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Posted on Oct 10, 2012 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 077 – The Cover

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


“The general should be ignorant of none of the situations likely to occur in war. Who can attempt to accomplish what he does not understand? Who is able to furnish assistance in situations whose dangers he does not understand?”

The Emperor Maurice

Our last article continued our series of articles focused on security operations. In it, we keyed on guard operations. In dissecting the guard, we addressed several areas. First, we defined the guard mission. Second, we highlighted how a guard differs from the screen (which we addressed in the previous month). Third, we provided you the critical tasks of a guard. Fourth, we discussed how you would organize your force to conduct a guard. Fifth, we spent the majority of the article dissecting the three types of guard – advance, flank, and rear. Finally, we looked at how control measures are utilized in conducting the guard. Overall, we believe it was a pretty comprehensive lay-down of the guard. The key takeaways were: 1) The guard can truly set the conditions for success in the offense and the defense. 2) A unit must be highly trained and well-organized to conduct a guard. 3) A guard can take many forms and those forms can morph throughout an operation


Our article this month will complete our discussion on security operations. The focus will be on the final piece of the three principle security missions – the cover. We will address several areas as they pertain to the cover. These include: 1) A definition of the cover. 2) The critical tasks of conducting a cover. 3) How you organize to execute a cover. 4) The types of cover operations. At the conclusion of the article, you should have a thorough understanding of how a cover operation can be utilized in the offense and the defense.

A Covering Force Possessing its own Artillery Support

Like its’ fellow security brethren (screen and guard), the cover has the same principle three key tasks. First, it wants to protect the main body from surprise from the enemy. Second, it wants to develop the situation for the main body commander. This aids in keeping the commander’s options viable during the fight. Finally, it wants to give the commander time and space in which to respond to the enemy’s actions. As with the screen and guard, a cover can be offensive or defensive. Again, as with the screen and guard, it can be executed to the front, flanks or rear of the main body. Additionally, a covering force can be utilized with a stationary or maneuvering force.

Just as the guard was a step-up from the screen; the cover is a step-up from the guard. Consequently, a cover can achieve all the tasks which a screen and guard and much more. Here are the key areas which differentiate the cover from other security missions:

  • The unit assigned a cover is self-contained. This means it can operate at a significant distance away from the main body because it possesses its’ logistical and indirect fire support to conduct operations independently. The distance apart from the main body is of course determined by a variety of factors. These include factors such as the terrain of the operation, the location of the enemy, the enemy’s strength, and rates of maneuver for both the enemy and the friendly main body. However, it is safe to say that a covering force can operate between 50-60 kilometers away from the main body.
  • Because it can operate away from the main body it can clearly develop the situation for the main body far earlier than the screen or guard.
  • A unit conducting a cover will almost always possess much more combat power than a unit executing a guard and obviously a screen. This combat power provides it great flexibility in conducting options that will assist it in achieving the purpose it is assigned.
  • Because of its’ combat power and support elements; a guard force can become decisively engaged with the enemy. In fact, there will be times when a commander will want the cover force to become decisively engaged.
  • Because of its’ logistical support; a covering force can operate in much longer time durations than a guard or screen force.
  • A cover will almost always be an enemy oriented operation vice a terrain oriented operation.

In regards to utilizing a covering force, it’s clearly size that matters. In order to resource a covering force, you must have some substantial combat power available. Consequently, you will see covering forces utilized at the corps and division level. Let’ address how each would organize a covering force.

Within a corps, a cavalry regiment is tailor-made to execute a covering force mission. Besides the combat power it possesses, it contains the critical command and control architecture to execute this challenging mission. A corps commander will also determine, based on his mission analysis, if he should augment the regiment with additional elements. These can be anything such as additional artillery, engineer support, air defense, and/or logistical support.

If the corps commander does not have a cavalry regiment at his disposal, he may decide to use one of his divisions as a covering force. In this scenario, the commander must truly require a covering force to utilize a division. However, there are clearly situations where this would be sound.

At division level, the formation of a covering force is obviously a little more challenging. Normally, the division commander will utilize one of his brigades as a covering force. Depending on the mission and the distances required; he may augment the brigade with a cavalry squadron. If the distances are shorter and the amount of terrain that must be covered is fairly narrow, the division commander may determine that the cav squadron can handle it. If that is the case, he will likely augment it with some of the elements we addressed in our corps discussion.

To Use or Not to Use a Covering Force?
The decision to utilize a covering force is a difficult one. Of course, it is made much easier if the unit possesses cavalry units in its’ task organization. These units are clearly made for covering force operations. If a cav unit is not available to a commander, the decision becomes much more difficult. Within this decision, he must weigh several factors. First, does the tactical situation dictate the need for a covering force? Second, can you resource a covering force and still have enough resources to execute your assigned purpose and task? Third, does the unit you have in mind to conduct a covering force have the ability and training to achieve the mission? Fourth, would the resources you utilize to organize the covering force be better utilized in other ways? After answering these questions, you may determine a covering force is not feasible. If that is the case, you may decide a guard is a better fit for the operation. As addressed last month, a guard would be far easier to resource.

