Tactics 101-095: The Light Infantry Platoon – Challenges to Maneuver
THE LIGHT INFANTRY PLATOON
Challenges to Maneuver
“Another element [of leadership] to be considered is the Man to be led, and with whose morale we are concerned. I am constantly reminded of this point by a cartoon which hangs over my desk at home which depicts an infantryman with his rifle across his knees as he sits behind a parapet. Above him is the list of the newest weapons science has devised and the soldier behind the parapet is saying: “But still they haven’t found a substitute for ME.”
In our last article, we went into significant detail on maneuver techniques. Although the focus was at the platoon and squad level, these techniques are relevant to leaders at higher levels as well. These techniques (traveling, traveling overwatch, and bounding overwatch) are complimentary with maneuver formations and set the conditions for successful maneuver. Each of the techniques can be utilized in a particular mission with the chief variable being the potential for enemy contact. With a solid foundation on maneuver formations and maneuver techniques; we can now focus on the challenges to maneuver.
Within the duration of a light infantry platoon’s operation and maneuver, they will inevitably encounter many types of terrain and of course, various situations relating to contact. In regards to terrain, a platoon can come across terrain that can be considered danger areas. These can include open areas, obstacles (man-made and natural), small villages, etc…. A trained platoon will deal with these and the impact on the mission will hopefully be minimal. The untrained platoon will encounter the same situation or terrain and chaos will ensue. Often tied to these danger areas is the possibility that the platoon will encounter contact. Contact can come in many forms. It is not always direct contact with your foe. It is these two challenges (danger areas and contact) that we will focus on this month. First, we will dissect how the platoon meets the challenge of crossing a danger area. Second, we will analyze how a platoon deals with contact. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is direct fire contact from the enemy. However, there are other forms of contact we will elaborate on. Lots to cover, so LET’S MOVE OUT!
Before we begin discussing specifics, let’s define what a danger area is. In basic terms, it is terrain which you believe enables the enemy an excellent opportunity to observe your maneuver or even to deliver direct or indirect fires on your unit. Within your maneuver route, danger areas can be expected or unexpected. Based on your intelligence and reconnaissance, you may know where danger areas lie. However, there may be instances where a danger area is unanticipated. Another aspect of danger areas that must always be kept in your mind is that a formidable enemy will know where potential danger areas are in your maneuver to them. Two things to keep in mind with danger areas: 1) Try to avoid crossing areas if at all possible. 2) If you must cross a danger area, do it as fast as possible (As the great Coach John Wooden said, “Be quick, but don’t hurry”) and being as secure as possible. Above anything else, do not let the crossing of a danger area dramatically hinder your ability to accomplish your ultimate purpose and task.
Below we will review some of common types of danger areas a light infantry platoon may be exposed to and the actions you will want to undertake to cross them. Before we do, there are four basic steps that are normally common to crossing all danger areas. These are:
1) The Platoon Leader determines the near and far side rally points during the crossing. As a review, a rally point should be an easily identifiable terrain feature where a unit can reassemble and reorganize. They are necessary because a unit can easily become dispersed in maneuver. This can be caused by enemy contact or a myriad of other reasons. The Platoon Leader designates rally points on each side of the danger area. Of course, the important action is ensuring everyone in the platoon knows where these rally points are located.
2) Before focusing on the far-side of the danger area; make sure you take care of business on the near-side. Above all, this means that your security is set on the near-side. This includes both your flanks and to the rear.
3) Depending on the time available and the status of your forces, a reconnaissance element may maneuver through the danger area to the far-side. A reconnaissance unit will recon the route for the rest of the unit and will set the conditions for the unit on the far-side.
4) As quickly as possible, the recon element and perhaps a small unit from the platoon main body secures the far-side. It is at this time that the unit is particularly vulnerable because of all the smaller units essentially executing different tasks. Securing the far-side should be the green light for the rest of the platoon to execute the crossing.
