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Approach March MTC at the Company Level

By Captain Daniel S. Hurlbut


"Infantry Rifle Companies conduct Movement to Contact operations to gain and maintain contact with an enemy force. It is used when the enemy situation is vague, there is not time to extensively reconnoiter to locate the enemy, and is normally executed as part of a battalion movement to contact operation." FM 7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company1

Most Company Commander's recite to themselves something close to the above text when preparing to conduct an Approach March Movement to Contact. The Commander references applicable sections of FM 7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company, and FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad as a doctrinal refresher. He then plans the operation IAW the Battalion Commander's Intent. He usually plans to move the company in column with the lead platoon out forward 100-200 meters as an "advance guard". The company then moves until they run into something, usually an enemy Observation Post. What results is usually a company conducting a tactical movement until the lead elements make contact from a position of disadvantage. Current doctrine in FM 7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company needs to be expanded and updated to provide the company commanders of the future a better foundation from which to visualize, plan, and execute the Approach March Movement to Contact in order to make contact from a position of advantage.

Expanding and updating the doctrine concerning the company level Approach March MTC is a many faceted problem. It involves refining the doctrine at company level, changing how we plan and execute training, reviewing doctrinal tasks habitually assigned to the infantry platoons involved in the MTC, and discussing the lowest level at which an approach march MTC can and should be executed.

FM 7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company's coverage of the Approach March technique entails a total of one page. FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, allows a little more than a page. These manuals are vague for a reason. Current doctrine state's that the Approach March MTC is done as part of a battalion MTC and they leave FM 7-20, The Infantry Battalion, to explain how to execute the operation. Other than a movement diagram that provides an example of a company movement formation in FM 7-8, there is little guidance given to the company commander.

Expanding the doctrine should begin with an example of a company movement formation as illustrated in figure 2-33, on page 2-55 of FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad. The movement formation is divided into four elements: the advance guard, the main body, the flank guard, and the rear guard. FM 7-8 states "as part of a larger unit using the approach march technique, platoons may act as the advance, flank, or rear guard."2 (See Figure 1)

Figure 1

The next step is to define the task and purpose of each of the four elements. Understanding the "what" of the mission statement, allows the company commander to better utilize his assets and task organize to successfully accomplish the mission. The main body consists of at least one platoon and is usually the main effort. It can, according to FM 7-8, ".... be tasked to assault, bypass or fix an enemy force".3 The rear or flank guard can be a squad or fire team and can be assigned tasks that allow it to provide early warning, destroy enemy reconnaissance elements, or prevent direct fires on or observation of the main body. A platoon as the rear or flank guard removes too much combat power from the main body and should only be used when the company is part of a battalion movement to contact operation. The advanced guard "finds the enemy and locates gaps, flanks, and weaknesses in his defense."4

The rear and flank guards are merely security elements of a squad or fire team size that prevent the company being surprised. What about the advanced guard element? How big should it be? How does it execute its mission as the advanced guard and what is its tactical task? These are questions that are left unanswered. FM 7-8 and FM 7-20 both assert that the advanced guard is a platoon led by a squad as its lead element. FM 7-20 expounds further stating "the squad (the advanced guard lead squad) advances steadily by traveling overwatch until it draws fire or sights the enemy". 5 FM 7-20 then contradicts itself by introducing the approach march technique as "an advance of a combat unit when direct contact with the enemy is imminent". 6 This should lead the company commander to dictate the advanced guard move in bounding overwatch (enemy contact is imminent) and not traveling overwatch (enemy contact is possible or likely).

Which movement technique should the advanced guard use? The answer is in the principal company level doctrinal manual. It proposes that the advance guard needs to move as a small reconnaissance element, not advancing steadily in either traveling or bounding overwatch. FM 7-10 states the company should make contact with the smallest element possible (ideally an R&S element). It will never make contact with the enemy ".... On ground of its own choosing, to gain the advantage of surprise", 7 according to FM 7-8, if it just advances steadily forward moving towards some defined march objective. The lead platoon, in order to gain contact with the enemy from a position of advantage, should execute its duties as the advanced guard via the search and attack technique by executing a zone reconnaissance using the fan, box, converging routes, or successive sectors method.

