Tactical Use of Terrain: To Survive and Win!

A discussion on terrain analysis. This is a somewhat large topic. One thing I will say straight up front is that these topics are covered in detail in my ‘Tactical Manual: Small Unit Tactics.’

I am going to concentrate on the offense. Mainly because I have covered defense, types of terrain and the principles of defense in detail in the ‘Tactical Manual’ and although I have covered offense, there is more detail that can be gone into about use of ground in the assault, rather than just the mechanics of an assault. I have also covered use of terrain for navigation and movement, which is itself a separate topic. So for now, I will hone in on offense, and use as a vehicle for the discussion either hasty or deliberate attacks (or raids), to go through a terrain analysis process.

Straight up I am going to launch into one of the old faithful U.S. Army mnemonics. These are all well and good as an aide memoir but must be understood rather than trotted out as a standard answer (METT-TC anyone?) A standard approach that you may find useful is to use the mnemonic OCOKA:

O – Observation and Fields of Fire

C – Cover and Concealment

O – Obstacles

K – Key Terrain

A – Avenues of Approach

If you are attacking, you will need to consider these from the point of view of the enemy position you are attacking i.e. what are the enemy’s observation and fields of fire from their position….? How will I apply that to a covered approach?

When considering terrain, or as I prefer to say, ground, you must consider it in conjunction with the enemy. Thus you do not think about ground as its own thing, but as enemy/ground (enemy & ground). You will then relate that  to your position. It is a spacial relation and application of fire problem that is up to you to solve. The position of the enemy on the ground, related to the position of friendly forces and how the lay of the land falls between the two will inform your decision making.

I have put in a chapter on the ‘Combat Estimate’ in The Tactical Manual: this is a planning tool that also acts as a ‘mental trainer’ for real situation when you don’t have time to actually conduct a written estimate. It follows the process of going though factors such as enemy/ground and making decisions that will lead to potential ‘courses of action’ and finally a plan. Such a tool can be used in slower time when planning a deliberate attack/raid or off the cuff if engaged in a reaction to contact and hasty attack.

Dead Ground: this is a positional concept that applies to ground that cannot be seen from a position i.e. it is not covered by observation or direct fire from the enemy position. In a macro sense, I can’t see the valley behind the ridge, so that is ‘dead ground’ to me. This dead ground concept is really important and goes to cover and concealment. You must try to develop a ‘soldiers eye for the ground’ which basically means that when you view terrain, it’s not pretty, it’s a relationship of slopes and angles that will either provide cover or it will not. In the micro sense, you can apply the concept of dead ground as related to the enemy position and your position. A simple angled slope may therefore provide you cover, and thus be dead ground from the enemy perspective. Even if it is only useful if you are in a low crawl, it may be the difference between life and death.

The Dead Ground concept is also related to the idea of Defilade. This is where a unit is shielded from fire by using natural or artificial obstacles to put it in cover from the enemy. Just to get into the weeds on this one, we know that it is advantageous to direct ‘enfilade fire from a defilade position.’ The idea of enfilade fire is that it strikes the enemy along his longest axis. This could mean fire along the length of a trench system, or along the length of a column of troops. Speaking as a trained anti-tanker I was taught a little differently. The idea would be to site your anti-tank position so that ‘the enemy could only return direct fire when in your killing area.’ What does this even mean? You would site your individual anti-tank weapon systems utilizing terrain so that your kill zone was protected from observation / direct fire until the enemy was already in it. An easy way to visualize this would be to imagine you were looking down at the main valley from a side valley – the main valley is your kill zone, and you are utilizing the side terrain of the small valley to cover you from direct observation until the enemy tanks would appear in your kill zone in the main valley. Now, that isn’t really enfilade fire, because the column is moving in the main valley from one side to the other in relation to your position. BUT: for an anti-tank position, the important point is that you are firing at the SIDE of the enemy armored vehicle, where the armor is weaker than the front (even better to fire at the rear of the armor, of course). This may sound pedantic, because it is!