5) Once the platoon executes the crossing, you must always ensure accountability of the unit. You must account for Soldiers, weapons, equipment and have a system in place to achieve this.
One of the big decisions for a Platoon Leader is to decide how much of his unit he wants to cross the danger area at a time. He has many options to include buddy team, fire teams, squads, or even the entire platoon. The criteria he uses to make the decision are the time he has available to make the crossing, the size of the danger area he must cross, how much security he can post to facilitate the crossing, and how truly dangerous the danger area is! Obviously, you want to cross with as big an element as possible for time reasons. However, METT-TC considerations may limit the size of the crossing force.
Types of Danger Areas
Every type of terrain or location has its own danger areas associated with it. They can be natural features such as an open field or stream. They can also be man-made creations such as a minefield or a wire obstacle. In either case, it is something the platoon must negotiate so it can continue its mission. Below are some examples of locations that should be considered danger areas:
- Open Areas – This can a field or even a square in an urban area. These can greatly vary in distance and circumference. These variances will affect the way that the platoon plans to cross the danger area. We will illustrate how a platoon would cross both a large and small crossing area shortly.
- Roads and trails – Within a maneuver route there are bound to be roads and trails, all of varying degrees of wear and tear. The crossing of these should always put up your antennae for a potential ambush. The Platoon Leader will be aware of many of these based on reconnaissance or even scrutinizing a map. However, there will obviously be some that just “pop-up”. When faced with a road or trail always look to cross where you will be least observed. This could be a bend, the narrowest spot you can observe, or low ground. The less exposure the better!
- Streams — The crossing of streams can certainly be a challenge for a platoon. Obviously, the crossing itself is always difficult. However, you must ensure that the action itself does not impact the rest of the mission dramatically. Many times, Soldiers and equipment can get wet and this can have repercussions following the crossing.
- Small villages – Depending on the environment, you could very well be exposed to small villages, houses, etc…. The nuances of this are different based on the terrain. For example, a village surrounded by a jungle (Vietnam) will have different ramifications than a village in the desert (Iraq or Afghanistan). The best bet is to stay away from them. If this is not feasible or you come up on them unexpectedly, pass them downwind. Also, be extremely cautious of animals. A barking dog or a scared horse can give away the location of the platoon. If you get tied up in a village your mission timeline is obviously affected, your plan potentially given away, or it could result in unforeseen and unwanted enemy contact.
- Minefields/Wire/Obstacles – Best to avoid these if at all possible. The chances are good that these danger areas will be covered by direct and indirect fire. If an enemy is going to spend resources constructing them; they should be covered by fire. Of course, there’s always the chance this could be a deception measure and not covered by fire. As Dirty Harry would say, “Do you feel lucky today?” With that all said, the best course of action is to bypass. This may take some time to find an alternate maneuver route, but you could expend far time (and potential casualties) during breaching operations. If bypass is simply not feasible, the platoon must be well-trained in breaching.
Crossing a Danger Area (By the Numbers)
Let’s provide an example of the steps a platoon would take once it discovers a danger area during their maneuver.
1) The obvious start point is the discovery of a danger area. This will normally be found by the lead fire team in the formation. Two things should immediately take place within that fire team. First, they should halt and conduct security. Security for themselves and the rest of the platoon. Second, this information must be passed quickly to the Platoon Leader.
2) Once the Platoon Leader receives the information, he must halt his maneuver and ensure the platoon is pulling 360 degree security.
3) With security set, the Platoon Leader accompanied by his Platoon Sergeant must conduct a reconnaissance of the danger area. If at all possible, Squad Leaders should also accompany him. This will save time in the long run and aid in clarity. However, this may be unfeasible based on the tactical situation. The objectives of the recon are many. They include: determining the near and far side rally points, where to place near-side security, an anticipated location for far-side security (this will get finalized once they get to the location), and of course, the specific crossing site of the danger area and the maneuver route to the far-side. The Platoon Leader must come up with this fairly quickly. Again, you can’t let a danger area consume you to the detriment of your overall mission.
