The Missing Factor
Whenever I took instruction in tactics, whether it be as a Corporal, as an Officer Cadet, or as a Captain, we were taught to assess a variety of factors in developing our tactical plans. The factors lead us to developing a variety of options, the Courses of Action; comparison of which produced the best course of action on which to develop a plan.
Imagine, if you will, advancing across varied terrain in training. The enemy is small, just strong enough to require the desired training to be assessed. They know what direction we are coming from (and when to expect us), and they arrange themselves in accordance with the instructor's direction to present a prepared enemy watching for our approach.
When the enemy sees us and engages, bringing us under effective fire, what do we do? We execute the battle drill and follow the checklist. We take cover, and return fire to win the firefight. And the commander (whether student on course or, afterwards, a section, platoon or company commander) starts to formulate a plan of attack.
Invariably, the idea of assaulting directly towards an identified enemy is considered "the frontal attack." In a deep societal understanding, the "frontal attack" is perceived as a desperate option, one highly reminiscent of the worse days of the First World War. And of those worst days, none have been painted more thoroughly in the Western psyche as the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, when many units of Kitchener's New Army were decimated by German machine guns as they attempted to assault across No Man's Land. "Decimated," by definition, fails to describe the losses of many unit, but it has become so in a more modern comprehension of the word. (What we are seldom told, however, is that not all units suffered to the same degree, but that knowledge leads to further examination of local conditions and actions, undermining the deep sense of tragedy the event holds in our minds.) But the Great War has thoroughly branded the frontal assault as the greatest crime of generals and battlefield commanders.
The frontal assault is always imagined as being not only directly at the enemy position, but also through the very worst approach (i.e., his best prepared defence works and most effective killing zones---no man's land). But this misses one critical point.
The perceived concept of the frontal assault assumes something which should never be left unexamined. A factor that potentially changes everything. A factor that can make the frontal assault not only a good course of action, but possibly the best course of action.
Because we train to fight small enemy forces, which are ideally located to ensure we meet them on our line of approach and that they are ready to force our hand to assault their position, we never really surprise the enemy. We arrive on a known route at an expected time and face off an enemy designed to halt our advance. All the training in developing the higher plan with intent to dislocate or otherwise disrupt the enemy before the fight is engaged is eliminated by the exercise planner's need to ensure contact happens in accordance with the Master Event List. (Apparently, you can't assess a commander as effective if he finds a way to avoid engaging some of the enemy and still makes it to his final objective.)
But what's the missing factor, you ask.
The missing factor is the orientation of the enemy position.
When we plan operations, we consider the enemy. We determine his most likely defensive positions, his killing zones, his obstacle belts. And then we try to develop a plan to avoid those killing zones and obstacles as best as possible, while still being able to neutralize or destroy his defensive positions. But on training exercises that level of preparatory work is denied us, and the exercise planner ensures we face the enemy across the ground he is best prepared to meet us on. We teach ourselves that we should try to place ourselves in a position to face the enemy from a direction he does not expect. But in training we more often invalidate that principle.
The repetitiveness with which we place "friendly forces" and "the enemy" facing off across the latter's killing ground reinforces and perpetuates the deep loathing we have for the frontal assault.
But what happens if the commander has done his own planning and chosen the line of approach. Then he may be facing the enemy not across his killing ground, but from a flank or the rear, i.e., on one of his less well prepared approaches. And this can make the frontal assault from the line of march the best course of action.
When we teach the development of tactical plans, we think about the orientation of the enemy. But when we practice it, we habitually let resource limitations (troops for enemy forces, time, space) and exercise requirements lead to the elimination of that factor. Instruction teaches process, but practice reinforces the "acceptable" options, especially for younger NCOs and officers who ares till trying to absorb the lessons and details of each situation. We need to stop modeling tactical exercises that consistently situate the estimate in concurrence with societal preconceptions. Expanding training options to see when, and how, the frontal assault can be the best course of action can ensure we actually recognize it, and consider it a viable option, when it is presented to us.
The Canadian Infantry Section Attack
The Canadian infantry section attack, usually the first introduction to small unit tactics for soldiers and officers in the Canadian Army, was once (before 1990) taught with options of direct assaults (i.e., frontals) and flanking attacks, moving either a supporting fire or an assaulting group. With the adoption of the C7/C9 family of small arms in the late 1980s, the idea that an infantry section would never attack alone, and therefore would only operate as part of a larger assault force, took hold. This idea led to the belief that a section commander only needed to know how to direct his section in a forward assault, and the training of flanking options for the section attack ceased. After a decade of experience in Afghanistan, and the renewed understanding that many factors can lead to independent actions of the infantry section, the flanking section attack has returned to the latest revision of the Army's manual for Section and Platoon tactics.
From The Regimental Rogue:
- The Canadian Infantry Section Attack; Part One: Attrition Training in a Manoeuvre Army
- The Canadian Infantry Section Attack; Part Two: Initiative is Always an Option