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Posted on Oct 12, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 054 – The Ground Tactical Plan

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

American parachutists — devils in baggy pants — are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…”

– found in the diary of a German officer killed at Anzio


In our last article, we continued our mini-series on airborne operations with a focus on The Landing Plan. We keyed on several subjects tied to The Landing Plan. These included: 1) How to Select a Drop Zone, 2) The Different Types of Delivery Methods and Techniques that can be Utilized, 3) The Different Methods Available for Attacking the Objective and 4) How to Plan, Prepare and Execute Assembly Procedures. As we highlighted, it is The Landing Plan which links operations in the air to those on the ground. Consequently, there are many variables that can come into play and much to consider in developing the plan.



As we promised for many months, we would conclude our mini-series on airborne operations with a discussion on The Ground Tactical Plan. In this article, we will focus on the planning, preparation, and eventual execution of the plan. In particular, we will address subjects such as task organization, control measures and the attack. To get you in the mood:



C-130 rollin’ down the strip
Airborne Daddy gonna take a little trip
Mission Top Secret, destination unknown
Don’t even know if they’re ever coming home
Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door
Jump right out and count to four
But if my main don’t open wide
I got a reserve by my side
But if that one should fail me too
Look out below I’m a-comin’ through
If I die on the old drop zone
Box me up and ship me home
Pin my wings upon my chest
And bury me in the leaning rest



Getting there is only half the fun. Up to this point we have focused on the most unique / visible portion of airborne ops—getting there. When one thinks paratroopers, one see’s parachutes descending from the sky and into the fight. In the end, all the parachutes and planes are about, is getting the soldiers to their target. This is the business end of the airborne—actions on the objective—the Ground Tactical Plan.

Paratroopers normally fight alone initially. They fight behind enemy lines and therefore, must plan for a 360 degree defense to hold whatever they take or they hit and run. At some point in their fight, they expect and require a link-up (We will discuss link-up operations in a later article) with other forces. If the link-up doesn’t materialize then you have the British Paratroopers in Operation Market Garden. If the link up is timely then you have the 82nd or 101st also in Operation Market Garden. The distance between success and failure is a fine line!


The ground tactical plan (GTP) is the basis for the development of all the other airborne plans. The GTP is laid out first and the other plans are shaped to accommodate it. The GTP is only adjusted to the supporting plans when extreme limitations exist such as drop zone availability.

The GTP accomplishes the assigned mission. It lays out the commander’s intent, the concept of the operation, the fire support plan, and the airborne task organization. Ground combat in airborne operations is conducted along conventional lines but, under unusual conditions.


As in any other operation, planning begins by conducting an estimate of the situation. You must have a foundation of knowledge built before you can start crafting courses of action which highlight your tactical expertise. When developing the GTP, there are many things that must be considered. The best way to organize yourself is to acquire this knowledge by utilizing METT-TC (a concept we have discussed many times in the past). Let’s address the things you should be considering below:

Estimate of the situation.

Mission. The mission of airborne infantry normally is not fancy. It can be enemy focused with a purpose and task tied to doing something against your opponent. It may also be terrain focused with a purpose and task tied to seizing or securing terrain which will generally set the conditions for future operations. In either case, you will define objective areas tied to the enemy or the terrain. These designated objectives will drive the train on your landing plan. We will discuss this more in-depth shortly.

Enemy Forces. As with all operations, the enemy has a key vote on the outcome of the operation. There is much you must know about your opponent. This includes things we have discussed in prior articles. In particular to your future airborne operation, you want to know:

  • Has he faced an airborne landing in the past? If so, how did he react to it?
  • What are his capabilities to handle the landing itself and subsequent actions on the ground?
  • What equipment does he possess that can be most disruptive to your operation? (Of course, this includes air defense weapons that can be utilized against your aircraft)
  • What intelligence capabilities does he possess that could detect your operation?
  • What do you believe are his probable reactions to the airborne assault? (In analyzing this you want to consider the following):
  1. Forces that can react the fastest pose the most immediate threat to your assault.
  2. Forces that can cause the most damage or prevent the airborne force from accomplishing its mission pose the most significant threat.
  • Does the enemy possess any conventional reserve forces that can be committed to the area? (How long will it take for them to get to the area)?
  • Does the enemy possess any unconventional forces that can be utilized against the operation?

