Planning the Battalion Attack: A new paradigm for an old process

by LtCol Paul A. Hand

The philosophy of warfare that is defined in FMFM 1 implies the need for new command and staff procedures that enhance the operational tempo. This article outlines the planning and decisionmaking process now being taught at the Marine Corps University-a process more in line with the new style of warfare.

The Battle of Loos, which occurred September-October 1915, was a 3 1/2 hour frontal attack that resulted in the loss of 385 officers and 7,861 men. As the British withdrew from the battlefield, the Germans stopped firing out of compassion. Siegfried Sassoon would later write the following lines that not only captured the spirit of that debacle, but are a message for all who would lead men into battle.

‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said,

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

He’s a cherry old card, grunted Harry to Jack,

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack . . .

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

FMFM 1 trumpeted a new era in the art of war for the Marine Corps. It is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to disrupt the enemy’s cohesion through the use of maneuver-both physical and mental. It seeks to identify and strike the enemy’s critical vulnerability. With our new style of warfare, however, we continue to use our old paradigms for planning an attack. To fully realize the advantages of maneuver warfare we must reevaluate our planning process and develop a system more in step with FMFM 1. This article is an attempt to describe the process that we must go through to apply this new style of warfare.

Currently, the Army and the Marine Corps use the acronym METT-T to describe the estimate of the situation. As a review, the letters stand for:

* Mission

* Enemy

* Terrain and weather

* Troops and fire support available

* Time available

While you have, no doubt, studied this as far back as The Basic School, looking at it through a new FMFM 1 filter will help you understand how to apply it. A common misconception is that METTT is a sequential process. In fact, many of the steps in METT-T will occur concurrently. We will start with the last T, time available, instead of the first M.

Time Available

Before you can begin the planning process you must first determine how much time is available. To a large extent, this will determine what method of decisionmaking you will use. Starting from most time required to least time required, the various methods would be:

* Deliberate planning process (using the 15 command and staff planning steps).

* Rapid planning process (as currently practiced by our Marine expeditionary units (MEUs).

* Team recognitional decisionmaking (wherein the staff works together to quickly identify and wargame a course of action).

* Commander only decisionmaking (the commander makes the decision using his own recognitional ability).

The planning process selected will be dependent on numerous factors:

* How much time do you have.

* How much time does the enemy have to react.

* The enemy dispositions.

* How much time do your subordinates need for the operation.

Moreover, we must remember that speed is a weapon in its own right. Speed provides its own security. Therefore, when selecting a method you must carefully evaluate the need for speed. Will an immediate or near-term attack provide a distinct advantage over expending the time to plan a detailed attack? Finally, we must allocate adequate time for our subordinates to prepare for the operation.


Upon receipt of the mission you begin mission analysis. First, you must determine the specified tasks. Specified tasks are those tasks stated in the higher headquarter’s order. Examples are:

* Clear Regimental Objective B.

* Be prepared to conduct passage of lines with the regimental reserve.

* Coordinate with 2d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion for forward passage of lines.

Next, we ascertain implied tasks. Implied tasks are not specifically stated in the order, but must be accomplished in order to satisfy the overall mission or to satisfy any of the specified tasks. Implied tasks come from:

* Analysis of the higher headquarter’s order.

* Commander’s intent (two levels up).

* Enemy situation.

* Friendly situation.

* Requirement to maintain the security and integrity of the force.

Examples of implied tasks are:

* Clear obstacles along Highway 60.

* Seize high ground at 456347.

* Establish blocking position vicinity of 467389.

* Coordinate with 3d Battalion, 6th Marines on the left flank (where it has not been specified).

Next, we consider constraints (things we must do) such as “Attack no later than 0645″ as well as restraints (things we can’t do) such as “Do not destroy bridges.”

We identify mission essential tasks. Mission essential tasks are those (specified or implied) that the commander considers critical for mission accomplishment. Some examples of mission essential tasks are:

* Seize Obj B (from our specified tasks).

* Clear obstacles along Highway 60 (from our implied tasks).

Finally, the overriding concern of the commander is the accomplishment of the intent of the higher commander. Where the specified tasks become inconsistent with the commander’s intent, the bold commander must deviate from his specified tasks and modify them to bring them in line with this intent.

The mission analysis and the next step, analysis of the enemy, are conducted concurrently whenever possible. Always look for ways to economize on your time.


