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Posted on Oct 10, 2013 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 089: The Ambush, Part 2 – Plan, Prep, Execute

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland




“Surprise is paralysis, if only partial and temporary, of the enemy’s ability to resist.  The advantage gained by surprise depends on the degree of surprise and the enemy’s ability to adjust and recover.”


Warfighting, United States Marine Corps 1989


Last month, we began our discussion on the ambush.  Our article focused on the basic fundamentals of the ambush.  In this foundation, we focused on answering the following: 1) What is the definition of an ambush?  2) Why do you conduct ambushes?  3) What is the terminology of the ambush 4) What are the critical actions of an ambush?  5) What are the fundamentals of conducting an ambush?  6) What are the categories of ambushes?  7) What are the types of ambushes?  8) What kinds of ambush formations can a commander utilize in the conduct of an ambush?

With the conditions set, we will utilize this article to look at the specifics on how to plan, prep, and execute an ambush.  As we addressed last month, there are many variations to the ambush.  To make things as simple as possible, we will focus our attention on a unit conducting a deliberate, point ambush utilizing a linear (line) formation.  Within our discussion, we will touch on some of the nuances of the variations.  However, we will use the above as our baseline.


The Line Ambush

Planning for an ambush is clearly a challenge.  Many times, the time for planning is highly constrained.  This is because the window of opportunity to conduct the ambush suddenly appears based on intelligence.  Despite the potential of minimal time available, quality planning must be conducted.  That means you must understand yourself, understand the terrain, and understand the enemy.  Below are critical areas which must be analyzed and then put together in your ambush plan.
1)    Understand your purpose.  This drives everything in your planning.  You must know “why” you want to execute an ambush. The “why” will define many of the other aspects we will address.
2)    Understand the Enemy.   As always, you most know everything you can about your opponent.  In a potential ambush, this includes things such as capabilities, strengths, maneuver techniques, tendencies, have they been ambushed before, etc…
3)    Ambush Site.   Here’s a no-brainer – the selection of an ambush site is critical to the success of the mission.  What are you looking for in a good ambush site?  Here are some considerations:
a.    Good cover and concealment for the forces executing the ambush.
b.    Terrain which conceals the force’s maneuver to and from their positions at the ambush site.
4)    Kill Zone.  Hand in hand with the selection of the ambush site is the determination of the kill zone.  Where do you want to achieve success in the ambush?  What are seeking in a good kill zone?  Here are some considerations:
a.    The enemy is likely to enter it.
b.     Terrain which has natural obstacles that can assist in forming the kill zone.
c.    Good fields of fire for forces into the kill zone.
d.    Terrain which makes it difficult for the enemy to withdraw once the ambush is initiated.
e.    Large enough to observe and engage the anticipated enemy force.
5)    Category of Ambush.  Hasty or deliberate – we addressed these last month.
6)    Type of Ambush.  Point or area – again, we discussed these in our last article.
7)    Formation.  The commander has many at his disposal.  All have their strengths which will assist in mission achievement.
8)    Manner of Attack.  In this area, we are determining the following: Will the ambush be purely direct fire? Will the ambush use mines?  Will the ambush utilize indirect fire?
9)    Size of Force. There is no rule of thumb as to the correct size force required to conduct an ambush.  There are many things that factor in when considering the size of the force.  These include: A) The specific mission.  B) The size and type of enemy force you are ambushing.  C) How the ambush force will maneuver to and from the ambush site.  Circumstances are different if it is via vehicles or via “legs”.  D) If it is via “legs”, you must consider the distance they are walking, the type of terrain they are maneuvering, and the type of equipment they are carrying.
10)    Equipment Required.  Related to the above is the type of equipment necessary to conduct the ambush.  Your mission analysis will determine the requirements for weapon systems, ammunition, supplies, night vision devices, signal devices, commo equipment, mines and barrier material, etc…. As you can see, the list is long and critical to mission accomplishment.
11)    Prior History.  As always, you must consider the past in dealing with the present and future.  In regards to the past, analyze the following:  Has the force conducted previous ambushes?  Have you conducted an ambush against this enemy?  If so, what were the category, type, and formation used?  If so, what were the enemy’s actions to the ambush?
12)    Time available. Imperative in the conduct of the ambush is having a complete understanding of time.   The timing of an ambush is complex.  As always, the enemy clearly has a vote.  Obviously, the overriding factor is when the force you want to ambush enters your kill zone.


