Tactics 101 081 – The Assembly Area
THE ASSEMBLY AREA
“One of the greatest difficulties in war is to have the men inured to marching… The rapidity of a march, or rather skilled marches, almost always determines the success of a war… It is the power of marching which constitutes the strength of infantry; and enterprises which seem to present difficulties, become comparatively easy by the advantages accruing from rapid marches.”
Marshal of France Michel Ney – 1834
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In our last article, we dissected the tactical road march. The overall theme of the article was that in combat operations; any movement of vehicles/soldiers must be executed tactically. In other words, there is no such thing as an administrative road march. An administrative mentally in combat gets soldiers killed. In our discussion, we began by defining a tactical road march and laying out some of the key concepts associated with it. Following that, we looked at how you plan, prepare, and execute a tactical road march. One final point we emphasized was that a well-executed tactical road march sets the conditions for success for the next mission (be it an offensive or defensive operation). Vice versa, a road march executed poorly has a negative impact on a unit’s ability to conduct its follow-on mission.
In our article, we ended with a brief discussion on the assembly area. Because of the importance of the assembly area; we wanted to give it the emphasis it demands. Consequently, we will focus this month’s article on the assembly area. In our treatment, we will look at all aspects of the assembly area. This includes the selection of an assembly area, actions of the quartering party, the maneuvering from the release point to the assembly area, occupying the assembly area, and maneuvering out of the assembly area. Just as we discussed last month, do not take all that revolves around the assembly area lightly. As with everything in tactics, this is tough stuff and separates the good units from the poor ones. LET’S MOVE OUT!
Definition – In simplest terms, it is an area where a unit assembles itself to prepare for future operations. This occupation may be relatively short-lived or could be for an extended amount of time. There are three critical pieces to an assembly area. First, is the ability of a unit to smoothly occupy an assembly area. Second, is how effectively a unit takes advantage of the time it occupies the assembly area. Finally, is the ability of a unit to depart an assembly area and position it to maneuver to its objective.
Selecting an Assembly Area
There is far more to determining the location of an assembly area than just drawing a goose egg on a map and telling everyone to go find a spot to park your vehicles. As we addressed in the definition, this is the terrain in which you will conduct your final preparations for your combat mission. With this in mind, you must select a location which facilitates this preparation and affords you as much security as possible. There is a checklist of criteria you want in your assembly area. Let’s look at these below:
• Sufficient Space. An assembly area must have enough terrain to take in the personnel, vehicles, and equipment of the unit. You also would like to disperse vehicles as much as possible for security reasons. In regards to space, you must consider the space required for your logistical assets.
• Concealment. You want to find a location that provides as much concealment from the enemy as possible. You can’t make it easy for your foe to find you. Of course, this is much more challenging when the enemy possesses technology such as UAVs, satellites, etc….
• Cover. A good assembly area should provide you as much cover from enemy indirect and direct fire as possible. Indirect fire is obviously a challenge, but direct fire is certainly something you can affect.
• Observation. You will want terrain in or around the assembly area which will provide you observation of the ground and air enemy avenues of approach into the location.
• Defendable. An assembly area should be located on defensible terrain. A unit positioned in an assembly area can be a highly lucrative target. It may convince an enemy commander to conduct an attack with some portion of his force. The prudent commander always prepares to defend no matter how long he is idle.
• Drive ability. You don’t want to position an assembly area into a potential mud pit or lake. We have seen units paralyzed in an assembly area because a rain storm made the ground nearly impossible for some types of vehicles to move. Another time, we observed a unit locate its’ assembly area in a large desert wadi. Unfortunately, a rare desert rain storm turned that wadi into a river. Needless to say, this unit’s assembly area experience did not set the right conditions for their upcoming attack.
Not the Best Location for an Assembly Area!
• Good Internal Transportation. Inside an assembly area, there should exist the ability for vehicles to move around. This assists in logistical operations, defending one’s self, and command and control.
• Good External Transportation. An effective assembly area should have enough good routes to facilitate traffic in and out. This is especially critical when the unit departs the assembly area. We will discuss this later.