Cover & Concealment: Cover will protect you from enemy fire and observation (i.e. in a ditch) while concealment will only protect you from enemy observation, (i.e. behind a bush) and if the enemy fires through the concealment they may well hit you. Clearly cover is preferable to concealment but you may have to use a mixture of both.

Smoke: you can use smoke as a form of concealment. The enemy can fire through it. It may also be used as a form of deception. You can buy very effective smoke grenades for the airsoft market. If you have the reach it is always better to smoke off the enemy position, rather than your position. With a handheld smoke grenade you are limited in range. Remember also that smoke can interfere with your accurate suppressive fire. With a civilian smoke grenade, the smoke generation is not instant and thus you will have to wait for the smoke to ‘build’ before you can use its concealment; smoke also has to be thrown to take account of wind direction. You could perhaps use the smoke grenade to conceal the movement of your flanking assault element, while not screening off your fire support element. Smoke can therefore be used to help when natural cover and concealment is lacking, perhaps when you have to move off ‘the X’, which is the enemy killing area, or to conceal movement across an area of open ground. Remember though, it is a double edged weapon – once you pop smoke, you will indicate what you are doing – thus consider it also as a form of deception, and have someone pop it on the right flank, for example, when you went left.

Thermal Smoke: used as a form of concealment from aerial thermal surveillance, or ground thermal surveillance. Burning suitable materials, such as oil drums, tires, brush, grassland or whatever, can create a thermal smokescreen that will drift across the area of operations, wind dependent, to screen off your operation and even your approach to an attack. This will work against visual and thermal observation. You may even just burn the enemy out of their positions. See ‘Patriot Dawn: The Resistance Rises’ for examples of practical application.

Darkness: like smoke, darkness can be used as a form of concealment. However, consider the night vision capabilities of the enemy balanced against your own before making decisions on night attacks. You may also employ judicious use of white light, such as parachute illumination flares, either the handheld rocket type or fired from mortars if you have it. But also remember that darkness may have other advantages, such as surprise and the enemy having perhaps let their guard down or asleep, depending who they are. As usual, balance the factors and make a decision. If using white light, you can employ it as you wish, lighting up and then going dark to cover movement etc. The murky light and moving shadows will always add to the confusion and terror of a night attack. Friendly forces converging on a position due to moving towards enemy muzzle flash is also a big issue during night attacks.

Key Terrain: this is ground or position that provides a marked advantage to whichever side holds it. For example, if the enemy is defending a small farm complex, and there is a little knoll behind it, perhaps upon which they have an observation post (OP) then taking this key terrain (the knoll) may afford you a distinct advantage in assaulting the enemy complex. Not only because you destroy their OP/fire support position/sharpshooter hide, but you may also be able to position your own fire support elements there to support your assault onto the complex. Conversely, if the enemy continues to hold the knoll, they can not only observe and call fire onto your assault elements as they maneuver onto the farm complex, but they can also disrupt your attack from the knoll itself, with support fire. A preliminary surprise attack on the knoll would allow you to position a support by fire element there and consequently assault onto the farm complex.

There is a difference between a deliberate attack or raid and a hasty attack. The main difference is that with a deliberate attack you retain the initiative because you plan it, move to the enemy position and initiate the attack from a position and at a time of your own choosing. So long as you can approach the enemy position undetected you will have a choice of where to position your fire support element and where to move your assault elements, where to concentrate force to achieve the break-in and your sequence of assault. Remember that ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’ and there will always be a need to maintain flexibility and adapt to changing circumstance. That is why it is best to adopt a ‘mission command’ mindset where it is the achievement of a mission/task and the ‘reason why’ behind it that is important, rather than just simply doing exactly as you were told in orders.

