Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
I was lucky to have the privilege of commanding the 2nd Battalion of The Rifles for a deployment which ran from late August 2021 to early December 2021. The central part of the deployment was Exercise Askari Storm, a 47-day battlegroup-level training exercise in Kenya which culminated in 14 days of battlegroup exercises. This article offers my key reflections on command and battlegroup operations and observations about how to fight.
Keep working hard at dispersal
Dispersal is not a new concept but it is one we ignore at our peril, particularly when fighting a peer adversary with artillery. My challenge to the company commanders I led was to never lose more than a section (eight soldiers) in any fires contact. This saw us trying to ensure that sections were at least 250 metres from one another, less when they were so close to the enemy that the enemy would be unable to use their artillery for fear of bringing it down on themselves. To achieve this, companies advanced in lanes, dispersing their sections by both space and time, rolling through navigation points and, eventually, the forming up point, prior to any attack. We only concentrated for the decisive act before dispersing again (very hard to do; our tendency was to linger on the objective once it was clear). Such an approach is dependent on excellent junior leadership, strict levels of discipline, accurate situational awareness across the force and high levels of navigational competence (using GPS or maps).
Never pay lip service to security
Security is a principle of war, yet we are quick to let our guard down, sometimes with devastating consequences. In one exercise we lost 50% of a company to indirect fire after they remained in the same position, despite knowing that the enemy had identified them several hours beforehand. Why is this? Fatigue sets in and encourages us to lower our standards and take the easy route. We must keep our guard up. The enemy will come for us when we least expect it. If you’re not ready you will die. On another occasion, 70% of a company was destroyed mounting its vehicles in an area they had failed to secure. This is a failure in the basics! Get your sentries out and keep them out. Secure your perimeter. Losses of this scale can never be tolerated.
Get forward but not too far forward
As the commander, while remaining in your controlling HQ might give you the best situational awareness, it will not allow you to ‘feel’ the battle when it enters its decisive phase. For that part, the commander, in my view, needs to be sufficiently far forward so that they can touch the progress of the fighting. In the main, company commanders are competent, but they can be slow to realise that their companies have culminated. This can quickly lead to a company over-extending and dragging the remainder of the battlegroup into a fight on unfavourable terms. Positioned correctly, a battlegroup’s commander can monitor progress and enact an echelon change at the point of maximum advantage, maintaining momentum and retaining the initiative.
Seize key terrain and vital ground
Rightly identified during question 1 of the combat estimate, the possession of key terrain provides a marked advantage and the possession of vital ground is critical to mission success. Where possible (and often it isn’t), vital ground should be seized before a mission’s decisive phase. Similarly, key terrain should either be seized prior to the decisive phase or, at least, denied to the adversary. We only got this right some of the time.
Drawn from the manoeuvrist approach, get this right and you’ll crush your adversary. The aim is to surprise an opponent with multiple dilemmas such that all their responses stutter and their command and control is confused. At its best, indirect fires (air, artillery and mortars) should synchronise with direct fires (machine guns, snipers and riflemen), all concurrent to approaches from several different directions.
Maintain a flexible mindset across the force
We all know ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’. That said, we were lucky, often executing our plans. Having said that, on several occasions companies were thrown into the fight earlier or later than expected or given new tasks during the battle. Without a flexible mindset that quickly steps up to new challenges, you will lose the initiative you fought so hard to seize. Every commander, at every level, needs to anticipate being re-tasked continuously. Additionally, everyone must understand the commander’s intent and the mission’s main effort.
Ensure your standard operating procedures are well understood
During our battle preparation, we drafted, war-gamed, finalised, and then briefed, down to section-commander level, battlegroup drills for deliberate defence, hasty defence, advance to contact, and obstacle crossings. Not only was this an excellent exercise in uniting all commanders as to how these operations would be conducted, it allowed a common understanding throughout the battlegroup resulting in the ability to move rapidly from one type of operation to another. In the latter stages of our exercise, we were able to redeploy using quick battle orders.
Use the four-hour planning cycle
Painful though our pre-deployment training was, it saw us fall in love with the 4-hour planning cycle. We found both the 12-hour and 8-hour made us flabby. By contrast, the 4-hour kept us focused and energised. Not only this, when in the fight, it allowed us to give proper battle preparation time to our sub-units, when time allowed, and to move fast when time was against us. To enable such rapid planning, getting going early is key: as soon as you have a clue as to what might be in store for you next, get discussing it (I used my tactical HQ for this). Once in the planning cycle, issuing comprehensive direction at question 3, focused on the hard output you are seeking to achieve, paid dividends in generating concurrent activity.
Allow control to control
Save yourself for command and allow your controlling HQ to control the battle, controlling things such as the preliminary move, the collation of the conditions check before your authorisation of the next action (we used a pre-determined check-list for this), the queuing up of assets ahead of mini-H Hours, casualty evacuation and resupply. As the commander, you must save yourself for the big decisions, only getting on the ‘net’ to press your subordinates to get on with the task you’ve given them. A commander must understand and judge these moments: experience counts.
At all times act with respect
This was one of two key messages to the battlegroup, the other, understandably, being ‘always laser-focused on winning’. You get respect wrong at your peril: respect for the locals, for the environment, for water, for fire, for wildlife, for yourself, for the history of your regiment or corps and for your enemy. I was encouraged that this message landed with the battlegroup, resulting in very few instances of disrespectful behaviour, behaviour which could have risked the whole operation.
Lieutenant Colonel William Wells is an infantry officer in the British Army. He is currently serving as the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion The Rifles. Over the course of more than twenty years, has served on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Estonia and deployed all over Europe as well as to Africa and North America.