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Posted on Jan 16, 2013 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 080 – The Tactical Road March

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


“An army is exposed to more danger on marches than in battles.  In an engagement the men are properly armed, they see their enemies before them and are prepared to fight.  But on a march the soldier is less on his guard, has not his arms always ready and is thrown into disorder by a sudden attack or ambuscade.  A general, therefore, cannot be too careful and diligent in taking necessary precautions to prevent a surprise on the march.”


Flavius Vegetius Renatus
Military Instructions of the Romans AD 378

In our last article, we focused on the raid.  In our discussion, we addressed several areas.  These included us reliving an old war story, looking at some of the more famous raids in history, and discussing the planning, preparation, and execution of a raid.  A raid can have huge ramifications at all levels of war and certainly, politically.  As we highlighted, raids can pay-off handsomely or they can fail miserably.  There is not a lot of middle ground!  A well-executed raid starts with meticulous planning and painstaking preparation.  Anything less can dramatically impact mission accomplishment.

During combat operations, there is no such thing as an administrative road march.  Whenever a unit is maneuvering from point a to point b; it must be planned, prepared, and executed tactically.  There is no greater example of this than the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  You cannot take shortcuts in your planning and preparation and units must be trained on the what-ifs that can occur during a road march.

This month’s article will focus on the planning, preparation, and execution of a mounted (vehicle) road march.  We will cover the following: 1) Definition of a tactical road march.  2) The Language of the Road March.  3) Planning the Tactical Road March.  4)  Preparing for the Tactical Road March.  5)  Executing the Tactical Road March.

We will dissect this topic focused on how heavy forces conduct tactical road marches.  In later articles, we will address how light units conduct tactical road marches.  LET’S MOVE OUT!

Let’s begin with a definition of a tactical road march which we can work with.

A tactical road march enables a unit to rapidly maneuver its forces (in a combat area) from one point to another in order to position it for future combat operations.  A successful tactical road march will set the conditions for success in the offense or defense.  A tactical road march which stresses and severely challenges a unit will certainly have the reverse effect.

Talking the Language of the Road March
Before we begin discussing the specifics of the planning, prep, and execution of the tactical road march; we must all speak the same language.  Below we will address some of key language that will be utilized throughout this article. To begin with, we will start with the building blocks of developing the road march:

March Column
Tactical Road Marches are normally conducted in a column formation.  This does mean hi diddle diddle up the middle with ducks in a row.  There are various techniques available with are dictated by the tactical situation.  Below we address the three types of column formations you can select from.

Open – When conducting a tactical road march during daylight hours, a unit will normally utilize an open column.  However, because of tremendous advancements in night vision equipment; nighttime is almost the same as daylight for some.  In either case, good vision enables a unit to use much more dispersion between vehicles.  This dispersion translates to between 50 and 200 between vehicles in an open column.   Consequently, this column can extend for long distances.

Closed – When visibility is a concern because of light, weather, or technology; a unit will normally utilize a closed column.  In a closed column, the distance between vehicles is far closer.  This will translate to less than 50 meters.  A closed column is a very tight formation.

Infiltration – When a commander has security concerns or may want to deceive his opponent; he can utilize infiltration.  In infiltration, he will maneuver small groups of vehicles at various time periods to get from A to B.

March Serial
Within a column, you will normally break down the unit into serials.  Depending on the size of the unit conducting the road march; a march column can have numerous serials. The reason for serials is pretty basic – it aids in the command and control of the road march and assists in the transition to future operations for the unit.  As an example, let’s use a heavy division conducting a tactical road march.  The division itself would maneuver in the march column.  Within the march column, the division could break down into battalion-size serials.  Each of these serials would be commanded by the unit’s battalion commander.

March Unit
Within a serial, you will normally break down into march units.  Using our above example, the battalion size serials would break down into company size march units.  The size of heavy company (normally around 20-25 vehicles) is the perfect size for a march unit.  This enables the company commander and his chain of command to command and control their maneuver.

