Javelin Thrust “Shaping the Battle – 09 July” by Dr. Paul T. Mitchell

This is continuing our series by Dr. Paul T. Mitchell on Modern Combat featuring Canadian troops on Exercise with their American counterparts

The War finally kicked off in a dramatic fashion.  While the Brigade’s CO, Col. Coombs was briefing the CFLCC by video tele-conference, the General was interrupted by an urgent telephone call.  The staff automatically knew it had to be highly important to divert the General’s attention away from the conference with all  his  commanders.  Setting the phone down, LGen. Natonski announced that that Camenian forces had crossed the international border and that all units were now authorized to engage the enemy without any further provocation.  As LCol. Molaski announced the news to the HQ’s operations centre, the expectant tension broke and then began to build again as enemy units started popping up as icons on the digital maps that dominated the room.  It would soon become apparent how well the Brigade’s plans would work in the simulated battle.

At the next morning’s Battle Update Brief (BUB), LCol. McKay is looking for answers.  In the course of the previous day, it quickly became apparent that the Brigade might be in trouble: while the expected air assault had failed to materialize, the enemy had apparently decided to make the E-15 highway the object of its main thrust forward.  An entire division was headed towards the Governor General’s Foot Guard’s single battalion.  Worse, information began to filter into the HQ that enemy units were operating on its lightly defended left flank and might even be present in the town of Ridgecrest, a key piece of terrain securing Highway 395 north into the Walker Valley watershed.  The threat of the Brigade being flanked had become a real possibility.  The Brigade’s deep reserve, the tank units of the Ontario Regiment had been pulled out of their location in order to provide a blocking operation on the 395, and the Cameron Highlanders protecting the town of Barstow in the Brigade’s rear moved in to fill the opening left by the Ont-Ars.  LCol. McKay was trying to hammer in the lessons of the previous day’s activity for his battle staff in order to improve their performance while the exercise continued to unfold.

In conducting the battle, the Brigade HQ’s role is not to fight the war at the front, but rather to “shape the battle”.  By anticipating the enemy’s likely actions and plans, the staff can position the Brigade’s resources to limit the enemy’s course of action.  This involves not only placing units in specific areas of key terrain that must be held, but also in anticipating the information needs of those units during the course of the battle.  It is a truism that everyone sees only their part of the battle, and the view from the front can be very, very narrow.  Back at the Brigade, because it is tied into information feeds from its own sensors, those of the Coalition HQ, as well as lateral information flowing from the 1 MEB, the view is far more expansive.  The Brigade HQ must manage these information flows so that only the most important information reaches down to the frontline units, without overwhelming them with extraneous data.  This enables the units to react to things they won’t necessarily be able to see directly.  The Ont-Ars had been ordered to redeploy based on this broader information.

There are also information feeds that flow upward.  The Brigade must use its available information to request support from the Coalition’s long range artillery and aviation assets.  As these are shared resources which will receive requests from many other formations besides the Brigade, the staff needs to think carefully about what resources it will require during the battle, where it will need to apply them, and under what conditions it will have to request them.  For instance, it makes no sense to send a flight of A-10s to go hunting for targets in areas where there are none; and, some targets are better served by the Brigade’s own resources.  Thus, only particular “triggers” that are highly specified events occuring in designated areas, are used to initiate calls for these scarce resources.

In the course of the previous day’s battle, two air strikes had been requested on the Camenian forces operating on Route Ridgecrest along the Brigade’s left flank; one had found an enemy battalion of tanks, but the flight of two A-10s had only taken out only 6 tanks, hardly a dent.  The other two ship A-10 formation found nothing in the area called for by the Brigade staff.  As a result, a large brigade sized unit had managed to insert itself into the vast empty area, patrolled only by the two platoon sized LAV III patrols of 33 Recce Squadron.

LCol. McKay wants to know how this happened and looks to the HQ’s staff assembled around the large operations map known as the “bird table” for an explanation.  Sensor support in this area is light.  The Brigade’s artillery did not have the range to support 33 Recce Sqn; CO Guns notes that the Coalition long range artillery assets should have been requested earlier.  Another officer points out that the authorization for requesting this support should have been delegated downward. In addition, the conditions that would trigger these requests needed to be spelled out in greater detail.  This would allow lower level commanders to request support without having to ask the Brigade staff for permission to engage the higher level Coalition headquarters controlling these assets.

The lesson here is another one in information management.  For the efficient use of scarce artillery and aviation resources, target areas are divided up into three categories: Deep, Close, and Rear.  Deep areas are generally those far out in front of a unit, where the enemy is massing forces in preparation for attack.  Eliminating forces here before they can actually engage the Brigade will simplify the battle for frontline units.  Close areas are those directly in front of the Brigade where the main battles will be fought.  Finally, Rear areas are those allocated to anything that might break through the frontlines.  In general, Deep area targets are those which will be dealt with by very long range forces, such as the 17th Fire Brigade controlled by CFLCC or overhead airstrikes controlled by CFACC.  The Close and Rear area are generally dealt with by the Brigade’s own assets.  However, four full enemy brigades are massing in front of 33 CBG, presenting a mass of targets which will outstrip the Brigade’s resources (and present a juicy target for air strikes). There is also a concern about the Brigade’s far right flank, a sandy flat depression known as the “Devil’s Playground”.  It is blocked by a high density minefield and watched over by a single recce patrol of eight soldiers in two vehicles: a determined assault by enemy forces could use it as a route into the 1 MEB’s area of operations or the Brigade’s right flank.  This too, is an area where the Brigade might have to request long range strike assets.