4) With locations set, it should now be a function of ensuring the squads know their roles in the crossing. Much of this should have been addressed in the planning and preparation of the overall mission. Contingencies should have been discussed and crossing danger areas should have been one of those.
5) With the plan set, the trail squad in the formation should immediately begin providing near-side security for the platoon. Normally, the Platoon Sergeant will assist the Squad Leader in positioning these Soldiers. The Squad Leader should position them himself with the Platoon Sergeant providing a watchful eye. Obviously, the Platoon Sergeant will be far more hands on if needed. This security may even be set in place during the initial reconnaissance. This can save time for the platoon.
6) With near side security set, it’s time to begin crossing the danger area. Based on METT-TC, the Platoon Leader will select the size of the unit to maneuver first. Generally, a fire team from the lead squad will cross first. The Squad Leader for that fire team will maneuver with them. They have a challenging job. They must ensure the maneuver route is clear and then clear the far-side. With the far-side clear, they will then move forward to provide security and early warning. As they are doing this, they will let the Platoon Leader know that the conditions are set for the rest of the platoon to maneuver through the danger area.
7) With conditions set, the Platoon Leader will determine the maneuver formation for the rest of the platoon to cross. He does not need to select a technique since he has essentially two elements already providing overwatch. The elements the Platoon Leader must still get across are: the other fire team from the squad which had the fire team cross initially, the weapons squad, the second squad, the headquarters element, and the squad conducting security on the near side.
8) The platoon now crosses the danger area utilizing the formation selected by the Platoon Leader. This maneuver should be as quick as possible without sacrificing security (both physical and operational). The near-side security element will stay in place until the platoon’s main body crosses the danger area.
9) With the main body across, the near side security element will now cross the danger area. They will normally be accompanied by the Platoon Sergeant, who will bring up the rear of the formation. Depending on time available and the tactical situation, this squad will try to cover the tracks of the platoon and ensure nothing is left behind on the near side and along the route (for operational security reasons).
10) Once the near-side element is across and halted, accountability of personnel, equipment, and weapons is taken. When all thumbs are up; the platoon once again, begins maneuver and continues their mission.
Sometimes a platoon will come across a very small danger area that the Platoon Leader determines should be bypassed. The decision to bypass is clearly METT-TC dependent. Certainly, one of critical pieces is time available. It will almost always take extra time to conduct a bypass; even a small danger area. With that said, there are two basic techniques available to the Platoon Leader. Let’s highlight them below:
Contour – The first technique is for the platoon to essentially skirt around the danger area. There are a few things to keep in mind. The first is to always designate rally points (near and far side). The second is for platoon to get as deep into the woods as needed so they can’t be observed from the open area. Of course, a whole platoon rustling through the woods is likely to generate some noise. Good units will keep that noise to a minimum. The third is to be prepared for an ambush. A crafty enemy may set-up an ambush in the woods because they believe you will bypass the open area.
Detour – The second technique is for the platoon is to basically execute a series of ninety degree turns around the danger area. The same basic considerations we addressed in the contour technique are certainly viable in the detour technique.
What technique to utilize? It is really a matter of preference. There are times when the contour method can lead to the platoon straying too far into the woods or even too close to the open area. The detour technique is a little more regimented and disciplined with the ninety degree turns. Both are obviously viable.
Contact during the Crossing
Later in the article, we will discuss the forms of contact a platoon may be exposed to. Certainly, one of the significant ones is enemy contact. Let’s address how a platoon may react to enemy contact while they are crossing a danger area. We will discuss far side contact, near side contact, and contact in the danger area itself.
One of the toughest challenges a platoon will face is when they receive enemy contact from the rear has they are preparing to cross a danger area or actually in some stages of executing it. Obviously, the platoon’s focus has been to its’ front and now they have contact from behind them. So who does the platoon react to this? Let’s provide a basic approach (please refer to above diagram).
1) First, you must return fire. The best element to achieve this is the security team which should be emplaced on the flanks. They will simply change their direction of fire from front to rear. This security team is now changing the orientation of their overwatch.
