Thinking about Ranges At the Tactical Level
"Two hundred different positions may sometimes be taken up in the space of two square leagues, of which an intelligent general knows how to select that which is the most advantageous... [and] discover where the enemy is weakest, either by having taken an unfavorable position, distributed his force without judgement, or from the slender means of defense which he derives from his situation."
- Frederick the Great in Instructions to His Generals
In his book, The Maneuver Warfare Handbook, William Lind asserts that one can view combat as time-competitive decision cycles. Leveraging their understanding of the situation, commanders make decisions on how best to commit combat power in an effort to gain and exploit positions of relative advantage to defeat the enemy. Crucial to this decision-making is the commander’s consideration of the environment, his own forces, and the enemy’s forces. Today, we explore thoughts on how commanders visualize and understand the battlefield and it's impact on subsequent decision-making.
Borrowing a concept from other disciplines, I believe that tactical leaders think at one of three levels when considering a tactical problem. At the first level, tactical leaders think about a friendly course of action versus an enemy course of action. At the second level, they consider their course of action versus the full range of enemy courses of action. At the third level, they consider not only the range of the enemy's course of action, but also how they might fight the entire range of their own possible courses of action.
Most tactical leaders think on the first level, visualizing a single enemy course of action and subsequently developing their own course of action with which to attack the vulnerabilities in the enemy's plan. If the Commander and his staff have guessed the enemy's course of action correctly, their respective plan for defeating the enemy, if executed well, holds promise. Study of the enemy and his doctrine, as well as leveraging experience in previous engagements against that enemy in that environment increases the probability of successful deduction of the enemy's course of action. However, if they guess incorrectly, they risk executing a plan that attacks into an enemy strength, positioning friendly combat power such that it is unable to exploit enemy vulnerabilities, or falling victim to a need to make time-consuming adjustment decisions that offer opportunities for the enemy to seize the initiative and render their plans irrelevant.
Tactical leaders that think on the second level consider the full range of enemy courses of action to inform their decision-making. The enemy has numerous courses of action upon which to commit and, until identified, the points at which the enemy is vulnerable remain unknown. Thus, tactical leaders that think on the second level understand the need for flexibility in the plan to enable maneuver into and exploit positions of advantage wherever they might be found. One can associate concepts such as decision points and reconnaissance pull with second-level thinking. The most successful second-level thinkers leverage intuition derived from extensive experience and study of operations against a specific enemy and in a specific environment. In some formations, commanders fighting against an enemy or in an environment in which they are inexperienced might employ staffs to conduct rigorous analysis of the enemy to help them visualize enemy courses of actions that they lack the experience to intuitively visualize themselves. Yet as 1LT Eric Slater aptly points out in his article "Decision Point Tactics: Elevating Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield in Decisive Action," only developing a most-likely enemy course of action and a most dangerous enemy course of action hardly satisfies this requirement. Indeed, ATP 2-01.3, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, states that "In order to plan for all possible contingencies, the commander understands all COAs that an threat/ adversary commander can use to accomplish his objectives. To aid in this understanding, the staff determines all valid threat/adversary COAs..." The staff should not settle for one or two enemy courses of action, but must strive to determine as many enemy courses of action as time allows. When not on the battlefield and gaps in a commander's capability to visualize do exist, experience and deliberate practice serve to develop one's intuition. Tactical leaders can supplement experience and work further to develop this intuition by considering enemy ranges in after-action reviews following an operation or in historical vignettes. Conducting tactical decision exercises or terrain walks that force one to consider enemy ranges rather than a single course of action can also prove valuable.
Third-level thinking requires consideration of both the enemy's courses of actions and how the enemy might perceive the range of friendly courses of action. Deception operations become increasingly relevant when employing third-level thinking, as a commander seeks to convince the enemy that he has committed to a course of action for which the enemy is already anticipating. Like second-level thinking, third-level thinking can become unwieldy and time-consuming if conducted chiefly through analytical processes by staffs. Experienced commanders leverage expert intuition to rapidly recognize patterns and deduce the cause-and-effect relationships that might exist when fighting a particular enemy in a particular environment. Deliberate practice and study in consideration of opposing ranges can aid in developing capability to think at this level.
There is also value in considering a zero-level, wherein one gives little consideration to the enemy course of action whilst devising his own. There are indicators that some tactical leaders reside at this level. In a recent article in Armor Magazine, CPT Luke Bowers asserts that "many commanders, especially in time-constrained environments, will rapidly develop a COA by simply adding a doctrinal template and graphic control measures to their maps. The enemy icons are templated in a manner that supports the friendly plan." This assertion coincides with observations of company- and field grade leaders at the US Army's Combat Training Centers. When developed as such, a plan, executed however violently, is subject to significant tactical risk. Similar to first-level thinking, a formation might only experience success if, by sheer coincidence, friendly strengths align with enemy vulnerabilities during execution of the operation.
Consideration of ranges rather than specific courses of action serve to reduce uncertainty on the battlefield and allow for better decision-making. Because they have already visualized multiple enemy courses of action, the decision-maker is less likely to encounter an unanticipated dilemma. Thinking about ranges steels the tactical leader against surprise. Yet, higher-level thinking cannot eliminate the uncertainty of the battlefield. To expect a commander to intuitively deduce or a staff to, through analysis, identify every possible permutation of potential enemy action is unrealistic. Nor is higher-level thinking an end unto itself. One must also possess the courage to act amid uncertainty and execute the arrived-upon decision well to determine the enemy’s vulnerabilities, gain a position of advantage, and exploit that edge. Higher-level thinking is a means by which commanders gain advantage in time-competitive decision-cycles. It is possible, through experience and deliberate practice, to develop the capability to think at progressively higher levels. In this endeavor, there can be no substitute for repetition and experience in realistic field training or actual combat. However, in today’s operating environment, such opportunities may be few and far between. However, simulations, terrain-walks, and tactical decision exercises all provide opportunities to practice and develop this skill. At what level of tactical thinking do you operate?