The ultimate objective of tactics is the destruction of the enemy and his will to fight. Any plan that does not focus on the enemy is doomed to fail from the start. Moreover, if the enemy’s disposition changes, so does our plan.

A first step is to gather as much information as time allows by developing and implementing the reconnaissance, surveillance and counterreconnaissance (RS&C) plan. At the same time we begin the offensive intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) process. The RS&C plan and the development of the modified combined obstacle overlay (MCOO) are designed to yield the following information to the commander and his staff (FM 71-2, page 3-19):

* Enemy positions and orientations

* Location of existing and reinforcing obstacles.

* Enemy intent based on his dispositions.

* Avenues of approach to exploit known enemy weakness.

* Likely courses of action for employment of enemy reserves, counterattacking forces, and combat support assets.

The early identification of enemy vulnerabilities is predicated on an aggressive reconnaissance effort. Vulnerabilities will rarely be obvious and may, in fact, be well concealed.

During the IPB process, the S-2 develops an enemy situation template. Ideally, the MCOO and the enemy situational template are developed concurrently. The S-2 plots known enemy positions on his map. The S-2 then plots suspected enemy positions on his map by “templating” those positions based on his knowledge of the enemy’s tactics, the current terrain and weather conditions, and his best guess. Once both known and suspected enemy positions are ternplated, he draws range fans for all major enemy weapons systems. These include:

* Antitank guided missiles

* Mortars

* Tanks

* Artillery

* Rocket systems

The S-2 uses his MCOO when drawing range fans so that he can get a more accurate picture of terrain masking. When possible, the range fans are drawn so as to reflect its effects. Finally, the S-2 has to begin filling in the information gaps by helping to develop information requirements.

Once the commander has evaluated the current intelligence picture, he must decide what other critical pieces of information he must have. These are transformed into essential elements of information (EEIs) on the enemy situation and disposition, and terrain. For example, if no assailable flank is readily apparent to the commander, he may decide to commit reconnaissance assets to locate a gap or soft spot. The area to which a reconnaissance or surveillance asset is committed to gather information is called a named area of interest (NAI). Within the NAI, we wish to confirm or deny:

* The existence of enemy forces.

* Absence of enemy forces.

* Enemy dispositions.

* Location of specific enemy \veapons systems (air defense assets, artillery, etc.).

* Terrain favorable to our plans.

The S-2 places the NAIs on his map and begins to develop the intelligence collection plan. He uses the intelligence collection worksheet (see Annex E, FMFM 3-21, MAGTF Intelligence Operations) to assist him in this planning effort. It should be noted that while assets at the battalion level are limited, other assets are available at the regimental or MEB level.

As the commander and his staff continue the planning process, a list of enemy vulnerabilities should begin to emerge. These vulnerabilities might include:

* Poor or faulty dispositions.

* Exposed flanks.

* Insufficient defense in depth (inviting an envelopment or turning movement).

* Poor morale.

* Poor logistics system (easily cut off, for example).

* Lack of critical supplies or ammunition.

* Too few forces on a wide front (inviting a penetration).

* Poor training.

* Poor command and control systems or procedures.

* Poor commander.

Where no apparent vulnerability exists, the commander must aggressively and boldly intensify his reconnaissance effort to find a vulnerability. The commander may, in this situation, have to create a vulnerability through skillful application of supporting arms and maneuver. In the case of penetration, the commander, by massing combat power along a narrow front, attempts to create a vulnerability that can be exploited. Once the commander and his staff have compiled a list of vulnerabilities, the commander must select the critical vulnerability.

The commander analyzes those identified vulnerabilities and determines which of them, “if eliminated, will do the most decisive damage to his ability to resist us” (FMFM 1). Moreover, FMFM 1 enjoins us to “compare the degree of criticality with the degree of vulnerability and to balance both against our own capabilities.” This vulnerability then may become the critical vulnerability. The plan of attack is designed to attack the critical vulnerability. Everything else becomes secondary and designed only to support this attack.

The evaluation of the enemy situation and his vulnerabilities will continue throughout the attack. We must recognize that the enemy’s situation is not static.

Enemy defensive positions, terrain critical to our scheme of maneuver, and critical avenues of approach into the enemy’s position must be kept under observation during the planning phase in order to ensure that the enemy does not change his defensive disposition. If the enemy situation changes significantly, then the plan may have to be modified.