Terrain and Weather. Here is a no-brainer for you – terrain and weather can have huge effects on the operation. Below are some things that must be considered and evaluated:

  • Is there terrain near your main objective that is conducive to establishing Drop Zones? The selection of the Drop Zone cannot drive the train on the selection of your objective and airhead line (The airhead line is an imaginary line on the ground which defines the limits of the objective area for the assault. We will discuss this further later). It is the objective that is the imperative.
  • Are there natural obstacles from the drop zone to the airhead line that can be exploited by you or the enemy? Is the terrain conducive for you or the enemy to emplace man-made obstacles?
  • What are the enemy avenues of approach (these include track, foot, and air) that he can utilize to disrupt your operation? This is especially critical in the early period of the operation when you are attempting to assembly and prepare for the assault.
  • Is there key or even decisive terrain that can be owned by either force which can dictate the outcome of the operation?
  • What are the potential friendly and enemy observation and fields of fire within the area?
  • Are there areas available which would facilitate assembly and reorganization? Obviously, excellent cover and concealment would be a huge benefit in facilitating these actions!
  • Clearly, trafficability of an area is always crucial. In regards to airborne operations, on the friendly side, you are looking for good trafficability to get you from the Drop Zone to the objective. On the enemy side, you want to know how quickly he can get to you!
  • The various aspects of weather can certainly influence the GTP and all the plans before it. You must analyze all the ‘what ifs’ and conduct some worst casing. Most of these deal with issues of not being able to drop the right Soldiers at the right time at the right location. If this occurs, the repercussions will be felt with the GTP.

Time. As we all know, “Time Waits for no One.” In terms of time, there are several things that should be analyzed which are unique to airborne operations. These include:

  • The time estimated to get your assault force on the ground.
  • The time estimated to assemble and reorganize.
  • The time estimated to conduct a link-up if there are other forces on the ground.
  • The time intervals of the various units landing on the DZ.
  • You must also consider time as it relates to the enemy. These can be tied to how long it would take a counterattack force to react, time needed for a reserve to enter the area, etc…

Civilian Considerations- The impact of the local populace must always be considered in any operation. They will always have an effect on the ground. Disregard their impact and you will pay the price. Things you need to know are:

  • The Religion and customs of the populace. Related to this are times of prayer or services, religious holidays, etc… (These can have a significant effect on timelines).
  • Is the populace in support of the Government?
  • Is the populace in support of the Army on the ground?
  • Is the populace in support of your forces or are they against you? Or are they neutral?
  • Will the populace interfere (intentionally or unintentionally) with operations on the ground?
  • Will the populace work with you once you hit the ground (laborers, logistics, etc…)?

Development of the GTP. With the estimate complete, you can focus on developing the GTP. The GTP should get you from the assembly area to the airhead line to a defense around the airhead line. In developing the GTP, you will want to address the following:

  1. Identification of your main objectives
  2. Identification of your assault objectives.
  3. Designation of the airhead line.
  4. Emplacement of the security zone and recon/surveillance forces.
  5. Establishment of boundaries and task organization.

We will discuss each in detail below. Additionally, at the end of this discussion, we will graphically portray this development.

Identification of Your Main Objectives

As we highlighted earlier, your main objective is the key in developing the GTP. After all, accomplishing this assigned purpose and task is the reason you are conducting the airborne assault. As we discussed earlier, this objective could be enemy or terrain oriented. Once this goose egg is drawn; then you can begin defining your assault objectives.

