terrain which is critical later in the mission. Third, air assault forces or airborne forces can be deployed to seize objectives critical to mission accomplishment. Fourth, light forces are excellent at getting to enemy obstacles (many times undetected) breaching them and then marking them so the heavy force can maneuver through them without losing tempo or momentum. Fifth, as history has shown many times, light infantry can be the ideal force in make a penetration in a defense allowing heavy forces to breakthrough.

If an exploitation opportunity presents itself, light infantry can clearly have a role. Since friendly forces tend to be strung out a bit during exploitation; light forces can be utilized in key locations to secure the heavy forces lines of communication and supply routes. Additionally, if time is available, air assault forces could be deployed to seize terrain vital in the operation or even to defeat or destroy enemy forces.

If the unit as a whole is conducting a pursuit, light infantry can be of immense value. Since in a pursuit, there may be several pockets of bypassed enemy forces; light forces can be used to clear these forces. Again, if time and resources are available, an air assault could be conducted to the rear of the enemy to block potential escape routes.

Follow and Support
In a follow and support mission, light forces can play an important role. This includes securing key terrain in support of the heavy force maneuver, again securing the lines of communication and supply routes, and providing rear security for command and control and logistical nodes.


Light forces can truly be the key to victory in a defense. Because maneuver of the force is not as significant a factor as in the offense; there are many ways you can utilize light forces in the defense. First, if the terrain is conducive, light forces are excellent at blocking enemy avenues of approach (particularly dismounted). Second, well-placed light forces can be invaluable in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance efforts in the defense. Third, based on the type of terrain, light forces can shape the entire defense by occupying a strongpoint. Fourth, light forces are highly trained at conducting ambushes. The ability to conduct an ambush can be a tremendous aid in the defense. Fifth, if the heavy commander is concerned about the security of his assets in the rear area (command and control, logistics, combat support, etc…); light forces can be extremely important in conducting this security. Sixth, if terrain and time are right; light forces can be highly successful in conducting spoiling attacks.

Breakout from Encirclement
As we addressed in previous articles, breaking out from an encirclement is one of the most difficult missions you will ever conduct. In a breakout, the stealthiness of light forces can make them the perfect force to conduct a penetration.

It is clearly difficult for heavy and light forces to coordinate operations in order to achieve mutually reinforcing effects. You just can’t throw the forces together and expect things to execute smoothly. There are many challenges that need to be met. The heavy force, since they are the controlling headquarters in a heavy-light operation must understand these challenges. With an understanding of these challenges, they can then take the steps to meet them. Let’s discuss some of them below:

  • The heavy force must understand that light forces operate on a different time line than they do. Their rates of movement are obviously slower and when the heavy force says, “I need you there now!” – Now, may take a little longer.
  • Certainly, related to the above is the challenge of synchronizing the actions of the light forces with the heavy forces. To assist the heavy forces in achieving this synchronization, there must be light force expertise deeply involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of a heavy-light operation. Light force expertise will tell the heavy force leadership what is achievable and just as importantly, what is not.
  • It can take time for light forces to maneuver to terrain. Because of this, there are more chances for things to not go as planned. Thus, time-lines can be thrown-off. This is obviously a challenge! Heavy forces must appreciate this and must work contingencies in planning.
  • Light forces are expertly trained, highly motivated, and in excellent physical condition. However, you know the old saying, “You can only go to the well so often.” Heavy force leadership must know when they have reached the point of diminishing returns when utilizing light forces. Light forces must do their part and let heavy force leadership know when they have reached that point.
  • The transportation of light forces is a significant challenge. The preponderance of light forces do not possess the necessary transportation to get them to where heavy forces want them. Thus, the heavy forces must be creative in acquiring the transportation they need. Heavy forces normally are able to achieve this. The problem usually rears its’ head when the mission is over.


  • As we have stressed several times, one of the advantages of using light forces is their ability to maneuver into difficult terrain. Of course, this can take a significant amount of time. The challenge comes when these forces take casualties while fighting in this difficult terrain and medical evacuation is required. If time is critical (which it often is), the evacuation assets of the light force may not be able to execution the mission. Consequently, the heavy force must have a plan in place to meet this challenge. This plan will often involve air evac in some manner.


  • The resupply of light forces in a timely and efficient manner is a huge challenge in a heavy-light operation. If light forces are utilized a significant distance from the rear area; resupply must be planned. Although light forces are not big consumers of fuel and vehicle parts; they do consume their share of other necessities. This includes small arms ammunition, food and water. In order to keep light forces a viable force, heavy forces must assist the light force in getting the right stuff at the right time.
  • Although weather is a concern for any force, it can wreak havoc on light force operations and their time-lines. Heavy forces must understand this and once again, plan for it. This can be particularly true if the heavy force is planning for an air assault or airborne drop.
  • Communications between heavy forces and light forces can be a challenge. This is especially true if the force as a whole is technologically challenged. Forces must work out the details prior to the first round going off.
  • One of the biggest challenges facing heavy and light forces is the potential for fratricide. When forces are not familiar with each other; the risk goes up. Each force must have a complete understanding of where each will be on the battlefield. One tragic incident can have a tremendous effect on the trust between the forces. The headquarters of the operation (in this case, the heavy force) must do all they can to mitigate this risk. They must work in tandem with the light force.