Definition of Maneuver: The movement of forces, supported by fire to a position of advantage from which the unit destroys or threatens to destroy the enemy." FM 101-5-1, Operational Terms and Graphics.8

There are several key points in the definition. However, the most salient to the commander developing a COA for an approach march is finding and getting to that "position of advantage." The advanced guard executing a zone reconnaissance or using the search and attack technique provides the company the best opportunity to make contact with the enemy first. In this manner, the company commander retains surprise and flexibility, two important characteristics of offensive operations. He uses surprise to kill the enemy "at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared"9. He uses flexibility to kill the enemy by exploiting the opportunity the advanced guard has created in gaining contact with the enemy from a position of advantage. He has the flexibility to maximize the use of every asset available to kill (CAS, indirect fires, and then direct fires). Most significantly, however, the commander can kill the enemy from a position of advantage. Detecting them first, he can maneuver his forces first, he can call for fire support first, and he can kill with direct fire weapons first. He can maneuver his forces to key or dominant terrain from which he destroys the enemy. He has the initiative and can synchronize his combat forces to kill the enemy before they can react.

As the company closes on the Named Area Of Interest (NAI) or march objective, the company commander halts the company in a hasty defensive perimeter (See figure 2). Subsequently, the lead platoon conducts a search of the immediate terrain to the front of the company (the platoon leader/commander must ensure the lead elements can mutually support each other). The lead platoon has one 60mm mortar tube attached to it for more responsive indirect fire support. This mortar most likely will be employed using the direct lay method. One, two or three squads reconnoiter the terrain to the company's front. The advanced guard element(s) conduct area and zone reconnaissance and surveillance from an observation post to find the enemy. If no contact is made, the company moves forward a designated distance, halts, and begins the search again. If contact is made, the squad (if undetected) reports to allow the platoon/company to mass direct and indirect fire assets on the enemy or (if detected) conducts Battle Drill 1A and begins to establish a base of fire from which to fix the enemy.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is an example of the advanced guard platoon using all three squads to move up to and through NAI DOG in a controlled manner in the fan technique.

The problem of lacking a solid doctrinal base from which the commander may reference is further aggravated by the typical training exercise design developed in today's infantry battalions. That is, companies habitually do blank and live fire exercises as a company, NOT part of a battalion. I did it as an Air Assault Platoon Leader and a Ranger Rifle Platoon Leader at home station, the Joint Readiness Training Center, (JRTC), and the National Training Center (NTC) and it still occurs today. Most MTC LFX are actually React to Contact or Take Action on Contact exercises. This creates bad habits in leader decision making because commanders organize for combat differently than they should when conducting an approach march MTC.

Training exercises are designed in order to ensure a unit can meet its designated training objectives. The typical training exercise design does not produce rifle companies that can effectively execute an independent approach march movement to contact. The training objectives are determined by the commander and differ from commander to commander. Whatever the training objectives are determined to be, the training exercise scenario should attempt to capture the "fog of war". The vague enemy situation allows for many options to create conditions under which the unit and its commander can be trained. The training scenario trains the unit to execute the mechanics of the movement to contact. It should also train the commander's tactical decision-making process. A vague and rapidly changing realistic enemy situation will force the commander to wrestle with several problems. They will face problems like task re-evaluation (is the task in the mission statement still appropriate given a changing enemy situation). They will question whether the task is still appropriate given the purpose of the mission (can we accomplish the purpose by executing a different task now that the enemy situation has changed). They will question if they are meeting the commander's intent (is what we are doing still within the commander's intent). The exercise, if properly constructed, will place the commander in a crucible from which he and his subordinate leaders will emerge trained to recognize how changing conditions sometimes drastically affect the nature of the mission. They may find that the original assigned task is no longer valid and to accomplish the mission another task, not in his operations order, may have to be executed. Most importantly, the commander really begins to understand that it is the purpose of the operation that drives success.