Organization of an Assembly Area
There are many techniques a unit may utilize in organizing an assembly area. Thus, once the unit has determined the terrain to emplace the overall assembly area; you must then divvy it out to the subordinate units. Let’s address some of these techniques below:
Many assembly areas are normally set-up as 360 degree positions. Within the 360, subordinate units are assigned pieces of the 360. In the above example, you will see a battalion task force in an assembly area. The battalion has located its scouts forward in the direction they will ultimately maneuver to or the anticipated direction of the enemy. Outside the perimeter, the battalion has positioned Observation Posts (OPs) for security. The battalion has apportioned the assembly area into designated areas for each of their subordinate units. The line companies are positioned on the outside. Inside the perimeter, they have located the headquarters element, combat trains, mortars, and anti-armor elements. This is a pretty basic structure. Below we will illustrate how a company might occupy the above area they were assigned.
A company may decide to organize into their own 360. If the frontage assigned to a company is fairly minimal, this is certainly a viable option. Terrain may also dictate this option.
Another option for the company is to orient the entire force in one direction. In the above diagram, you see the line platoons in a staggered front. The dispersion between vehicles will be dictated by the tactical situation. Below the line companies will be positioned the other elements of the company.
The Role of the Quartering Party
As we highlighted last month, the quartering party is instrumental in setting the conditions for a smooth transition from maneuvering from the release point to occupying the assembly area. Because of this, the quartering party must be comprised of a unit’s best. As we addressed previously, a quartering party is very small. In a battalion road march, this will equate to usually one-two vehicles (combat or wheeled) per company. Inside the vehicles, will be a rep from each of the platoons with the company executive officer or first sergeant leading the contingent. Each of the platoon reps will obviously be responsible for their own platoons with the XO or First Sergeant responsible for overall quartering party actions. Let’s highlight some of the key actions of the quartering party below:
• The first and probably the most important task of the quartering party is the recon of the site. This recon must be complete and there cannot be any corner cutting. In this recon, the quartering party must be looking for enemy forces, emplaced obstacles, and the presence of chemical or biological weapons. Thus, the quartering party must be prepared to fight and possess the right equipment to conduct chemical and biological agent testing.
• Once the potential location has been found secure in the above areas, it is time to determine if it is suitable for the assembly area. The suitability criteria are no different from the criteria we discussed above. If the area is deemed suitable, then the quartering party begins preparing it for occupation. If it is not, the quartering party must seek other terrain. This may be a little painful, but you must do the right thing.
• Once the assembly area is approved, it must be organized. The overall assembly area has been apportioned in planning. For example, in a battalion assembly area, companies have already been allocated terrain for their assembly areas. It is now up to the quartering party to organize it for their own company and the particular platoons. Many times, this is an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) task for a company. In this case, a platoon will always occupy certain areas within an assembly area – making it a little easier. Key to organizing an area is to emplace stakes and marking material in the ground to designate vehicle locations. If occupation is at night, the trusty chemlights makes the task easier.
• With the assembly area organized, the quartering party should begin making improvements. One of the key improvements is improving the road networks going in, going out, and inside the assembly area. In most cases, work should be pretty minimal. However, there may be occasions where terrain is not the best and some work would alleviate some potential headaches.
• As discussed earlier, the quartering party should conduct a thorough recon of the assembly area. If the recon discovered some obstacles in the area and the location has been approved as the assembly area; then they must be dealt with. The starting point in dealing with obstacles is to get your engineers involved. A smart unit will have engineers as part of the quartering party for those occasions. There are two ways the engineers or other type forces can handle this. First, they can decide to remove the obstacle. This can mean detonation or removal. The other option is to leave it in place and mark its location – mark it well!
To Breach or Not to Breach?
• Depending on how long the unit will occupy the assembly area; a commander may give the quartering party additional tasks to perform. This could include things such as build a rehearsal site; make range cards and sector sketches for the weapon systems coming into the assembly area, emplacing hasty obstacles, etc…
Guides are Crucial from the Release Point to the Assembly Area
From the Release Point to the Assembly Area
This should be a pretty seamless operation. Near the vicinity of the release point, the XO or First Sergeant will be positioned in their vehicles. As their main body vehicles reach the release point, they will escort the vehicles to their particular assembly area. This should be a rolling link-up. Waiting at the release point only slows down the entire process and wastes valuable time (time that certainly be used elsewhere). As they reach the assembly area, they should be met by platoon guides. These guides will take control of their vehicles and place them into the locations they have selected. This action is not rocket science. However, the platoon guides must have done their part to facilitate success. Things obviously get a little more complicated at night.
