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Posted on Apr 14, 2009 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 037 – Transitions

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

"Once the defender has gained an important advantage, defense as such has done its work. Now it is time for a sudden powerful transition to the offensive–the flashing sword of vengeance."

Carl von Clausewitz

In our last article, we concluded our mini-series on retrograde operations by focusing on the delay. We hope you took away the following: 1) There are few, if any, more challenging operations to conduct than the delay. 2) The delay is all about trading space for time. The time gained will be utilized to plan and prepare for future operations. 3) The delay will never go as planned. There are simply too many variables. 4) You must make the enemy react to you. A combination of timely fires and well-orchestrated maneuver are keys to achieve this. 5) The cardinal sin during the execution of a delay is to get an element decisively engaged. Once this occurs, your ability to trade space for time is severely curtailed.


During the majority of battles, there are windows of opportunity that present themselves to a Commander. These windows of opportunity may enable a Commander to seize the initiative away from his opponent. Conversely, these windows of opportunity may provide the Commander the ability to simply get out of a bad situation. In both cases, it takes the wise Commander to first understand the window is open and then to act upon it. In this article, we will focus on these ‘transitions’.

To tackle this subject, we will answer these questions: 1) What is a culmination point? 2) How do you know when a unit has culminated? 3) How do you transition effectively from defense to offense? and 4) How do you transition effectively from offense to defense. 

What is a Culmination Point?
Within the business of transitions, there is no more critical concept than the culmination point. Certainly, in the everyday world we all have our own definitions of a culmination point. For me, it is usually task number three on my long weekend ‘to do’ list. I’m sure many of you can relate to this.

For you dedicated followers of the series, you know that everything involved with tactics has a distinct definition. The concept of the culmination point is no different. In doctrinal terms, a culmination point is defined as:

It is the point in time and space where a unit no longer has the capability to continue the operation they were executing. In the offense, it is that point in time and space where; 1) The attacker’s combat power no longer exceeds that of the defender. 2) Or the attacker has lost the momentum for the attack. 3) Or the attacker can no longer logistically sustain the continuation of the attack. Of course, all of these could very well happen around the same period to the unit.

In the defense, it is that point in time and space where: 1) The unit does not possess sufficient combat power to defend against an enemy attack. 2) Or cannot conduct a cohesive defense. 3) Or is in danger of being completely overrun. Again, all of these could occur near the same period.

Why is the Culmination Point so Critical?
To put this in perspective, let’s offer an example from outside the world of tactics. You are driving your car and you start hearing some strange noises under the hood. Despite the warning signals, you continue to drive the vehicle and not explore the source of the noise. A few days pass and you are driving on the interstate. Suddenly, your car just grinds to a halt. After some dangerous moments, you manage to get it to the side of the road. The tow truck arrives and carts you off to the shop. The mechanic gets to it after a few days and then gives you the news. After a very subtle smirk, he says “If you would have brought this in earlier we could have saved the engine. I think the repair bill will probably be more than what the car is worth”.

If only you would have understood the indicators and then made a timely decision; much money and stress would have been saved. The same is true in tactics. The Commander who does not understand the indicators on the ground and not make a timely decision can suffer similar disastrous consequences. This is especially true in the offense. The Commander who continues to force an attack after hitting the culmination point will quite likely face catastrophic defeat. If only he had taken the indicators and made the timely decision to transition away from the offense; he could have saved valuable resources (most importantly, the lives of his Soldiers).

When has your Enemy Culminated?
Earlier, we discussed the criticality for the Commander to understand the indicators of culmination. When the Commander is on the defense, he should be looking for windows of opportunity to transition to the offense. The key piece of this puzzle is to determine that your enemy’s offense has reached the culmination point or is heading quickly in that direction. So what are the indicators a Commander should be focus on to seize this window of opportunity? Clearly, a smart enemy will try to hide these indicators from his opponent. However, some of these are much easier to mask than others. Below you will find some of those key indicators:

  • Intelligence determines the enemy is himself transitioning to the defense.
  • The tempo or momentum of the enemy attack has dramatically slowed or even ground to a halt.
  • The enemy attacks are piecemeal affairs (small groups of vehicles) without any mass.
  • Your battle damage assessments (BDA) of the enemy point to heavy losses.
  • You assess there is little in the way of command and control and overall cohesion in the enemy attack.
  • The enemy attack appears void of any synchronization or use of combat multipliers.
  • Your forces are finding little or no resistance during their maneuver.
  • The enemy forces you templated as the enemy reserve are intermixed with front line forces.
  • Interrogation of enemy prisoners of war indicate culmination.
  • Examination of captured enemy equipment or prisoners of war point to their inability to adequately resupply themselves.

