Using the Flank

Small Unit Tactics (SUT) is a skilled art that is largely overlooked due to lack of knowledge and training. One of the ways in which you can focus the effectiveness of your team when utilizing SUT is to use the flank.

Attacking from the flank is a highly effective technique that:

  • Should keep you from fighting forwards straight across the main enemy kill zone, by use of a covered approach to a flank.
  • Can give you an element of tactical surprise, if you can get to the flank undetected.
  • Puts the enemy in a cross fire and allows the support by fire element to shift their fires away from you, but still firing and suppressing the enemy across your front, as you move through the enemy position.
  • Never underestimate the psychological effect on the enemy of you assaulting from the flank. They may surrender or flee once they think you might be behind them. You can choose to kill them in place or allow them an escape route depending on your objective:  kill the enemy personnel, or capture the location. If you are trying to kill or capture the enemy personnel, consider use of cut-off groups for any squirters.

‘Using the flank’ is a simple thing to state, and to pay lip service to, but there are a lot of tasks and skills that need to be mastered on the way to understanding how it may be used practically. If your training progression stops, like it does for so many, at cool guy stuff on the ‘square range’ you will never understand the use of the flank, however ‘tacticool’ it is to rush from barricade to barricade:

  • Fire and movement, at its most basic form of ‘buddy rushes’ is a team movement technique that is in fact a basic drill. That is not a squad attack. Basic fire and movement is used to move about on the battlefield, and is is used to fight through enemy positions, or break contact. A squad attack should not be ‘bags of smoke and straight up the middle’ simply utilizing basic fire and movement. That is not to even mention the madness of the latest ‘squad attack’ fad I have seen on YouTube, where everyone advances stood up on line, shooting. Way too Hollywood!‘

Even if you think you are at very close range, you should try and get an element to the flank to suppress from there. It may seem a short distance, but rushing into the enemy guns is a long way however far it is. Eternally long! This applies to the ‘hasty attack’ which is an option when coming under enemy contact. My thoughts on breaking the contact into ‘near and far ambush’ are unconventional. I simply don’t agree with the US Army doctrine that if the contact is within grenade range (‘near’), conduct an immediate assault straight into it, and if it is further than grenade range (‘far’), consider other options. If you can get an element to a flank, even if that is the support by fire element, then do so. The British Army used to have a similar drills, but they went the way of the dodo in favor of a mix of breaking contact and/or assaulting from the flank.

Further points:

  • This does not just apply to a squad hasty attack, depending on your numbers. You can go to a flank even if there are just two of you. Using the flank is a drill that is not automatic, but requires command input and leadership. You must understand the ground (terrain). It is still fire and movement, but you have an element providing support by fire while the other element moves to the flank, via a covered or concealed route.
  • When we talk about flanking the enemy, we are mostly concerned with doing so as part of a squad hasty attack. A deliberate attack, or raid, is planned in advance based on recce. As such you will dispose your groups, your support by fire and assault groups, in such as way that you are already at that ninety degree angle and attacking from the flank of your support by fire element. That is part of your planning and rehearsal process.
  • A squad hasty attack happens when you patrol into an enemy kill zone and are engaged. The idea is to place an element into a support by fire position and have them win the firefight to suppress the enemy, allowing maneuver. Your assault element(s) will use a covered approach to move to a flank, and assault from there, preferably at a ninety degree angle to your support by fire element. As a battle drill, the squad hasty attack follows these steps:
  1. React to effective enemy fire. (Return Fire – Take Cover- Return Appropriate Fire).
  2. Locate the enemy. Often the big challenge. Target indications are given: Distance, Direction, Description.
  3. Win the firefight: regain the initiative and suppress the enemy. Commanders use fire control orders to achieve this, combined with utilizing rapid and sustained rates of fire. Ammunition = Time under enemy fire.
  4. The attack. Broken down into:
    • The approach: move to a flank using a covered approach. Move to a forming up point (FUP) before crossing the Line of Departure (LD).
    • The assault: fight onto the forward edge of the enemy position (FEEP) from the LD. Fire and movement.
    • The fight through: fight through and clear the enemy position to the limit of advance (LOA).
  • Reorganization: consolidate on (or near to) the enemy position. Pay attention to sectors and depth/mutually supporting enemy positions.
    • LACE: Liquids, Ammunition, Casualties, Equipment.

Utilizing the assault cycle will help you visualize how to cycle your elements through the various roles in the attack. This is why a 12/13 man squad, divided into 3 teams, is ideal.

