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Posted on Feb 11, 2014 in Tactics101

Tactics 101 093 – The Infantry Platoon

Tactics 101 093 – The Infantry Platoon

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland




“I love the infantry, because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities; and, in the end, they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”

image004Ernie Pyle

Beginning this month, we will truly neck down and get into the basics.  Over the upcoming months, we will dissect the capabilities and tactics of small units.  We will begin by focusing on the light infantry.  As we continue, we will also analyze airborne, air assault, mechanized, and armor forces.


In our initial article in this mini-series, we will dissect the light infantry platoon as it pertains to conventional operations. (We will address the platoon in urban operations later).  We will key in two specific areas.  First, we will address the organization of a typical light infantry platoon. Second, we will lay out the formations a light infantry platoon utilizes.  This article will set the conditions for us to examine the light infantry platoon in maneuver and in offensive and defensive operations.


The Infantryman

Before we begin with the organization, let’s highlight the cornerstone of any infantry unit – the individual Infantryman.  It all starts with the skills of each Infantryman.  There are numerous skills that the infantryman must be proficient in.  However, when it is all said and done; there are five skills that are paramount to the success of the Infantryman and subsequently, to the unit he is part of.  Let’s discuss these critical skills below:

Maneuver – Perhaps, you have heard this called move, but this just doesn’t do this skill the importance it requires.  As we have stressed throughout the series, in tactical operations; all things must be executed tactically.  Consequently, we must address this as maneuver.

For the individual light Infantryman, maneuver translates into mastery of Individual Movement Techniques (IMT).  These include the old standards such as the low crawl, high crawl, 3-5 second rush, etc… .   It is these skills which set the foundation for small unit maneuver.  In conducting IMT, it is imperative that Soldiers and their leaders understand the terrain they are operating in.

Shoot – Maneuver and shoot, they go hand in hand.   It does little to maneuver to gain an advantage over your enemy and then, when it comes times to place effective fire upon him – it doesn’t happen.

When it comes to shooting, there is far more to just hitting your target.  Obviously, that is a big part of the equation, but there are other important factors.  These include things such as selecting the right ammunition, not expending too much ammunition, inflicting collateral damage, etc….  Consequently, the Infantryman must know the strengths and weaknesses of his weapons and their ammunition and again, a complete understanding of the terrain he is operating in (jungle, urban, desert, etc…).

Communicate – There are two aspects to communication.  First, the Infantryman must be a master of the communication equipment he utilizes.  For some, this may be some type of radio.  For others, this could be simply hand and arm signals.  Second, the Infantryman must know when and what to communicate.  He must be concise and clear with his communication.  Anything less during the heat of battle is a detriment to his unit.

Survive – As with the other skills, there are several facets to survival.  First, and most obvious, is the Infantryman’s ability to survive with his enemy.  This skill certainly ties in directly with all the other skills.  Second, is the ability of the Infantryman to survive his own environment.  There are numerous challenging environments in which the Infantryman must adapt to.  Each has its own set of intricacies.   Finally, the Infantryman must survive the battle with himself.   This includes the wear and tear on his physical body and the incredible amount of stress that is placed on him mentally.

Sustain – The last of the primary skills is the sustainment of the Infantryman.  First thoughts may be that sustaining an Infantryman is fairly easy.  However, in reality sustaining the Infantryman in combat is a difficult challenge.  Ammunition, food, parts, and of course water are necessities.  The Infantryman depends on his logisticians to get him what he needs.  The Infantryman, himself has two parts in this.  First, he must ensure his chain of command knows what his needs are.  Second, the Infantryman must be adept at being able to carry on his back his sustainment needs.  There is truly an art to packing the rucksack!

The Organization of a Light Infantry Platoon

** Before we begin our look at the organization of the light infantry platoon; let’s lay out our parameters.   There are many variants to this organization.  We will provide a fairly typical US Army organization that was highly successful over the years!

