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Posted on Aug 11, 2007 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 018 – River Crossing Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


As in any operation, there are some basic fundamentals to heed when conducing a river crossing. These fundamentals are critical to both a hasty and deliberate crossing. These are:

1) Surprise – Let’s face it, in most river crossing operations the enemy knows you must get across the river to continue your attack. Thus, it is difficult to achieve complete surprise in most instances. However, you can deceive the enemy as to the time and place of the crossing. This is done through many ways. First, you can execute a deception plan that deceives the enemy as to the time and location. This is done by using false site preps, force buildups, and prep fires in a false location. Second, you must execute outstanding operations security. Don’t give your location away by poor noise and light discipline. Your job is tough enough without assisting your opponent. Finally, conduct the crossing when the weather or time of day gives you the advantage. This would include fog, nasty weather, or at night.

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2) Extensive Preparation – Preparation is key in a successful crossing. This preparation includes heavy reconnaissance as early as possible (using redundant assets) of the area, conducting potential deception operations early (so you have sufficient time to sell your plan to the enemy), and conducting detailed rehearsals with units so they understand the plan and have confidence in the plan.

3) Flexible Plan – As we have discussed before, you must plan for the ‘what ifs.’ Just like any other operation, it is highly likely the crossing will not go as anticipated. A flexible plan will have multiple approach routes from assembly areas to the crossing sites, possess lateral routes for movement, contain secondary crossing sites, and have reserve crossing equipment readily available to assist.

4) Traffic Control – You can’t have chaos during a river crossing. There must be command and control so units get across the river in an organized, controlled manner. The traffic control plan must be understood by all. If abided by, proper traffic control assists in units crossing in the sequence and location needed and prevents units from becoming artillery magnets. Without traffic control, there is no chance a plan will have any flexibility to it.

5) Organization – During river crossing operations, a unit must be organized in several distinct ways. First, it must organize its command and control cells so there is proper command and control at the key areas of a river crossing. Second, it must break up its forces into specific functions (much like a breaching operation) to facilitate success. We will discuss these forces in the next section.

6) Speed – We have touched on this fundamental earlier. It is vital you get across the river as quickly as possible without losing command and control. If a unit gets across the obstacle quickly, but it takes crucial time to get under control again; we are not accomplishing much. In the words of basketball coaching legend John Wooden, “You must be hurried, but not rushed.”


Let’s define some of the key terms used in river crossing operations. We will divide these into control measures commonly used during a river crossing, key command and control elements normally utilized in a crossing, and force organization.

Control Measures:

Assembly Area – As discussed earlier in the series, an assembly area is a location where a unit prepares for future operations. In a river crossing, an assembly area is usually the first area a unit occupies before beginning the phases of a river crossing.

Attack Position – Because the crossing of the river is just a part (albeit an important part) of the overall attack, attack positions are critical. An attack position is assigned to a unit after it has completed its’ crossing. It may occupy this position or pass through it as it receives orders to continue the attack to the final objective.

Bridgehead – The area on the far bank that is to be secured in order to continue the attack to the final objective. The bridgehead provides terrain for all type units to occupy before initiating the attack. This terrain should be defensible and large enough to maneuver and deploy the entire force. Typical size of a bridgehead is around 30 kilometers for a division and 40 kilometers for a corps.

Call Forward Area – These are company sized waiting areas located in the crossing area. It is here the unit is organized into loads or serials to go through the crossing site. This area is controlled by the Crossing Site Commander (CSC). The CSC will be discussed shortly.

Crossing Area – These are controlled access areas on each side (including the specific crossing site) of the river to decrease congestion during the operation. These crossing areas normally extend 3 to 4 kilometers on each side. They are designated terrain for a unit to physically occupy.

Engineer Equipment Park (EEPs) – Just as in breaching operations, your engineer equipment is critical during a river crossing. You must prepare for equipment breakdown and you must have reserve equipment. Additionally, there must be a place designated where engineer equipment (especially bridging assets) can be assembled and prepared. In a river crossing operation, engineer equipment parks are planned to serve these purposes. They are generally located about a kilometer from the river and in a place that is concealed and away from heavy traffic. Because these are vital areas you may want to assign air defense protection to the area.

Engineer Regulating Point (ERPs) – These are checkpoints (located just before crossing areas) manned by engineers to make sure vehicles that are too big or heavy to utilize do not enter the crossing area and the subsequent crossing site. They are normally located near the call-forward area. Obviously, you do not want a vehicle physically unable to use the site attempt to cross. This will back up operations and the fundamental of speed is lost.

Holding Area – These are utilized when there is an interruption during the operation and units are forces to hold in place.

Release Line (RLs) – These are used to designate shifts in command and control during the operation. They are used in conjunction with the crossing areas and form the boundaries around the designated terrain. Like a normal boundary you want to place the release line on easily identifiable terrain features.

Staging Area – These are waiting areas outside the crossing area where units are placed until it is time to move into the crossing area. Staging areas are located far enough back so units can be rerouted to other crossing sites if the tactical situation warrants it. A staging area should offer plenty of concealment and be large enough to disperse a large amount of vehicles.

Traffic Control Posts – These are positioned in areas that leadership feels could be critical areas. They are manned by military police and engineers and are usually found at key crossroads or road junctions, staging areas, holding areas, or engineer regulating points.

Waiting Area – These are areas located adjacent to the routes that a unit will use during the operation. Waiting areas are a broad term that includes assembly areas, attack positions, call-forward areas, holding areas, and staging areas (all discussed earlier). Since a unit may be in this area for a period of time (hopefully, not too long!), you want it to have some concealment so stationary vehicles can not be picked up by enemy air.


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