What’s Your Next Move? Author’s Solution to Tactical Vignette 14-01, “Battle at Narrow Bridge”

View larger image

“Solutions to tactical problems are a collective effort. Success results from the commander’s plan and the ability of subordinates to execute it. Commanders must have full confidence in their subordinates’ mastery of the art and science of tactics and in their ability to execute the chosen solution.” –Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-90.

At its core, “Battle at Narrow Bridge” creates a simple dilemma for the platoon leader: continue the directed scheme of maneuver or develop a new course of action (CoA). Using an unclear commander’s intent, vague battalion mission statement and an increasingly confusing, and perhaps deteriorating tactical situation, the scenario places the platoon leader in a position where he must make a decision without guidance or direction from the battalion. Or does he? Hence, the tactical debate ensues.

This article offers a methodology for determining our platoon leader’s options, along with a proposed solution. To do this, we will review the specified and implied guidance, the enemy situation, and outline the pros and cons of potential CoAs. Ideally, this affords readers a technique for solving this and other tactical problems.

Our specified guidance

“Tactical proficiency is not defined by mastery of written doctrine, but by the ability to employ available means to win battles and engagements. A solution may not match any previous doctrinal example; however, the language used to communicate that concept must be technically precise and doctrinally consistent, using commonly understood and accepted doctrinal terms and concepts.” –ADRP 3-90.

In our scenario, the battalion commander states that he wants to “force passage onto the plain,” but what does this really mean and how does it apply to us? Does he want to bypass enemy in zone and move to the plain as quickly as possible, or does he want to clear enemy and secure lines of communication before moving to the plain?1, 2, 3

Key guidance

Battalion commander’s intent: “Force passage onto the plain.”
Battalion mission: 2-81 Armored follows and supports 1-502 Infantry Battalion’s (Air Assault) attack to destroy enemy forces vicinity Objective Chapultec.
Platoon task: Screen the battalion’s western flank.
Platoon purpose: Enable the battalion to follow and support 1-502.

Each option has merits and requires different actions on our part. Ideally, we would like to know more about what the battalion commander really wants – the expanded purpose of the operation – before we make a decision. At minimum, understanding his definition of “force” is critical. Of course, at this point we do not know, so we must assume what the battalion commander really wants the battalion, and our platoon, to do. Therefore, let us assume by “force” he means to “fix the enemy in place with fires and then conduct a bypass” rather than alternate techniques of either avoiding the enemy completely or maneuvering to destroy.4,5,6

This allows the battalion to continue to support 1-502’s attack – at least, that is our assumption. The critical issue here is that the battalion commander’s intent is vague. Rather than using “technically precise, doctrinally consistent and commonly understood doctrinal terms and concepts,” he uses vague and potentially misleading verbiage that evokes confusion.7 Further, comparing his intent to the battalion’s mission creates an even more puzzling dynamic.

Battalion mission

“A commander assigns a unit the task of follow and support to keep the supported force from having to commit its combat power to tasks other than the decisive operation, which would slow the offensive operation’s momentum and tempo. The follow-and-support force accomplishes its tasks to prevent the enemy, obstacles and other factors from interfering with offensive actions, especially along the lines of communications.” –Field Manual (FM) 3-90

The battalion has the essential task to follow and support 1-502’s attack on Objective Chapultec.8 From doctrine, we know the battalion therefore has the responsibility – meaning it is committed and not a reserve – to trail and support the lead force conducting an offensive task (in our case, an attack). Moreover, we should understand that in a follow-and-support operation, the battalion’s doctrinally prescribed tasks are as follows:

  • Destroy bypassed enemy units;
  • Block movement of enemy reinforcements;
  • Relieve in place any direct pressure on encircling force halted to contain the enemy;
  • Secure lines of communication;
  • Clear obstacles;
  • Guard prisoners, key areas and installations;
  • Recover friendly battle losses;
  • Secure key terrain; and
  • Control dislocated civilians.

The challenge here is how much effort the battalion places on destroying the bypassed enemy units and securing the lines of communication vs. moving to relieve and/or re-enforce 1-502– which changes their mission from support to assume. During a follow-and-assume tactical mission task, a second committed force follows a force conducting an offensive task and is prepared to continue the mission if the lead force is fixed, attrited or unable to continue.9 In follow-and-support, the committed force is an enabling element to the lead force’s offensive operation. The difference is obviously in the “assume” vs. “support” role. The brigade and battalion commander are probably struggling with this fact now, given that both lead elements of 1-502 and the main body of 2-81 Armor are in contact.

Therefore, based on our doctrinal understanding of the assigned mission, we can anticipate that the battalion commander – unless otherwise directed – will maneuver to defeat those units controlling the key line of communication leading into Objective Chapultec rather than seek to find a bypass and move to reinforce 1-502 as his intent implies. However, there easily could be a point at which 2-81 Armor works to bypass to assume 1-502’s mission. This is a brigade decision point associated with a commander’s critical information requirement, and you would understand the information requirements leading to that decision. What we do know is, at this point, our understanding of the battalion commander’s intent and battalion mission somewhat contradict, and as a result, we cannot be completely sure how our platoon can best assist.