A Layout for a Traditional Company Assembly Area
Actions in the Assembly Area
The unit has now physically occupied the assembly area. Poor units will take this as a sign to kick back a little bit and gear down slightly. Good units know that there is still much to be done. Let’s review some of those key actions.
• As always, the first thing that must be achieved is to execute your security plan. There can be no surprises for a unit occupying an assembly area. The extent of the security plan clearly depends on the tactical situation. There are many actions that must be considered. These include:
o Emplacing Observation Posts (OPs) in or around the assembly area.
o Conducting patrols outside the assembly area.
o Manning weapon systems and scanning forward.
o Emplacing alarms and sensors
Security is Paramount
• One of the most critical activities in an assembly area is getting the unit right logistically. This includes things such as refueling vehicles, ammunition resupply, distributing vehicles parts, resupply of food and water, etc… If resupply of ammo, food, and water are not readily available, a unit may need to redistribute these items amongst its subordinate units.
• Coordination in the assembly area is critical. Units should coordinate with friendly units to the front, rear, and flanks. You must know where friendlies are located and what their actions are now and in the future.
• No matter how long you think you will be in an assembly area; you must conduct defensive preparation. Who knows, that one hour you thought you would be in the assembly area could stretch to many hours. In terms of your preparation, you should develop priorities of work. These priorities will include actions such as digging fighting positions, developing range cards and sector sketches, emplacing obstacles, developing an engagement area, etc…. Really, within the assembly area you must possess a defensive mindset.
Improve your Positions in an Assembly Area if Time Permits
• Although there is much to do, smart units will be able to implement a rest plan in the assembly area. In many cases, this may be the last chance to get some sleep before taking part in a physically and mentally exhausting operation.
• Tied to getting some rest is getting some chow. This is all the better if it is a hot meal, but the tactical situation obviously, may not warrant this. Again, this may be the last chance to grab a meal.
• The assembly area is perfect spot to conduct operator’s maintenance on vehicles, weapons, and equipment. For the vehicles, most have just completed a tactical road march and need some attention. In regards to weapons and equipment, it is the last chance to prepare them for the upcoming mission
• As discussed above, conducting maintenance is imperative in an assembly area. Besides conducting preventive maintenance, the time spent in the assembly area can enable a unit to repair maintenance down vehicles. This translates to more combat power at the objective. A Commander may need to make some decisions in this area. He may decide to take parts off a maintenance down vehicle in order to get another (or others) up for the mission. In army language, this is called controlled substitute. Many call it by its slang name – cannibalization. We will discuss this in a later article.
• It is crucial that any unit occupying an assembly area execute strict noise and light discipline. No better way to draw unwelcomed enemy attention than to be lax in these areas. Sometimes when you are sitting in an assembly area for an extended time, it tends to provide opportunities to be a bit careless.
• Within an assembly area, a unit wants to limit the amount of signatures emitting from the location. Again, signatures draw unwelcomed attention. What this equates to is limiting the amount of radio traffic in an assembly area. There are several communication options inside the assembly area. These include using liaisons or runners to take messages from the higher headquarters to their subordinates or using hard wire communications between units (if you anticipate being in an assembly area for an extended stay).
Camouflage and Communications
• Anytime vehicles are anticipated to be idle for a period of time, camouflage is necessary. If vehicle camo nets are available they should be erected.
• No matter how long you will be in an assembly area; some form of a rehearsal for the next mission should be conducted. The more time available; the more elaborate the rehearsal. Even if you only have minimal time, you can gather the leaders around a vehicle and conduct a “jeep top” rehearsal. Rehearsals may include small units rehearsing the critical tasks they will be required to execute during the next mission.
• Once vehicles are assembled in the assembly area, you can execute any task organization changes you may require prior to the mission. In most cases, these should have been completed prior to the tactical road march. However, changes in the tactical situation or even maintenance breakdowns during the march could precipitate changes. Again, as we have discussed in prior articles, complete these link-ups as soon as possible.
• There may be rare occurrences when new equipment or weapon systems arrive to a unit while they occupy an assembly area. If this is the case, training on this equipment or weapons must be conducted immediately in the assembly area.