The organization of combat units is comprised of a succession of building blocks.  Within a light infantry platoon the succession of blocks are:  the Infantryman > fire team > squad > platoon.  Platoons then make up companies and companies make up battalions etc ….  Below, we will address the blocks of a platoon — the fire team and squad.  Following that, we will discuss the platoon itself.


The Fire Team

image010As the name suggests, the fire team is truly a team.   It fights as a team and is the key maneuver unit in any platoon operation.  It will normally consist of four Infantrymen.  Let’s discuss each below:

Team Leader – A young Sergeant will usually head up the Team.  He will be equipped with a rifle (M16/M4 etc…).  The Team Leader clearly sets the example.  He is the epitome of the motto, “FOLLOW ME”.   When a hill must be taken, you can be sure any Team Leader worth his salt is leading the way.

Automatic Rifleman – The senior Specialist 4 will serve as the automatic rifleman.  Additionally, he will serve as the Assistant Fire Team Leader.  The automatic rifleman will carry an M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon).  With his weapon, he will focus on area targets for the fire team.

 image012The SAW

Grenadier – A Specialist 4 will serve as the fire team’s grenadier.  As the grenadier, he provides indirect fire support for the fire team.  To achieve this, he is equipped with an M203 or M320 grenade launcher.


Rifleman  — The cornerstone of the Fire Team is the individual rifleman.  The rank of the rifleman is a Private First Class.  He is armed with an M16 or M4 rifle.  He will focus his attention on point targets (individual).  A rifleman may also be asked to carry extra ammunition for the fire team (grenade launcher/automatic weapons).

image015M16 Variants

The Squad


image018The light infantry squad consists of the two fire teams we addressed above.  You will normally not mess with this organization much.  The squad trains to fight as a squad.  A seasoned Staff Sergeant will lead this unit.   He will work directly with his Fire Team Leaders to command and control the actions of the squad.  Just as his Fire Team Leaders, the Squad Leader is a “Do as I Do” leader.

The squad can achieve many things on the battlefield.  It can be a maneuver element by itself or it can form a base of fire to assist other squads within the platoon/company.  A platoon will have three infantry squads assigned to it.

The Weapons Squad

image020The Weapons Squad

Besides the straight infantry squad, a platoon will also normally be equipped with a weapons squad.  As the name suggests, the weapons squad can be an extremely lethal unit on the battlefield.  It will have two M240 type machine guns and two anti-tank missile systems (normally a Javelin).  This is an excellent combination and enables the platoon as a whole to clearly hold their own (and more) against the types of units they will face.

image022The Javelin

image024M240B Machine Gun

The weapons squad is led by a veteran Staff Sergeant.  Each of the machine guns will be manned be a Specialist Four.  Both of the machine gunners will be assisted by a Private First Class.  These Soldiers will serve as assistant gunners and will also carry extra machine gun ammunition.  The two anti-tank missile systems will each be manned by a specialist four.  They will each be assisted by a Private First Class.  The assistants will also carry extra anti-tank rounds.  In the case of the weapons squad, many of these Soldiers will have served previously in one of the rifle squads.

The Platoon

image025The Platoon Wiring Diagram

 We have discussed the individual Soldier, the fire team, the rifle squad, and the weapons squad.  Let’s put it together and address the light infantry platoon.

As the diagram highlights, the basic light infantry platoon is composed of three rifle squads, a weapons squad and a headquarters element.  Since we have dissected the rifle and weapons squad, let’s discuss the headquarters element.

The platoon headquarters obviously, provides the command and control for the platoon.  To achieve this, they have three Soldiers assigned to the unit.  They are the Platoon Leader, the Platoon Sergeant, and the Radiotelephone Operator (RTO).  Let’s highlight the roles of each below.

