The Donovian Mechanized Infantry Battalion in the Attack: A Vignette on Decision Points in the Offense
Sitting in the back of his BMP-2, the Mechanized Infantry Battalion (MIBN) commander stared at his map. He had recently received orders over the radio from the 801st BTG headquarters: NLT 070600MAR15, 3rd Mechanized Infantry Battalion (MIBN), 801st Brigade Tactical Group (BTG) attacks to breach/bypass in order to allow freedom of maneuver to the BTG decisive operation. He inwardly cringed when the BTG intelligence officer provided his assessment of the enemy – a US SBCT Infantry Battalion defended the elevated terrain along what had come to be called the Siberian Ridge. The BTG Commander made it clear – 3rd MIBN needed to provide a point of penetration along either of the main avenues of advance leading north. This is going to be one hell of a fight, he thought to himself.
Looking at the terrain, he considered the enemy commander’s options. Six enemy courses of action (ENCOAs) immediately came to mind. ENCOA 1 - the enemy could conduct an area defense, defending with all three companies abreast on the high ground (Figure 1). ENCOA 2 – the enemy could conduct a defense in depth, concentrating his combat power to defeat the BTG’s likely attack along the more favorable western avenue of approach, MSR PRIMUS (Figure 2). ENCOA 3 – the enemy could conduct a defense in depth, concentrating combat power to block any attempt by the BTG to attack along the eastern avenues of approach, specifically MSR STAINED or MSR KILLERS (Figure 3). ENCOA 4 – the enemy could conduct a forward defense arrayed along the 98th northing. ENCOA 5 – the enemy could conduct a reverse slope defense, north of the Siberian Ridge along the 10 northing. However, the intelligence reports he had received from the BTG suggested significant activity along the Siberian Ridge itself, making ENCOAs 4 and 5 highly unlikely. He further analyzed the first three enemy courses of action.
Regardless of the course of action that the enemy commander chose, he knew what 3rd MIBN needed to do to accomplish its mission. First, we’ll have to conduct reconnaissance to determine where the enemy is most vulnerable. I hate that we are attacking with less than a 1:1 relative combat power ratio, but orders are orders. If 3rd MIBN can identify and mass against the enemy’s weakest point, we might just achieve success. Second, we’ve got to fix at least one, if not two, of the infantry companies, dislocating them from the potential point of penetration. They could punch through one company, but two? Not a chance in hell. Third, we are likely going to have to conduct a combined arms breach. That means suppression, both direct and indirect, obscuration, and mechanical reduction of the obstacle – no simple feat. But hell, I don’t know where we should breach yet. We’ll have to plan for both lanes until combat reconnaissance patrols (CRPs) answer that question. Finally, 3rd MIBN must conduct a forward passage of lines with 1st MIBN. Four complex tasks stood between the MIBN and success, but he felt comfortable communicating this sequence and his operational approach to his men.
He considered the MIBN and its men. Several weeks of offensive operations had reduced the combat power of 3rd MIBN, but those forces on hand were tough, experienced, and professional. In total, 3rd MIBN consisted of seven T-80s, 14 BMP-2s, four AT-5 equipped BRDMs, two M2A45M anti-tank guns, and four SA-18 man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). He divided these into an assault force (to include the breach force), two fixing forces, and a small reserve. At the breach lane on either axis, the combined fixing and assault force could expect to attack three to five platoons in the defense. He plotted suppression and obscuration fires targets to manipulate the relative combat power ratios in his favor. For the fixing force that would suppress the enemy defending the enemy obstacle, he allocated three T-80s, four BMP-2s, two AT-5 equipped BRDMs, and two SA-18 teams. The breach/assault force would consist of three T-90s, five BMP-2s, two MTK-2s, two IMR-2Ds and an SA-18 team. He planned to leverage the ranged lethality of the 2A45 and AT-5 to mitigate the risk associated with an anemic fixing force on the MIBN’s flank. This force, which needed to fix at least one enemy company on the avenue of approach opposite of the MIBN’s axis of attack, consisted of one T-90, three BMP-2s, two AT-5 BRDMs, two 2A45Ms, and an SA-18 team. Reviewing his thinly arrayed force, he grimaced. He voiced his concern about the relative combat power to the BTG Commander. In reply, the BTG commander communicated the Division Tactical Group’s (DTG) willingness to support the breach with a non-persistent chemical strike and one 2S19-delivered Family of Scatterable Mines (FASCAM) request. At this news, the MIBN Commander’s mood improved and he began planning the attack.