Training exercises need to factor in additional training time to allow the lead platoon to actually find the enemy, as opposed to walking a general azimuth and having the enemy conveniently be there on the NAI.

The training exercise should capitalize on the vague enemy situation. The exercise should be designed so the company really has no idea where the enemy is, and the enemy location(s) should change with each iteration. This more realistic enemy portrayal will force the lead platoon to really find the enemy and force the company to use the appropriate movement technique and move at a more realistic and deliberate tempo.

The operations order given to the company commander to begin the training exercise must establish the correct scenario and conditions under which rifle companies will execute a MTC. NAI's march objectives, and limits of advance control measures must be used instead of defined objectives (i.e. OBJ BLUE). The use of NAI's tells the company commander that the enemy situation is vague. It serves as an indicator that he should task organize his company to execute a MTC. Using concrete objectives denotes that the enemy situation is not vague and forces the commander to task organize for a deliberate attack, even though he knows he is executing a MTC.

A problem that has been noted on several training exercises is that FM 101-5-1 Operational Terms and Graphics does not provide a term for locating the enemy. This is no small point given that a task must be definable, attainable and decisive. Does the "find" force screen or guard? Screen, as defined in FM 101-5-1, Operational Terms and Graphics, is a task to maintain surveillance; provide early warning to the main body; or impede, destroy, and harass enemy reconnaissance within its capability without becoming decisively engaged. Screen is not appropriate because the squad cannot impede, destroy, or harass an enemy force without becoming decisively engaged. Guard is defined as a security operation whose primary task is to protect the main force by fighting to gain time while also observing and reporting information, and to prevent enemy ground observation of and direct fire against the main body by reconnoitering, attacking, defending, and delaying. Guard is not appropriate because, while the squad would do all the above, the squad is not involved in a security operation.

As a result, the task should be locate or find, defined as a task assigned to a unit or element that must locate enemy forces without being surprised or allowing any enemy elements from surprising the main body.

Finally, doctrine should change to allow the movement to contact operation using the approach march technique to be executed by a rifle company as an independent element. Accompanying a change in doctrine requires that the conditions, standards, and task performance measures be rewritten in the ARTEP 7-series MTP's to accurately evaluate a company executing an approach march MTC independently.

To begin with, there should be two separate tasks: Conduct Search and Attack Movement to Contact and Conduct Approach March Movement to Contact. The tasks are sufficiently different in their task organization and execution that they deserve separate mention in the ARTEP manuals. This article will only address the approach march movement to contact task. Additionally, this article only recommends updates for the ARTEP 7-10 MTP, but both the ARTEP 7-8 MTP and ARTEP 7-20 MTP will require updates as well.

The task standards should be updated to reflect the following changes:

The company accomplishes its mission within the commander's intent. The company identifies the enemy without being compromised.

The performance measures should be updated with the following changes:

The commander effectively task organizes the company for an approach march MTC.

The changes listed above are not revolutionary, nor evolutionary. We, as an army, already are executing company level approach-march movement to contacts on a habitual basis. We need to refine the doctrine to provide the company commander the tools to execute the mission more effectively. The changes will allow him to make a more effective use of combined arms so he is able to make contact with the enemy on the terrain of his choice, in a manner he wants, to produce a result he needs - victory.


Notes:

  1. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1990), pg 4-13.
  2. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1992), pg 4-13.
  3. Ibid., pg 2-54.
  4. Ibid., pg 2-56.
  5. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 7-20, The Infantry Battalion, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1992), pg 3-17.
  6. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 7-20, The Infantry Battalion, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1992), pg 3-15.
  7. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1992), pg 2-55.
  8. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 101-5-1, Operational Terms and Graphics, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1997), pg 1-96.
  9. U.S. Department of the Army, FM 7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1990), pg 4-5.

Copyright© Captain Daniel S. Hurlbut