2) The enemy hopefully is now fixed in place and focused on the security team. It is time for the platoon to maneuver through the danger area. As we discussed earlier, an element must maneuver first and prepare the far side for the main body.
3) With the far side secure, the main body must cross the danger area as quickly and safely as possible. They will have overwatch to the front and to the rear.
4) Once the main body has cleared, it is time for the security team at the near side to maneuver through the danger area and link-up with the rest of the platoon. In order for this maneuver to be successful, the Platoon Leader must assist with support. This will first include providing overwatch for their maneuver. He will designate elements of his platoon to place direct fire on the enemy located on the near-side. This must be disciplined fire and everyone must know where everyone is located. There are now lots of moving elements. Besides this direct fire, the Platoon Leader may use smoke to mask maneuver. He may also place indirect fire on the enemy. Like we said before, lots going on.
5) Once the security element makes it to the far-side, the Platoon Sergeant will conduct a quick accountability of Soldiers and equipment. Once this is complete, the platoon will continue on their mission. Obviously, they must pay careful attention to the rear and the enemy that they just broke contact from.
One of the distinct possibilities of crossing a danger area is there may an enemy force waiting for you on the far-side. A savvy enemy would like to get a sizeable force on the far-side before engaging. That way, they will be able to achieve more casualties. Of course, they don’t want to challenge a force too big that they can’t deal with. It is a fine line and takes some good intelligence to paint the picture. For the purposes of our example, we will say that the initial far-side security team has made it across the danger area and they begin receiving fire. So what next?
2) The Platoon Leader now must decide if he wants to continue with the crossing or if he wants the security team to fall back and rejoin the rest of the platoon. Obviously, lots of variables here. The Platoon Leader must take them all into consideration and make a decision quickly. Time is clearly of the essence. For this example, we will say that the Platoon Leader has determined to have the security team fall back.
3) With the decision made, the platoon must set the conditions to assist the security team. It is now critical that the platoon take over the task of returning fire on the enemy. This will allow the security team to prepare to maneuver back to the platoon. The first element that should be in a location to return this fire is the security team in position on the near-side. The critical piece in this is ensuring they know the exact location of the maneuvering security team at all times.
4) With the near-side security team returning fire, the rest of the main body should find positions on the near-side and provide overwatch as well. At this time, the entire platoon is now firing on the enemy enabling the security team to maneuver. To assist them in breaking contact, the Platoon Leader may determine to utilize indirect fire. This indirect fire could include smoke rounds. The security team may also use smoke grenades to break contact.
5) As the security team is falling back, direct fire control is imperative. Again, the near-side must know the exact location of the maneuvering elements. As they maneuver back, the Platoon Leader has another critical decision – what to do next.
6) In this regard time, the type of danger area, and the intelligence the Platoon Leader has on the enemy all come into play. Putting them all together, the Platoon Leader may decide to cross the danger area in another area. He may also determine to bypass the area via contour or detour. As we have highlighted before, the platoon still has a mission to achieve and can’t let the danger area degrade this too significantly.
Sometimes, in the process of crossing a road or trail a platoon may come across unexpected contact on the flank. This contact may not be an intended ambush, but simply enemy who may be utilizing the road/trail from say west to east, while you are crossing the danger area south to north. In our example, we will highlight the actions a platoon will take when enemy are observed on the flank and you are preparing to cross the danger area. The platoon is just beginning to start crossing actions.
1) Near-side flank security observes enemy soldiers to the flank and reports to the Platoon Leader. The Platoon Leader immediately stops all actions and gets into a defensive posture. He now must make a decision. Does he allow the enemy to continue their maneuver along the road unhindered? Does he let the enemy continue down the road and then ambush them their near-side positions? Or does he fix the enemy in place and cross the danger area? Because this is probably the most challenging; we will say that is the Platoon Leader’s decision.