Our task and purpose

With that in mind, our task is to screen the battalion’s western flank. We know from FM 3-90.2 that “screen” is a security task that requires us to observe, identify and report enemy actions. We provide reaction time and early warning to the battalion so the commander can preserve his combat power to commit at the decisive place and time. Further, a screen requires several critical tasks – performed within our capability. For this operation, we should:

  • Allow no enemy ground element to pass through the screen undetected and unreported;
  • Maintain continuous surveillance of all avenues of approach larger than a designated size into the area under all visibility conditions;
  • Destroy or repel all enemy reconnaissance patrols within our capabilities;
  • Locate the lead elements of each enemy advance guard and determine their direction of movement in a defensive screen;
  • Maintain contact with enemy forces and report any activity in the area of operations;
  • Maintain contact with the main body and any security forces operating on its flanks; and
  • Impede and harass the enemy within our capabilities while displacing.

Given those requirements, it is appropriate that we maneuver to destroy security elements (the fleeing observation post (OP), in our case) while remaining oriented on the battalion main body. However, does that CoA agree or counter our purpose as the tactical situation around us evolves?

We have to remember that the purpose of our screen is to “enable the battalion to follow and support 1-502.” The key question then is, how does our screen assist the battalion mission? Alternatively, does our purpose within the overall operation at some point outweigh the specified task and drive us to alter from our stated task and purpose? If our purpose is to enable the battalion to follow and support, we should consistently think about how the battalion is working to enable 1-502 and how we can assist the battalion’s execution of its CoA. We are an enabler. Essentially, this is our platoon’s contribution to the fight, albeit a little harder to determine with conflicting guidance and no immediate direction. Before we act hastily, let us take a moment – since we are in contact – to develop the situation.

What we know

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.” –Sun Tzu

“Undeniably, in a mountainous area, a small post in a favorable position acquires exceptional strength.” –Carl von Clausewitz

Terrain and weather are the common denominators in engagements, meaning that regardless of the composition and disposition of forces, the “playing field” is the same for both actors. The actor on the most favorable, or key, terrain possesses an initial advantage. In this case, we understand that we have an enemy occupying high ground and overwatching canalizing and compartmentalizing terrain – both of which give him a potential significant advantage.

The enemy “is primarily infantry with point obstacle and anti-tank capabilities augmented with small numbers of armored vehicles – a mix of T-72, BRDMs and BMPs.” This composition arrayed in the restrictive terrain along Missionary Ridge also mitigates the maneuver and firepower advantages our mechanized vehicles provide. Attacking into this type of terrain against this type of enemy diminishes many of our strengths and requires more time and resources to effectively clear.

What we think we know

Even a rudimentary terrain analysis leads to several assumptions on the disposition of the enemy. Knowing that Narrow Bridge and the line of communication leading to Objective Chapultec are critical to both friendly and enemy success leads to assuming that the focus for the enemy defense centers on that area. If we assume that the main engagement area focuses on Narrow Bridge, our platoon’s particular concern is how the enemy has worked to secure his flanks, the location of his reserve and indications of where is he accepting risk. Identifying weakness in his defense provides something the battalion commander could use to his advantage if his attack stalls at Narrow Bridge.

We also can assume that the fact the enemy purposely engaged in and around its own dismounted elements indicates they are fighting from prepared positions with planned engagement areas with alternate and subsequent fighting positions – maybe validating the assumption on his disposition and also identifying obvious areas of strength. Further, the lack of reporting on his armor could mean that he is holding it in reserve to reinforce or counterattack.

What we need to know

Although obvious, what we really need to know is where the enemy is and in what strength. We owe that to the battalion commander so he can develop options, but we have to do it without becoming so decisively engaged that he has to commit forces from the main body to reconstitute his flank security – or bail us out. However, knowing the battalion is in contact vicinity of Narrow Bridge starts to illustrate the basic enemy disposition.

We also need to know if there is an alternate route for the battalion to use should the attack stall on Narrow Bridge. At the same time, we need to know more about the success or lack of success of the battalion’s attack. Quite simply, if the battalion is having success along Narrow Bridge, that action could create a different set of considerations for the platoon.