• One of the key actions in any assembly area is to get your weapon systems ready for the next mission. Again, time and the tactical situation dictate the extent of this preparation. Actions should at least include a bore sight and zero of major weapon systems. If possible, you can set-up a quick range to test fire your smaller weapon systems.
• Anytime a vehicle is idle for a period of time, crew members should inspect the vehicle and ensure supplies/equipment/ammunition has not shifted around after movement. If these have shifted they can fall off during your next maneuver and they could be lost. More importantly, they can move and potentially injure crew members. It is also possible that while in an assembly area you may receive additional supplies/equipment/ammunition which will require adjusting load plans.
• In line with inspecting load plans, is for soldiers to conduct their Pre-Combat Checks/Inspections (PCC/PCI). These include ensuring you have the right equipment you will require for the upcoming mission. For instance, if a unit knows they will be conducting a breach of an obstacle; they must have the equipment on hand to conduct that breach. Finding out that you are missing a piece of critical equipment when you need it is unacceptable.
Getting out of The Assembly Area
Everything has been going smoothly. The unit got into the assembly area with no issues and utilized the time well while there to prepare for the upcoming mission. Now it is time to depart the assembly area and cross the Line of Departure (LD). A no-brainer some would think. Oh contraire! This may be the most challenging of all actions associated with the assembly area. Many an attack has been de-synched from the get-go because a unit could not get out of its’ assembly area in an organized manner.
A unit must plan and rehearse getting out of the assembly area. It must be a synchronized movement out of the assembly area. Chaos ensues when everyone moves out of their positions at once. One of the best ways to do this is to select a piece of terrain outside the assembly area where units can move to. Here they can get into the maneuver formation they will utilize maneuvering to their objective.
For an example, let’s use a battalion task force utilizing a diamond formation for the attack. Please refer to the diagram below to add a bit of clarity:
1. Scouts will move out first from the assembly area to provide some security and early warning for the task force.
2. Right on their heels will follow the mechanized infantry company which is point of the diamond. They will set and form the base for the rest of the task force.
3. With the point set, the other mech infantry company will place itself on the left flank of the formation. They must ensure they position themselves far enough on the flank so the follow-on units in the middle of the formation have space.
4. As the left flank unit moves, the right flank company team can begin movement as well. Again, they must place themselves far enough on the right flank to create space for the middle units.
5. With the three companies set, the middle can form. You can use the same process as above. The anti-armor moves first and sets. Following them is the engineer platoon and the air defense platoon. With them set, the mortar platoon and the headquarters element can position themselves.
6. Once the headquarters is set, the task force can begin to maneuver slowly forward. This will then create the space for the last tank company to form up.
7. Once the tank company is tied in, the task force can then begin to reach their maneuver rate of march.
8. With the formation now moving, the trailing combat trains can initiate their movement.
As you can see, this can be a challenging operation in itself. Throw in things such as restrictive terrain and limited visibility and it gets a little tougher. However, good command and control, disciplined and trained units, and flexibility of mind and action can make this a pretty basic operation. Again, you can see that if chaos is allowed to rear its’ ugly head; a unit may be hard-pressed to get back on track to succeed in its upcoming mission.
There are a few other things that must be addressed in the departure of an assembly area. First, before a subordinate unit moves out of the assembly area they must account for equipment, sensitive items, and personnel. The personnel reference may strike some of you as odd. However, we have witnessed several instances where a soldier was somehow left behind in an assembly area. This of course is an indicator of more serious issues within a unit. Second, a unit must “sanitize” the assembly area as they depart. This is not to say it should be left in the same condition as when you entered. Obviously, an area occupied by perhaps a battalion and its’ complement of vehicles will leave a mark. However, what we are saying is that you do not leave behind any items/papers/graphics that can compromise the unit and its operations. As always, Operational Security (OPSEC) is a twenty four hours a day task.
OPSEC (Need We Say More – Oh We Can’t Say More)
Hopefully, this article was an eye-opener to some of the challenges of entering, occupying, and departing an assembly area. Each of these actions takes quality planning and preparation. We cannot overstate the importance of an assembly area. A unit can complete actions within an assembly area which can clearly set the conditions for success in their upcoming mission. Vice versa, a unit that does not take advantage of an assembly area or has problems moving out of an assembly area has made subsequent mission accomplishment very difficult.