Types of Cover Operations

A Brigade Conducting an Advance Offensive Cover

A Cavalry Regiment Conducting an Advance Offensive Cover

Offensive Cover
In large unit offensive operations, an offensive covering force can be a decisive factor in achieving success. A covering force aids in mission accomplishment in a variety of ways. Chief among these is either seizing or retaining the initiative from the enemy. Acquiring this initiative should enable a commander to attack the enemy when and where he wants to. Within an offensive cover, no matter the type, there are several key tasks the covering force should be expected to execute. These include the following:

Key Tasks:

  • Conduct reconnaissance (zone) along the main body’s primary axis of advance. This recon sets the table for the main body attack.
  • Deny the enemy information about the size, strength, composition, and objective of the main body. A good enemy is trying to find out just as much about you, as you about him. A covering force makes it far more challenging for an enemy to collect this information.
  • Destroy or repel enemy recon and security forces. One of the best ways to deny the enemy this information is to ensure the enemy’s assets to collect it are not successful.
  • Develop the situation to determine enemy strengths, weaknesses, and dispositions. The covering force does the heavy lifting; allowing the main body’s attack to be as effective as possible.
  • Defeat, repel, or fix enemy forces as directed by the higher commander. There may be times when the covering force will come into contact with the enemy’s main body forces. If the tactical situation dictates, the covering force may be assigned a task and purpose it must achieve against these forces.
  • Exploit opportunities until main body forces are committed. The security fight at any level provides opportunities. A covering force will be afforded some opportunities in their mission. It is up to the covering force to exploit these times and take advantage of them.
  • Clear bypassed enemy based on commander’s criteria. One of the calls a commander must make is his bypass criteria. A commander must weigh the time required to clear enemy forces with what damage these forces could do to the main body. The commander will provide this bypass criterion to the covering force.


Types of Offensive Covering Force Operations
There are two types of offensive covering force operations a unit may conduct – advance and flank. Below we will address each:

This is the most commonly executed type of offensive cover. As the name suggests, the covering force is the advance formation of an attack. Because of this, it will normally conduct its’ own operation as a movement to contact. That way it can develop the situation and be prepared to conduct various missions including defend and attack. Whatever the case, it should contribute to seizing or maintaining the initiative. In conducting the advance cover, the covering force will either come in contact with a defending enemy or one that is also maneuvering. The tasks of the covering force will obviously be different for each one. Below we will highlight the keys task in each:

Defending enemy

  • Penetrate the enemy security zone to locate enemy main defensive positions. The covering force can paint the picture for a commander as to the enemy’s defensive preparation.
  • Determine enemy strengths and weaknesses. Part of this picture is analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the defense. As always, you do not want to attack into the teeth of a prepared defense.
  • Locate gaps and weaknesses in defense. If a gap is discovered, a covering force does possess the combat power to exploit that gap in certain situations.
  • Defeat or repel enemy forces as directed. An enemy will stand idly by and let you collect as much info on him as you need. The covering force may need to fight for this info.
  • Deceive the enemy that the covering force is actually the main attack force. This can cause him to prematurely commit his counterattack forces or if lucky, his reserve.
  • Fix enemy forces allowing the main body to maneuver on an assailable flank. When attacking, it is all about finding a flank to attack into the enemy. A covering force can find that flank and then fix the enemy so he can’t reposition forces to cover that flank.

Maneuvering enemy

  • Destroy enemy recon, advance guard and lead elements of his main body. If the covering force can achieve this, it gives friendly forces the conditions to conduct a successful hasty attack.
  • Determine location of his assailable flanks. A maneuvering enemy has vulnerable flanks. A covering force that discovers these flanks provides his unit a huge advantage.
  • Fix enemy forces allowing the main body to maneuver on an assailable flank. Once this flank is found, the covering force that can fix the enemy enables the main body to exploit that flank.

Advance Covering Force – Things to Know
Below are some ‘nuggets’ to ponder in regards to executing an advance covering force:

  • Plan it as a zone reconnaissance or movement to contact. In other words, flexibility is imperative.
  • The maneuver units of the covering force almost always maneuver abreast. Thus, if a cavalry regiment is the covering force, its’ squadrons will be abreast during execution.
  • The covering force must have a reserve to aid in flexibility. We will discuss the reserve later in the article.
  • Keep artillery forward so it is responsive and can range when required.
  • Likewise, keep engineer support forward (particularly breaching assets) to keep freedom of maneuver.
  • The maneuver of the covering force is controlled by defined control measures such as objectives, phaselines, and checkpoints. We will discuss control measures at the end of this article.
  • Because of a covering force’s significant combat power, it can do much more than just report and wait for the main body to execute. A good covering force should be able to take advantage of enemy weaknesses it discovers. For example, if the covering force encounters a defending enemy; they have the strength to exploit a gap in that defense. This sets the conditions for the main body attack.

