Tactics 101 099 – Light Fighters
“The art of war is, in the last result, the art of keeping one’s freedom of action”
In our last article, we dissected the light infantry company. We addressed two topics in the article. First, we went into much detail on the organization of the company. We emphasized the increased firepower of the company with the addition of the anti-armor and mortar sections. Second, we laid out the various maneuver formations the company may utilize. Clearly, the Company Commander has many options available to him to put him in an advantageous position to achieve his mission. As we summed up, the light infantry company is a highly versatile and highly lethal force.
We will conclude our discussion on the light infantry with a couple of “there we were” stories. We will focus on a light infantry battalion during a training rotation at the National Training Center (Fort Irwin, California) many years ago. During the rotation, the battalion took part in many missions within an exhaustive two week period. In our article, we will key on two of the missions. The first was as part of a brigade task force defense. The second was as a key element in a brigade deliberate attack. We believe these vignettes will put some meat on the bone in terms of how to employ light infantry. Hopefully, you will glean some of the numerous lessons learned we have planted throughout. Ruck-up!!
“The Whale – Located Bottom Right of Graphic”
The Defense of the Whale Gap. The first mission of the rotation at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California was a bust. It had been a movement to contact with the light infantry battalion attached to a Mechanized Infantry Brigade. The brigade and battalion staffs weren’t sure how to best integrate light fighters and mech troops in a meeting engagement given their obvious differences in tactical speed and mobility. The ultimate choice had been to air assault the light fighters into a choke point while placing their High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV) equipped with TOW Missile Launchers along a valley wall that might expose the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) flank. It did not materialize and the infantry battalion ended up watching rather than fighting as the enemy veered away, bypassing them. With no contact with the enemy, the light fighters were extremely anxious to get into the next fight.
The light battalion received their orders following the battle. The new mission guaranteed they’d be involved. They had 24 hours to prepare a defense of a choke point out in front of a larger mechanized defense in more open ground. The light fighters were to deny the enemy Forward Detachment (FD) getting through a kilometer and a half wide pass known as the Whale Gap (the mountain east of the pass looked like a giant beached whale). The FD was supposed to get through and secure the gap so the rest of the OPFOR Regiment could pass through and attack the mech guys to the south. Not only would the light guys be in the fight; for the first day or longer, they would BE the fight.
The battalion had its usual three companies led by its headquarters element. It had its organic mortars, logistical support and also had the anti-tank (AT) company with it HMMWV mounted TOWs. The TOW Hummers were a major plus in the Mojave Desert; a regular tank killing rat patrol.
The Battalion Commander (BC) and his staff got the warning order on the battlefield after the mission. The staff crashed through a hasty Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) to get a Course of Action (COA) to the BC so he could leave the unit with a basic plan. This was critical since he and his Company Commanders and key staff had to go to an After Action Review (AAR) regarding the aforementioned meeting engagement. The executive officers (XOs) and junior staff would move the battalion to the new area of operations (AO) and get the prep started.
Welcome to the NTC where defenses were prepped before orders were issued! The defense is won or lost in prep and the battalion leadership would be absent during much of it, but the ‘seconds’ would have an idea of the way ahead.
The Brigade Commander held the Battalion Commanders and staff after the AAR for the full blown OPORD brief. That meant the Assistant Operations Officer (AS3) would have to race to the new AO to get things in motion for the light battalion. The battalion’s junior leaders had been busy, but they weren’t doing the right things or doing things right—time for some tough love.
The enemy would be attacking from the north. They would cross over the Siberian Ridge and then head downhill towards the Whale Gap. The AS3 had a long round about trip to get to the unit. He approached the defense from the south and instantly knew the ‘boys’ were off to dicey start when he saw the TOW Hummers bunched up the south side of the pass. The Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and ALOC (Admin/Log Operations Center) were nearby and the scouts and mortars were there too; the whole headquarters tribe. It resembled a beach party. As he got closer, he saw troops in groups at the base of the Whale, east of the pass, and Furlong Ridge, west of the pass.
The AS3 took his Hummer up a rough and narrow path to a bowl at the tip of the Whale. From there, he planned to ‘troop’ the line—walk the length of the defense. He found the infantrymen scattered among the rocks and crags on the top of the ridgeline. They looked like bandits waiting to rob the Wells Fargo Wagon!
No one had thought to select any alternate or supplementary positions and the troops weren’t digging in. The XO of the company closest to the gap and the engineer XO put together an obstacle plan, but hadn’t put anything in place yet. It was a professional overlay, but the obstacles were laid out in such a way as to keep the enemy OUT of the engagement area rather than to channel them into it—a common mistake.
The troops weren’t stupid or lazy; they were hot and tired and their leaders were the second in command—they didn’t want to do too much without the commander’s approval. They were green and this was their first trip to the ‘show’ (an NTC rotation). They were working slowly, awaiting the arrival of the experienced senior leadership. This was ok when time isn’t a factor but at the NTC, it’s always a factor; hence its combat feel.