In summary, the building blocks look like this:  COLUMN >SERIAL>UNIT

Besides determining the columns, serials, and march units; the other key organization decision a unit will make is organizing itself into a quartering party, a main body, and a trail party. Each of these has a distinct role in the execution of the road march.  Below we will address each of these critical parts.

Reconnaissance – As in any operation, it all starts with recon.  Depending on the size of the unit, the recon units will more than likely be the initial element sent forward.  The objectives of recon are pretty straightforward. Provide information on the terrain and the enemy that is associated with the tactical road march.

Quartering Party – One of the keys to success in conducting a tactical road march is the actions of the quartering party.  Normally, trailing right behind the recon element are the quartering parties of the unit.  Again, depending on the size of the unit, each unit will be able to send a vehicle or possibly two.  Thus, in a battalion tactical road march; each company would be allowed to send at least one vehicle on the quartering party.

The purpose of the quartering party is simple – enable the main body to occupy their ultimate assembly area as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.  In order to aid in this, the quartering party will execute a variety of tasks.  These could include the following:  1) Recon of the route 2) Recon of the assembly area.  This recon involves checking the area for obstacles and potentially chemical weapons.  Additionally, they will determine where their unit’s vehicles will physically occupy the assembly area.  3) Conducting security in the assembly area until the main body arrives.  4) Serve as guides to assist the main body in occupying the assembly area.

Main Body –  As the name suggests, the preponderance of a unit’s vehicles will make up the main body.  All of the other elements of the road march should be focused on setting the conditions for a smooth execution by the main body.

Trail Party – The final element of the tactical road march is the trail party.  Obviously, this is the last element in the tactical road march.  The task of the trail party is to police up the road march route.  This mainly involves taking care of disabled vehicles that have broken down during the road march.  Consequently, the trail party is composed primarily of maintenance vehicles and personnel.  It is critical that the trail party recovers vehicles as quickly as possible.  This allows maintenance personnel to get to vehicles quicker and conduct repairs.  Time lost here impacts directly on combat power when it is needed later on.

Below is a good graphic which portrays a typical organization for a tactical road march:

Within the tactical road march, there is likely going to be times when the unit is going to stop.  Obviously, the longer the distance you will maneuver; the more likely there will be halts.  When we talk halts, there are two types of halts – scheduled and unscheduled.  Let’s discuss each below:

Scheduled – In order to set the conditions for a smooth transition into the next operation; it is wise to plan for scheduled halts along the route.  Scheduled halts are planned for several reasons.  These include maintenance checks and quick operator’s maintenance if needed, refuel vehicles if required, change out drivers if it is a long duration march, or to tidy up the column, serial, or march unit (this could be enabling vehicle/vehicles to catch up or vehicle/vehicles to pass others).  Every good unit will have an established procedure as to when to conduct a scheduled halt.  For example, it is a good rule of thumb to conduct a 10-15 minute halt after the first hour of maneuver.  Following that, every two hours should have another 10-15 minute halt.  If a refuel is necessary, this will probably require a longer halt (depending on the capabilities and training of the unit).  A Refuel on the Move (ROM) is a far harder mission than some would think.  We will discuss this operation in a later article.

Unscheduled – As a name suggests, there will inevitably be occurrences in a tactical road march when it is necessary to conduct an unscheduled halt.  There are many reasons why an unscheduled halt may be required.  First, there may be obstacles that are in the route.  This could be natural obstacles caused by nature (fallen trees, washed out roads, etc…) or man-made obstacles (Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), conventional mines, wire, ditches, etc…).  Second, may be an attack or ambush by the enemy.  This could be attacks from direct fire, indirect fire, or even air attack. Obviously, this is unscheduled, but it should be a contingency that is planned for.  Third, could be from a change in the tactical situation.  Perhaps, the unit has a change of mission and must await orders for where they must maneuver to.  Whatever the reason for the halt, there are some key actions that must take place.  We will address these in our execution discussion later in the article.

