So, a combined arms battalion is heading into the box at the National Training Center. A mixture of armor (tank) companies and mechanized (Bradley) infantry companies. One mission the battalion is sure to face is to conduct a defense.
Typically, it takes anywhere from 12 to 48 hours to dig into a full defense. Choosing the positions for each vehicle, digging positions for each one, laying in obstacles, minefields and wire, digging in secondary and supplementary positions, caching extra ammunition and other supplies, and rehearsing the conduct of the defense, formulating and registering supporting fires. There’s a lot of work to be done in conducting a defense.
Of course, one problem is, keeping the enemy from interfering with your defense before you are set. The enemy has his own challenges getting ready to attack you. It takes time to mount an attack. But while you are setting in your defense, he will use every reconnaissance measure he has to try to find out every detail of your defense. And so begins the counter-reconnaissance battle.
Back in the Cold War days, the Warsaw Pact forces used a variety of mounted an dismounted reconnaissance forces. Setting the battalion scout platoon of six Bradleys a few thousand meters forward, backed up by a platoon of tanks would usually be enough to counter most of the mounted recon force. But denying the enemy dismounted recon elements eyes on the defense meant deploying the dismount infantry of the mechanized companies well forward. A rough rule of thumb was that dismounted infantry in the counter recon battle should be two terrain features forward. That is, two hilltops or ridgelines ahead of the defense. But they should also be covered by the battalion’s organic mortar fire. And at NTC, with its relatively wide open spaces, meeting both criteria was seldom done. Of the two, the two terrain feature rule was more important.
Our company team was dug in deep back in a valley, while your humble host was kicked forward to interdict recon teams. At the mouth of the valley was a small hill, but on both sides were tall ridgelines. For reasons I never understood, we were emplaced on the small hilltop, instead of splitting our teams and occupying the ridgelines. The ridges had better observation of the defense, and were the obvious objective of any recon team.
Worse, we’d been tasked to occupy the hilltop for 24 hours, but we ended up being there for 72 hours. Pushing supplies out to us wasn’t a huge logistical burden, but was almost certain to compromise our location. So we ended up having to send half our people back a couple kilometers on foot to pick up supplies for the team, and hump them back. Meals aren’t too bad to carry, but water is eight pounds a gallon, and a squad of 9 men at a minimum of a gallon a day per man adds up to some real weight pretty quickly.
The Opposing Force at NTC is usually considered a rather nuanced force, in terms of the recon/counter-recon battle. But on our third night on the remote hilltop, we got a bit of a surprise. Instead of a deft touch and stealth, the OpFor consisted of a National Guard Light Infantry company making a direct frontal assault on our position. One squad versus an entire company isn’t a fair fight. Sooner or later, we’d have been wiped out or at best, pushed off the hilltop. But for almost two hours, we held them off. Sadly, our requests for fire support were for naught, as our mortars were not in range to fire on the enemy.
Finally, one of our Bradley’s arrived to provide fire support. A 25mm cannon and 7.62 coax would go a long way to evening up the fight.
Sadly, our platoon leader was the worst Lieutenant I’d ever served with. And instead of suppressing the enemy, managed to shoot virtually all of our counter recon team. Blue on blue engagements are the bane of any army. Worse, as soon as he’d done so, he fled the engagement for the rear.
When you get “shot” at NTC, you pull out a card. It tells you (and any medic) what wounds you have. Some folks are “killed” outright. Some have minor wounds, some have major wounds. The idea is to give the medical and logistics folks practice evacuating wounded personnel. If the medics and personnel officer do their jobs right, you get “respawned” within 24 hours. I seem to recall I had a sucking chest wound. It could have been worse. I knew one fellow that had a testicle notionally shot off. At any rate, our company failed to even attempt to find all of us scattered upon the hilltop. After four hours, we were all out of the fight and notionally dead.
Dismounted infantry in the mechanized fight are an important resource. The can provide eyes forward and deny the enemy easy reconnaissance. The can cover key avenues of approach. But the commander must be as meticulous in planning the use of dismounted infantry as he is in his main forces. In the mechanized fight, dismounted infantry are vulnerable to fires and maneuver and must always be covered by either direct or indirect fires. The wise use of dismounted infantry can either be a combat power multiplier for the commander, or a liability. The key is proper planning and use.