The AS3 completed his assessment. First off, the troops were deployed along the crest of the two hills that framed the gap—easy pickins for enemy forward observers (FO) calling in artillery. The mortars hadn’t registered the guns, no one had dug in, and the TOWs on the hills were still mounted on their Hummers. Lots to do. He could jump start things, but he needed help so he sought out the senior NCO not at the AAR; the Operations Sergeant Major (SGM).
The AS3 would redeploy the troops and lay out the battle plan with the company XO’s. As the XO’s shifted the men, the SGM, with the squad leaders in tow, would set the priority of work and get the men digging.
The AS3 wasn’t flying by the seat of his pants; the battalion operations officer (S3) told him what to do. This was to be an area defense using battle positions (BP); the best call given the terrain. Two companies would defend from the forward slope of the ridges. They were assigned the task of defeating the two lead motorized rifle companies (MRC). They would be reinforced by a platoon of ground mounted TOW’s woven into their defenses at several points. The enemy would be steered into the Whale Gap, where they wanted to go anyway, by turning obstacles. They’d hit blocking obstacles in the Gap itself where they would be in range of all the forward weapons plus the mortars and supporting artillery.
The follow on MRC’s would get through the pass only to meet the third company and the two remaining platoons of the AT company defending in reverse slope. They’d be battered and on their own only to be ambushed at the very point at which they thought they’d succeeded.
When the AAR was over, the BC and staff made their way to the Whale to finalize the OPORD and check on the prep. Here’s what they found:
- The scouts and Long Range Surveillance Detachment (LRSD) were in their observation posts (OP) on the eastern slopes of Tiefort Mountain. The visibility from there was excellent and they had direct line of sight with their directional radio antennas.
- Two companies of infantry were on the military crest of the forward slope of the Whale and Furlong Ridge. They had alternate battle positions on the back side of the same ridges, looking south. They had rehearsed repositioning from the north side to the south side where they would be able to shoot the enemy in the rear.
- The AT company had dismounted a platoon of TOWs on the north side and left the two remaining platoons mounted and dug in on the south side.
- The engineer was making good headway on the obstacle plan. They were utilizing wire and mines to turn the enemy into the gap and were building a tank ditch to channelize the enemy.
- The Company Forward Observers had established target reference points (TRPs) and trigger lines to orient the fires of the Soldiers and their weapons.
- The OPS SGM had the troops busily digging in with aiming stakes, range cards, grenade sumps, and overhead cover.
- The artillery was sighted in and registered.
- A communications check had already been executed and a night check was scheduled.
- An Engagement Area rehearsal with BP repositioning was scheduled while the company First Sergeants and ALOC folks rehearsed casualty evacuation (CASVAC). The command posts were all dug in and hidden.
The Battalion Commander arrived, met the AS3 at the TOC and took his brief. He was satisfied.
The battle unfolded the next morning much as planned. The scouts on Tiefort spotted the enemy scouts in their armored cars and took them out one by one with artillery. It took most of the night as the enemy searched for ways to slip past the Observation Posts. The lead Motorized Rifle Companies (MRCs) crested Siberia an hour before dawn under the cover of a heavy artillery barrage that battered the ridge. The dug-in positions held up well. Scout directed artillery harassed the enemy all the way from the ridge in the north to the gap in the south.
The first real challenge came when the enemy laid down a thick blanket of smoke followed by a non-persistent chemical attack which forced the light fighters into their protective masks. The anti-armor systems (with their advanced sights) saw through the smoke and the artillery kept pounding based on the scouts looking from high on Tiefort Mountain.
When the enemy hit the northern most obstacles, they slowed down and were turned as planned, exposing their flanks to the anti-tank weapons from the Whale and Furlong. They were taking a beating. All seemed to be going according to plan until…
A Motorized Rifle Platoon (MRP) peeled off the left flank towards the eastern end of the Whale. They made it to the base of the mountain and hugged it back to the west towards the gap—no one could fire on them while they hugged the rocks under the defender’s noses. If they could make it to the gap, they could slip around it.
An anti-tank squad was sent down to the base of the mountain to hunt the MRP. They were spotted by the lead enemy infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and half of them were gunned down. The survivors managed to take out the very same IFV. The path was blocked so the trail IFV’s began to climb up the Whale. They actually made it to the top and over the southern side where their bravery was met by a hail of TOW anti-tank missiles.
The two lead MRCs were destroyed, but they’d battered their way up to the gap and put their infantry on the ground to move on the light fighters. They would be pre-occupied with a close fight as the last two MRCs made their run at the gap.
The enemy undoubtedly thought they had made it when the lead MRC filed through the gap. They fanned out on the south side forming a hasty defensive perimeter awaiting the forward passage of the last MRC.