Platoon Leader – An initially, relatively inexperienced Second Lieutenant will lead the platoon.  However, it will not take long for the 2LT to become a seasoned platoon leader. He will have countless opportunities to gain this experience.  The Platoon Leader has many critical duties.  These include:

  • First, and foremost he is responsible for everything that occurs in the platoon.  This is a huge responsibility for someone who may be executing their first duty position.
  • Achieve his purpose and task from his higher headquarters, many times utilizing initiative within the parameters of the commander’s intent.
  • Understand how to employ all the weapons/weapon systems he has at his disposal.
  • Maneuver his squads and synchronize their fire and maneuver.
  • Ask for additional assets if he believes they are needed to achieve his mission.
  • Keep the company commander informed to what is occurring on the ground.
  • Keep the squad leaders informed to what is occurring on the ground.
  • Place himself in a location where he can influence the decisive point of the mission.
  • Develop and maintain an understanding of the terrain, the enemy and the friendly situation.
  • Set the example in the platoon.  Do what they do!
  • Know his men.
  • Listen and heed the advice of the Platoon Sergeant!

Platoon Sergeant – The old saying, “Be, Know, Do” is a perfect way to capture the essence of a Platoon Sergeant.  A Platoon Sergeant is almost always the most experienced Soldier in the platoon.  He has done it all and seen it all.  The scope of the duties of a Platoon Sergeant is extremely wide.  Let’s highlight just a few of these duties below:

  • Assist the Platoon Leader in achieving everything we discussed above!
  • The platoon expert on squad and platoon tactics.
  • The logistician of the platoon. Ensures platoon has the food, water, ammunition, fuel, parts and supplies it needs to accomplish its’ mission.
  • Second in command of the platoon.  Assumes the role of platoon leader if required.
  • Mentors his platoon leader.
  • Ensures the squad leaders are leading their squads.
  • Ensures the platoon is prepared for combat operations (pre-combat checks, inspections, etc…).
  • Directs casualty collection efforts within the platoon.
  • Knows the men in the platoon.
  • The eyes and ears of the platoon.

RTO – Look to the left or right of the Platoon Leader and you will find the Radiotelephone Operator –better known as the RTO.  In the critical task of communication, this young Soldier must be experienced beyond his years.  Some of his duties include:

  • Keep the command group’s communication equipment functioning. Many times, this takes creative solutions.
  • Ensure Platoon Leader has communications with his company commander at all times (challenging).  This includes making sure they are secure communications (if the technology is utilized).
  • Have expertise in all the various report formats that the unit utilizes.  This may include calling in a MEDEVAC, a call for fire, or an obstacle report.
  • Emplace field expedient antennas if needed.
  • Assist the platoon leader in his understanding of what is occurring within his squads.
  • At times, be a sounding board for the platoon leader.

Besides the three Soldiers above, a platoon will usually be augmented with fire support and medical personnel.

Forward Observer (FO) – Many times a platoon will receive an FO who may also bring along his own RTO (There may be times when just the FO is attached to the platoon).  The FO comes from the Field Artillery units which support the Brigade/Battalion which the platoon is part of.  His major duties include:

  • Locate indirect targets for his platoon.
  • Make Calls for Fire and adjust those fires if required.
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the indirect fire assets available within his higher headquarters.  This could include company mortars, battalion mortars, field artillery tubes, close air support, and even fast movers.
  • Understands the maneuver plan and how the indirect fire plan supports it.
  • Keep his field artillery headquarters informed.

image028Combat Medical Badge

Medic – Every battalion is assigned a medical platoon. This platoon will then provide a medic to the line platoons.  This is generally a habitual relationship (like the FO) in order to develop trust.  This is especially critical between a medic and the Soldiers in the platoon.  Below are some of the critical tasks a Medic performs:

  • Treats casualties and assists in the evacuation of casualties if required.
  • Trains members of the platoon to be combat lifesavers.
  • Works with the Platoon Sergeant to formulate a medical plan for each mission.
  • Stays connected with the company senior aidman and the leadership of the medical platoon.
  • Advises the Platoon Leader on any health issues within the platoon.
  • Ensures platoon has the required medical supplies needed for every mission.