The assault cycle:


So if you have two enemy positions/buildings that you need to assault, you will suppress them both and then move to a flank with your assault element. Your third element will likely be reserve/flank protection at this time. Once your assault element has fought to the LOA (limit of advance) on the first position (or cleared the first building), they will most likely now move to a support by fire role to suppress the second position. It depends on the ground/spatial relationships. You then have the option of pulling in your reserve element as your next assault element. If the initial support by fire element is now out of sector and of no more use, move them to reserve/flank protection.

Note: with green/partially trained troops make an effort, if possible, to move them  up to their assault launching point (LD) without moving them through the already cleared initial enemy position(s). Battle inoculation is good, but if it hasn’t happened up to that point, don’t let them see the results before it is too late and they are in it with no choice but to fight through. Seeing weapons effects up close and personal before they are expected to ‘go over the top’ themselves is not a good idea. Other than that, you ‘gotta be in it to win it,’ right?

Using the flank is primarily a concern when assaulting (attacking) an enemy but you must also understand how the enemy may use a flank attack against you, and guard against it with your defensive dispositions. Remember: all round security and mutually supporting positions. Flank Protection! This is important for the prepper crowd who may not have a real defensive plan in place. I talk about this at class: those winking muzzle flashes in the tree line above your log cabin may not be the totality of the ‘gun fight.’ They may in fact be the support by fire element, and if you don’t keep eyes out, the next thing you may know is the side of your building being breached by an assaulting force.

In order to be able to use the flank, you need to train yourself to think like an infantryman. You need to be able to conduct a rapid combat estimate and then implement it under fire. The combat estimate process is described in detail here:

In order to be able to think like an infantryman, you should train to understand the following elements:

  • Understand ground/terrain with a ‘soldiers eye.’ You are looking at the shape of the ground and how it positionally relates.
  • ‘Dead ground’ – what cannot be seen from potential enemy positions.
  • Covered and concealed approaches. Relates to dead ground.
  • Micro terrain: folds in the ground will provide cover. Running, crawling, low crawl?
  • Spatial relationships between where the enemy is, where you are, and what options you have for covered approaches. It’s never going to be a 100% solution!
  • Effects of direct fire and fire angles.
  • Divide the potential approaches up: far left, near left, center, near right, far right.
  • Once you have looked at potential approaches, overlay that with where the enemy position(s) are, where you are, what are your potential support by fire locations, what impact does that have on the assault angle, and what impact does that have on the next part of the assault cycle i.e. sequencing?

You are looking to get that ninety degree angle between your support by fire and assaulting elements. But you also have to consider where the enemy position(s) are and what effect that has. If there are two offset mutually supporting enemy positions, and the ground is ideal to go left flanking, but that means that the support by fire element cannot suppress the depth because it would effectively be positioned behind the assaulting element, then the assaulting element would get cut down by the depth enemy position. So does that mean we need to go right flanking? Or do we have a third team, the reserve/flank protection team, who we can send up with the assault element to suppress the depth enemy position while the initial assault goes in? Then maybe they assault the depth, with support by fire from the first assaulting team?

In the video below, we see a basic squad hasty attack training scenario:

If when you are doing your estimate you realize that the enemy is too much to bite off, then this is where you consider breaking contact. You give orders to that effect and sequence your teams out using fire and movement. Similarly, if you are moving to a flank and run into the enemy motherlode, then you will need to break contact.

Make a decision. Yes. Do not dither and prevaricate.

But no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Do not be afraid to be flexible if that is the sensible course of action. New information!

But if you are going to be able to change the direction of the juggernaut, you need to be able to communicate that, and you need element team leaders who you can reach out to and signal your intent. Otherwise a sudden decision to break contact could leave an element swinging in the breeze. If you can’t communicate a change, you will have to go through with the plan.

As the squad leader, you will position yourself at the point of main effort. This will change. This is why it is ideal to be able to operate like a platoon leader, where you can move independently from team to team rather than being stuck as a part of one team. It is not your job to fire your weapon. You are there to influence and direct the battle. You will only fire your weapon, and get directly stuck in, if things start to go wrong and direct leadership is required. Heroes are only needed when it starts to go wrong! The squad leader will normally lead the assault element to the flank and direct the assault. Let the team leader run his assault, commanding in his own sphere. The squad leader will then direct the next phase, perhaps the reserve team now going to assault the next position.

