Tactics 101 096 – The Light Infantry Platoon Attack
THE LIGHT INFANTRY PLATOON ATTACK
“Let us be clear about three facts: First, all battles and all wars are won, in the end, by the infantryman. Secondly, the infantryman always bears the brunt; his casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other [combat] arms. Thirdly, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped, and far harder to acquire in modern war, than that of any other arm.”
During the past three months, we have focused on the light infantry platoon. We started with the organization and really concentrated on the maneuver of the platoon. We keyed on formations, techniques and in our last article, we covered the challenges of maneuver facing the light infantry platoon. In particular, we looked at how to cross danger areas and how to react to contact. We tried to provide you with a solid foundation to call on when maneuvering your platoon on the battlefield you are fighting on.
In this month’s article, we will put our entire maneuver understanding together and address the light infantry platoon in the attack. We’ll begin with an example of a mission gone wrong. As we tell the story, we will draw some key lessons learned. Additionally, we will detail how an attack should be executed and cover the “3 F’s of the attack – Find, Fix and Finish. Lots to get through, so get on that ruck and Follow Me!
Once Upon a Time in the Mojave Desert
It was a hot, dry, night; the kind that inspires a lethargy not often granted to a light platoon—particularly one leading the upcoming battalion night attack. The difference between night and day was only the amount of light because it was hot either way. There’d be no reprieve when the heat tab went down. The light fighters began to lighten their loads. This meant no spare gear, extra canteens, or sleep gear would make the cut.
Tip 1. Don’t kill with kindness. Bring what you need not what you want. Always be cognizant that things might not go as planned.
—A light unit is foot mobile and if it gets stranded or delayed, it survives off what it carries. Expect missions to take longer than planned.
—The decision to leave behind the extra canteens had a negative impact.
At 2300, the Company Commanders got their update and word was disseminated to the platoons. The mission was to destroy a Company Combat Outpost that was part of a security zone. A main attack would follow at first light. With this Outpost destroyed, the conditions would clearly be set for the battalion to achieve their mission.
Tip 2. A light infantry platoon rarely fights alone. Neither does the company. A light platoon can attack a defending squad; a company gets a platoon and so on.
They faced a 12 kilometer uphill hike to the objective. The objective would be held by a motorized rifle company in platoon sized outposts dotting a ridgeline. They would be occupying a security zone. The slope wasn’t steep, but it was steady and sandy. The ground was broken in some places and it was a moonless night. Wheeled transportation for the infantry would not be an option. They’d use washes and rough terrain to mask their movement. They were wearing jungle boots and camouflage in accordance with their SOP—they looked like human bushes.
Tip 3. The ground matters; conform to it since it won’t conform to you.
—Jungle boots have drain vents making them a poor choice for desert ops.
—Bush camo works in dense vegetation, but stands out in the desert.
—Roving recon implies possible compromise: rehearse battle drills for: actions on contact; react to indirect fire, ambush, and flares.
—They needed night vision goggles, but many chose not to take them. This was either a poor leadership decision or simply poor discipline on some Soldiers’ part.
—The terrain dictated long whip radio antenna; short whips wouldn’t cut it.
When the sun went down the horizon was no longer visible. It was surprisingly disorienting. The platoon lost time getting to the attack position. By 0030hrs, they were 30 minutes behind schedule. By the time the platoon, company, and battalion were set, they’d lost an hour. The brigade main attack would come at first light meaning the security zone had to be cleared in in a matter of hours.
The lead platoon moved in column with a squad wedge out front, flank security to the sides, and a rear guard in trail. Within 20 minutes of crossing the line of departure, they were ordered to stop. There had been a break in contact with the following platoon.
Tip 4. Watch your pace when in the lead and designate alternate routes for subunits.
—The lead element is blazing the trail and is not constrained by units ahead of them so it tends to move faster.
—Light units should infiltrate on individual platoon lanes.
Finally, the platoon began to move again. They halted on occasion when they heard enemy Scout BRDM’s passing by, but the lack of engagement implied they hadn’t been detected. There were the usual halts for map checks and the like; things were settling down normal until…the point man stopped as if approaching a danger zone. He spotted something unexpected; a chemlight in the desert 200 or 300 meters ahead.
The troops stopped and took a knee facing in alternate directions, establishing all around security. The trail faced the rear and the Platoon Sergeant started the headcount while the Platoon Leader advised the Company Commander of the delay, thus halting the entire battalion. After the call, he headed to the front. When he reached the point he crouched down alongside him and asked, “what’s up?”
The point man pointed out the chemlight. The Platoon Leader pulled out his binoculars to take a closer look. It was green and fresh and seemed to be lying on the desert floor. Maybe an enemy patrol dropped it or it fell off of a vehicle. It didn’t seem important, but chemlights don’t grow in the desert so they’d need to check it out. The Squad Leaders and the Platoon Sergeant confirmed the count before heading up front to get orders from the Platoon Leader. They were to send a fire team to check it out.
The team moved out in a wide wedge. As they approached the chemlight, they heard the unmistakable whistle of incoming artillery. The dark was lit up by several explosions as everyone hit the dirt. They scattered. The rounds missed and the platoon escaped, but they had to shift the route.