Identification of Your Assault Objectives

Assault objectives are critical to the overall success of the airborne operation. In the scope of airborne assault they can serve many roles. They can be selected to assist you in achieving your main objective. In this role, the assault objectives are seized first and they would facilitate the subsequent seizure of the main objective. Vice versa, if the tactical situation dictates, the main objective can be seized first and then the unit can maneuver to seize the assault objectives. The assault objectives are then utilized to form the airhead line and create a hasty defense.

As you can surmise from above, assault objectives are crucial to mission accomplishment and must be selected wisely. In determining locations for assault objectives many things should be taken into consideration. These include: 1) As in anything, terrain is everything. If your enemy analysis determines he has the capability to conduct a mounted counterattack on your forces; you will develop assault objectives on terrain which assist you in repelling potential attacks. 2) As discussed before, you may need to seize assault objectives before you seize your main objective. If that is the case, you will select assault objectives which set the conditions for you to seize the main objective. 3) As we will discuss next, establishing an airhead line is critical to preserving the forces and setting the conditions for future operations. The key action to assist in establishing the airhead is occupying the assault objectives.

Designation of the Airhead Line

The airhead line sets the parameters for your eventual defense. (As a note, everything inside the boundaries of the airhead line is called the airhead). This defense is important because it should provide you terrain to obviously repel any enemy attacks and enable you to build combat power.

There are many things that enter into determining the size of the airhead and airhead line. The most obvious is the terrain. Since you are establishing a defense, you want the airhead line to take advantage of terrain which assists you in making this happen. The overall airhead should be big enough for you to disperse your forces adequately. This is critical because forces can be lucrative targets for artillery and air attacks. In terms of overall space, an airborne battalion will normally occupy a 3-5 kilometer airhead. An airborne brigade generally occupies a 5-8 kilometer airhead.

Emplacement of Security

In any operation, you strive to push out security as quickly as possible. This certainly is true in airborne operations. Because of this, you will ensure your initial security forces are one of the first to hit the dropzone. Because of the nature of the situation you want to have complete 360 degree security.

A security force can provide many purposes. First, it normally provides initial security as follow on forces hit the ground. Second, it usually provides the airhead early warning of any potential danger. Third, it can begin to provide you intelligence until your reconnaissance and surveillance forces arrive. Fourth, it can deny your opponent the ability to see what is occurring on the airhead. Fifth, it may be able to deceive your enemy as to the actual location of the airhead. Finally, it may be needed to repel any attacks the enemy may conduct on the airhead.

To achieve the variety of purposes we discussed above, you need to organize a pretty diverse force. Your list should include (if available) rotary helicopters, light armored vehicles, engineers, on call air support, and scouts.

The critical thing to determine with security forces is their location. Some things to remember are:

  • Make sure they are in communication range (redundant commo means are vital).
  • Ensure they are in range of fire support weapons. This can include artillery, mortars, and the aforementioned close air support.
  • Place them in terrain which affords good visibility, fields of fire and cover and concealment.
  • As discussed earlier, you want them far enough forward so they can provide early warning.

Emplacement of Recon and Surveillance

Once security is set, it is key that recon and surveillance forces begin their mission once they hit the ground. These are the forces that must gain and maintain contact with enemy forces which may react to your airborne assault (and they will react to your assault). To do this, you will normally emplace them on the high speed avenues of approach which you determined in your estimate. You will also want them located beyond your airhead.

Because of the situation, you need recon and surveillance forces which are highly mobile and equipped to handle the various situations which may arise. If available, you would like to include such forces as rotary air, air cavalry units, and light armored vehicles. Since they may be some distance away from the airhead you want to have artillery and close air support available to them.