Terrain and Weather

In current parlance it is popular to look at the acronym OAKOC. As a review, the letters stand for:

* Obstacles

* Avenues of approach

* Key terrain

* Observation and fields of fire

* Cover and concealment

Remember that METT-T is not necessarily a sequential process but, in most instances, will be an interactive process. Terrain and weather are considered when the MCOO is evaluated. Additionally, key terrain is designated on the MCOO. The S-2, when he prepares the enemy situation template, has also considered the effects of terrain and weather on enemy weapons systems. However, it will be useful for the commander and his staff to review again those aspects of terrain that will affect the enemy’s scheme of maneuver as well as his own.

Weather must also be considered regarding its possible impact on weapons systems, aircraft, visibility, and survivability. Bad weather is not always good or bad from a tactical viewpoint. Rommel needed and waited for a rainy night to conduct his raid against Pine Tree Knob. Gen Slim pushed his men and equipment to their limits in order to capture Rangoon before it rained. What Americans traditionally refer to as bad weather can be a great ally.

Troops and Fire Support Available

Concerning the final T, the commander must carefully consider all those forces available to him. This includes organic assets, attachments, and assets available in direct support of the battalion. Additionally, the commander considers other assets that could be requested if a need arose. Then the commander considers all the supporting arms agencies that are available to him. These include (but are not limited to):

* Naval gunfire

* Mortars

* Artillery

* Fixed wing close air support (FWCAS)

* Rotary wing close air support (RWCAS)


* Electronic warfare support

Once the commander has analyzed those troops and fire support available to him, he and his staff conduct a relative combat power analysis. This process involves a comparison of major weapons systems, troops, and fire support assets between his forces and the enemy’s. This analysis may consist of a matrix that lists our assets against the enemy’s comparable assets. For example:

If either the enemy or our own forces are at less then 100 percent, then this factor should also be figured in to our relative combat power analysis.

In addition to the tangible assets, the commander also must consider the intangible considerations. These include:

* Morale of the enemy

* His moral certitude (fighting for homeland or cause?)

* His state of training

* The ability of his commanders

While these things are difficult to quantify, they can play a significant role in development of the plan of attack.

Once the commander and his staff have completed the initial estimate of the situation (the estimate of the situation is a continuous process), then they are ready to begin developing courses of action that will ultimately become a concept of operations. Since the critical vulnerability has been identified by the commander, he and the staff look for ways that they can attack that critical vulnerability. This, in turn, will drive the selection of a form of maneuver. For example, if the commander identified an open flank as the enemy’s critical vulnerability it is likely that the flanking attack will be the desired form of maneuver. If the commander identified the enemy’s critical vulnerability as weak, extended lines then a penetration may be the desired form of maneuver. If no particular form of maneuver is indicated by the critical vulnerability, then several forms of maneuver can be wargamed for suitability.

In any event, the commander articulates his point of view in his commander’s intent. He may have to give an initial commander’s intent that will be fleshed out later. The reason for this is that the commander and his staff cannot begin wargaming courses of action (COAs) unless they have a critical vulnerability to attack. All courses of action must attack the critical vulnerability.

Once a form of maneuver is selected, then we must identify task groupings that could execute portions of that plan. An example of a COA might be:

3/6 will conduct a flanking attack against Regimental Objective A. The main effort, a mechanized company, will attack along avenue of approach #1 into the flank of the enemy position and seize Regimental Objective A in order to open Route 1 for follow-on forces. Supporting Effort #1: One motorized company will attack along avenue of approach #2 to seize Battalion Objective 1 in order to support by fire the attack on Regimental Objective A. One mechanized company will occupy an assembly area at 456345 as the reserve.

Another example, this time using a penetration, might look like this:

2/5 will conduct a penetration, seizing Battalion Objectives 1, 2, and 3. Supporting Effort #1: Team Mech will attack along avenue of approach #1 and seize Battalion Objective 2 in order to create a gap that Team Tank can pass through. Supporting Effort #2: One mechanized company will attack along avenue of approach #2 to seize Battalion Objective 1 in order to support Team Mech’s attack on Battalion Objective 2. The main effort, Team Tank, will pass through the gap created by Team Mech, attack along avenue of approach #1 to seize Battalion Objective 3 in order to prevent enemy reinforcements from attacking in the battalion‘s zone of action.