Start Point – In a tactical road march, this is the location on the ground where vehicles come under control of a particular march commander.  For instance, if a vehicle was part of a march serial it would come under the control of the serial commander at the start point.  This is especially critical when you may have vehicles from various units making up a serial.  These vehicles would all come under control of the serial commander.

Release Point – In a tactical road march, this is the location on the ground where vehicles revert back to the control of their normal organization.  The release point is normally located prior to vehicles entering the assembly area.  In our above example, those vehicles from the various units who were under the control of the serial commander; would revert back to their own organizations at the release point.

Light Line – We must admit we seen some tactical road marches that were lit up brighter than Las Vegas.  In this case, it is the enemy that has hit the jackpot.  Anyway, in some cases the tactical situation may allow for lights on in a tactical road march.  However, the majority of time, a tactical road march conducted at night will require vehicles to drive without lights utilizing night vision technology.  Commanders will designate where this will take place – this is called the light line.

Traffic Control Point (TCP) – Within a road march route, there may locations where a commander may be concerned that the potential to “mess with success” is present.  This could be a confusing intersection or challenging terrain which could cause a unit to take a wrong turn and subsequently, severely affect the timeline of the tactical road march.  To assist in these wrong turns not occurring, a unit will place a TCP at these critical locations.  A TCP is usually manned by military police who will guide vehicles in the right direction.  They are good to report information to the commander as to how the road march is being conducted.  If military police is not an option, a unit’s scouts are another good choice.

Planning the Tactical Road March
As in any mission, the first step is conducting a comprehensive mission analysis which assists you in understanding yourself, the enemy, and the terrain and weather.  Unfortunately, many times complacency sets in and you whip up a quick plan, paying little attention to the above.  Sure, you may get away with it a few times; but sooner or later you will pay the price.  Below are a few items you will want to consider in your planning:

Understanding Yourself
•    What is your timeline for future operations?
•    Will you need to refuel vehicles during the march?
•    Do you possess air superiority or even air supremacy?
•    What is the follow-on mission after conducting the tactical road march?
•    What is current maintenance status?
•    Do you have the logistical assets available to support the tactical road march?

Understanding the Enemy
•    Does the enemy possess fixed wing air that can attack your columns?
•    What assets does the enemy possess to conduct ambushes on your forces?
•    Does the enemy have a history of conducting these types of ambushes?
•    Will the enemy emplace obstacles, mines, IEDs along the route?
•    What are the current locations of enemy forces?
•    What do you anticipate the enemy’s future operations to be?

Understanding the Terrain
•    Where does the terrain support potential ambush sites?
•    Where are the potential road march routes?
•    Where does the terrain support an assembly area at the other end of the march?
•    Where does the terrain support scheduled maintenance halts?
•    Where does the terrain support refueling operations?
•    Will weather affect the route and the conduct of the road march?

Graphics/Control measures

Of course, one of key outcomes of planning is producing the graphical control measures to conduct the road march.  Below we will depict some fairly typical road march graphics and add some discussion afterwards.

Let’s discuss some of the control measures you see in the above graphic:

AA Ramona – This is the initial location (assembly area) for the unit prior to executing the tactical road march

SP (Start Point) – As highlighted earlier, this is the location on the ground where the road march begins.  Individual units will report when they cross the SP.  This should be an identifiable piece of terrain on the ground.

LL (Light Line) – As units cross this terrain, lights off!

ROUTE IRON – This is the primary tactical road march route the unit will utilize.

ROUTE RUST – This is alternate route that the unit can use.  As always, you must plan for the what-ifs.  An alternate route assists you in dealing with these what-ifs.

TCPs – There are several locations on the route (s) that concern the commander.  Placing TCPs in those locations can alleviate potential chaos.

Bridge Classifications – There are two bridges emplaced on the route.  It is critical that units understand what types of vehicles can safely use the bridge and which ones cannot.  Bridge classifications provide this info.  On our graphic, you see two circles both with an A2 and numbers.  This provides the information as to what can cross and what can’t.  Bridge classifications are all about weight and height.  Too heavy is no go.  Too much length – likewise.  We will discuss this system in a later article.