Maneuvering the Light Infantry Platoon

Just as we discussed in organization, there are building blocks in maneuver.   From the individual Soldier to the fire team to the squad to the platoon – each can maneuver as their own element or as part of a larger formation.  Below we will define those

Fire Team – As a separate entity, a Fire Team has two basic maneuver formations at its disposal.  These are the wedge and the file.  As with most things tactics related, the formation utilized is METT-TC (Mission, Enemy, Terrain and Weather, Troops and Support Available, Time Available, Civil Considerations).   Let’s address each and provide a diagram of the formation.

image029The Fire Team Wedge

TL – Team Leader             GRN – Grenadier            SAW – Automatic Rifleman            RFLM – Rifleman



This is the fundamental formation for the Fire Team.  Why?  There are several reasons.  First, it provides all-around security for the Fire Team.  Second, the Fire Team is able to immediately fire in all directions of the tactical situation warrants it.  Third, it is a fairly flexible formation enabling the Fire Team to adjust pretty quickly.

The diagram above highlights a couple things. First of all, the wedge can be oriented to the left or the right. This is METT-TC dependent.  Second, the interval between Soldiers begins at about 10 meters.  This interval will expand or contract based on the situation.   Factors that will influence the interval are visibility and terrain.  No matter the case, you want each member of the fire team to be able to see the Fire Team Leader at all times.  Remember “Do as I Do”.

image033The Fire Team File

TL — Team Leader             GRN – Grenadier            SAW – Automatic Rifleman            RFLM – Rifleman



When control is at a premium, the Fire Team file is normally the formation of choice.  Tighter control may be necessary in several environments. These could include maneuvering through dense terrain (jungle), close terrain (hills, mountains, etc…), or during limited visibility.  Within the file, the interval between Soldiers is around 10 meters.  This can expand and may be extended even to eye shot. In times of poor visibility, it could be that each member is holding the web-gear of the Soldier in front of them.

Squad – The formations of the squad builds on the fire team formations.  A Squad Leader has three basic formations he may utilize.  These are the column, line, and file.  Let’s discuss each below.

image037The Squad Column

SL – Squad Leader   TL – Team Leader   GRN – Grenadier   SAW – Automatic Rifleman   RFLM – Rifleman



The column is the primary formation of the squad.  Within the column, you will normally have the squads in their preferred formation – the wedge.  Why is the column a good basic formation for the squad?  First, it provides the best security of the formations. As you will see in the other formations; there are some potential holes in their security.  Second, of all the formations available, the column provides the best all around fire.   Third, it affords the Squad Leader the most flexibility in maneuver.

Intervals between Soldiers have the same basic criteria as we discussed in the fire team wedge.  The Squad Leader will position himself between his two fire teams for command and control.

image041The Squad Line

SL – Squad Leader   TL – Team Leader   GRN – Grenadier   SAW – Automatic Rifleman   RFLM – Rifleman


The squad line is utilized when you want to maximize your fire power to the front.  As the diagram above depicts, each fire team is in a basic wedge with the Squad Leader in the middle of the formation for command and control.  In this position, the Squad Leader ensures that his fire teams are always in position to support one another.  Challenging terrain can make this difficult.  There are some issues with the squad line. First, security and firepower to the flanks and rear are much weaker than the column.  Additionally, the Squad Leader does not have as much flexibility to maneuver as he does in the column.

image043The Squad File

SL – Squad Leader   TL – Team Leader   GRN – Grenadier   SAW – Automatic Rifleman   RFLM – Rifleman


The final formation at a Squad Leader’s disposal is the file.  The squad file has the same basic characteristics as the fire team file.  Again, when command and control is at a premium; the file is the formation of choice. This tight command and control is generally required by limited visibility and terrain challenges (jungle, mountain trails, etc…).  When utilizing the file, you are of course, giving up other things.  This includes less security, limited fire to the front and rear (however, excellent fire to flanks), and the least maneuver flexibility of all the squad formations.