The light fighters on the south side held their fire until the scouts reported the enemy had cleared the gap. There were thirty plus armored vehicles jammed together on the south side of the gap. This would be the most intense exchange of fires for the day. The AT platoons and the company on the backside opened up against the enemy. The light fighters had tow advantages; the standoff and mobility of the TOW Hummers and the plunging fire of the shoulder fired AT from the Whale and Furlong.
It looked like a Turkey Shoot, but it was actually a much closer call than it appeared. Even so, the light fighters had destroyed the enemy’s lead Motorized Rifle Battalion. They had achieved their purpose and task. The rest was up to the mech guys to complete the destruction of the enemy regiment.
The Attack on Debnam Pass. The light fighters were nearing the end of their two week war at the NTC when they got word of their final mission—an attack. Up to this point, the battalion had had a pretty solid rotation for itself except for the opening attack where they had been a non-factor. This final mission would offer another chance for an additional bite at the apple—redemption.
This time it was the OPFOR who had to defend a narrow pass that the BLUEFOR had to get through. It would be a full up Brigade attack; the light battalion followed by a mech infantry battalion and an armor battalion. The enemy held Debnam Pass to their east. Debnam was a narrow defile 1kilometer wide and 3 kilometers deep. It was recessed, like a bay, with a solid line of mountains to the south running some 6 kilometers west. The terrain to the north was more open, but was broken by deep ravines and more impenetrable mountains. The only way through was to attack straight into the pass. The approaches narrowed the farther east you moved.
The Brigade Commander was concerned about this operation. It seemed unsolvable. The enemy had stuffed an MRB in Debnam Pass and placed another MRB defending in depth another 5 kilometers east on Hill 876. He had to force the pass while preserving enough combat power to dash the distance from the east end of Debnam to the dug-in defenders at 876.
The light fighters would go on first. The mech would follow on the next day and the armor would pass through to attack the defenders at 876 with the mech battalion in support. The light fighter battalion commander prepared his plan.
His mission was to attrite the Debnam defenders, identify the obstacles, create a breach somewhere in the network and guide the mech battalion through so they could take on the defenders in the pass. The Light Battalion Commander had another idea. If his plan worked, the mech guys would be able to get through the pass on the first day rather than having to fight for it in two days. The attack would be accelerated and the defenders at 876 would lose a day of prep. He presented his plan to the Brigade Commander. It was bold, but doable. The Brigade Commander had his doubts, but he trusted his Battalion Commander. It was a go.
The Long Range Surveillance Detachment would leave immediately. They’d be inserted by helicopter all along the southern ridgeline on both sides of Debnam. They’d watch the defense, the reserves, and the forces at 876.
The light scouts would also leave immediately. They’d insert by truck into the Colorado washboard on the far side of the ridgeline. They’d walk the whole thing all the way to Debnam, looking for infantry in the mountains and wadis. The Battalion Commander had to know if there were any forces guarding the backside of the pass. He also needed to know how rough the ground was.
The Anti-Tank Company would stay with the Brigade because the light fighters couldn’t use any vehicles as part of their plan. The TOW Hummers would augment the mech scouts. They were excellent at that given their thermal sights and mobility.
The battalion main body would begin their attack at 1600, in broad daylight and just 6 hours after their scouts headed out. Everyone on the battlefield would see them going in; it was part of the plan. According to the plan and based on the scout’s reports, the three light companies would air assault to the base of an oddly shaped mountain nicknamed Chinaman’s Hat. They would touch down, kicking up quite a dust cloud, then the birds would turn south, out of sight to the defenders. The first landing would be a false insertion, the second would place them in the Colorado Wadi south of the Debnam defenders and out of their field of view. The enemy prep would be disrupted just by the threat of a premature arrival of light fighters. They would scramble to their fighting positions and send out their scouts and flank security…it would cause quite a fuss. It would also make them look west and concentrate on the southern ridgeline. The confusion would carry on until dark when the counter-recon fight would take over and continue to pull all eyes west.
One company would make the climb up and over the ridgeline. It would be slow, hard work, but it was right up the light infantry alley—go where no one else can. The enemy had laid in an L shaped defense. They had placed a company (+) of infantry along the south wall parallel to and overlooking the east-west road into Debnam. The infantrymen were high on the wall with their IFV’s and tanks below. The light fighters jumping the ridge would attack enemy forces from the flank, if they could find it, or from above. Either way, it would be an unexpected surprise.
The enemy main force consisted of three MRC’s perpendicular to the pass itself. The southern MRC rounded the bend in the L off the southern wall while the other two defended the north and south side of the pass itself. The obstacle network was extensive; designed to choke the attacking force down as it approached the pass with a tank ditch that would grind them to a dead stop. It wasn’t pretty.