Must all of these be present for the Commander to determine the enemy has culminated – certainly not! Nor should the Commander wait until he confirms a preponderance of these indicators. With that said, the Commander must utilize his intuitive skills (as well as those around him) and make a decision. Remember, the window of opportunity can be fleeting.

When have you Culminated?
One of the more difficult things anyone can do is to admit defeat or to put it another way – admit that your ability to succeed is not there at the present time. This is particularly true for the Commander leading an offensive attack. It seems many Commanders cannot give up that glimmer of hope that their attack will be successful. Thus, they continue to force an attack having no possibility for success. The potential result of this decision, as stated earlier, can be catastrophic defeat.

Again, there are several indicators indicating to the Commander that his unit has culminated in their attack or is becoming dangerously close. Below are some of those signs:

  • You determine the tempo and momentum of your attack has significantly slowed or even halted.
  • The reports from your subordinate Commanders are far from encouraging. In fact, they assess they cannot achieve their mission.
  • Soldiers are physically exhausted from the current attack.
  • You are receiving reports units are critically short on ammunition.
  • You are receiving reports units are critically short on fuel.
  • Causalities and vehicle losses are escalating.
  • The logistical system cannot keep up with the requirements from the attacking units.
  • You have already utilized your reserve and no longer have any forces available to reinforce forward.
  • Your intelligence indicates the enemy is receiving substantial reinforcements.
  • Your enemy is successfully mounting small unit counterattacks with relatively fresh units.

As we have discussed numerous times in this series, a Commander must know himself (his unit). If several of these indicators are readily apparent, then it is highly likely your unit has culminated in the attack.

Decisions, Decisions
The indicators are there and it is more than readily apparent you have culminated – now what? –Or— The indicators are there and it is more than readily apparent your opponent has culminated – now what?

Basically, the Commander has three courses of action.

First, and the most undesirable, is for the Commander to simply not make a decision. In this case, the end result is fairly predictable. If he is in the defense, a non-decision means he will not be able to exploit this window of opportunity. If he is the offense, a non-decision could very well mean the destruction of his unit or at the very least the majority of it.

Second, is for the Commander to make the decision to execute, but not make it in a timely manner. Many times a Commander will continue to wait until it is nearly too late. In the case of transitioning to the offense, he may wait until nearly all the indicators discussed earlier are present. By that time, the window of opportunity may have closed or the subsequent attack may not be as effective as it may have been. In the case of transitioning to the defense, any time wasted in not making that decision results in more losses in personnel and equipment.

Finally, the Commander can make a timely decision and execute the transition. In this case, the Commander must not wait until the entire checklist of indicators is present. As indicators start appearing, the Commander must conduct his analysis and make a determination. The ability to make the right decision in this environment clearly demonstrates the art of command.

With the decision made, the logical question is how do I execute? Below we will provide some ‘ways’ on how to make these challenging transitions.


The most important aspect of transition to the offense is the determination of what technique you will utilize. The Commander has basically two courses of action. First, he can execute the transition with the forces he has already forward defending. Second, he can utilize forces he has not committed previously in the defense. Let’s discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Tactics 101: 015 – The Basics of the Offense

Already in Contact
The first method a Commander may employ is to utilize the forces he currently has positioned in the defense. These forces will be the first units to transition to the defense. There are several advantages to this technique. They include:

  • The key advantage is the ability to rapidly transition to the offense. Since these forces are already positioned forward the time to move into the offense is minimal. This is certainly a significant consideration.
  • This technique has far less moving pieces than the alternatives. The main reason is that these forces should not have to maneuver through other forces to begin the offense. Consequently, the always challenging passage of lines is not required.
  • In terms of the human dimension of war, these forward units already possess the ‘feel’ for the enemy and the battle. Having already been in significant contact with the enemy; they should have picked up on their tendencies and acquired an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. 

This method does have some considerable disadvantages. These include:

  • Planning, preparing, and ultimately executing the defense is an exhausting endeavor. Thus, the forces you will utilize initially in the attack will not be 100% physically and mentally.
  • Unless units are logistically resupplied, they may very well enter the offense with limitations in fuel and ammunition.
  • It is possible that the above two disadvantages may contribute to the force actually culminating themselves while conducting the offense.