An example for a frontal attack might read something like this:

1/3 will conduct a frontal attack to seize Battalion Objectives 1 and 2. Main Effort: one foot-mobile infantry company will attack in zone to seize the left half of Battalion Objective 1 in order to prevent enemy reinforcements from attacking along Route 4. Supporting Effort #1: a footmobile company will attack in zone to seize the right half of Battalion Objective 1 in order to control the critical road junction at 234567. Reserve: one motorized company will occupy assembly area vicinity of 234545.

It is, once again, important to note that each COA must attack the critical vulnerability that the commander identified during the estimate. In general, there are five criteria that should be met when developing COAs:

* Suitable: Does it attack the critical vulnerability and lead towards mission accomplishment?

* Feasible: Do we have the required resources?

* Acceptable: Is it worth the cost in terms of possible losses?

* Variety: COAs should give the commander several viable options, with different levels of risk, that he can choose from.

* Completeness: All units tasked with performing actions that lead towards mission accomplishment.

Once a COA is developed, it should be graphically displayed on a suitable map. Worksheets are useful for some aspects of developing COAs, but they do not replace seeing the COA graphically displayed on a map.

One technique to use when writing COAs is to include the purpose of each action within the COA itself. This ensures that the commander and his staff have a clear idea of the purpose of each element of the operation and, consequently, can more effectively evaluate the suitability of that COA. This is particularly true during the wargaming process.

Once the COAs have been developed, the commander and his staff wargame each one. Wargaming will help:

* Identify areas of risk in each COA.

* Identify gaps in supporting arms coverage.

* Help develop the fire support plan.

* Show the time-space relationship for all maneuver units.

* Determine suitability.

* Indicate modifications to the basic COA that will make it workable.

Wargaming may be a formal process conducted by the staff or it may be a mental process performed by the battalion commander. The difference will depend primarily on the time available. The three methods of wargaming are the box, the avenue of approach, and the belt. In the box technique, the staff focuses only on critical events, such as breach of an obstacle. The box technique is used when time is limited. In the avenue of approach method, the staff wargames all the critical events that occur from the line of departure to and through the objective along an avenue of approach. Similarly, in the belt method the staff wargames all those critical events that occur within a certain belt (such as a phase line). The last two methods are used when more time is available.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to present all the wargaming schemes currently used, in general we follow the format of friendly action-enemy action-friendly counteraction. The S-2 plays the enemy. The S-3 and the rest of the staff describe actions as they would occur using the above three categories. The fire support coordinator and the S-4 must be key players in this process as well. Once wargaming is complete, the battalion commander makes his decision to accept, modify, or choose a completely new course of action that developed out of the wargaming process.

Completing the Concept of Operations

Once the COA has been accepted, the S-3 rewrites it to correspond to the commander’s wishes. When writing the concept of operations, the same general format is used for the COA. That format includes:

* Overview: At H-hour 1/6 conducts a frontal attack to seize Regimental Objective A and Battalion Objective 1 with two reinforced companies forward and one reinforced company in reserve.

* Main Effort: One company will attack along Axis Blue to seize Regimental Objective A.

* Supporting Effort #1: One company will attack in zone to seize Battalion Objective 1.

* Reserve: One company follows in trace of the main effort and will be prepared to exploit success.

* Priority of fires: Priority of artillery and air to the main effort. Priority of mortars to the supporting effort.

Note that we no longer say “avenue of approach number 1” but, instead, we have either designated an axis of advance, a zone of action, or a direction of attack.

Once the concept of operations is completed, we must draft appropriate task statements for each subordinate element. These task statements and their attendant purpose will flow from the concept of operations, the previous COA statement, and the wargaming and/or wargaming matrix. The important points that must be included in a task statement are:

* The main task that the unit must perform (seize Objective A, clear Route 610, etc.).

* The purpose of the main task (in order to clear Route 610 for follow-on movement of the regimental reserve, in order to cut off any forces attempting to reinforce, etc.)

* Actions to take upon consolidation (establish blocking positions in the vicinity of 345343).

* All be-prepared missions.

While numerous techniques exist for the presentation of task statements, the most prevalent notation list tasks sequentially. An example might look like this:

Company B:

1. Attack and seize Battalion Objective A in order to create a gap in the enemy lines that can be exploited by the battalion reserve.