Objective Achieved

Things that must be in the Plan and Understood by the Ambush Force
•    How will you cover the kill zone with fire?
•    How will you keep the enemy in the kill zone? (Natural obstacles, man-made obstacles, mines, etc…).
•    How will you protect your forces while occupying the ambush site?
•    What are your purposes and tasks for the assault element, the security element, and the support element?
•    What is the location of each of the elements in the ambush site?
•    How will you assault the kill zone?
•    What are the routes into and out of the ambush site?
•    What is the timing and synchronization of all actions?
•    What are the courses of action if the ambush force gets compromised?
•    What are the courses of action if the ambush force cannot withdraw from the ambush site?
•    How will you track the enemy through its’ entry into the kill zone?
•    How will you initiate the ambush?
•    What is your communication and signal plan?
•    What is your casualty evacuation plan?
•    How will you utilize indirect fires throughout the ambush?
•    How will you clear the kill zone?
•    What is your security plan through all phases of the ambush?


Preparation is Always Imperative

The preparation time available can very well be minimal.  Consequently, the ambush force must make use of every minute.  Below are some key actions that should be considered during prep time:
•    If the tactical situation favors it; a leader’s recon of the ambush site/kill zone is a must. As always, the recon enables you to confirm or modify your plan.  Critical in conducting the recon is for the recon party to ensure complete operational security.  There is nothing like the recon party giving away the ambush site because of lack of discipline.  Consequently, camouflage, sound movement techniques and noise and light discipline are at a premium.


The Leader’s Recon is Critical

•    Besides a recon of the ambush site/kill zone; you must ensure you recon all routes to and from the ambush site.
•    Preparation of any mission means conducting quality rehearsals.  As we addressed in prior articles, there are several types of rehearsals a commander can conduct.  The one chosen depends on the factors of METT-TC.  Depending on the time available, you want to rehearse occupation of the ambush site, initiation of the ambush, clearing the kill zone (if required), withdrawal from the ambush site, and any contingencies.
•    It is imperative during preparation that all members of the ambush force understand the signal and communication plan for the ambush.
•    Before any mission, every Soldier conducts their Pre-Combat Checks (PCIs).  It is no different in an ambush.  You ensure you have the right equipment to conduct the ambush.  No more – No less!


Planning and preparation are over – it’s execution time.  Within execution, there are four major actions that will be achieved.  These are the maneuver from the ORP to the ambush site; the occupation of the ambush site and final preparation; the execution of the ambush; and the withdrawal of the ambush force.  Let’s address each below.  (As stated earlier, we will use a force executing a deliberate ambush utilizing a line formation as our example).


Maneuver can be Via a Variety of Means

Maneuver from the ORP to the Ambush Site
Timing on this is critical.  Move too early and you risk becoming compromised.  Move too late and you may not have the conditions set to conduct the ambush.  Reconnaissance assets will provide the commander the information he requires to make the right call.


Security Elements Maneuvering to Locations on the Flanks of the Ambush Site

1)    When the decision is made, the security element will maneuver first from the ORP to locations on the flanks of the ambush site.   They have two key missions.  First, they must provide flank security for the rest of the ambush force.  They need to be in position prior to the rest of the force beginning their maneuver to the ambush site.  Second, depending on the recon assets of the unit; the security force may be the ones who give the ambush force the early warning that the enemy is nearing the kill zone.


Assault and Support Element Maneuver to Ambush Site

2)    Once the security element is in place; the rest of the force can begin maneuver.  There are two options for maneuver.  First, if the terrain is suitable; the support element can maneuver initially and provide overwatch for the assault force when it maneuvers.  Second, both forces can maneuver simultaneously from the ORP to the ambush site.


Camouflage in the Ambush Site

The Occupation of the Ambush Site and Final Preparation

There is much to do once the ambush site is occupied and perhaps, not much time to complete everything.  Of course, the keys to making it work are leadership and priorities of work understood by all.  Let’s address the key actions below:

1)    As soon as the forces enter their designated locations, there must be a plan to occupy individual positions as quickly and uniformly as possible.  In regards to the assault force, the senior leader should emplace Soldiers.  Consequently, if it is a platoon conducting an ambush, then the platoon leader should emplace Soldiers.  If it is a squad – then it is the squad leader.
2)    The first positions emplaced should be the most casualty producing weapons the force has.  In most cases, this will be a machine gun or an ant-tank weapon.  This will be dependent on the enemy force you anticipate ambushing.  You want to position these weapon systems first in the terrain which augments their capabilities.
3)    Once these positions are set, the assault force leader then positions his other Soldiers.  These will be mostly riflemen.
4)    Now in positions, Soldiers have several responsibilities.  These include: preparing a fighting position (depending on the tactical situation), camouflage of themselves and their position, clearing fields of fire into the kill zone, constructing a range card, and ensuring they know the terrain and the tactical situation.  Soldiers must prepare their positions striving to not make substantial change to the natural appearance of the terrain.
5)    Depending on the plan, obstacles may be placed in various locations.  Obstacles in an ambush are a challenge for several reasons.  First, you must get the barrier materials to the ambush site.  Materials like rolls of wire, pickets, etc… are awkward and can be tough to transport.  Second, the physical action of emplacing the obstacles can give away an ambush.  Third, an enemy nearing an ambush site seeing obstacles can be easily tipped off as to what may take place.  In regards to obstacle locations, there are several places where they may be utilized.  You may place them in areas that assist in channelizing the enemy into the kill zone.  You may place them in areas that assist in keeping the enemy in the kill zone.  You may place them between the kill zone and your locations to provide you time during your withdrawal.  You may place them on the flanks of the ambush site so the enemy cannot attack you on your flank (where you are most vulnerable).