A brief explanation on mission command (also covered in The Tactical Manual): although missions or tasks should be given in the form of a task(s) followed by a unifying purpose (reason why) this is not to let your guys go and do whatever they want to do on the objective. There needs to be a plan and a sequence, and that will be tied in with control measures to allow best utilization of support by fire, sequencing, and to prevent fratricide. So stick to the plan as much as possible and improvise in accordance with the ‘reason why’ if things start to go wrong. For example, second squad was supposed to echelon (i.e. move in sequence) through first squad to move on and assault objective two. However, an unseen/unknown mutually supporting enemy position has opened fire. Second Squad has taken casualties and is now totally involved in a firefight tying to suppress this new enemy position, which is to a flank. The platoon leader now makes a decision out of the original plan to move a machine gun team from the fire support element out to a flank to a position where it can suppress this new enemy position. While he is engaged with giving orders for that, third squad did not wait for orders. They were in reserve (part of the assault cycle) and took the opportunity to push through first squad, past second squad , and seize second squads initial objective, thus getting the plan back on track but with different elements doing the planned tasks. Now that we are at this point, and the new enemy position is being successfully suppressed, the platoon leader can now view the assault on this new position as an unplanned hasty attack and give quick battle orders (QBOs) for a squad to assault, now that the enemy are suppressed.

With a deliberate attack, you are looking for various key positions. These should be found in your reconnaissance of the enemy position, before you give orders and conduct the mission. You need an ORP (objective rally point) which is where you will patrol to before dispersing to the various assault positions. This should be on a covered approach to the enemy position. Your fire support position will be covered and allow a sufficient range for your weapon systems to engage and suppress the enemy. Don’t be too close; if you have the range and accuracy – use it. If you can get an elevated position overlooking the enemy objective, with decent fields of fire not obscured by too much vegetation, then you are getting a good fire support location. Your weapon systems, and also the ground, will decide ranges. If you have tripod mounted machine guns, you could be pushing back out to as far as maybe 800 meters, but balance this against the ability to accurately observe and ‘fire in’ the assaulting elements. For standard small arms, given suitable ground, you may be 100 meters away in fire support, you don’t ideally want to be more than 300 meters away.

Your fire support element will need to be able to switch fire ahead of the assaulting elements and engage depth and mutually supporting positions as the assault elements work through the enemy position. Because of this, and because of ballistics, you ideally want to have an angle of 90 degrees between your fire support and your assaulting elements. So your assaulting elements will come in from either the left or the right of the fire support elements, which will be firing across their front and then switching away from them onto enemy depth as the assault progresses. Don’t have an angle beyond 90 degrees where your assault elements are heading towards your fire support. If the angle is less than 90 degrees then your assault elements will obscure the enemy position  sooner as they advance. Real life is never ideal.

So when planning for your deliberate attack you need to have a covered approach for the assault elements to move to a forming up position (FUP) which is where they will shake out into assault formation before crossing the line of departure (LD) into the assault. They will approach, assault and fight through the enemy positions in sequence and each element will be controlled by a limit of exploitation (LOE). This applies to any type of objective, such as trenches, bunkers, buildings, small complexes, compounds or a camp attack. The difference is the specifics of the assault techniques.

Once you spatially assess the enemy position you will be able to position your locations for the approaches, FUP, LD, fire support etc. and sequence how your elements will assault onto and through the enemy objective. Remember that although you will have a fire support element, each assault element will be providing its own integral fire support and fire and movement as it moves through the objective, and each assault element will be supporting the others as they cycle through the various enemy positions.

When considering the assault, think about distances that your guys will have to cross from the LD to the first objective, how the objectives (buildings/trenches etc) lay related to each other, how you will move from one to another and where will you position integral fire support elements. Are you able to assault downhill, or will it have to be uphill? If you come from a certain direction, are there any good options for fire support locations? Once you understand the spatial relations of ballistics, how an element covers another element and the characteristics of obscuring and unsafe fire support, you will be able to spatially plan such an assault.