Establish Boundaries

Boundaries are important in any operation. They delineate responsibilities and greatly assist in command and control. It is no different in developing the airhead. Boundaries must be determined to delineate responsibilities and provide guidance to units as to the terrain they will locate on the airhead. Things to remember when developing boundaries in the airhead are:

  • The first thing units do when they begin occupying their terrain is to clear all enemy out of their sector (within their assigned boundaries).
  • A boundary should be both recognizable to you on the ground and on the map.
  • With that said, you like to use features such as rivers, streams, and railroad tracks etc… as boundaries. When doing this make sure you do not draw the boundary in the middle of the feature. Draw it on one side or the other so one unit has clear responsibility for the feature.
  • With that in mind, if you use roads as a boundary, again make sure it is drawn on one side or the other so one unit has responsibility.
  • Ensure your boundaries provide enough terrain for units to maneuver within. You can’t pack a unit in like a can of sardines.

Determine Task Organization

Once you have determined the specific purposes and tasks that must be achieved; you now determine what type force is needed. This is obviously developing your task organization. You must organize for success. The individual airborne units are your foundation. In a battalion operation, we are developing companies and in some instances platoons. In a brigade airborne assault, you are developing battalions and in some cases, companies.

The base airborne units will be plussed up with attachments if needed. These attachments could be anything in the combat support or logistical areas which can assist the unit in achieving their mission. These attachments must be made early. It creates a chaotic situation if attachments are trying to locate their assigned unit after landing. That is why the loading plan is so crucial.

As promised, a graphically depiction of the GTP –


With the GTP developed, it is time to address actions on the ground. Let’s highlight some of the key considerations and actions in the initial assault and on the subsequent development of the airhead and airhead line.

Conduct of the Initial Assault.

  • As we addressed earlier, the first forces on the ground will be your security forces. They will set the conditions for success.
  • The tactical situation determines if you seize the main objective or assault objectives. In most cases, it will be the seizure of the assault objectives. This enables you to seize the main objective.
  • The longer it takes to seize to seize your assault objectives, the more likelihood of an enemy attack.
  • If the assault objectives are heavily defended; you will utilize the preponderance of your initial assault in seizing those objectives.
  • If the assault objectives are lightly defended, you can afford to shift forces into preparing the airhead for occupation.
  • Once objectives are seized, forces can utilized to establish the airhead line, prepare defensive positions and prepare for future operations.
  • We all know the importance of a reserve. Within the conduct of the initial assault, a reserve can also play a key role. This includes: 1) Assuming the mission of an assault force which may have been misdelivered. 2) Reacting to any enemy attacks on the assault forces. 3) Assisting in securing the airhead if required.
  • The Commander on the ground may need to make several critical decisions during the initial assault. These include maneuvering forces, changing the missions of his units, shifting objectives and graphic control measures, and the employment of his reserve.

Development of the Airhead/Airhead Line

  • Once initial objectives are seized, it is time to develop the airhead line. This airhead line links up the assault objectives in normally a complete 360.
  • The establishment of the airhead line sets the conditions for the development of the overall airhead.
  • The entire airhead line may not be completely organized or occupied. These situations include 1) Not required for the mission. 2) The Enemy Situation. 3) The lay of the land – terrain considerations.
  • The defense of the airhead line has the same considerations as any defense. This includes utilizing mines, obstacles, patrols between assault objectives and using fire support to cover weak areas.
  • As the airhead line is being developed; the unit can also begin establishing the entire airhead.
  • The key to developing the airhead is a steady flow of combat power into the area.



This article concludes our series of airborne operations. I’m sure the first thing you determined is that this is tough stuff! It requires detailed planning from start to finish. As we addressed numerous times, all of the individual plans within an airborne operation are tied to one another. However, they all feed off the Ground Tactical Plan. Each of the previous plans, The Marshaling Plan, The Air Movement Plan, and The Landing Plan must be in synch with The Ground Tactical Plan. A glitch in one of those plans will surely be felt on the ground!


We will shift gears a bit in our next article. Our focus will be on deception operations. We will spend the next few articles on this topic. In our initial article, we will talk the basics of deception. We will follow that with discussion on the means and techniques a commander has available to him in conducting deception.

Death From Above!