Along the contested Route Ridgecrest on the Brigade’s left flank, two free fire zones have been set up, named with NHL themes: “Canadiens”, and “Devils”.  A third one, “Bruins”, has been set up on the 395.  The staff wants to create an effect similar to what had been achieved at the end of the First Gulf War, a “Highway of Death”.  This will require better coordination among the staff itself in terms of coordinating the Brigade’s ISTAR, electronic warfare, and artillery assets, to react to a fast moving set of events that are not conforming to the staff’s initial expectations: as it is well known, the enemy always gets a vote.  It will also require better coordination between Brigade and higher level formations like the CFLCC and CFACC to ensure that the maximum amount of firepower can be delivered on the enormous forces engaging the Brigade’s units.  As the Brigade’s Plans Officer, the G5, observes wryly: “Depending on your own air force is a gutsy move; depending on someone else’s is a dubious proposition.”  The CFACC has allocated 38 sorties for today, shared between both the 1 MEB and 33 CBG’s requirements.  Ensuring that these few sorties are applied against the most important targets will also require some forethought.  LCol. McKay pounds the table for emphasis: “If we see engineering assets attempting to clear our barriers, I want them dealt with immediately!”  Any sign of the enemy’s divisional artillery must also be dealt with ruthlessly.

Later in the day, this information problem asserts itself in a striking fashion.  At the “Joint Targeting Board”, a meeting held by the CO Guns with other Brigade staff principals, it became apparent that not everyone has got the message.  She has organized a fire mission through the Marine ANGLICO team for the Bruins free fire zone on Highway 395.  17th Fire Brigade will execute the mission as soon as any Camenian thrust crosses a specific intersection just in front of a mine barrier along the 395.  The G3 is alarmed, however, as a company of Ont-Ars are located in that region, which means that they will be also targeted by that mission.  The G3 argues that the location is perfectly situated for a defensive fire position manned by the tanks, protected by a series of low hills.  The CO Guns says that the tanks will be destroyed along with enemy forces by the planned heavy artillery barrage.  The ANGLICO officer points out that the target set is now in the 17th’s fire plan and can’t be moved in front of the mine barrier at this late date.  Irritated, CO Guns points out that the information has been available on the network for over 24 hours and she has tried several times to raise the issue with the G3 throughout the day.  The G2 tries to resolve the situation by noting that the tanks can stay for the time being, using their position for long range fire on any approaching enemy.  Once the enemy breaches the intersection, the Ont-Ars will have 8 minutes to evacuate the area before the artillery begins arriving in the kill zone.  However, it will take them well over a half an hour to move outside the danger zone.

CO Guns calls over the Brigade’s Chief of Staff to resolve the dilemma, but he is dealing with an enemy breach of the minefield in the Devil’s Playground area.  This is the trigger that has been set for mobilizing the Brigade’s final reserves for the main battle on its front lines.  The Commander is out of the operations room at dinner and the COS does not have time to deal with her at the moment.  The COS asks her rhetorically “Is there anything more important than committing the Commander’s reserve?”  He reassures her: “You can do this,” and leaves to sort out his own pressing problem.  The choices seem to be poor:  either abandon the fire plan leaving 20 tanks to face an on-coming attack of four battalions worth – over 200 tanks; or, leave the fire plan in place, which would result in the fratricide of the unit.

Later in the evening, the CO Guns, the G3 and LCol. McKay consult on the problem.  The resolution is to send the Ont-Ars own HQ forward, together with Engineering support.  This will give the unit its own planning capacity to set up a fire plan using the Brigade’s own resources.  Throughout, the Ont-Ars have remained unaware of this entire debate over their potential fate.  This too is part of shaping the battle.

The recurring theme, as the exercise unfolds, is the latent human “operating system” that enables the Brigade’s activities.  Just as a computer operating system tells its CPU brain how and when to use specific resources and systems to process the information flowing through its electronic pathways, the Brigade’s staff also must learn to manage the vast amount of information flowing into the HQ in order to direct the resources it has under its control to best effect.  The battle can still be won, but only if the right resources can be delivered against the right targets at the moment they are needed.  Because this requires an assessment of an ever changing, highly dynamic situation spread across a huge geographic area, solving this issue will require both critical judgment skills as well as efficient communication procedures between the Brigade’s staff and those of the Coalition.  This is not a technical problem, it is a human one.

Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College and an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. This is part 4 of 5 in the series.

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