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Posted on Jul 28, 2006 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 006. Main and Supporting Effort

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

“Consequently, the forces available must be employed with such skill that even the absence of absolute superiority, relative superiority is attained at the decisive point.” Clausewitz


All too often it is tempting to leap forward in planning and simply declare that we “need to take that hill” or “Colonel X’s outfit is the one to do the job”. This is knee jerk tactics in the selection of the task and the command to perform it. We know better so let’s do a quick review (we’ll revisit some of these topics at a later time):

– We received our mission from our commander and conducted a detailed mission analysis
– We analyzed the terrain and the enemy
– We analyzed our own troops available and time available
– We determined a decisive point and built a few courses of action around it.
– We determined the purpose behind allocation of forces (the effect they are to accomplish)
– We determined what actions or tasks would best achieve the desired purpose
– With all that behind us we can now designate the main and supporting efforts of our course of action.


To find the main effort we have to go back to our decisive point. We will review just what it is we want to happen there because this is where we intend to win the battle. This is where the main effort will go. The main effort’s purpose is our overall unit purpose. It’s his job to win the fight for our larger unit. In other words, the main effort company of our battalion is the company assigned the mission essential task and purpose that allows us to accomplish our assigned mission.

However, if our main effort unit could win the fight alone, we wouldn’t need the rest of our unit in the battle. It is a cardinal rule that we should expend no more or less energy then is necessary to attain victory. Invariably, the main effort will need help and that is what we, as his higher HQ and commander, provide. We will shape the battle for him by assigning supporting efforts that help the main effort to succeed.

The main effort task and purpose at the decisive point guides the development of the supporting efforts tasks and purposes. In other words, there is a main effort, several supporting efforts, and then there is wasted effort. If all the actions of all parts of our unit fail to contribute to the success of the main effort at the decisive point then they are wasted efforts. With resources so critical and finite, no reputable commander can afford any wasted effort.

Main and supporting efforts exist at all levels and are related to one another in such a manner as to allow the entire unit to trace the path of the main effort down to the lowest tactical unit. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) was Central Command’s main effort. The Air, special force, and naval component commands all contributed to CFLCC’s success. CFLCC’s main effort was V Corps and the MEF contributed to their success. V Corps main effort was the 3rd Infantry Division and the other divisions contributed to their success. 3rd ID’s main effort was 2d Bde and the other brigades contributed to their success. 2Bde’s main effort was the armor battalion that led the Thunder Run into Baghdad and all other battalions supported that effort. And so on… In the end, all units on the battlefield, in one way or another either directly or indirectly supported the success of the Thunder Runs in Baghdad which precipitated the collapse of Saddam’s regime.

Let’s look at a hypothetical mission. Let’s say our commander has assigned our unit the task of seizing an enemy position along a critical enemy line of communication (LOC). Our main effort force is assigned the task of seizing the position, our main objective, with the purpose of severing the enemy LOC thus facilitating future offensive operations, our overall purpose. Our supporting efforts will enable the main effort to succeed by helping to isolate the main effort’s objective. To do this they will conduct supporting attacks against adjacent units in order to prevent them from reinforcing the enemy on the objective. They will block routes of ingress and egress to further isolate the enemy on the objective. Our artillery will fire suppression on the objective to keep the enemies heads down in order to allow the main effort to close on them. We will fire on enemy artillery that supports the defenders defense (on our main efforts objective). We will hunt down and eliminate their early warning outposts to deny the enemy of early warning of the main efforts approach and we might conduct feints or diversionary attacks to make the enemy on the main objective think he is not the main target. If we attack some distant unit or chase after a fleeing force that can in no way help the enemy on our main objective then we are wasting effort. All of our units are focused on helping the main effort succeed on the main objective of our attack. It’s all about teamwork!

The above discussion is based on General Grant’s mission at Vicksburg. His main effort attacked the Confederate force while his supporting efforts shaped the battle. Grants cavalry conducted a series of raids behind enemy lines in order to create confusion and pull the defenders attention away from the advance of the main effort. Upon the final approach to the fort, Grant sent General Sherman east towards Jackson Mississippi, in the opposite direction of the main objective of Vicksburg. Why waste your best commander on a mission not directly oriented on the overall objective? Sherman’s actions chased away an adjacent confederate Army under General Johnston that could have reinforced General Pemberton at Vicksburg. Sherman isolated the main objective for the main effort attack at Champion Hill which in turn forced Pemberton into the walls of his fort on the river. Meanwhile, the navy blockaded the river to the south thus denying reinforcement and resupply and bombarded Vicksburg thus beginning the reduction of the defenses. All efforts contributed to Grant’s main effort of seizing Vicksburg and dividing the Confederacy.

It is interesting to note that Grant always assigned the supporting effort to his best commander. Why not put your best man at the decisive point, you may ask? This gets into the art of designating, weighting or resourcing, and sustaining the main effort. Simply put, as the overall commander of the operation, Grant would be with the main effort so he didn’t need his best subordinate to be there as well. Better to assign your best man and unit to a critical supporting or shaping effort since he must operate without your direct guidance.

For the same reason, it is not always the best course of action to beef up your main effort unit by assigning him all sorts of additional combat power. You may actually hinder his ability to maneuver effectively if you tie all your combat multipliers to his unit since he incurs the task of command and control for all the additional assets. It might be better to keep him as lean as possible and allow others in less critical positions to direct additional combat power. This is why a separate breach force breaks through enemy barriers and obstacles. The breach force has all the engineering assets required to get through tank ditches, wire, and minefields and he creates a path that the main effort simply charges through on the way to the objective.

To put this all in context, let’s go back into our scenario and review the work we did last week. The following slide shows the purposes and tasks we designated for our units (click on the thumbnails for larger images).


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