The Missing Link: Company Fire Support Coordinator

by Capt Stephen M. Sullivan

As the reinforced company rolls towards its final coordination line, the company commander observes his final preparation fires. He notices that heavy automatic weapons fire is coming from a bunker several hundred meters west of his objective. As he decides to orchestrate his fire support assets, he becomes immersed in instructing his fonvard air controller on how he wants to use the close air support on this “pop up” target on grid 903678 at 0205, coordinating the artillery forward observer to mark the target with illumination on the deck on grid 903678 at 0204:30 and instructing the naval gunfire forward observer that he needs to call for additional prep fires on the objective at 903678 from 0204 to 0209. Additionally, he tells the 81mm mortars forward observer to be prepared to call in support to suppress potential enemy air defenses. After several minutes of supervising the intricacies of initial points, run-in headings, and timing, he gives the bunker target and the objective another look. A knot forms in his stomach as he sees one of his assault amphibious vehicles (AAVs) rolling dangerously dose to the intended bunker target and realizes that fratricide is a very real possibility. The unfolding of battlefield events and the momentum of his maneuver elements have gotten away from the company commander as he was preoccupied with syndironizing his fire support.

Several years after the Marine Corps adopted maneuver warfare as its doctrine, there remains a problem at the company level worthy of our professional attention. Maneuver warfare hinges on our ability to employ combined arms rapidly and effectively. Moreover, our doctrine allows for the lowest element leaders to make the appropriate battle decisions in order to achieve greater tempo. However, our present policy towards fire support coordination at the lowest level is flawed. Present Marine Corps policy in Operational Handbook (OH) 6-2A states:

Assisted by his artillery forward observer, mortar forward observer, forward air controller, and naval gunfire spotter, a company commander can perform the fire support planning and coordination necessary at the company level.

Although necessity can prove this true, it is at best inefficient. The growing demands for integrating fire support with maneuver warfare threaten to present the company commander with a workload that diverts his focus of energies away from driving tempo and could make him a victim of tactical events rather than the initiator. A designated fire support coordinator (FSC) at the company level would correct a vital flaw in our present policy. A company FSC is needed to assist the company commander in his conduct of offensive operadons, defensive operations, and fire support training requirements.

Some may argue that because it is the company commander’s responsibility to integrate fire support assets into his fight, a company FSC is unnecessary. Delegating authority dees not mean that responsibility is abdicated. Moreover, delegating authority does not connote that authority is lost. Marine Corps doctrine in Fleet Marine Force Manual 2-7 (FMFM 2-7) states that the commander is “responsible for all that happens or fails to happen within his command. This is especially true regarding the planning and coordination of fire support.” Marine Corps doctrine also provides commanders at every echelon above company with a FSC who is delegated the necessary authority to assist the commander in fire support planning and coordination. His dudes as described in OH 6-2A are “to integrate fire support effectively into battle plans to optimize combat power.” Individuals opposed to designating a company FSC should understand that this assignment would not change the company commander’s responsibility or authority. The company commander would still have to train his FSC to ensure a high degree of implicit communication and a clear understanding of commander’s intent in order to integrate him as a valuable asset. The Marine Corps’ compliance with maneuver warfare principles combined with continuously growing technology has resulted in increasing demands for the company commander regarding fire support. Maj Brian D. Catlin, of the Marine Corps’ Tactical Exercise Evaluation Control Group in 1992, explained why it has become necessary to provide a company FSC in these terms:

The company FSC was simply not necessary historically because the tempo of operations did not detract from the company commander’s ability to integrate his supporting arms, however, the Marine Corps’ increased use of battlefield mobility combined with the growing variety of fire support assets continues to make his job more demanding than ever.

The first area in which a company FSC would provide the commander with badly needed assistance is offensive operations. Although a company FSC should be collocated with the company commander whenever possible, maneuver warfare doctrine in FMFM 1 states that. “A commander should command from well forward . . . this allows him to see and sense firsthand the ebb and flow of combat.” Additionally, it recognizes the advantages of recon pull through enemy gaps to maintain momentum and initiative. However, the commander traveling well forward causes substantial problems: Accompanied by the fire support group, the commander creates an obvious signature problem. Moving for survivability in a forward area, puts fire support personnel at a distinct disadvantage in seeing the battlefield and performing their functions effectively.

A current example in handling this problem is illustrated in light armored reconnaissance’s use of the company executive officer’s vehicle as the company fire support coordination asset rather than the company commander’s vehicle. Another example is the technique of placing the FSC in the support position of a raid. This puts the FSC in the most advantageous position to control fire support while the company commander remains with the assault element of a raid in order to oversee the main effort.

Maneuver warfare has generated a greater demand for rapid planning in the offense. Battalion commanders continue to give an increasing number of fragmentary orders to their company commanders. The company FSC could attend operation order briefings with his company commander and use the occasion to accomplish essential coordination. The Army’s fire support team concept makes use of this technique. While the battalion commander gives guidance to his company commanders, the battalion FSC briefs the company FSCs on the battalion’s fire support plan.

Defensive operations is the second area where the assignment of a company FSC would provide needed assistance to the company commander. Maneuver warfare advocates that we remain on the offense whenever possible. Marines normally assume a defensive posture in order to rearm, resupply, and prepare for subsequent offensive operations. Company commanders must be prepared to submit their defensive plan to the battalion and receive the next offensive order shortly after assuming the defense. In the short span of time prior to reporting to the battalion, myriad tasks must be accomplished. One possible solution is to have the weapons platoon commander act as a company FSC and develop supporting arms targets, supporting arms final protective fires, and preplanned targets for the company’s local security patrols. Each plan is prepared on its appropriate overlay for approval by the company commander and submission to the battalion FSC. Meanwhile, the company commander is able to focus on supervising priorities of work, walking the lines, compositing fire plan sketches, and issuing security patrol warning orders. Experience has shown that the delegation of fire support planning and targeting to the weapons platoon commander, acting as a company FSC, can be an extremely valuable asset to a company commander in defensive operations.

The final area in which the designation of a company FSC would provide the company commander much needed assistance is fire support training. Maneuver warfare doctrine encourages using better technology whenever possible to increase combat effectiveness. Today’s company commander possesses more assets and potential to employ combined arms in maneuver warfare than ever before. In order to stay abreast of fire support’s maximum potential and our continuously developing procedures, an individual must be fully committed to this vital role.

Assigning a company FSC would give the battalion FSC a better asset for training companies in standing operating procedures and new techniques. His assignment would produce a direct company point of contact focused on fire support concerns. The weapons platoon commander is a logical choice for this job because each separate weapons system section in weapons platoon is assigned a dedicated “section leader” by the table of organization. Providing the company commander with an FSC would improve the unit’s proficiency and ability to remain current in fire support techniques.

Our stunning success in DESERT STORM and the Marine Corps’ use of maneuver warfare and combined arms will continue. Maneuver warfare doctrine calls on us to exploit all advantages possible in order to increase our tempo of operations and maintain the initiative. Some may question how a company commander could delegate a tremendously important duty like fire support coordination. It’s simple. He can’t afford not to. It’s time dial the Marine Corps acknowledges that we could improve our combat efficiency by providing a company FSC.