A Cavalry Regiment Conducting a Flank Offensive Cover

Of the two types of offensive cover operations; the flank cover is the least conducted. Normally, a unit will not dedicate this large of a resource on its’ flank. Thus, they will determine that a guard or screen is more appropriate. However, if the commander deems that his threat on the flank is that significant he can elect to utilize a cover.

There are two major differences between a flank cover vice a flank guard or screen. First, if the commander decided a cover was required; it is likely he would take advantage of the combat power of the force. This combat power provides him the opportunity to utilize deception or perhaps, use the covering force in a more offensive role. Second, the commander could position the covering force at a far greater distance away from the main body than if he used a guard or screen.

There are also some similarities between the cover and the guard and screen. To begin with, the cover must maintain contact with some portion of the main body. As in any security mission, there must be a connection between the security force and the main body. Without this tie-in, the commander is not getting the results he wants from his security force. The second similarity is that the cover force, while maneuvering to its flank locations will ensure the route is cleared between itself and the main body. If this doesn’t occur, the main body could very well get surprised by bypassed enemy units. Finally, just as with the screen and guard, the covering force must meet the challenge of maneuvering in conjunction with the main body if it is a moving flank cover. As we highlighted in the screen and guard articles, there are several techniques available to the covering force to succeed in this endeavor.

As we addressed several times in our flank cover discussion, the distances between the flank cover and the main body are large. One way to mitigate these distances is with the use of rotary wing aircraft. There are many ways air can be invaluable in conducting a flank cover (or in any type of cover). These include the following:

  • They can bridge the gap between the covering force and the main body. Thus, they can be the unit that maintains the required contact between the elements.
  • As we touched on earlier, the terrain that the covering force maneuvers on from the main body to their flank locations should be cleared. Aviation can assist in this task.
  • As with the other security operations, a mix of ground and aviation assets can be a powerful combination in accomplishing the flank cover.

A Cavalry Regiment in a Defensive Cover

Defensive Cover
A covering force in the defense can have a huge impact. A commander may have several purposes in mind when he elects to utilize a covering force. These can include:

  • Ensure your opponent does not keep or obtain the initiative. This is a challenge since the enemy is preparing to attack and in many cases has the initiative. The covering force can be a significant factor in changing this. Through their actions they can prevent the enemy from attacking where and when he wants to and at what strength level.
  • As we have addressed countless times in the series; time is the one resource you can’t get enough of. The covering force can be invaluable in gaining precious time. This is time that can be utilized in preparing defenses, deploying forces where it can gain an advantage and potentially conducting a counter-attack, or enabling the force to get logistically up to strength.
  • The commander may want to drain the enemy of combat power and its’ will to fight. A defensive covering force can achieve this by forcing the enemy to maneuver/fight through the covering force.

So how does a covering force influence initiative, gain time, or degrade the enemy’s strength mentally and physically? Below are some tasks that will aid the covering force in achieving these purposes:

  • Ensure the main body does not get surprised by enemy actions. Critical in this is not being engaged by the foe’s direct fire weapon systems. (Obviously, drawing direct fire at a time when you are not expecting it may infer the enemy has surprised you).
  • A security stable – Must keep around the clock eyes on all high speed enemy avenues of approach into the security area which ultimately lead into the main body.
  • These eyes should also be able to determine various things about the enemy main body. These include the size of the attacking force, its’ strength, the vehicle composition of its’ units, and direction of attack (especially of the main body’s main effort, if possible). Obviously, all of these are critical to the commander deciding what options he has available.
  • Destroy or defeat enemy recon units. One pesky single recon vehicle which gets through to the main body can cause serious havoc. In particular, in can direct indirect fires into the main body. Good units will coordinate the efforts of all security elements (cover, guard, screen, recon, etc…) to increase the probability this won’t happen.
  • An enemy at significant strength will likely employ his own guard or cover force. A defensive covering force must defeat these forces and any other lead security elements the enemy may maneuver.
  • If the covering force becomes engaged with the lead elements of the enemy’s main body; it must persuade the main body to maneuver into deployment formations. Forcing the enemy main body to deploy prematurely has a direct impact on momentum and initiative. If things go right, the enemy main body will attack piecemeal into the friendly main body engagement areas.
  • In conjunction with the above, the covering force should strive to destroy as many enemy vehicles as tactically feasible. The covering force must be careful not to get so wrapped up in this that they leave themselves no displacement options.
  • Although extremely challenging, if the covering force can influence the actions of the enemy’s field artillery and air defense systems the result could be huge. The key action would be for these units to displace rearward which would dramatically impact the artillery and air defense protection of the main body.
  • A covering force has great flexibility in the range of things it can do on the battlefield. One way to utilize them in a defensive cover is in deception. A good deception plan and execution can deceive the enemy that the covering force is the main body defense. The ramifications of this are significant.
  • The last task we will address is the covering force must ensure enemy security elements do not bypass them. Obviously, you do not want enemy security forces in the rear of the covering force setting their sights on the main body. The results will not be favorable.