UMCP – This is a unit maintenance collection point that will be established.  Broken down vehicles will be taken there and depending on the severity of their maintenance trouble will be fixed there.  If a vehicle has significant issues it will be likely taken to another area where more significant maintenance will be conducted.

RP – As discussed earlier, this is where vehicles go back to organic unit control and prepare to enter their end state assembly area.

Not shown on the graphic is that end state assembly area.

Preparing for a Tactical Road March
As in any mission, you must conduct a thorough preparation before execution.  There are several actions you can conduct during the time before execution which will assist in achieving success during the road march.  These include the following:

•    Clearly, the first thing you must do is inform.  As soon as you know you are conducting a tactical road march; you must tell your subordinates.  Provide them a warning order so they can get themselves prepared mentally and mechanically for the road march.  Maintenance conducted during preparation will pay off in folds during execution.
•    Get your task organizing completed as soon as possible.  Earlier we talked how serials may be comprised of vehicles from various units.  If that is the case, get them linked up as soon as possible.  Waiting until the last minute to conduct link up only ensures that link up will not happen.
•    Just as in any operation, rehearsals are a necessity.  If time is available, they can be as elaborate as when you are conducting an offense or defense.  You must rehearse the what-ifs that may (and probably) occur.  Quality rehearsals build confidence and more importantly save lives.
•    Pre-Combat Inspections (PCIs) are vital.  Inspections are just as important in conducting a tactical road march as they are in executing an assault.
•    Make sure your drivers get some rest.  A tactical road march can be extremely taxing on drivers.  Set them up for success and get them some sleep.

Executing the Tactical Road March
The execution of a tactical road march, as discussed earlier, is a challenging operation.  The keys to execution are several.  They include:
•    Communication – In any operation, effective communication is vital – a tactical road march is no different.  Communication ensures the commander has situational awareness to command and control the operation.
•    Speed Control – One of the quickest ways for a tactical road march to literally self-destruct is for a unit to not control road march speed.  We have seen road marches that quickly turn into an accordion – speed up/slow down/speed up/slow down.  It is exhausting for all those involved and a recipe for failure for future operations.  A unit must dictate speed and following distances between vehicles.  Leaders must be ruthless on this and units must possess the discipline to follow these orders.
•    Traffic Control – As we addressed earlier, a wrong turn somewhere by a vehicle or a group of vehicles will short-circuit a road march.  A unit must have a plan to manage traffic control.  The utilization of TCPs is a big step in the right direction!
•    Security – A column of vehicles is an inviting target for an enemy.  Consequently, security is paramount. This security is not only 360 degrees, but must pay particular to air threats (fixed and rotary wing).  Security begins with observation.  You must have systems in place to conduct this observation.  We will discuss security a little more in our next section.

Actions at the Halt
One of the most critical aspects in executing the tactical road march is what the unit does during halts (scheduled or unscheduled).  Let’s discuss the particulars in each type of halt

Actions at the Scheduled Halt
1)    You will normally begin by units/serials moving into a herringbone formation.  This greatly assists in conducting observation and beginning to conduct security. You must also ensure you have dispersion among vehicles.  Bunched up vehicles are lucrative targets for any enemy.  Below you will find a sketch of a small unit in a herringbone:

2)    The most important action you will conduct is obviously pulling security.  This includes manning weapon systems, 360 degree scanning, air guards scanning above, and if you believe you will be in position for a period of time you should send out some local patrols. Additionally, you should always put together a quick indirect fire plan.
3)    Once security is emplaced, you must get down to logistical business.  This can include things such as refueling, rearming, refitting, etc ….  Most importantly, vehicle operators should be pulling maintenance on their vehicles.

4)    A scheduled halt is a good time for a leaders huddle.  Company Commanders should get their subordinate leaders together and talk over future operations.
5)    Depending on the duration of a road march, units may need to execute a rest plan (specifically for vehicle drivers).  A scheduled halt is a perfect time to switch out vehicle drivers.  A tired driver is an unalert driver.  We all know what that leads to.

