‘Suppressive Fire’ – Comments on Mosby’s article
I have a commentary on Mosby’s article: ‘Suppressive Fire For the Irregular War-Fighter.’
It is a great article from a man who knows what he is talking about, a real voice of experience. I am going to bring a different perspective to some of his comments, and as a result I hope to add value to, rather than criticize, his article.
Mosby says: ‘The reality is, conventional military forces are not historically trained in direct-fire suppression, using their personal small arms. Whether at the fire-team/stick level, or the platoon or company echelons, this is unfortunate, because well-trained riflemen, using semi-automatic, aimed fire can actually suppress the enemy more effectively than automatic weapons such as crew-served machine guns.’
He also mentions the British Army and rates if fire, which I will take as an opportunity to jump in.
It must be remembered throughout that his comments are for ‘The Irregular War Fighter’, so we must not lose sight of that throughout, we are not debating doctrine or tactics for conventional rifle companies. However, I strongly believe that the basics of infantry work are the basics of irregular war-fighting tactics, simply applied by such a group of fighters and not by a conventional force, and adapted according to the METT-TC they encounter. There is no short cut here, no: ‘we are irregular war fighters, therefore we don’t need to know and be proficient at basic small unit tactics.’ You need to live and breathe SUT in order to survive and be effective as an irregular force.
Really, basics is all there is. Basics, Basic, Basics: just done well and rehearsed/trained over and over and over. You can develop good drills. TTPs, actions on and all that, good stuff. It’s all based on basic principles. The most basic is ‘Fire and Movement’, often referred to as the ability to ‘shoot, move and communicate”.
For those that are aware of my bio, you will be aware that I am a British born US Citizen, with service in the British Parachute Regiment, followed by time as a security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, working for and alongside both the US Military and British Government, followed by US Army time. This gives me a perspective.
Newsflash: The US Military does not have the monopoly on SUT! Other militaries have ways, often similar, of doing it that are equally as valid, and there is learning to be had from that.
Let’s take some lessons from the British Infantry. The basic building block is the Rifle Section (squad) of eight men divided into two four man fireteams. The building blocks of this are individual marksmanship, fieldcraft, and tactics. The British rifle section is very much trained in section suppression of the enemy using individual weapons. It is the basis of the ‘section attack’.
Let’s look specifically at the British Parachute Regiment. In this organization, we get closer to application to irregular forces: The Paras have as part of their role the task to jump in behind enemy lines and operate with minimal support against numerically superior enemies. No doctrinal 3 to 1 odds there. The Brits have no money anyway, so everything has to be done on a shoe-string budget with minimal support and one helicopter from the 1960s held together by 100mph tape, but I digress. As such, training is focused on tactical operations up to Battalion level but at the very core of this is the ability to fire and maneuver, which requires that the enemy is effectively suppressed with individual weapons used in concert with the rest of the section.
Let’s take the Falklands Conflict in 1982 as an example. The British Task Force was composed of PARAs and Royal Marines Commando, with a few other battalions from line units. The PARAs fought a total of three battles against equal or greater numbers of enemy forces, with nothing but their integral Battalion fire support assets, which comprised of a machine gun platoon armed with GPMGs (240s, with the tripod to allow employment in the sustained fire role) and 81mm mortars. They triumphed through selection, training, will to win and sheer bloody mindedness. Other line infantry battalions failed to make the grade, and could not effectively operate or move long distances under the harsh exposed wet/cold conditions of the Falklands.
The PARAs fought at Goose Green across an almost billiard table bare-assed neck of land. One of the companies was suppressed in a gulley at one point by fire from the dug in Argentine positions, and was only freed to maneuver by the advance of another company on the other flank; thus Psychologically unbalancing the enemy. The Commanding Officer was killed (earning a Victoria Cross) as he tried to break the stalemate, hit by a mutually supporting enemy trench as he assaulted up the gulley onto an enemy position.
The PARAs then carried all their gear and ammunition across the island on foot and assaulted dug in enemy on Mount Longdon, with nothing but integral Battalion fire support assets. The rifle companies went up the hill in the dark with bayonets fixed. It was a section battle, down to NCOs keeping their men together and leading them in fire and movement up the mountain and through the gorse and rocky outcrops, to bring death to the enemy with bullet, bomb and bayonet. The enemy was dug in and should have won, but they were largely conscripts, cold and miserable, and did not have the morale and sheer bloody mindedness to do so. They lacked the moral component of warfare. The Paras went through minefields, concentrated enemy machine gun fire, sniper fire (the Argies had night sights) and artillery fire; they fire and moved up the mountain as pairs and sections, suppressing the enemy as they could with their FN rifles.
Wireless Ridge was the final battle. This was much more conventionally done, with fire support from tracked assets from a flank allowing the PARAs to push along and clear the ridge, rolling the enemy up. It was again a section fight as they moved along clearing enemy bunkers.