The light fighter’s main body of two companies would walk through the Colorado Wadi network until they made it to a series of three side by side hilltops called Tri-Tips. There was a narrow passage there that would allow the light fighters to cross over to the east end of Debnam. They would swing out into the foothills on the backside of the pass to allow them to attack the two base MRCs from behind. The whole movement would take 10 hours. Lots can change in 10 hours!
While they were moving, the mech scouts and the AT Company would conduct a series of night probes into the obstacle network from west to east. They would keep the OPFOR scouts and the main belt defenders busy all night long. They would use illumination rounds, flares, and would recon by fire. The point was to keep the defenders up and oriented west while the real threat was developing to their rear in the east where the light fighters were creeping up behind them. The risk was that the defenders at 876 might spot the light battalion and attack them in the rear—then they’d be caught between two armored units and in relatively open ground. The Battalion Commander thought it worth the risk since stealth was his main advantage.
Execution. The plan worked better than expected. The OPFOR had been caught by surprise when they spotted the brazen daylight air insertion. They scrambled to their holes, temporarily stopping the preparation of their defense. The OPFOR infantry along the south wall got in their holes and waited. When nothing happened, the prep got started again. It seemed the enemy figured the light fighters were either lost or the whole thing was a feint.
The first company peeled off from the battalion and took up positions above the OPFOR infantry on the south wall. They would wait till midnight to begin probing attacks and harassment designed to make the defenders think the light fighters had finally arrived. In the interim, the mech scouts and AT Hummers made quite a show from around 2100 (9PM) until midnight. They probed the enemy defenses up and down the valley. They got into shoot-outs with OPFOR scouts and combat recon patrols, popping flares and illumination rounds all along. All eyes remained focused on a very lively light show in the valley west of Debnam.
At midnight, the light fighters on the south wall began their attacks on the OPFOR infantry. It seemed chaotic to the defenders since there weren’t any ‘signatures’. It was like being hit by phantoms. The light fighters would fire a shoulder fired AT weapon and a vehicle would go up while the infantry were pinned down by small arms fire from above. As distracting as it all seemed, the OPFOR Commander was not worried. The south-wall defenders were supposed to guard the light infantry avenue of approach. They stretched west, a kilometer from the main belt. The light guys would NEVER make it all the way through them and into the guys holding Debnam proper.
By 0200 (2 AM), the OPFOR was physically and more importantly, mentally exhausted. The ‘fight’ had begun 10 hours ago and the pressure had been constant. They were never in real danger of being dislodged, but they had been forced to guess as to what was going on…a situation they were not used to. The light fight on the south wall seemed to have subsided a bit making everyone nervous that the light fighters were gonna pop up again closer to the pass. They did.
At around 0230, an MRC commander on the north side of Debnam reported hearing sounds to the rear. His rear security IFV had reported spotting an infantry squad creeping through the wadis behind the battle position. The commander thought it was Long Range Surveillance (LRS) or scouts. He looked to his rear with his night vision goggles only to see hundreds of Soldiers crossing over the ridge to his rear. He knew he was in deep trouble—they hadn’t seen him yet, but when they did they’d make short work of him. He was in his hole and they were all over the place.
He radioed in, whispering his report. The light fighters were so close he could hear an officer talking on the radio, maneuvering two companies. He dared not start his engine so he hand cranked his turret around to the rear. He then took a center of mass shot at the enemy. The hill behind him lit up and he was dead in a moment; as was the entire platoon in his immediate area.
The battle raged on until dawn. The MRC north of Debnam was wiped out and the one to the south was at 50% while the one on the wall was pinned down and also at 50%. The mech attack blew through the pass well ahead of schedule. The defenders at 876 had little time to prepare and the enemy that attacked them was not as badly damaged as they should have been. They fought valiantly, but fell some 8 hours sooner than expected.
The closing brigade attack had been a smashing success because the light fighters had introduced a bold and audacious attack plan that exploited all of their strengths and pitted them perfectly against the enemy’s vulnerabilities. Light fighters can defeat armor if they are used correctly and are patient enough to allow their advantages to unfold. The 10 hour insertions were a testament to dedication and tactical patience that paid off with a big win!
The combination of light and heavy forces can be powerful on the battlefield. Each possesses unique strengths and conversely has their own distinct weaknesses. The commander who can utilize the advantages of each is a formidable foe. In our article this month, we highlighted two battles at the National Training Center where light forces clearly made an impact in the fight. As highlighted, time is critical in utilizing light infantry. Consequently, you must show tactical patience when light forces are on the battlefield.
Our next article will be number 100 in the series! To mark the occasion, we will offer thanks to those who made the series possible and have kept it going over the years. We would also like to emphasize some of the key concepts we have stressed over the past 8+ years. Following this article, we will begin to dissect mechanized forces. We will begin at the platoon level and go from there.