The best use of ground comes into this when you are looking for covered approaches to move between one location and another and to close distances and open ground that you have to cross. Any movement in the open risks enemy fire. Of course, when in contact there is never movement without supporting fire. The more open the ground is the more supporting fire you will need to be able to survive across that open area. The more cover you can utilize the less fire you will need. Moving on a football field is totally reliant on the effectiveness of your accurate suppressive fire. Movement in a ditch can be done if your suppression fire is not totally effective.

How does this apply to a hasty attack? A hasty attack will usually take place after a surprise contact when your element has been ‘advancing to contact’. It may also take place when you are hit on a patrol. Depending on your patrol orders/SOPs you will either conduct immediate action break contact drills or you will be in an offensive mission mode. Even if you are in an offensive mode you will still go through immediate action contact/battle drills to take cover and return fire, locate the enemy and begin to suppress. The difference here between a deliberate and hasty attack is that with the latter the enemy has the initiative and has opened fire on you at a point of their choosing. You are therefore in their killing area (the X) and you must seize back the initiative and prosecute an assault with speed, aggression and surprise.

(I am not going to bog down in the difference in U.S. Army doctrine between ‘near’ and ‘far’ ambush. In simple terms, a near ambush is within grenade range (30 yards) and the suggested reaction for a near ambush is a standard immediate action drill for the closest team to assault onto the enemy. The far ambush should be taken care of as I describe below. I disagree in general terms about this immediate reaction to a near ambush simply determined based on distance. If the team leader under contact decides to assault immediately, then so be it and he must be supported as much as possible. However 30 yards is a long way under fire and still depends a lot on the ground. The contacted team may well be pinned down with casualties. If possible always try and bring an element, the rear team, to a flank to either assault or at least support by fire).

This means that after initial contact and everyone having done their individual react to contact drills, the squad or team leader for the element that comes under contact will most likely maneuver his element off the immediate X into a better position to begin to win the firefight with the enemy. This will be done by basic fire and movement, either forwards, to the flank, or rearward, into a better position of cover and concealment. This could be a single squad/element or it could be one element of a larger force, such as a platoon. The squad or team leader that came under contact, if part of a larger force, will make a decision, based on his assessment of enemy location and strength, to either put in a hasty squad attack or defer to the platoon leader if the enemy is too strong. If he hands it over to the platoon leader, he may well become the fire support squad, or the platoon leader may move elements around into better positions, supporting each by fire to do so. It’s another spatial/mechanical action.

If you are a squad leader who has come under fire and moved off the X or at least into better cover, and you are contemplating a hasty attack, you will hand over the control of the firefight to your second in command and conduct a quick combat estimate. This is where you are looking at the spatial combination of enemy/ground. as it relates to the enemy position, your position and the ground in between. It is vital at this point to observe as best as you can and identify enemy positions, numbers and firepower.

You are looking for:

– A fire support location. In a hasty attack that is often simply leaving a team in support where you are right now. If you have to put a team into a better location, then that will be conducted by fire and movement in a series of preliminary moves to get them where you need them.

– A covered approach to a flank. Concealed if not covered.

– A forming up position (FUP) & line of departure (LD).

– A sequence of assault onto the enemy objective. For a squad, you are only really going to be assaulting with one team and thus onto a single enemy fighting position/trench/bunker.

When assessing the ground, it is helpful to divide it into left, center and right. Center is not usually a good idea unless very close to the enemy. Best to go either left or right flanking. So you are effectively looking for a left or right flanking approach. Decide on the best one depending on your assessment of the various factors. Once you decide, go with it. There may be a couple of options to a flank, such as far left and near left. Decide on the best one as it relates to the spatial problem.

As you plan to take your assault team left or right flanking, you will also need to consider the need for  further suppression of the enemy as you get closer, using one of your buddy pairs in the assault team to either be a ‘point of fire’ to provide closer suppression on the enemy as you approach from the flank, or to be a point of fire as outward looking flank protection, facing out to cover any depth or mutually supporting enemy positions. Remember flank protection as you move through that covered route – you may run into another enemy position, which was holding its fire in anticipation of your move or simply out of sector for your initial contact location, and in that case you may want to reconsider the odds. It may already be too late and you are committed to following the fight through to its conclusion. ‘Finish the fight!’