2) The first action is for the security team on the flank nearest the enemy to fix them in place. They will do this with direct fires. While this is being executed, the other security team on the other flank will maneuver back to the platoon main body.
3) Once the Platoon Leader feels that the enemy force is fixed; he will begin moving the main body across the road. As with any crossing, he will lead with a security team to ensure the crossing route is clear and then to secure the far-side of the road.
4) With the majority of the main body across the road; the Platoon Leader will shift his focus to his security team still on the near-side. He must set the conditions to allow them to cross the danger area.
5) He will begin by having a preponderance of his main body forces begin to place direct fire on the enemy forces. Once this begins, the near-side forces will break direct fire contact and begin to fall back to where the main body originally was located.
6) These forces will then cross the road in the same location where the main body crossed. This should allow this force to cross on a route that has already been cleared.
7) Once the force has crossed, it will link up with the main body.
8) As always, the Platoon Sergeant will conduct a quick, but accurate accountability of Soldiers, weapons, and equipment.
9) It is now time to break contact with the enemy force. This can be done by fire and maneuver with assistance from indirect fires and smoke if required.
10) With this achieved, the platoon can continue with their mission. Again, we can’t lose fact of this.
FORMS OF CONTACT
During combat, a force will likely come in contact with its’ enemy. When we think of this contact; we obviously think first of direct contact with the enemy. This usually equates to a direct fire engagement from the enemy. However, there are other forms of contact other than a direct fire engagement from the enemy. Let’s highlight these forms and then we will discuss how a platoon reacts to these variants.
1) Physical Contact – This is the most obvious type of contact as we addressed above.
2) Non-Hostile Contact – On the battlefield, you cannot understate the impact civilians on the battlefield can have. They can completely disrupt the timeline of any mission. There is also the possibility that civilians can have ties to the enemy (they may even be the enemy) and can provide intelligence back to them.
3) Visual Contact – Visual contact can mean several things. It may be that you have eyes on the enemy and you believe he does not have eyes on you. It may be that you and the enemy observe each other simultaneously. It may even mean that you do not have eyes on the enemy, but you believe he has eyes on you.
4) Indirect Fire Contact – Receiving indirect fire can be a harrowing experience. Obviously, you want to determine where it is coming from. This will assist you in dealing with this fire. In the heat and chaos of battle, indirect fire can also be of the friendly nature.
5) Aircraft Contact – In regards to aircraft, this can be of fixed or rotary wing nature. It can be of the lethal or observation nature (don’t forget Drones). It can friendly or enemy. The challenging part is you truly never know if they have seen you. This is unless rounds are coming down on you from up above.
6) Electronic Warfare Contact– What quickly comes to mind is the jamming of your communications. However, in this day and age this could also include actions affecting satellites (GPS systems) and even directed energy weapons.
7) Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) Contact – Certainly, these can have a devastating effect. In some cases, you may not be able to detect the contact until after Soldiers are experiencing symptoms or have even died.
8) Obstacle Contact – This can be man-made obstacles (wire, minefields, tank ditches, etc…) or natural terrain features. All can effect maneuver and mission timelines.
Actions on Contact Steps
In regards to actions on contact, there are some basic steps that basically apply to all the variants. This is not a lockstep process and many will be conducted simultaneously. Let’s discuss them below.
1) Take initial action. This is the basic, but crucial step of getting out of harm’s way. Just simply finding some cover and concealment. You should also strive to keep eyes on the enemy if you currently have him observed. If you don’t have eyes, start looking!
2) Report. Let your higher headquarters know the situation – provide them a SALT (Size, Activity, Location, Time) report. This is critical in many ways. First, they can provide you support if needed. Second, there may be times when you believe the contact is enemy related and it could be friendly related. The higher headquarters should have the big picture of what friendly elements are doing around you.
3) Inform. Let the entire unit know what is going on. The uninformed may conduct actions you do not anticipate or want.
4) Develop the Situation. This is gathering all you know about yourself, the enemy, and the terrain as quickly and as accurately as possible.