The Mine can initiate the Ambush

6)     One technique that is often used in initiating an ambush is to utilize mines.  Thus, when the enemy hits a mine in the kill zone; that is the signal for the force to begin the ambush.  The placement of the mines must be done smartly.  You want the enemy to hit the mine when most of his formation is in the kill zone.  Another way to use a mine is for it to be donated by the friendly force.  Obviously, this is standard practice in Iraq and Afghanistan with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).  When do you emplace these mines?  It depends on the terrain, how long it will take to emplace, and your anticipated need for it.
7)    When mines or obstacles are used; you must sanitize the areas where you were working.  Track marks, foot prints, debris etc.., tip off the enemy that obstacles or mines are in the vicinity.
8)    Once in position, it is imperative that “everyone” is ruthless in operational security.  Nothing dismantles an ambush quicker than poor operational security.  Operational security means keeping any movement in the ambush site to a minimum and exercising impeccable noise and light discipline,
9)    There may be times based on the tactical situation in which forces may be required to occupy the ambush site for an extended period.  If that is the case, it may be necessary to rotate Soldiers occupying the ambush site.  Why? — Because a Soldier cannot stay mentally and physically prepared to conduct an ambush for extended periods.  After awhile, the Soldier loses focus and the chances of letting up on operational security greatly increase.  If rotating does occur, units must be smart in their maneuver in and out of the ambush site.


The Execution of the Ambush

The wait is over and execution is at hand.  Let’s lay out how a typical line ambush may play out.
1)    The obvious start point in executing an ambush is the determination that the enemy is indeed maneuvering to the ambush site/kill zone.  This surveillance may be conducted by outside assets or more probably by the security element.  Once the enemy is located, the security element should communicate immediately to the assault element leader.  This communication should include the direction of maneuver by the enemy, the size of the enemy, if the enemy possesses any unique weapons and equipment, and the precise location of the enemy.  With this knowledge, the assault element leader informs his Soldiers.  They should now be prepared mentally and physically to execute the ambush.
2)    As a sidelight, let’s discuss when you observe the enemy and it is not what you expected.  There may be situations when an ambush has to be called off.  Perhaps, the enemy is much smaller or is not comprised of the elements you desired to ambush.  If this is the case, you may determine it is not worth the resources or tipping the enemy that future ambushes can be expected.  On the other hand, the enemy may be far larger and more capable than you have planned for.  Consequently, you may not have the resources required to conduct the ambush.  In this case, it is probably a good decision to call off the ambush and have your forces withdraw. It is tempting to conduct the ambush, but if you believe the ambush forces will take significant casualties it is not worth the losses to the unit.
3)    When the preponderance of the enemy force is inside the kill zone (at least the size you have determined in planning), the ambush is initiated.  This is normally done by the firing of the most casualty producing weapon the assault force possesses.  This could be the denotation of a mine or explosive, the firing of machine gun, or the firing of an anti-tank weapon.  This should be the signal for the rest of the weapons to begin firing. (We will discuss signals in its entirety in point 9, below).   This should be controlled chaos.  The kill zone should receive large volumes of controlled fires.  That means Soldiers are firing into the areas that they were told.  It does not do you any good for everyone to be firing at the same vehicle.  Poor fire discipline enables the enemy to get out of the kill zone.  Good fire discipline assists the force in achieving surprise and taking care of business in the kill zone.
4)    The ambush force may also use indirect fires in its’ execution of the ambush.  As highlighted earlier, this will most likely be mortars. Indirect fires can be utilized to cover the flanks of the kill zone or assist in keeping the enemy in the kill zone.
5)    Once the assault element leader determines fires have accomplished their purpose and task within the kill zone; he will either cease fires or shift them to another area.  If he ceases fire, then in all likelihood; all targets within the kill zone have been eliminated.  If he shifts fires, this may be to target enemy attempting to escape the ambush site or to allow forces to physically assault the kill zone (which we will discuss next).
6)    Depending on the tactical situation, the assault force has two courses of action.  First, with the purpose achieved, his forces can now withdraw from the ambush site (we will address this option in the next phase).  Second, he can decide that a physical assault of the kill zone is necessary.  This may be because there may be small pockets of enemy in the kill zone that must be destroyed by fire and maneuver or the kill zone must be cleared.  Let’s address the tasks that may be undertaken if an assault of the kill zone is deemed necessary next.