Tip 5. If it doesn’t look like it belongs, it probably doesn’t. If it’s manmade, it’s probably being watched. If it’s being watched, it’s probably targeted.
The lead platoon moved to the west about 400 meters and began to move on a parallel, but separate route. The entire battalion had to adjust—they lost more time. The new route was in the foothills; better cover and concealment, but slower movement. They were in a wash that passed between two distinct hilltops. The commander of the second company in the line of march called Headquarters to tell them where he was. He described the choke point to a tee.
Once again, artillery rained down, but this time it hit the gap and walked back several hundred meters. The second and third companies were scattered at the call to withdraw 200 meters and reorganize.
Tip 6. If you don’t have a map control measure on the area you are describing then report by shifting from one you do have.
—The enemy was listening and the description was perfect and so was the arty.
—The trail companies never reassembled since they did not designate a specific direction for their reaction to artillery—the troops went in all directions.
On top of losing time, the lead company had to do the mission alone. The lead platoon made ridgeline around 0420 with less than an hour before Before Morning Nautical Twilight. They stopped when they saw the antennas of a dug in vehicle—they had found one of the enemy platoon combat outposts (COP).
Tip 7. Establish an Objective Rally Point and launch a leader’s recon from therebefore taking action.
The Platoon Leader deployed his troops into three wedges and began his attack. They cautiously advanced on the vehicle until the lead ran into a wire obstacle without mines; not unusual for a temporary security zone position. The lead squad moved up to cut the wire while the trail squads covered them. When the point grabbed the wire to cut it, it rattled. It was an old trick; tie ration cans filled with pebbles to the wire for early warning. A whoosh and pop followed; it was a handheld flare. The troops scrambled for cover as the defenders opened fire.
Tip 8. Make contact with the smallest element possible and organize an assault, support, and breach element when approaching a prepared position.
—The proper response to a flare is to freeze; running for cover draws fire.
The point man clipped the wire in the confusion and the lead squad charged through. Their attack was clumsy at best since they were still wearing their rucks. They hadn’t dropped them at a Probable Line of Departure (PLD). The confusion of the artillery, the unplanned deviation to an alternate route, the loss of the trail companies, and the rapidly approaching dawn forced the lead Platoon Leader to act in haste. The lead squad was combat ineffective in minutes and the two squads in over watch were battered by the fire accompanying the flares. The rest of the company had angled off to the east to find the other COP’s.
The mission was over for the lead platoon. The Platoon Leader pulled his survivors back into a hide position and tried to establish accountability. He could not talk to anyone from the wash surrounded by rocky hills. He climbed up a bit and made contact with the Battalion Command Post, but still couldn’t talk to his own Company Commander. He realized that, with his Night Vision Goggles on, he could see the other COP’s to his east along the forward slope of the ridge. He couldn’t do anything about it though. The other platoons in the company failed to find anything before sunrise and also went to ground. The conditions for a successful battalion attack were clearly not met.
The attack above was over almost before it began! It wasn’t, however, uncommon; not because leaders are careless or incompetent. It’s often a sign of over confidence that breaks down when under time constraints and facing a dynamic threat at a Combat Training Center (CTC). Let’s now review how a light platoon attack should be executed.
Setting the Conditions
Light platoons normally execute hasty attacks. Hasty attacks are simple and require a minimum of coordination with higher and adjacent leaders. Execution begins with establishment of a base of fire which suppresses the enemy force. The maneuver element uses a combination of techniques to maintain its security as it advances to a position of advantage. These techniques include:
—Use of internal base-of-fire and bounding elements
—Use of covered and concealed routes
—Use of indirect fires and smoke grenades or pots to suppress or obscure the enemy or to screen friendly movement
—Execution of bold maneuver that initially takes the maneuver element out of enemy direct fire range
The Execution of the Light infantry Platoon Attack (Pieces of the Attack)
Below let’s discuss the pieces of the attack as they relate to the platoon.
The Prep Work
First, the Platoon Leader and his Squad Leaders need to know how their mission nests with the company and battalion. The Platoon Leader above could have established an Observation Post (OP) to report on enemy activity and direct friendly artillery or close air support. A failed mission becomes successful when informed leaders find ways to contribute.
Control Measures. A liberal sprinkling of control measures would have aided this mission. The Platoon Leader should establish sub-objectives and control measures to support movement, fires, and actions on the objective. They should be tied to the terrain to make them identifiable and logical. A phase line on a featureless plain is not likely to be reported since it won’t be recognized when crossed!
—Point features include discreet locations like hilltops, depressions, towers, or buildings.
—Linear features follow natural and man-made features like ridgelines, roads/trails, streams, and power lines.
—Area features are large spaces like foothills, wood lines, or parking lots.
Maneuvering from the Line of Departure to the Assault Position.
—Designate an Objective Rally Point (ORP) to act as your base. Recon it before occupying it. Position security and leave your rucks and other unnecessary gear there during the attack.