As a squad leader, if you have the resources, it is useful to have an element that you can use to directly influence the battle. If you had a machine gun you could keep a machine gun group with you. This may mean in this context having a designated marksman (DM) under your direct control. You will then deploy this asset to influence the battle, perhaps to a flank. You could send the DM to bolster the support by fire element, or to watch a flank, or to suppress a newly discovered enemy position that is harassing the assault element, for example.

Movement under enemy fire is not about speed, it is about momentum. It may at times be about individual speed, such a running across an open area, but overall it is about momentum, Momentum is keeping the pressure of your suppressive fire on the enemy as you steadily maneuver to close with and destroy him. If you have a ‘shoot and scoot’ type enemy, you will never be able to close with and destroy him. Multiple enemy from multiple firing points at longer ranges is a problem. Just look at Helmand, where heavily laden troops find it hard to maneuver on the enemy, who is running around in sandals and scooting about on motorbikes. You need to balance your fighting load and your tactical fitness levels in order to remain mobile. If you are going to close with and destroy the enemy, you need to suppress him in place (Fix) in order to allow you to do so (Strike). By the time your assault element gets up there, you want the enemy to be dead or suppressed in cover. He may surrender as the assault team closes, or try to run. If he stays to fight and makes the assault team fight through, it’s big boys rules. Did you give him a chance to take a course of action other than fighting to the death? No live enemy left behind you as you fight through.

This is also one of the reasons that fire must be effective. It is not about volume/noise of fire. It is about accurate fire. Fire discipline. If you are shooting at positively identified enemy (PID) then your round count will be lower than in training anyway. Support by fire commanders will control fire to lessen the amount of ammunition used while effectively suppressing what needs to be suppressed. It is like being the conductor of an orchestra. Under enemy contact, ammunition is time. No-one is pushing a pallet of ammunition out of a C-130 over your position. You have your first line scales and any resupply you arrange for. Do you have a guy on a ATV with trailer, loaded with ammo cans, following your squad? Maybe you should think about it?


Ammo forward, casualties to the rear.

The skill is making your ammunition last by the use of accurate fire. Go to rapid fire when needed but then scale it back. Make your hits. Fire discipline and over-excitement is something I notice in training. It’s almost a cultural thing. Yahoooo!!! I call it having  a ‘militia moment’ because it is undisciplined and if you let it get out of control, it will, with nothing to show for it but a ‘tactical yard sale’ of empty magazines.

The art and skill of SUT seems to have been largely lost throughout the years of the GWOT. I believe it is maintained in certain professional infantry units. Hosing the enemy down on a mountainside from your position on line behind a wall, and “calling for fire’ is not SUT. In fact, in these conflicts in the middle east, coalition armies are consistently out maneuvered by lightly equipped enemy forces. Now, I know there is a reluctance to take risks. But this is where there is a certain misunderstanding about SUT, due to ignorance:

Doing these techniques is not simply ‘running about’ in the face of the enemy. It should be done professionally with cold aggression. Use momentum to suppress and steadily maneuver on the enemy. You won’t be able to ‘call for fire’ anyway, because you don’t have the assets. So the answer is well executed SUT. Trading fire in a ‘gun fight’ from your wall to their wall is an exercise in futility and potential high casualties (or none) anyway. Mostly in a collapse situation you can avoid that type of situation by effective patrolling/movement, defensive measures,  and having security in place. Threat mitigation and avoidance. Team skills, even at buddy pair level.

‘Movement without fire is suicide. Fire without movement is pointless.’

Now, in a simple squad attack drill, the team that comes under effective enemy fire will locate the enemy, win the firefight, and remain for the first assault as the support by fire element of the assault cycle. Think of them as the leading left hand jab while you prepare the big right hand swinging in from the flank. However, the enemy has the initiative at first, because you didn’t spot them and the first you knew about it was your team coming under fire in the enemy kill zone. You may have casualties. As you gain proficiency, the squad leader will consider what is effectively a limited break contact drill to get the team in contact off the X. Bring a second team up to suppress while that first team maneuvers either forward, to the rear, or to the flank, depending on the lie of the land. Once they are in a safer location, they can either now remain as the support by fire element or you can replace them by maneuvering a second team to a better support by fire position, before then planning the assault.

