Tactics 101: 005. The Tactical Task
“I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign; but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to execute it in your own way.” General US Grant to General WT Sherman, April 1862.
ANSWERING THE WHAT—THE TACTICAL TASK
In order to develop a course of action we have to determine what the enemy is most likely to do. Next we have to determine the most dangerous, feasible, thing he can do. We study his disposition on the battlefield or template what we think his disposition will be. We determine where, when, and what, we must do in opposition to these projected enemy plans in order to achieve success. This is our decisive point.
We allocate combat power at the decisive point to achieve success and around it to shape the battlefield. We look at where we have placed forces as we envision our hypothetical battle and determine why we have placed units where they are and what effects they should create. This is the purpose. If we can’t come up with a reason for a unit’s placement or we can’t explain how the unit contributes to our success, then we should consider utilizing the unit elsewhere.
At this point in course of action development we have determined where we want to be and why we want to be there. Next, we have to determine what we want our units to do. This is task determination and assignment. It seems counter intuitive to do the why, then the what, but it’s logical. The why is the purpose and is not negotiable. The why tells us what effect the unit must generate. How can you tell someone what to do if you don’t tell them why they must do it, particularly if the action is life threatening?
The what, or task, may be refined given the situation on the battlefield as long as the desired effect is created. Who cares how you got to the top of the hill as long as you got there? Flexibility is gained through adjustable tasks and immovable purposes. The former provides subordinate commanders leeway to adjust to the battlefield while the latter keep the overall goals in focus. The task selected is the best one possible given the commander’s goals and the world as it seems to be, but it can change when the executing commander bumps up against reality!
For those seeking a definition of what a task is, here is a simple one. “A task is the specific activity to be performed by a unit assigned a tactical mission or given command of a major operation or campaign. Tasks represent the commanders estimation of the minimum effects required to accomplish the purpose.”
It is a common mistake to place units on the map and begin to blurt out tasks; A Company will destroy this enemy position while B Company suppresses that enemy position and C Company takes that hill…. This is not only sloppy; it’s potentially dangerous and is not well reasoned.
Imagine what may happen if you simply tell a subordinate commander to seize hill 721 without determining why it must be seized. He has no room to react to a fluid and changing situation. He must “take the hill”. If the commander knows the desired effect or purpose is to prevent the enemy from interrupting one of our units from bypassing the hill he now has options. If the enemy position is too strong he might achieve the desired effect simply by blocking all the ingress and egress routes to the hill. He might be able to place sufficient fires on the hill to immobilize the enemy. He might be able to occupy another hill nearby that forces the enemy to move away. All of these alternate actions are acceptable solutions to accomplish the assigned purpose, yet none of these options were the assigned task.
On the other hand, if the commander feels he has no option but to “take the hill”, he may waste men and material flailing himself against an impenetrable position. Thus, the task is chosen after the purpose is determined in order to provide maximum disciplined flexibility to the commander. This ensures that your plan is well thought out and logical.
So how do we come up with the right task? We take the purpose and assess what task seems best to accomplish that purpose. We search for the task that applies the minimum combat power and creates the minimum required effects required to achieve the purpose. Using our professional judgment we select a task. The novice planners approach is simply to assign everyone tasks to destroy this unit or that unit or to give all units the same task. This is bad tactics.
We should assign the task that will, in our concept, win the battle for our unit at the decisive point. The tasks we assign to the rest of our subunits should reinforce or contribute to the success of the unit at the decisive point. Everyone must know who is at the decisive point, his task and purpose, and how they contribute to his success.
Now that we have gone in detail (perhaps too much detail), let’s define some of the commonly used tasks you may assign to your units on the battlefield. We will categorize these in the areas of specific results in terms of enemy forces, friendly forces, and terrain.
ENEMY FORCE RELATED TASKS
These are tasks that when achieved against the enemy will enable you to accomplish your purpose. Below you will find the most common tasks utilized and a definition.
BLOCK – deny the enemy access to a given area or to an enemy advance in a given direction or avenue of approach. It may be for a specified time. Units assigned this mission may have to retain terrain and accept decisive engagement.
CANALIZE – restrict enemy maneuver to a narrow zone by the use of obstacles, fires, or unit maneuvering or positioning.
CONTAIN – stop, hold, or surround enemy forces or to cause them to center their activity on a given front and prevent them from withdrawing any part of their forces for use elsewhere.
DEFEAT – upset or nullify the enemy force commander’s plan and subdue his will to fight so that he is unwilling or unable to further pursue his adopted course of action and yields to the will of his opponent. Many times you can accomplish this psychologically and not physically.
DESTROY – render an enemy force combat ineffective unless it is reconstituted. Obviously, this is the most resource intensive task for a force to achieve.
DISRUPT — break apart an enemy’s formation and tempo, interrupt the enemy’s timetable, or cause premature commitment of enemy forces, or the piecemeal of his attack.
FIX — prevent the enemy from moving any part of his forces either from a specific location or for a specific period of time by holding or surrounding them to prevent their withdrawal for use elsewhere.
INTEDICT — prevent, hinder, or delay the use of an area or route by enemy forces.
ISOLATE — seal off (both physically and psychologically) an enemy from his sources of support to deny an enemy freedom of movement, and to prevent an enemy unit from having contact with other enemy forces. An enemy must not be allowed sanctuary within his present position.
NEUTRALIZE — render enemy personnel or material incapable of interfering with a particular operation
TURN – force an enemy element from one avenue of approach or movement corridor to another.
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