—A Platoon Leader with his Squad Leaders must strive to conduct a leader’s recon. The goal should be to identify the assault position, the objective, the avenues in and out, and select a Support by Fire (SBF) position to cover the breach and main attack. Leave a contingency plan for the PSG in the event the recon is compromised. Leave eyes on the objective when you return to the ORP to give your final orders.
Maneuvering from the Assault Position to the Objective. The assault position is the last covered and concealed position before the objective. The platoon passes through it without stopping unless final preparations are required like priming demo or synchronizing timing with other units.
—Emplace security first then the SBF, armed with crew served weapons, mortars and anti-tank systems. SBF opens fire to cover the movement of the breach/main attack.
Isolate the objective. The objective is isolated by positioning forces that can prevent, delay, or disrupt enemy reinforcements from arriving and prevent enemy forces on the objective from leaving.
Actions on the objective. The Platoon Leader designates the assault, support, and breach elements with the weapons squad as the SBF, a squad as breach element and the rest of the platoon acts as the main attack/assault element.
The SBF element covers the initial breach by placing suppressive fires on the most dangerous enemy positions. As the breach is established, the SBF shifts fires to allow the breach element to penetrate the objective. Visual signals and radio comms are vital to keep suppressive fires forward of the breach and assault elements.
The SBF monitors the progress of the assault element and keeps shifting fire in front of them. The assault element attacks through the breach to the objective after the breach element seizes a foothold. The PL leader tracks the progress of the breach and assault to ensure momentum is maintained and that the elements do not cross in front of the SBF.
Consolidate and reorganize. Once the enemy is defeated the platoon consolidates to defend against counterattacks and to prepare for follow-on missions. Consolidation includes actions taken to secure the objective and defend against counterattack. Reorganization is usually conducted alongside consolidation. It consists of preparation for follow-on missions. Remember it is not reconsolidation – it is consolidate and reorganization (two distinct tasks).
The Three F’s — FIND-FIX-FINISH
There are many ways to look at an attack at any level. One simple, but highly effective thought process is to define it as the Three F’s. These are Find, Fix, and Finish. Below let’s summarize each of the components.
Find (Reconnaissance Element). The size and composition of the recon element is based on the size and activity of the enemy operating in the area of operations. The recon typically consists of the battalion recon platoon. The find action is designed to locate the enemy with the intent of conducting a hasty attack as soon as possible with the main body. The platoon will reconnoiters named areas of interest (NAI) and other designated areas.
Fixing Element. The fixing element must have sufficient combat power to isolate the enemy and develop the situation once the recon finds him. When developing the situation, the fixing element either maintains visual contact with the enemy until the finishing element arrives or conducts an attack to fix the enemy until the finishing element arrives. The goal is to keep the enemy in position so he can be destroyed. Sometimes the fixing element may have sufficient combat power to destroy the enemy themselves.
The fixing element makes physical contact only if the enemy attempts to leave the area or other enemy elements enter the area. Once contact is made, the platoon employs as many combat multipliers as possible to include: indirect fire support, attack aviation, close air support (CAS), and anti-armor sections or platoons as available. Obviously, the Platoon Leader must coordinate with his higher headquarters to receive any of these assets.
The fixing element can consist of maneuver units, fire support assets, and aviation. To isolate the enemy, fixing elements establish a cordon of blocking positions on avenues of approach in and out of the engagement area. The fixing element is responsible for providing its own security, conducting link ups as required, and coordinating fire support.
Finishing Element. The finishing element must have sufficient combat power to destroy enemy on the objective. The finishing element must also be responsive enough to engage the enemy before he can break contact while being patient enough not to rush to failure. This is a fine line and the leader of the finishing element must utilize both art and science. The finishing element may be tasked to:
—Destroy the enemy with an attack
—Block enemy escape routes while another unit conducts the attack
—Destroy the enemy with an ambush while the reconnaissance or fixing elements drive the enemy toward the ambush location
—Not allow the enemy to break contact
Below let’s highlight some of the critical concepts we emphasized this month.
The keys to success in a light infantry platoon attack are:
—Use lots of control measures to simplify reporting and battle tracking
—Recon first (FIND)
—Move by stealth (infiltrate)
—Maximize surprise (attack in limited visibility)
—Rehearse your immediate action drills
—Fix and control the enemy with well-planned SBF and/or ABF (FIX)
—Attack aggressively with the right sized force to defeat the threat (FINISH)
Don’t shoot from the hip or you will lose. Plan and rehearse what you are going to do. Make sure everyone knows the plan and the options (contingency plans) and remember your light fighter advantages and your light fighter vulnerabilities. The light infantry platoon can take on anyone if it plans and prepares in detail and executes with precision.
Our next article, will key on the light infantry platoon in the defense. The light infantry platoon is certainly a vital component in a company defense. It can also be utilized by itself to block a key enemy avenue of approach or to defend an important asset or piece of key or even decisive terrain. In any situation, the platoon has much to contribute. Next month, we will address how to make the most of the strengths and capabilities of the light infantry platoon in the defense.
“Two essential conditions constitute the strength of infantry: – That the men be good walkers and inured to fatigue. That the firing be well-executed.”