Actions at the Unscheduled Halt
As we touched on earlier, there are a myriad of reasons why you would conduct an unscheduled halt.  Let’s address how a unit may handle some of these below:

Attack by Enemy Air – Depending on the size of the unit, there should be some early warning of an attack by enemy air.  With early warning, the first thing to do is disperse vehicles as much as possible. Once vehicles are stopped, air guards are looking and vehicles are monitoring their radios for more info.  All weapon systems should be prepared to fire at the air.  This includes small arms, crew-served weapons, main guns, and of course, those systems designed for air defense.

Obstacles – The best way to decrease the effect of obstacles on the main body is to find obstacles early.  Early reconnaissance of the route by recon forces and quartering parties can greatly assist here.  If it is the main body that discovers the obstacle, they have two courses of action – bypass or breach.  Bypassing an obstacle can be difficult.  The terrain may not support a bypass.  If breaching is required; the breach is conducted and all forces must be focused on security.  Remember, good units will cover obstacles with fire (indirect or direct).  Emplaced obstacles also are the first step in an enemy ambush.

Enemy Direct Fire – When a tactical road march makes contact with the enemy, the actions are no different than in any other operation.  The four steps are the same for both:
1)    Deploy and Report
2)    Evaluate and Develop the Situation
3)    Determine a Course of Action
4)    Execute the Course of Action

Enemy Indirect Fire – A column of vehicles can be highly susceptible to indirect fire.  If a unit receives indirect fire, they button up the hatches and continue maneuver.  If the unit possesses counter-fire capability, this is obviously an efficient way to silence that fire.

Changes in Weather and Visibility – During the execution of a road march, a unit can experience dramatic changes in weather and visibility.  A dust/sand storm or going from day to night can cause a unit to make an unscheduled halt.  During this halt, a unit may provide more control measures to assist in command and control.  These can include more checkpoints or phaselines to control maneuver.  If conditions are so bad; the unit may be forced to halt for an extended time.

Disabled Vehicles – Vehicles are going to break down and can, in some cases, cause a tactical road march to stop in its tracks.  In disciplined/trained units, a disabled vehicle must be moved off the route by any means possible and reported up the maintenance chain.  As the vehicle is being moved, someone takes charge and guides the column through.

The Assembly Area

The final action of any tactical road march is to occupy the final assembly area.  A unit must have a plan to get a unit from the release point to occupation of the assembly area.  As discussed before, a good quartering party should be the key to success here.  Because this is such an important and often overlooked subject, we will address this in our next article.

A unit must plan and prepare for a tactical road march with the same sense of urgency as with any other mission it must accomplish.  We hope this article provided you a solid background on road march terminology and the planning, preparation, and execution of the road march.  In our experience, a unit that can conduct a tactical road march to standard will be highly effective in any mission they are given.  Always remember that the objective of the tactical road march is to maneuver a unit as quickly and as safely from start point to release point.  This sets the conditions for the unit to achieve success in any defensive or offensive mission they are assigned.

As we mentioned a few lines ago, we will dissect The Assembly Area in our next article.  We will include areas such as preparing the assembly area for occupation, maneuvering from the release point to the assembly area, occupying the assembly area, and maneuvering out of The Assembly Area (The Alpha Alpha).  See you next month!

1 Comment

  1. Nice article. While I liked the late night reruns of Combat, a good series, their marching was awful. No spreading out of scouts for enemy detection, being the chief one.

    I commend you on your observation of enemy indirect fire as being a major problem. This was true of WWII and the Cold War as well as now. A march involves moving ones units where they can be hit by heavy artillery, which is not available to a marching column, no matter what its size. If you are moving into enemy held territory, you can be hit with heavy artillery as well as your tanks by missiles.

    Traffic control is also underrated in military affairs, especially when it is the best method of information about weather conditions. We will not always find ourselves in the bountious lands of of southern Germany when at war. More likely Vietnamese jungles, the Australian Port Moresby campaign in WWII and the the mess in Afghanistan.