He thought the enemy’s conduct of an area defense with three companies abreast the most likely. It offered the enemy favorable terrain on which to defend, with covered and concealed lines of communication along which to shift the array of combat power, if needed. Further, it was simple. The enemy commander would not need to concern himself with the complex task of withdrawing under contact to subsequent battle positions, as with a defense in depth. Arrayed as such, enemy combat power along either of the main avenues of advance seemed equal. Yet, the western avenue of approach, MSR PRIMUS, appeared far less restrictive, allowing the MIBN to bring more combat power to bear and aid in suppression of enemy battle positions. Further, a single vehicle loss along key points on MSR KILLERS, the eastern avenue of approach, could block the route completely. He reached a conclusion. 3rd MIBN would attack along AXIS IRON and breach at LANE ANGELS. He would employ a fixing force, SCATMINE, and a non-persistent chemical strike to fix enemy forces in the east. Plotting targets for suppression, obscuration, and the special munitions, he felt anxieties about the attack begin to dissipate.
He glanced at the remaining ENCOAs. Anxiety flooded back into his mind. The plan would work well enough if the enemy committed to a defense in depth, combat power weighted in the east. He would have to refine the support-by-fire position and direct fire control measures for the fixing force, but the plan remained otherwise relatively unchanged. However, if the enemy committed to a defense in depth weighted along the western axis, 3rd MIBN would most certainly be defeated.
The MIBN Commander mentally arrayed his forces to conduct a breach in the east, along MSR KILLERS. 3rd MIBN could attack along AXIS STEEL, conducting a breach of templated enemy obstacles near LANE BRAVES. For this to work, the fixing force and non-persistent chemical strike would have to fix the enemy infantry companies in the west. He developed the graphic control measures and triggers to synchronize the attack for this contingency plan.
Satisfied, he looked at the two plans. He felt confident that, if he could determine the enemy course action, 3rd MIBN could fight and win regardless of what they enemy threw at them. We’ve fought through worse, he thought to himself. Not much worse, but he began to like the formation’s chances.
With the two courses of action, he developed a composite plan, “stitched together” through the use of a decision support matrix (DSM). The MIBN’s common operating graphics consisted of the graphic control measures to support maneuver against any of the three enemy courses of action (Figures 4 and 5). All that remained was determining which of ENCOAs the enemy commander had committed.
While he understood that it would be nice to have complete understanding of the enemy situation, the MIBN Commander also understood that this was an unrealistic reconnaissance objective. He directed his CRPs to conduct reconnaissance focused on two specific named areas of interest (NAIs): NAIs 3001 and 3002 (Figure 6).
NAIs 3001 and 3002 served as locations where enemy presence or a lack of enemy presence confirmed or denied the enemy commander’s commitment to a specific threat course of action. If reconnaissance forces observed an enemy company defending in the vicinity of NAI 3001, it would confirm the enemy commander’s commitment to a defense in depth weighted in the west, ENCOA 2. If the CRPs reported observation of an enemy company-sized element defending in the vicinity of NAI 3002, it would confirm the enemy commander’s decision to conduct a defense in depth with combat power weighted in the east, ENCOA 3. If the CRPs reported no contact with an enemy company-sized element in either NAIs 3001 or 3002, these reports would serve to deny both defense in depth options and suggest that the enemy commander committed to the conduct of an area defense, ENCOA 1.
During the zone reconnaissance, the MIBN CRP established two observation posts oriented on NAIs 3001 and 3002. Six hours prior to the MIBN’s attack, the CRP observed a Stryker infantry platoon and a Stryker mobile gun system platoon preparing defensive positions and obstacles along the eastern MSR within NAI 3001. Additionally, the CRP observed three M1A2 main battle tanks occupying battle positions vic NAI 3003. The CRPs reported no observation of any activity in NAI 3002.
Tanks! Where the hell did they come from? The MIBN Commander hurriedly reported this new development to the BTG concerned that, with scant few hours prior to the attack, additional enemy combat power rendered his plans worthless. After some time, the BTG intelligence officer responded. He assessed that the enemy battalion now had one M1A2 tank company attached and determined that, in addition to the two primary avenues of approach, the enemy defending forces were now likely responsible for defending to block an additional avenue approach, MSR SLAYER, to the east. At the end, he relayed orders from the BTG Commander – the attack continues as planned.
Though the enemy now had a tank company and a larger area of operations, the MIBN Commander determined that the enemy chose to defend in a manner most similar to EN COA 2. He also estimated that the enemy battalion commander had probably attached a tank platoon to the IN COs defending along the Siberian Ridge, north of AXES IRON and STEEL. Wonderful, he thought grimly. He took a minute to make his decision and then picked up his radio to give an update to the formation. 3rd MIBN would attack to breach along AXIS STEEL at LANE BRAVES. The fixing force would attack to fix the enemy company observed near NAI 3001. Transitioning to a reconnaissance push technique, the Commander ordered the MIBN CRP to begin a route reconnaissance of the western MSR along AXIS STEEL, focused on identifying enemy obstacles near NAI 3004.
As the lead MIC crossed PL AMSTEL, the MIBN commander requested fires to employ NP CHEM and FASCAM to fix the enemy defending north of AXIS IRON to prevent them from re-positioning and massing combat power against the MIBN decisive operation.