Machine guns, such as the 240 or the SAW, if properly employed can be very effective at a squad level to accurately suppress the enemy. Fire has to be controlled to short accurate bursts. There is no ‘hosing of the enemy position’. The US Army suffers from a historic legacy of wild automatic fire, VOLUME of fire in the GENERAL DIRECTION of the enemy. This does not suppress. Fire has to be hitting the enemy, or close to the enemy, to make them take cover. Once they have taken cover, it takes accurate placement of rounds into or over the position to keep their heads down. The US Army talks FIRE SUPERIORITY, but in my experience with a general misunderstanding; If you have ever seen a US unit react to contact with a huge volume of fire in all directions, then you know what I am talking about. Such an act, perhaps in response to a couple of rounds fired by an enemy sharpshooter, will not be effective and also just ruined all the hearts and minds operations your Civil Affairs unit was trying to achieve…..again, I digress.
To suppress the enemy, fire has to be accurate and effective.
To summarize some basic section battle drills:
Once coming under effective enemy fire, the section will take cover, returning fire as necessary and appropriate to positively identified enemy positions. There are multiple things going on here: you are now ‘on the X’ and the section commander will want to take immediate action to remedy that, repositioning the section into cover using fire and movement as appropriate.
The next step is to locate the enemy. Once the enemy is located, target indications are passed and the individual section members will begin to return fire as they can. Every man is a sensor and a link man. Target indications will be passed.
The next step is to ‘win the firefight’. This is where fire control orders are used to direct the section fire, or groups within, onto located enemy positions. The idea is to suppress the enemy with accurate directed fire. Depending on the situation, this is not an exact science: you may not be able to suppress all or some of the enemy. This is where the section commander comes in with his estimate: can he assault, remain in place to provide fire support if he has other friendly elements (a platoon and thus other sections behind, for instance) or will he break contact. And how is he going to execute that. If you cannot reasonably suppress enemy fire, that is an indicator that there may be too many of them and you may want to withdraw and fight again another day.
The section commander will hand over control of the firefight to his second in command to allow him to assess the situation and make a plan. If he is going to assault he will come up with a mechanical scheme to achieve that, using ground and placement of his fire support elements to allow him to close with and destroy the enemy. He will usually attempt to go to a flank. If he is withdrawing (breaking contact) he will be coming up with a similar plan, but to get out of their rather than assault.
The principle of fire and movement is that when under enemy fire, there is never movement without fire support. Sometimes termed having ‘one foot on the ground’ at all times. The key to this is accurate supporting fire, either from individual or section level weapons. Ground is key. Use ground to protect you from enemy fire while you move, while another element suppresses the enemy. If there is no hard cover, then you only have suppressive fire to ‘cover you’ as you get over the open ground, either assaulting or breaking contact. The leaders of each element will control the rate and direction of fire verbally – the rate of fire will ebb and flow from deliberate to rapid as required, to cover the movement of other elements. Fire will also switch from objectives in front of your assaulting element – you will ‘fire them in’ and then switch fire either right or left appropriately to suppress known or likely enemy flanking or mutually supporting positions as the assault progresses.
A section will usually break into two four man elements in order to go into the assault. A fire team suppresses while the other one moves. As Mosby mentions and references Rommel’s ‘Infantry Attacks’ it is also possible that the assaulting fire team will drop of a pair as a ‘point of fire’, particularly when assaulting an enemy trench or bunker rather than enemy in the open. This point of fire can be employed either to suppress the position being assaulted or a depth/mutually supporting bunker in order to cover the pair going in with the grenades.
The psychological component of all this must not be forgotten. If you effectively suppress the enemy, this will allow you to maneuver. If you maneuver to a flank and begin to close on the enemy, you threaten him with being rolled up or cut off. This leaves him with the choices of dying in place, surrendering or withdrawing. Mostly, enemy will withdraw. That is what cut-of groups are for – another topic. A firefight or battle is not simply about a static trading of fire with the enemy, something that we see with many less well trained units nowadays. They are not well trained enough to suppress the enemy effectively, or to maneuver. In the current wars, we have often seen units reliant on fires/CAS in order to gain superiority over an enemy they cannot make headway against on their own terms. Only the employment of serious amounts of explosives onto the enemy has allowed then to maneuver, often simply away once the enemy is destroyed by such fires/CAS. Now, not to say I would not employ such assets rather than going toe to toe if it saved the lives of my men. To do otherwise would be stupid. But my point is that often lower quality line infantry units lack the training and ability to fire and move effectively onto the enemy. Irregular units will not have the fire support assets and as such it is even more important for them to develop the basic skills in order to be able to effectively fire and maneuver.
In summary, read Mosby’s article, there is a lot of good stuff in it. As an irregular force, you will need to learn how to effectively suppress the enemy with your squad level weapons. If you have the opportunity to carry weapons such as the 240 or the SAW, these can be used effectively to suppress also, so long as fire discipline is applied by the machine-gunners. What I have written about in this article is effectively trained and employed by the British infantry. It’s not written as a ‘Brit vs Yank’ thing from some ‘damned Redcoat”– there are clearly cultural and historical influences on both of these coalition forces and each can learn from each other, as I have been privileged to do.
But if you don’t like it, suck it up and drive on!
And: Drink more Water!