In the above diagram, you noticed that the Squad Leader has a couple of options in regards to his placement in the formation.  First, the Squad Leader can position himself in the middle of the file.  This enables him to have overall command and control over the entire formation.  Second, the Squad Leader may determine that based on the tactical situation he wants to be more forward in the file.  He may feel that more command and control is needed to the front of the formation.  Perhaps, he feels that the squad needs him “leading the way” in this mission.  Maybe, the Squad Leader feels that he will need to make key decisions in this mission and wants to be in the front to make these decisions.  If the Squad Leader does move forward, he can then position the Fire Team Leader of that fire team in a variety of positions.

image046 The Platoon

We’ve covered the formations available to the fire team and squad.  Now, let’s move to the platoon.  Before addressing the formations a Platoon Leader may utilize, let’s discuss a couple of things.  First, the Platoon Leader must incorporate the members of the headquarters element into any formation.  This will include Platoon Sergeant, Medic, FSO and any attachments he may receive.  Second, he must determine where he will place his weapons squad in the formation.  As we highlighted earlier, a weapons squad packs a powerful punch and must be positioned so that punch can be delivered.  The Platoon Leader has several options in placing the weapons squad.  These include:

  • Keep the squad together (2 machine guns/2 anti-tank systems).  Of course, the huge advantage in this is that the squad can produce impressive fire power in one location.  This fire power could be the difference for the platoon at the decisive point of an operation.  The disadvantage here is that you do not have these systems dispersed throughout the platoon formation.  In this option, the Weapons Squad Leader will command and control his squad.  It is also quite likely that the Platoon Leader will be close by to make any decisions in regards to their use.
  • The other way to use the squad is to break it up in pieces.  With four systems, there are several options here. With the squad broken up, these key weapon systems can be attached to the rifle squads and placed throughout the formation.  In this case, the Rifle Squad Leader will have command and control over them.  There are some disadvantages in this.  First, the weapons squad trains as a squad and is far more effective when utilized as a squad.  Second, if the tactical situation requires the squad to be put back together again; it will require some time to link them up again.  If the Platoon Leader decides this is necessary, then it is likely that time is at a premium.  This link-up can take many precious minutes—minutes he may not have.

With this said, a Platoon Leader has six basic formations he can utilize based on the tactical situation.  These six are: Column, Line (with the rifle squads on line), Line (with the rifle squads in column), Vee, Wedge, and File.  Below we will discuss each focused on when you might utilize the formation and its advantages and disadvantages.

Before we begin, let’s review our diagram key


The Platoon Column. Click to enlarge.

PLT LDR – Platoon Leader   PSG – Platoon Sergeant   SL – Squad Leader

TL – Team Leader   AR – Automatic Rifleman (SAW)   GRN – Grenadier

RFLM – Rifleman   FO – Forward Observer   RTO – “RadioMan”

WPNS SL – Weapons SL   MG Crew – 3 Soldiers from WPNS Squad (can be 2)

AT SPEC – 1 Soldier from WPNS Squad (can be 2 if taken from MG Crew)

MEDIC — Medic

Platoon Column

This is the platoon’s principle formation.  There are not too many downsides to the formation.  It is affords the Platoon Leader flexibility during maneuver, it enables the platoon to travel at a pretty good rate, it allows the Platoon Leader to keep good command and control over his unit, and it can distribute significant firepower to the flanks.  The one downside is that its security and firepower to the front and rear is not as good as some of the other formations.

A few things to notice:

  • The Platoon Leader is forward and the Platoon Sergeant is to the rear of the formation.  Good for all-around command and control.
  • The Platoon Leader keeps his RTO and FO with him at all times.
  • The Platoon Sergeant keeps the Medic with him to control his actions.
  • The weapons squad has split its personnel. Each section is in the hip pocket of the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant respectively.
  • Each of the rifle squads is utilizing the wedge formation.

image049The Platoon Line with Squads on Line

The Platoon Line with Squads on Line

If the Platoon Leader has excellent intelligence on the enemy and anticipates contact to his front early in the mission; he will likely utilize this formation.  The main reason, as the diagram highlights is the massive amount of firepower the platoon can generate to the front. This is clearly the platoon’s assault formation.  Other than above, you are not likely to use the formation. There are several reasons for this. These include the slow travel speed, the minimal amount of flexibility it affords the Platoon Leader, little flank security and firepower, and the challenges the Platoon leader has in trying to control the entire formation.