You may not be able to get that perfect right angle between the fire support and assault elements. If they only get out to 45 degrees to your support by fire, then visualize what it will look like as they advance on the enemy: they are gradually going to mask to fire of the support by fire element. The support by fire will have to shift fire earlier. Thus the assault team will be more reliant on their integral fire generation as they maneuver on the enemy. In the same way, if they get too far in depth of the enemy, as they advance they are heading at an angle towards the support by fire element, who will in the same way have to shift fire away from them earlier. Also, if people talk about attacking the enemy from the rear, then in a micro-SUT situation such as this, it is a no-go. You will be attacking into your own support fires. You may attack the enemy in their rear, such as their supply lines, but not with your elements facing at each other. Don’t be on opposite sides of the enemy position, is what I am saying.

Assault Angles

This is why that 90 degree angle is perfect. As the assault element sweeps in, for example from the right flank, the support by fire element is shifting fire away from them to the left. The assault element can be ‘fired in’ to the last minute. In order to prevent fratricide, you will need to have an agreed signal for shifting fire. At a very basic level, the support by fire leader can see the assault force moving in. You can use radio, flag, light stick, strobe, whistle or whatever to signal phase/report lines and shifting fire. Note that in thick bush/jungle, visibility through the thick vegetation may preclude a flanking attack simply due to the risk of fratricide. In these circumstances, it is often the case where we default to an on line ‘fight through’ style attack. In this way, all the friendly fire is going in one direction away from your skirmish line. This is normal for a FIWAF (fighting in woods and forests) situation. However, if you are skirmishing forwards on line, make sure you have flank protection elements looking out to the left and right, on the ends of the skirmish line.

If you find the ground and spatial relationship with the enemy/friendly forces does not allow you to get out to that 90 degree angle, then there are other options. Moving the team that initially comes under enemy fire has already been discussed. Perhaps you can only get a good covered approach and find a suitable FUP/LD out at a 45 degree angle, for arguments sake. So you move an element out to 45 degrees on the right, supported by an initial fire support element in the center. Perhaps now you move that fire support element out to the left at 45 degrees? You now have a ninety degree angle and what is called a double envelopment. Once you have those two elements in place, you can revert to the classic drill of one being fire support and the other being assault. You have an option as to which is which. Or, you can maneuver both of them, alternately, closing with the enemy before deciding which will conduct the final assault. If you had three elements, you can even leave one in the center to provide support, but if you do so keep an eye on the safety angles and have them cease fire at the appropriate time – they may not be able to shift fire left or right, due to the presence of the two enveloping elements.

There are any number of sequencing movements that you may do, with the intent of suppressing the enemy positions in order to allow you to maneuver onto them. Clearly, at squad level, at a certain point, beyond two small enemy positions, perhaps a couple of foxholes, it gets beyond a squad and you will have to bring in additional elements to suppress depth/mutual support while you maneuver. It becomes an operation for maybe two large squads, or a platoon. As part of the combat estimate, you have to train yourself to rapidly weigh the options and make a decision as to a course of action. Only you will know the enemy you face. If they are an untrained  rabble, then a disciplined squad who knows how to shoot and use cover/concealment to maneuver, could cut through any number of them.

There are different considerations on the fight through for different types of objectives. A scattered enemy ‘in the open’ in temporary fighting positions can be dealt with by a simple fight through. If you get foxholes or bunkers, there are slightly different considerations but effectively you are breaking down your teams into two man groups so that one group can cover while another grenades the foxhole. It’s just a little more of a considered approach to the fight through, with coordination to blow each foxhole/bunker in sequence. Everything needs to be suppressed, in order for you to close with each bunker.

Now, if you think about it, if the enemy is in a building, then you need to do this flanking squad attack maneuver in order to get up to the building. You can then breach and enter. It then becomes a clearance operation, and there are different considerations for MOUT. However, in simple terms you need to suppress the enemy in each building or whatever cluster of buildings it is, while you close with and breach/enter the first one. When that is clear, you sequence through the assault cycle to one building after another, attacking in echelon from one building to another. In modern infantry parlance, we like to talk about attacking ‘in echelon’ which refers to the assault cycle and using an element to attack the first objective and another element ‘in echelon’ to attack the second and so on.

Now, having read all this, you may tell me that you are simply an armed civilian and that you have no intention of ever, under any circumstances of collapse and absence of the rule of law, carrying out an attack. You are only interested in tactical self defense. Fine. Even if you are conducting a  break contact drill at larger than team level, you can use the flank. Simply bring up a team that is not in contact, while the team(s) in contact conduct their break contact drill, and move them to a flank to bring the enemy under fire. This will help the teams in contact break clean.

Any questions?

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