2. After passage of the battalion reserve, attack to the west to seize Battalion Objective B in order to widen the gap and to hold open the shoulder of the penetration.

3. Consolidate Battalion Objective B, orient to the northwest in order to protect the battalion‘s western flank.

4. Be prepared to conduct passage of lines with the regimental reserve.

5. You are Supporting Effort Number 1 and have priority of air and artillery initially.

Once again, note that a task is incomplete without a purpose statement.

At this point in the planning, the commander should begin to develop the deception plan. That plan can range anywhere from camouflaging vehicles to a full scale feint or demonstration. The important thing to point out, at this juncture, is that our brilliantly conceived plan will come to naught if the enemy learns of our intentions and counters them. One technique is to use one of the discarded COAs and make that a deception plan. The four methods of planning a deception are:

Normal: The deception is planned by the commander and his staff as they would any activity.

Ad hoc. A special staff is established to plan and/or implement the deception. Personnel for this staff may be drawn from within the unit, from outside, or a combination of both.

Close hold: The commander uses selected subordinates only (could be the S-3, S-2 or S-3A). This provides for better operational security, but some of the other subordinates may inadvertently undermine the operation.

Commander only. The commander plans the entire operation. This has good operational security, but the only person who even knows the deception plan is the commander. Subordinates may inadvertently compromise the plan. Regardless of the method used, this is a vital part of planning our attack.

Next, the fire support plan is the commander’s plan for incorporating all his organic and inorganic fires in support of his scheme of maneuver. It is the utilization of combined arms. Said in another way, it is our plan for combining our fire support and maneuver assets so that the synergistic effects of all our assets are greater than the sum of their individual parts. While it is, once again, beyond the scope of this article to go into detailed fire support planning, the philosophical underpinnings of developing a fire support plan are contained in FMFM 1:

We use assault support to quickly concentrate superior ground forces for a breakthrough. We use artillery and close air support to support the infantry penetration, and we use deep air support to interdict enemy reinforcements. Targets which cannot be effectively suppressed by artillery are engaged by close air support. In order to defend against the infantry attack, the enemy must reinforce quickly with his reserve. But in order to avoid our deep air support, he must stay off the roads, which means he can only move slowly, he cannot reinforce in time to prevent our breakthrough. We have put him in a dilemma.

On selection of a COA and the subsequent development of the concept of operations, the commander and his staff must decide how to allocate their assets. In is not enough to say that you are going to “weight your main effort” or that you are going to “conduct economy of force operations” elsewhere. You must decide how best to weight the main effort with overwhelming combat power so that the mission is accomplished. Supporting efforts must be given adequate assets in order to accomplish their mission. These requirements should be developed throughout the planning process. Specifically:

* During COA development, major attachments such as tank platoons and assault amphibious vehicle platoons will probably surface.

* During wargaming, enemy capabilities can be countered by judicious allocation of combat power.

* Requests from subordinate commanders who will execute the tasks.

After completion of tasks, we will draft coordinating instructions. Any instructions that are pertinent to more than one unit can be included in coordinating instructions. However, coordinating instructions should not be a catch-all for everything you can think of. Rather, those things not covered in the unit’s standing operating procedures and that are important “tactical” instructions should be included.

Logistics planning is not the final step, but a continuous process that begins on receipt of mission. JCS Pub 1-01 defines logistics as “the science of planning and carrying out the movement and maintenance of forces.” The S-4 must begin planning the things he knows about, such as MREs and water, and he begins making estimates of bow much ammunition and other commodities he is going to need. While the S-3 draws the sweeping arrows on his map, the S-4 must confine himself to the practicalities of how he is going to support this operation and, in the process, be prepared to support the subsequent operations. During wargaming, the S-4 highlights those aspects of the plan that can or cannot be supported. If one aspect of the plan cannot be supported then the S-4 must say so or, at the least, offer an alternative fix to that COA.

In conclusion, planning an attack is not a checklist but a process. Part of the process includes products such as the MCOO or the enemy situational template. Part of the process centers around making judgments about the enemy and the friendly situation. In the end, a well-trained staff quickly pushes information to the commander who quickly makes initial decisions that culminate in the selection of a course of action and, ultimately, in a plan of attack. In closing, Napoleon wrote:

If I always appear prepared, it is because before entering on an undertaking, I have meditated for long hours and have foreseen what may occur. It is not genius that reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others; it is thought and meditation.