A few things to notice:

  • The Platoon Leader and Sergeant position themselves so they have overall command and control of the formation.  Again, this is a difficult formation to command and control.
  • The weapons squad is kept together under the watch of its squad leader.  The diagram does not show this, but the two anti-armor specialists will likely be positioned to the flanks of the Weapons Squad Leader.

image051The Platoon Line with Squads in Column

The Platoon Line with Squads in Column

A variant on our last formation is to place squads in column, vice in line. Why, still the platoon line? Well, the Platoon leader still has confidence that he will receive enemy contact to his front.  Thus, he wants to have strong firepower up front.

Why column instead of line?  Well, the Platoon Leader does not believe the enemy threat is as significant as the one he was facing when he chose line and line. Thus, he wants some of the advantages the squads in column has over the squads in line.  These are a little better command and control, a faster rate of travel and better security and firepower to the flanks and rear.

A few things to notice:

  • The weapons squad is intact.
  • Both the Platoon Leader and Sergeant are forward.  The Platoon sergeant may decide to position further to the rear.

image054The Platoon Vee

The Platoon Vee

When intelligence is not solid, but the Platoon Leader believes he will receive contact to his front; he may select the Vee.  This is the classic 2 up and 1 back formation.  The Vee is a challenge to command and control and it possesses a slow rate of travel.  However, it does have some advantages.  First, it can produce good firepower to the front and the flanks.  Second, it provides options for the Platoon Leader.  He can use his forward squads as a base of fire and then maneuver his rear squad where it is needed.  The Vee does have some weaknesses.

A few things to notice:

  • The weapons squad is split in sections.
  • The command group is basically together. Again, the Platoon Sergeant may position further to the rear.

image056The Platoon Wedge

The Platoon Wedge

When intelligence is not strong, but enemy contact is not probable; the Platoon Leader will likely use the wedge. The wedge is one squad up and two squads back.  Since the situation is very vague, the two squads in the back afford the Platoon Leader excellent flexibility.  He can use his forward squad as a base of fire and then maneuver one or both of the rear squads.  The wedge is middle of the road in terms of rate of travel, security and command and control.  Again, its beauty is in its flexibility when things are unknown.

One thing to notice:

  • The entire weapons squad and platoon command group are positioned right in the middle of the formation.

image058The Platoon File

The Platoon File

When time and command and control are at a premium, then the file is the formation of choice.  As with the fire team and squad files, it is excellent when visibility is bad, weather is poor, or the terrain is terrible.  There are sacrifices if the file is utilized.  First, it is the most difficult formation in terms of flexibility.  It simply takes too long to initiate maneuver from the file.  Second, although firepower is strong at the flanks; it is minimal to the front and rear.

A few things to notice:

  • The Platoon Leader has some options within the file.  In the diagram above, he has decided to utilize fire teams to provide frontal and flank security.  This is METT-TC dependent.
  • Another option is for the Platoon Leader to incorporate the entire platoon into the file.  If enemy contact is extremely unlikely and weather, light and terrain are poor this is clearly feasible.
  • The Platoon Leader and Sergeant are placed in the front and rear to facilitate command and control.

This article was a bit long, but we believe necessary.  In order to understand an organization, you must start from the ground up.  Thus, we discussed the individual Infantryman, the fire team, and the squad before looking at the light infantry platoon.  To do this, we focused on two areas – organization and maneuver formations.  This month’s article clearly sets the condition for future articles.

With an understanding of the platoon organization and the formations, we will now dissect the maneuver of a platoon.  We will discuss the maneuver techniques and drills a platoon can utilize.  In future articles, we will analyze how to employ the platoon in the offense and the defense.  Looking even further down the line, we will focus on the light infantry company and battalion.




  2. Can you comment on the organization of the Army’s Light Infantry Platoon during the Vietnam conflict? I am especially interested in how the squads would have communicated with each other and with the platoon leader. Were there multiple radio operators- one per squad- or just one RTO associated with the platoon leader?