 Not in Contact
The other method a Commander may employ is to utilize forces not currently committed in the defense. These forces may be your reserve or reinforcements you have recently received from your higher headquarters. It is highly likely these units are presently located in the rear area having not fought the enemy. In analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of this method, you will find they are almost polar opposites of the first technique. Thus, the advantages include: 

  • Forces not in contact should be in far better shape physically and mentally than those who were in contact. Fresh troops versus tired troops is the proverbial no-brainer!
  • Units should be at or near full strength logistically. This includes fuel and ammunition.
  • Forces can utilize the intelligence acquired from those units presently in contact. This is valuable because units can utilize maneuver routes facilitating their attack on the forward enemy.
  • Since units should not be currently significantly engaged with the enemy; they can use this time to plan and prepare for a potential attack.

This method does have some considerable disadvantages. These include:

  • Obviously, this is not the more responsive of the two techniques. Units must maneuver from the rear area (potentially a significant distance away) to begin the attack.
  • Units may have to conduct a forward passage of lines through the established defensive positions (this could include through obstacles). This can be a complicated endeavor.
  • The units used in the attack may have not been in combat yet. Certainly, there is something to be said for experience in combat. 

Critical Actions
No matter what technique the Commander chooses there are same basic actions that apply to each. These include:

  • First of all, the Commander must articulate his intent to his subordinates. As we discussed in Tactics 101: 027- Commander’s Intent, he must provide a purpose, key tasks, and endstate for the transition. Let’s face it; this is a very chaotic period. The Commander can ease much of the confusion with a quick, but well-formulated intent. He must ensure his subordinates understand why they are conducting the transition, what tasks are important to achieving success in the transition, and finally, what success should look like at the end of the operation.
  • Well-defined and understood graphics are vital in any operation. This is even more critical in the transition to the offense. We have discussed offense graphics in Tactics 101: 010 – Graphics, these same basic control measures should be used in the transition. 
  • One of the first steps a unit should achieve before actually executing the transition is establishing a line of departure (LD). This LD is the start point for the offensive. Thus, terrain must be secured to establish the LD. In some cases, the unit may simply maneuver some smaller sized forces to the LD. In other cases, it may need to conduct some small-scale attack to secure the ground.
  • You must maintain contact with the enemy. There can be no surprises out there. As we have discussed in prior articles, contact is maintained physically, using technology, or preferably with both.
  • While maintaining contact, you should be continually acquiring information on your opponent. This information enables you not only to plan the transition, but make changes to the original plan if required.
  • Get your operating systems where you need them. During the planning of the transition, it is easy to become fixated with the maneuver forces. Consequently, the fire and maneuver support elements may get neglected somewhat. In any transition to the offense it is essential they are positioned forward to support maneuver. What good is fire support in the offense if it cannot range the targets you need?
  • As soon as you make the decision to transition to the offense, you should transition the emphasis of your engineer support from counter-mobility and survivability to mobility.
  • The priority for your air defense assets should focus on providing coverage for your maneuver units and engineer support.
  • During the transition to the offense, you must ensure adjacent units understand what you are doing. Your maneuver forward can be misinterpreted as enemy maneuver if there is no communication. The result of this could be a friendly fire incident. Additionally, adjacent units can protect your flanks during your maneuver from any enemy counterattacks.
  • One of the most critical pieces (if not, most critical) of setting the conditions for success in the transition is logistical support. As we have discussed in prior articles, the logistical priorities in the offense will differ from those of the defense. Once the decision is made to transition to the offense, the focus must be on fuel and ammunition resupply. Although you may assume that vehicles burn little fuel in the defense; that is not the case. Most tanks are guzzling fuel when they are simply idling in place. Thus, you must ensure vehicles have enough fuel to go on the attack. A quick drink before crossing the LD will pay off later. In regards to ammunition, it is likely most units have expended many rounds during the conduct of the defense. You must resupply units during any preparation time you have.


At first glance, the transition from offense to defense may seem fairly simple. However, as we learned at an early age – looks can be deceiving. This transition is challenging for several reasons. First, because forces in the offense are often dispersed and perhaps, somewhat disorganized it requires time and good command and control to initiate the transition. Second, you are not selecting the exact terrain you want to defend upon. It is very possible you will defend on ground not conducive to defending. Finally, there are the mental and emotional aspects to consider. When you transition to the defense you are in essence psychologically telling your Soldiers they are defeated. These Soldiers must pick themselves up mentally and emotionally. Additionally, Soldiers must adjust to a defensive mindset. There is a difference.
Tactics 101: 030 – Planning the Defense

A Commander has two basic methods he may utilize in transitioning to the defense.

In the first method, the Commander takes elements from his forward units and maneuvers them ahead to find some defensible terrain. It is there the Commander will set-up his security zone. Within this security zone, forces will furnish information on the enemy and delay, deceive, and disrupt the enemy and conduct counter-reconnaissance. The preponderance of the force will then begin preparing defensive positions essentially where they halted on the attack.