Shortly thereafter, the MIBN CRP reported observing a platoon of M1A2s four kilometers east of the town of Nabran in NAI 3002, moving southwest. The MIBN Commander directed the lead MIC to allocate two-thirds of its combat power to attack and fix this enemy tank platoon. Though the enemy tank platoon engaged and destroyed a BRDM and a BMP-2 from the CRP, the elements of lead MIC succeeded in establishing a support-by-fire (SBF) with AT-13s, a BMP-2, and a T-80 on a small hill mass just to the west of the Nabran, fixing the enemy tank platoon two kilometers east of the town. He shifted the breaching force’s assault position west to a location adjacent to SBF 2. The remainder of the lead MIC’s combat power – one T-80 and two BMP-2s – established SBF 1, oriented north on the enemy battle positions near NAI 3001.
As the second and third MICs continued to attack north along AXIS STEEL, the MIBN commander coordinated for the employment of non-persistent chemical munitions and FASCAM at AE7005 and AE5005, respectively, fixing two enemy infantry companies west of AXIS STEEL. As the second MIC established SBF 5, he requested artillery fires on TGT GRP A3E and the linear smoke target, AB0310, to suppress the enemy defending along LANE BRAVES and obscure the breach site.
After an hour and a half of hard fighting and despite suffering significant losses, the MIBN decisive operation achieved a breach along LANE BRAVES and established a foothold on the north side of the obstacle belt. The MIBN commander reported the success of the breaching operation to the BTG commander, who instructed him to continue to secure the breach site and prepare to pass the BTG DO onto subsequent objectives. Triumphant, the MIBN Commander picked up his handset to congratulate the men on a hard-fought victory and relay their new orders. Tomorrow, they would likely continue the attack north.
This vignette serves as an example of how a formation might develop and employ decision points during an offensive operation. While an observer might accurately assert that the MIBN Commander employed ‘decision point tactics’ as described in a 1997 Infantry Magazine article by LTC Peter Palmer entitled ‘Decision Point Tactics and the Meeting Battle: Fighting the Enemy, Not the Plan,’ OPFOR doctrine cannot claim a monopoly on the use of decision points in planning and execution. Tactical leaders in the US Army might easily develop and execute similarly flexible plans to identify, seize, and exploit opportunities provided by leveraging positions of relative advantage on the battlefield. Indeed, the use of decision points and their linkage to both intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) and reconnaissance and security operations exists within US Army doctrine. Unfortunately, these linkages are not well understood. Observations of our formations during training suggest that several challenges exist:
First, we must reject the consideration of only one or two possible enemy courses of action. The enemy has many options and we should consider all of them. ATP 2-01.3, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, states this clearly. To accomplish this, the Commander leverages his experience and intuition to visualize how he expects the enemy to fight. A well-trained staff complements his intuitive judgement during IPB, identifying enemy courses of action that the commander may not have considered. From both sources (intuitive judgement and detailed analysis), the formation can achieve a shared understanding for all valid enemy plans for which they must prepare to defeat.
Next, the Commander must visualize how the formation will fight and develop an operational approach to solve the tactical problem presented by the enemy. Commanders describe their visualization by issuing clear intent. Successful commanders create shared understanding by communicating how they intend to defeat the enemy, outlining their approach with only those key tasks that the formation must perform as a whole in order to accomplish the mission and in a sequence that flows logically. By arming members of the formation with this conceptual framework for fighting and an appreciation for how the battle might 'flow', the Commander's intent enables staffs to begin detailed planning where necessary and allows subordinate leaders to exercise disciplined initiative where they identify unanticipated opportunities or threats within the framework provided.
Third, we must develop plans that seeks to best achieve a positions of relative advantage and exploit vulnerabilities inherent in the enemy plan. Until reconnaissance is able to identify the enemy’s course of action, we must develop a set of complete branch plans capable of defeating the full set of enemy courses of action. Through the use of decision points, we can build decisions into the base plan that allow commitment to branches and sequels, providing the formation flexibility and reducing the length of decision-cycles during execution.
Finally, our information collection and reconnaissance efforts must be focused on informing these decisions by identifying the enemy’s chosen course of action. The Commander does not need perfect situational awareness to achieve success in the offense. Indeed, the pursuit of a perfect understanding of the enemy situation is almost certainly impossible and contrary to the nature of war. Instead, reconnaissance should answer priority information requirements and observe named area of interests that confirm or deny an enemy course of action.
In conclusion, properly employing decision points requires that we conduct IPB that allows us to visualize the entire range of enemy actions, focus information collection and reconnaissance efforts on narrowing that range, and developing decision points that allow us to commit to the branch plan best able to achieve a position of relative advantage against and exploit vulnerabilities that exist in the range that remains. Understanding this linkage between IPB, IC and reconnaissance operations, and decision points allows us to truly 'fight the enemy, not the plan.'