Complimentary effects—back to Thermopylae. The Brigade Commander met with his three battalion commanders: a mechanized infantry commander, an armor commander, and a light infantry commander. He assigned the missions as follows:

  • The light infantry commander would initiate the attack by infiltrating his forces into the pass in order to clear the obstacle network and mark lanes for the mounted forces.
  • The mech infantry commander would closely monitor the light force’s progress and would be prepared to continue the attack through the lanes established by the light infantry with the mission to destroy the MRC(-) forces.
  • The armor commander would follow the mech force and assume the main effort to seize and retain the exit side of the pass. They would suppress enemy units in the main belt and allow the follow on BCT to conduct a forward passage of lines to continue the attack into the enemy main belt defenses.

The light battalion began its final preparations around 2200 and began its maneuver at midnight. They infiltrated in platoon units through the mountainous terrain to a series of preplanned rally points. At the rally points, the platoons consolidated back into company sized units.

The scouts, mortars and Anti- Tank (AT) squads established over-watch positions looking down into the pass from the valley walls. They would provide constant surveillance on the enemy vehicles and dismounted squads in order to provide early warning.

The three rifle companies moved into assault positions near their objectives. Two companies would attack the units over-watching the obstacles while a third would make its way down to the obstacles to breach them and mark lanes. Mortars, AT fires and illumination would focus on the defenders, distracting attention away from the breaching effort. H-Hour was designated to occur at 0300 and the arrival of the mounted guys was planned to occur around 0530 to 0600, upon coordination between the light commander and the mech commander.

All the light forces managed to get into position. There were periodic, small compromises here and there through the night, but none was large enough to trigger an artillery strike or a shift in enemy disposition.

Action was initiated by a casualty producing action; the assaulting companies opened fire on the defenders below them and began to creep forward. The AT systems along the wall fired at vehicles that drove up from their holes onto their firing platforms and the mortars fired illumination to the rear of the enemy defense to cause confusion there and to white out their night vision devices.

As the battle along the valley walls raged, the third company breach team quietly approached the obstacles using their night vision capabilities. They breached the obstacles, wire and mine, and filled in the tank ditch by pushing the spoil back into the ditch. They marked the lanes with infrared strobe lights for night and pickets with placards for daylight. Once they were done, the notified their battalion commander and withdrew to an over-watch/hide position.

The light commander told the mech commander that they were ready for him to begin his assault. Once the mech commander reported passing a pre-determined checkpoint, the light fighters withdrew to defiladed hide positions to avoid being accidently engaged by friendly forces. When the mech battalion entered the pass, the light fighters marked their positions with green smoke—the signal that meant ‘no fire zone’ to the mounted forces.

The mech battalion barreled through and was easily able to pick off the remaining defenders in the valley since their locations had been pinpointed and reported by the light infantry. The lanes through the obstacles allowed for a rapid advance through the pass which triggered the immediate withdrawal of the surviving elements of the enemy security zone.

The light attack took five hours from the beginning of movement until the arrival of the lead mounted forces. The mounted attack took less than an hour and the pass was secured. The combination of heavy and light forces was ideal for clearing the narrow chokepoint and exploiting the opening.

* * *

The vignette is a real-world example of a heavy-light coordinated attack executed at the National Training Center in California (the time was several moons ago!). Had the pass been attacked by a purly mounted force, it would have taken much longer and would have generated many more casualties. A mounted force could not have approached the pass without being detected and would have had to breach under fire. If the mission had been purely a light mission, then the forces would not have been able to exploit the gap they created. The enemy could easily re-plug the hole by sending a tank, a few infantry fighting vehicles and an engineer squad with wire and mines to push the infantry away and re-block the pass.

The heavy/light combat team mix provides the commander with a powerful, all terrain and all weather force. The complimentary effects of the heavy/light team allow the commander to balance his strengths and weaknesses and increase the BCT’s overall tempo and versatility. Perhaps this is why the heavy/light organizational concept is a permanent part of many several organizations.

Remember that tanks, Bradleys and infantrymen can work well together in rough terrain, in urban environments, and in counter-insurgency situations. The weaknesses of one type of unit can easily be mitigated by the strengths of the other.

In our next article, we will conduct a 180 and dissect light-heavy operations. At first glance, you may think there would not be any difference between heavy-light operations and light-heavy operations. However, when a light force is augmented by a heavy force, there are some significant challenges and differences that you do not find in the other mix. We will discuss how you meet those challenges and how you take advantage of those differences.




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