Tactics 101: 003. The Decisive Point
“A point whose attack or capture would imperil or seriously weaken the enemy." JOMINI
In our last article we discussed the importance of conducting mission analysis. As a review, a good mission analysis enables you to understand yourself, the enemy, and the terrain. Armed with this understanding, you can begin devising your course of action. The first step in letting those creative juices flow is determining your decisive point.
All Course of Action Development begins by determining the decisive point! This is the initial planning focus! The decisive point provides you with a focus for the selection of objectives, the allocation of combat power, and the assignment of mission tasks and purposes. It eliminates the urge to jump to conclusions and employ knee-jerk tactics. It forces you the commander to conduct a critical analysis of what you want to achieve and how you might best achieve it. This is critical since few commanders possess the level of genius where intuition alone can illuminate the correct path to follow.
The U.S Army defines a decisive point as a geographic place, specific key event, or enabling system that allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an enemy and greatly influence the outcome of a battle. To put it another way, it is what you believe is the key to accomplishing your stated mission as determined by your mission analysis.
The fireside analogy is a good way to describe the decisive point. When the battle is over and you are all standing around the fire telling war stories, someone says, “I knew we had ‘em when…”. That "when" was the decisive point.
A decisive point could be tied to an enemy unit or weapon system, a piece of terrain, or a timed event. Or even a combination of all three. To try to simplify things a bit, we will describe decisive points as enemy-oriented, terrain-oriented, or time-oriented. Before letting you practice your craft, let’s discuss the above categories.
An enemy-related decisive point is an identified enemy unit, emplacement, a key weapon system, or a command and control node. If the designated enemy component is rendered ineffective you would be greatly assisted in accomplishing your overall mission. Neutralizing the guns at Point du Hoc during the D-Day invasion is a classic example. For an illustration of an enemy decisive point consider: You are the Commander of a Mechanized Infantry Battalion and your overall mission is to seize an objective 25 kilometers away. Within that objective are facilities that could be used for a potential logistics base. Your higher headquarters (Brigade) has told you if you seize that objective (and the facilities) that will assist the Brigade in conducting future offensive operations. When you conduct your mission analysis you believe that the enemy will position a mechanized company team (including one tank platoon) near the objective for security (UNDERSTANDING THE ENEMY). Based on this analysis, you determine that the decisive point is that tank platoon. If you render it ineffective, your ability to seize the objective is greatly enhanced. Rendering that tank platoon ineffective is your key to accomplishing your mission. Now that you have determined your decisive point, you now have the element needed to focus your planning.
A terrain-related decisive point is a location on the ground which provides you a distinct advantage or puts your enemy at a distinct disadvantage. Seizing the heights around Boston in 1776 or retaining the Little Round Top at Gettysburg are good examples. Let’s go back to the above scenario. After conducting your mission analysis, you determine that there is a key piece of higher ground that allows you to overlook the entire objective and gives you excellent fields of fire into and around the objective (UNDERSTANDING THE TERRAIN). Based on this analysis, you determine that the decisive point is occupying that piece of high ground. If you can occupy that high ground that will allow you to subsequently seize that objective. That piece of high ground is your key to accomplishing your mission. Now that you have determined your decisive point, you know have the element needed to focus your planning.
A time (or event) related decisive point is when you determine that achieving a time critical event or possibly denying the enemy a timed critical event is the key to accomplishing your mission. Again, we will go back to the scenario. After conducting your mission analysis, you determine that the enemy will reinforce its forces with a tank battalion around the objective in 48 hours (UNDERSTANDING THE ENEMY). Based on this analysis, you determine that the decisive point is occupying the aforementioned high ground within the next 12 hours. This will then allow you sufficient time to seize your final objective and occupy defensive positions before the enemy heavy tank battalion arrives. You believe if you can’t occupy the high ground in 12 hours, you will lose the initiative and wind up fighting forces beyond your capabilities. The designation of a decisive point enables you to focus your planning.
As you can see, determining a decisive point is truly subjective. This is the art of command! Based on your experience and a sound mission analysis, you determine what is key. Something has to be key! Remember the old saying, “If you defend everywhere, you defend nowhere.” In the above little scenario, all three decisive points could have been successful in the end. It all depends on how you plan to utilize your assets to achieve your decisive point and then of course execution.
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