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Posted on Jan 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 011. Talking the Talk

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

At the meeting the two battalion commanders were at odds with one another. The air assault commander claimed the mission failed because the mech guys had piled up inside the valley thus losing momentum in the enemy engagement areas. The mech commander complained that the pass had not been cleared as reported on the brigade command net. The light fighter took exceptation saying it was indeed clear. The problem ended up being due to neither of the battalion commanders. It was a matter of unclear guidance.

The air assault commander had understood his orders as being to clear the pass of obstacles that would impede the mounted attack. He had done that. All obstacles had been breached and passage lanes were marked. All the mech guys had to do was pass on through them.


The mech commander understood that the pass would be clear of effective enemy resistance since an obstacle without effective overwatch was no obstacle at all. What he found were clearly marked breach lanes but as he headed into them he came under withering fire from the valley walls. He was in a fire fight he had not anticipated. The fight ground him to a halt since he wasn’t deployed for a fight.

The Brigade Commander had told the light guys to clear the pass. He had not clarified his expectations as to what the task of clearing meant for the mission. Was it to clear the route of obstacles or clear the pass of enemy troops? That question had led to the loss of the day’s objective.

It seems unlikely such a mistake could occur… But it did, at the NTC during a summer rotation. I was in the brigade command post and heard and saw it all. Something so simple and yet so profound as the definition of a single word in a 30 page OPORD had derailed an entire Brigade Combat Team. Words matter and terminology must convey a common meaning to be effective. That is what this article is about. A common lexicon that ensures common understanding of tasks and common expectations of outcomes is essential to military success on the battlefield.

We would like to focus the remainder of the article on specific terms that we believe cause confusion or are misinterpreted by many. In is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m sure many of you have come across others.

Alternate Position/Supplementary Position

Area of Operations/Area of Interest – A commander’s area of operations is the geographical area (this includes the airspace) that he is assigned in which he has the responsibility and authority to conduct operations in. Whereas, the commander’s area of interest is the area outside his area of operation which activity (or lack of activity) could influence his operations. This is why flank coordination is so critical.

Artillery Preparation – When the term artillery prep is discussed, what immediately comes to mind is the old Soviet use of a specific start and finish prep of a objective before maneuver forces began their assault. However, an artillery prep can be on call. The key thing to remember is that it is more flexible than most think.

Assault Position/Attack Position – An assault position is ideally the last covered and concealed position between your line of departure and your objective. This does not mean that you necessarily have to stop there. You may maneuver right through it. An attack position is the last position (hopefully covered and concealed) you occupy before crossing the line of departure.

Attack by Fire/Support by Fire – When a unit is conducting an attack by fire task it is massing fires (both direct and indirect) from a distance at an objective or enemy. The task is not being conducted in support of another unit. When a unit is conducting a support by fire task it is engaging the enemy with direct fires to support another maneuver force. This may occur when another unit is attempting to flank the enemy. The support by fire element must be especially careful to prevent fratricide of the maneuver force. Coordination and communication is key. The determination to lift and shift fires is critical.

Axis of Advance/ Direction of Attack – An axis of advance is a general route assigned to a unit that he utilizes to maneuver towards an objective. Within that axis, the commander determines his specific maneuver techniques and formations. A direction of attack is much more directive than an axis of advance. When assigned a direction of attack, the commander must maneuver on a specific direction or route. It is normally used at the battalion and below and by light infantry units.

Be-Prepared Mission/On-Order Mission – A be-prepared mission is a potential mission that may or may not be executed in the future. This types of missions are usually contingency missions that must be executed because something good has happened or unfortunately something bad has occurred. An on-order mission is a mission that will be executed in the future (we just don’t know the specific time). A unit commander should rehearse all on-order missions. A unit may not rehearse be-prepared missions because of time constraints.

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