5) Maintain Contact with Enemy if the Mission Dictates it. Based on METT-TC, you may need to keep in contact with that contact (if that makes sense). Remember, contact does not mean physical. It can be eyes on.
6) Formulate Courses of Action. They must be viable. Many times, this may be conducting a battle drill that you have trained on numerous occasions (hopefully).
7) Select a Course of Action. You must make a decision, as quickly as possible with the information you currently possess.
8) Execute the Course of Action. As we have discussed before, execution can mean simply not doing anything. If that is the most logical thing to do – so be it.
Direct Enemy Contact during Maneuver
Let’s conclude with the options a platoon has when they make direct contact with an enemy force during maneuver. Before getting into specifics, let’s define the types of contact that enter into the equation:
- You observe the enemy, but he doesn’t observe you.
- You have contact with an unknown enemy force.
- You have contact with an enemy force that you know is inferior to yours.
- You have contact with an enemy force that you know is superior to yours.
1) Break from enemy contact and bypass. If the tactical situation dictates it, you may completely break contact from the enemy. As we highlighted many times in this article, you must not forget that you have been assigned a critical mission by your company. If this enemy contact is relatively insignificant and can be bypassed; then this is the correct course of action.
2) Maintain enemy contact and bypass. There may be times when you must continue the mission, but still be concerned with the enemy you have just come in contact with. In this case, the platoon will keep a force back with this enemy to keep eyes on them. Remember, contact is observation. With this contact achieved, the rest of the platoon will continue maneuver on toward their objective. The small force left in contact, will continue this task until relieved by the company. They will then normally maneuver back to the platoon main body. If this is not feasible, they may be attached to another company until they can link-up.
3) Maintain enemy contact and support an attack on the enemy force. It may be deemed necessary that the enemy force must be defeated or destroyed. If this is the case, it must be decided if the platoon can achieve this themselves or will they be in a supporting role. Of course, one of the overriding factors is the size of enemy force. If it can’t be determined with certainty, you must overestimate. If the platoon is in a supporting role, they have a few key things they must achieve to set the conditions for success. First, they must maintain contact with the enemy force – physical or visual. Second, the majority of the platoon must find locations where they can support by fire the attack of another unit. Third, it may coordinate the fire support plan for the impending attack.
4) Conduct your own attack on the enemy force. Tied to the above rationale is that the platoon conducts its’ own attack of the enemy force. This will be the focus of our forthcoming article on light infantry platoon offensive operations.
5) Conduct a hasty defense. There may be situations where the platoon cannot execute any of the above options. This may be because of several factors. First, the platoon itself may be fixed in place and cannot maneuver to break contact and bypass. Second, the enemy is a far superior force than the platoon and the platoon does not expect any support for an extended period. Third, the Platoon Leader believes an attack by the enemy force on the platoon is imminent. Consequently, he immediately places the platoon in a hasty defense.
6) Conduct handover of the enemy force. One other option for the platoon is to conduct handover or responsibility of the enemy force to another force. This may be decided for three reasons. First, it is imperative that the platoon as a whole execute the original mission it was assigned. Second, the enemy force is of a size that concerns the higher commander and it cannot be bypassed completely. Third, it is decided that the enemy force will be attacked and the platoon is not equipped to achieve this. Thus, the platoon will remain in contact until it can handover the enemy force to another element. This should happen fairly soon, especially if the platoon is needed to execute its’ original mission.
This was a fairly long article, but we wanted to capture the key challenges a light infantry platoon faces in maneuver. Specifically, we addressed two key challenges. First, how does a platoon cross a danger area? Second, how does a platoon react to contact? Our focus here was on direct enemy contact. We hope this provided you a good foundation that you can utilize when you maneuver your platoon (on whatever battlefield that may be).
Our next two articles will continue with our dissection of the light infantry platoon. We will put it all together and discuss how you utilize the platoon in the offense and defense. With its’ organic firepower, it can accomplish significant missions on its’ own or as part of a company operation. See you next month.