Locations of a Defensive Cover Operation
Just as with the guard, there are three locations where you a defensive cover can be conducted. These are the front, flank, and rear. By far, the most frequently utilized defensive cover is to the front. This is followed by the flank cover. Consequently, most of the above discussion on the defensive cover relates directly to the execution of the front and flank. Below we will address some key aspects of the front/forward and rear defensive covers.

Front/Flank Defensive Cover

  • Again, a cavalry regiment is the primary choice with a heavy brigade next in priority to conduct a front or flank cover.
  • These units can be augmented by various combat, combat support and logistical units if the situation dictates.
  • Within a covering force, you will usually break up the terrain in sections and give that to individual units. Thus, if a regiment was conducting the mission, you would give these sections to squadrons to operate in.
  • If you could match these with the boundaries of units in the main body all the better. That would greatly simplify things and aid in areas such as coordination, passage of lines, etc….
  • A commander always wants a reserve at his control to influence an operation. In a front/flank covering force it is no different. Within the covering force, it is the wise commander who designates both an air and ground reserve. Attack aviation can maneuver to a location quicker and is far less affected by terrain, but of course can be weather dependent. A ground reserve (preferably tanks) may get there slower and can be influenced by terrain, but is affected little by weather. In either case, the commander needs a reserve to get him out of trouble or exploit success.
  • Air/ground coordination is imperative in the cover. A commander must blend their strengths (always aware of their weaknesses) during the cover. Each arm must know what the other is doing at all times.
  • As in any security operation, the passage of lines is vital to mission accomplishment and protection of the security element. In the defense, units conducting a front or flank cover will almost always conduct a rearward passage of lines with the main body. It is an operation which must be expertly planned, prepared and executed.

Rear Defensive Cover
A rear defensive cover is very comparable to a rear defensive guard. It is used when the main body is maneuvering away from the enemy. In most cases, this is not good. However, there may be times when the commander wants to fall back for various reasons (mainly logistical). When the main body is in retrograde mode, it is highly likely that a good enemy will be right on their heels. Consequently, a commander must determine how he can slow down the enemy’s pursuit and save the combat power of his main body. One major option available to the commander is to utilize a rear defensive covering force.

The execution of a rear covering force can take many forms. One of the most common follows below:

1) The unit decides it must conduct a withdrawal and based on the situation determines a rear covering force is needed.
2) The covering force positions itself to the rear of the main body. They will normally position themselves abreast. If a cavalry regiment is conducting the mission; it will be 3 cavalry squadrons abreast. If it is a brigade conducting the mission; it will likely be 3 battalions abreast.
3) While in position, the covering force will establish passage points where the main body will pass through the covering force. They should also plan for the what-ifs that could occur in this very fluid situation.
4) Once the main body meets the covering force, they pass through them and the main body continues maneuver to their destination.
5) Once the main body completes the passage, the covering force has several options depending on the tactical situation. First, the covering force may stay in these positions and conduct a defense against the pursuing enemy. Second, the covering force may conduct a delay against the pursuing enemy. Finally, the covering force may maneuver with the main body as its’ trail element. Again, these options are situational dependent and could obviously change based on the circumstances.

A covering force can have a huge impact on ‘big unit’ battles. In the offense, a covering force can enable the main body to attack its’ opponent at a time and place of its’ choosing. A covering force can also exploit opportunities that may come its’ way. In the defense, the covering force can deny the enemy its’ ability to attack at a time and place of its’ choosing. It can also be a tremendous aid in preserving combat power if the force is required to conduct a retrograde. The price of standing up a covering force is not cheap. It requires significant power, but the payoff can also be significant.

This article concludes our discussion on security operations. We have gone in great detail on the subject which included focusing on each of the big 3 security operations – screen, guard, and cover. Next month, we will maneuver in another direction and key on the raid. We will look at several areas including successful and unsuccessful raids in history and the planning, preparation, and execution of a raid. We think it will be an area you will find extremely interesting. See you next month!