Assault of the Kill zone


7)    The assault of the kill zone will normally be conducted by the assault element with the support element providing overwatch.  If required, support elements can also aid in the assault.  Actions that can be conducted include: destruction of the enemy, capturing prisoners, destroying enemy equipment, and searching for anything that may be of value intelligence-wise.
8)    Once all actions are completed, the assault element leader will order the withdrawal of his forces to the ORP (discussed next).


16-ambushplanprepexecfinal_html_5a308bdbCommunication and Signals

9)    Earlier on, we addressed the importance of signals and communication during the execution phase of the ambush.    There are few missions were signals/communication are so critical to success.  Add to the fact that they must be understood in a very chaotic environment and you clearly have a challenge for any unit.  There are several events (which we highlighted earlier) that need to be communicated throughout the ambush force.  This communication can be completed by a variety of means.  These include radio, land-line, voice, horns, smoke grenades, whistles, or various types of pyrotechnics (flares, star clusters, etc…).  The tactical situation and unit standard operating procedures will dictate the method.  You must also have a backup plan, in case your primary means is not working or has been compromised.  Below are the events that must be communicated within the unit:

a.    The initiation of the ambush (again, this will likely be the firing of the mass-casualty weapon).
b.    The cease fire of weapons into the kill zone.
c.    The lift and shift of firing of weapons into the kill zone.
d.    The assault of the kill zone.
e.    The withdrawal of the ambush force to the ORP.
f.    There may also be a signal from the security element which provides early warning for the rest of the force if significant enemy action is anticipated.


The Withdrawal

The Withdrawal of the Ambush Force

The withdrawal of the ambush force usually comes under two circumstances.  First, things have gone well, the ambush has succeeded, and the withdrawal will be unopposed by the enemy.  Vice versa, things may have not gone as planned, the ambush has not been successful, and the withdrawal will be opposed by the enemy. In the case of an opposed withdrawal, it must be executed basically as any other withdrawal.  Several years ago, we crafted an article on the withdrawal, please refer to this for specifics on the opposed withdrawal.  Below, we address the actions for a basic unopposed withdrawal to the ORP.
1)    With the execution phase complete, the ambush leader will give the order for the withdrawal.
2)    Before any maneuver, the force must prepare for it.  This includes actions such as conducting accountability of personnel and equipment, taking care of any casualties, consolidating prisoners of war for movement, and disseminating information within the force regarding the withdrawal.
3)    When the withdrawal is initiated, ambush forces will withdraw in the reverse order as they occupied the ambush site.  Thus, the security element should be the first element to withdraw.  Prior to their withdrawal, they may emplace mines or obstacles on the flanks.  This may be necessary due to the tactical situation.  If the security elements do make enemy contact; they will certainly fight, but they must ensure they do not become decisively engaged.  If this occurs, the ambush force has a significant challenge. Throughout all of this, the security element must understand that their mission is to get to the ORP.  At the ORP, they can then provide overwatch and security while the rest of the ambush force maneuvers to the ORP.
4)    With the security element in place, the support force should begin maneuver.  They should position themselves in locations that assist the ambush element in conducting their maneuver.  If the tactical situation merits it, the support and ambush elements can bound to the ORP.
5)    If the support element maneuvers on their own, they will go directly to the ORP.  They will be met by the security element.
6)    With the security and support elements located at the ORP, the ambush element begins maneuver.  This is perhaps the riskiest maneuver since some time has passed.  This time may enable the enemy to gather forces so they can fight the ambush force.  To assist in their maneuver, the assault element may utilize smoke and indirect forces.
7)    Once all forces are located in the ORP, the ambush element leader should gather all the leadership together.  He should quickly establish the plan for the force to maneuver from the ORP to link-up with the rest of the unit.  At the ORP, the ambush force must consolidate and reorganize before it begins maneuver.

In this article, we have strived to provide you with an understanding of the key actions that take place in the planning, preparation, and execution of an ambush.  Hopefully, the extent of these actions has highlighted to you that an ambush is just not thrown together haphazardly.  Sure, there may be times when the opportunity to conduct a hasty ambush may greatly curtail the detail of planning and preparation.  However, to clearly set the conditions for success quality planning and preparation are critical.  This hard work by an ambush force paves the way for an ambush that is executed violently by a force working as a cohesive team.


A Potential Ambush?  This Vehicle Dispersion will not Aid the Ambush Force