If you are assaulting enemy in the open you will usually simply fight through in a skirmish line by fire and movement in buddy teams. If you are assaulting a fighting position such as a trench or bunker, then you may use the point of fire method to drop off one buddy pair as intimate fire support and assault with a buddy pair.

If you have to use a point of fire to screen off a depth position that you came across in the assault, then once you have taken care of the initial position, continue to suppress the depth. Then, bring in the team that you used as fire support and have them assault the depth. That is one way to skin the cat.

When you have cleared the enemy position, you will need to have your fire support team join you. Potentially you will be send them through to destroy that depth position your point of fire was suppressing, but assuming you are not they will rejoin you on the enemy objective. The way to do this has changed – it used to be that they would follow the route you took, all the way to the flank, on the basis that you just came up there and so it should be clear of booby traps and further enemy etc. Modern thinking says they can just take the shortest route. Make you own mind up what is best for you.

Obstacles are something that you must consider when planning your flanking approach – are there any and how do they affect that approach? Wire, concertina wire, walls, fences, buildings, ditches, creeks, rivers etc are all things that may make you decide against one route and for another. Punji pits – can you even identify/see them before you are on them? Maybe even other booby traps such as mines and IEDs.

Once on the enemy position, you also need to consider the ground where you are at as you conduct your reorganization post-assault. Are you best where you are or do you need to move to a better defended or covered position? Is there a danger of counter-attack or even indirect fire? If so, get into a defended covered position and even start digging. Often it is best to get off and away from the objective as soon as possible to avoid retaliation.

Another thing related to the direction of your assault and the lay of the land is what options are you giving the enemy? Will you trap them and force them to fight or do you give them a route to withdraw on? What do you intend – kill, capture, just seize the ground, or destroy them all? This also applies to a raid or deliberate attack where you may leave the enemy ‘open door’ opportunities to escape or you may deliberately place cut-off groups along egress routes to kill/capture any escaping enemy. If you do put such groups out, just like cut-off groups in an ambush you must use terrain to screen them from your direct fire as you conduct the assault, as they will likely be positioned ‘downrange’ from your assault.

“To close with and destroy the enemy with bullet, bomb and bayonet.”

Although I have posted links to my books, there is only so much you can learn from a book before you have to conduct practical training. We often find that the Tactical Manual will make a lot more sense AFTER doing practical training at MVT.

When conducting training at Max Velocity Tactical, we run a couple of training strands, each which complements the other. This consists of live fire and Airsim training. On the live fire side, we have HEAT 1 Combat Tactics, which is required before progressing to HEAT 2 Combat Patrol, and then Night Operations. These classes are live fire and designed to train you not only in live fire skills and safety, but also situational awareness and basic combat operations.

The Airsim side is also really useful, and consists of the Close Quarter Battle (day 1 is live fire), Recon Class, and Squad Tactics. The Squad Tactics class is where we teach the assault cycle, sequencing, planning and giving of orders, followed by an actual mission against an enemy objective. We utilize airsoft weapons against a live enemy and there is a great deal to learn that is covered in this article. Objectives usually include fighting positions (to practice sequencing of the 3 team assault), the CQB huts, and now I am digging a trench system to practice assaulting it. Roles on the squad tactics class rotate through squad and team leaders, although you can just show up and be a rifleman (there are limited spaces to be a squad leader on this 4 day class). Also to be considered are the live fire Texas classes, which run each year in February / March, which are for HEAT 1 Combat Tactics alumni only, and allow the live for practice of satellite patrolling, sequencing and the assault cycle.

I have to say that: ‘If you don’t know, you don’t know.’ This is an issue that we come across all the time, and we are here to train you so that you know!

For more information on these classes, check these links:



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