In the second technique, the Commander sets-up his security zone in the terrain where the offense halted. Thus, forces are not pushed forward to establish the security zone. The Commander then has the remainder of his force fall back to defensible terrain to develop the defense.

So what are the differences between the two techniques? Let’s discuss these.

  • In technique 1, the potential for losses in personnel and equipment is far greater than technique 2. This is because the forces you have designated to occupy the security zone may have to fight enemy to seize this terrain.
  • Because of the above, it is likely the security zone in technique 1 will likely be much swallower than in technique 2. Again, the rationale is because your forces may have to fight for this terrain. Consequently, you do not want to push them out too far.
  • The main body forces in technique 1 are more likely to be initially hit with enemy artillery. This is because they are essentially positioned in the same basic areas they halted the offense in. The enemy is likely to possess good intelligence on where those forces are.
  • Technique 2 will generally afford better defensible terrain for your main body forces than technique 1. This is because the main body forces in technique 1 are positioned in areas not necessarily advantageous to the defense. In technique 2, forces will fall back as far as needed to occupy defensible ground. 

Taking all this in consideration, clearly technique 2 is the preferred method to transition to the defense. This technique provides the unit a better security zone and better terrain for the main body to defend upon. Additionally, it does not risk potential losses to the forces that may need to establish a security zone as in technique 1.

So why wouldn’t a Commander utilize technique 2 during every transition? Well, this is where the factors of METT-TC (Mission, Enemy, Terrain/Weather, Troops Available, Time, and Civilian Considerations) come into account. For example, the status of your main body forces makes it unfeasible at this time to fall back. Perhaps, the weather (rain) has made movement nearly impossible. Consequently, your main body may need to stay in place. Thus, you may be ‘forced’ to use technique 1. In this case, you must play with the hand you are dealt.

Critical Actions
No matter what technique the Commander chooses there are same basic actions that apply to each. These include:

  • Again, the Commander must clearly articulate his intent. This drives the unit’s planning preparation, and eventual execution.
  • As discussed earlier, the transition to the defense can bring negative connotations within a unit. Thus, leadership must be present and be positive.
  • You must maintain contact with the enemy. To keep physical contact with the enemy, the establishment of the security zone is vital.
  • You must quickly develop a fire support plan. Effective indirect fires will afford you additional time in preparing your defense and will certainly inflict more casualties on your enemy. In developing this plan, you may find you need to reposition your fire support assets.
  • You must ensure your defense is tied to the adjacent units on your flanks. Any holes can spell disaster.
  • The priorities for your engineer assets will shift from mobility to counter-mobility and survivability.
  • You must ensure air defense assets are positioned to protect your forces in the defense. During this transition, forces are extremely vulnerable to enemy air.
  • The logistical priorities will change tremendously as you move to the defense. The focus must shift to barrier material, materials for constructing fighting positions, and stockpiling ammunition.
  • The more preparation you can do in limited visibility the better.
  • You must reorganize and consolidate as quickly as possible. As a refresher, let’s review these concepts.

Reorganize/Consolidate – We have got to the point where we have simply blended the two together to create the term reconsolidation. There is a difference between the two! To reorganize is to take measures to maintain the combat effectiveness of your unit or return it to a specific capability. These actions include cross-leveling supplies and ammunition, reforming smaller units, replacing key leaders, treating casualties etc…. To consolidate is the process of organizing and strengthening a position or objective you have just seized so you can defend it against a potential enemy counterattack. These actions include conducting recon, establishing security, repositioning forces, adjusting your fire plan, emplacing obstacles etc…. As you can see there is a difference between reorganize and consolidate!

The execution of a transition is truly a challenge! However, before you can even attempt the transition; the Commander must make the decision to execute. In terms of transitioning from the defense to the offense; the key is reading the indicators your opponent has culminated or is now vulnerable to an attack. The Commander must take advantage of this window of opportunity. Vice versa, the Commander must know his unit during the offense. If an attack is no longer viable for various reasons, he must make the right decision and transition to the defense. Continuing an attack when the conditions are not there for success is perhaps, the worst decision a Commander can make. In either case, they truly test the art of command! 

In our next article, we are ourselves will conduct our own transition. We will shift our focus by beginning a mini-series on air assault operations. We will cover all realms of air assault including planning, preparation, and execution. The series will start with a primer on the basics of air assault. This will set the conditions for the rest of the series. There is only one thing left to say –


1 Comment

  1. Guys, please release a downloadable version of Tactics 101. Like a pdf file. I wanna read them over and over. This series has changed my Rise of Nations multiplayer life.