Seizing, retaining and exploiting the initiative

“The most consistently successful commanders, when faced by an enemy in a position that was strong naturally or materially, have hardly ever tackled it in a direct way. And when, under pressure of circumstances, they have risked a direct attack, the result has commonly been to blot their record with a failure.” –Sir Basil H. Liddell-Hart

Our lieutenant’s dilemma is how to handle the conflicting scenario unfolding in front of him. Although there are many possibilities, they generally group into three basic options:

  • Stay the course. Our lieutenant abides by stated orders and his perception of the battalion commander’s intent and continues to screen the battalion’s flank. Nothing in the battalion commander’s guidance indicates that he would allow for excessive initiative from a platoon leader. For that reason, while the battalion situation seems to be deteriorating on the plain, the battalion commander believes his left flank is secure or at least has the ability to react based on the early warning the platoon provides. If the platoon was to give up the flank and move to assist the battalion, there is no guarantee that either that action would help or that leaving the flank exposed is what the battalion commander would see as “responsible initiative.” Consequently, staying where we are and continuing to screen makes sense.
  • Attack the enemy’s flank. Our lieutenant makes the assessment that since the battalion is in contact and all good lieutenants in the absence of further orders attack, he should do so. In this case, the lieutenant knows that the battalion is involved in a heavy firefight and assumes that the best way to alleviate pressure is to move toward contact, thereby forcing the enemy to deal with two problems simultaneously. The advantage here is that it potentially exposes the enemy flank, which is a proven tactic when attacking fortified positions; however, in reality, dealing with limited visibility and a dynamic situation limits the effectiveness and potentially adds confusion to the battalion’s attack. Given the terrain and the prepared defensive positions, perhaps the only way the battalion controls Narrow Pass is by attacking the enemy’s flank (a tactic, it seems, is unfolding to the west). Unless the battalion commander directs or gives approval, a platoon moving on its flank “unsolicited” could have significant consequences both by exposing the battalion’s flank and by presenting the opportunity for fratricide. Bottom line is, it mandates coordination of fires and synchronization of effort. Finally, should the battalion’s attack begin to succeed, the now-exposed left flank is a likely avenue for the armor reserve to counterattack, and there is no one securing the battalion’s flank.
  • Take the high ground. At this point, the lieutenant makes several assumptions. First is that the battalion will be challenged to make it through Narrow Pass without significant losses, which will cause the battalion to look for other options. Second, if he abandons the battalion flank, he throws what certainty the battalion commander has about the situation out his hatch. Finally, if you were the battalion commander or S-3, you would want someone to provide some decent options and begin setting conditions for them. Setting conditions for any battalion movement would require understanding the terrain around Missionary Ridge and the Western Narrow Pass. You can bet that the OP you had visual contact with had the task to provide early warning about activity on the enemy’s right flank. If we wait too long to act, the enemy could easily reposition his reserve to block the gap along the Western Narrow Pass (if he has not done so already), or the pass might already contain a significant blocking effort (which we do not know). Further, if the battalion stalls at Narrow Bridge, one of the battalion’s next-best options is to move west through the Western Narrow Pass, but unless we act, the commander would (or should) have to generate a reconnaissance force to develop the situation – taking valuable time and combat power away from his main body.

Author’s solution

“Blue, this is Blue 1. WARNO follows."

“I am posting graphic control measures on our Blue Force Tracker, acknowledge receipt.”

“Battalion is engaged vicinity Narrow Bridge, lead elements of 1-502 are in contact to the north, and we had visual contact vicinity CP 67 with two to three dismounts, which I believe to be an OP overwatching Western Narrow Pass.”

“We are going to continue to screen the battalion’s western flank while developing other options. Namely, once the net clears, I am going to engage the battalion S-3 on a revised CoA for us. Upon approval, I want to move quickly to secure the Western Narrow Pass to both provide early warning for the battalion and secure it as a potential avenue for the battalion to use should their attack on Narrow Bridge fail. If I can’t get through on the net, then I’ll make the decision to execute.”

“White 3 and 4 [mech]. On order, I want you to move to the spur on the east side of the Western Narrow Pass (CP 96 on your graphics) and establish an OP observing both the Western Narrow Pass and north of Missionary Ridge to figure out the enemy composition and disposition and if they are moving in our direction. Expect contact. Clear dismounts, take extra precautions for point obstacles and let me know if you have any contact with mechanized or anti-tank elements. What we can’t afford is to become decisively engaged.”

“The trigger for you to move is when Blue 1 and 2 are set in the support by fire.”

“Blue 2 [tank]. On order, move with me to establish a support-by-fire vicinity CP 23 to cover White’s move to CP 96. Once you are able to observe the Western Narrow Pass, White will bound to establish a hasty defense along PL Spur oriented on the plain north of Missionary Ridge. Standard lift and shift fire procedures apply.”



The key element to this CoA is requesting a decision out of the battalion leadership before acting. At this point, we should consider that the battalion is acting based on the assumption that our platoon is maintaining a flank screen. Any actions that detract from that deserve (if not mandate) going back to the headquarters who issued the order and requesting to deviate from the directed CoA.

Nevertheless, there is a point where the loss of communication or urgency of action mandates initiative within intent. In this case, our lieutenant makes the decision that control of the Western Narrow Pass is growing in importance and provides a warning order to his platoon so they can start planning while he attempts to get approval from the battalion. Second, battalion needs to hear his perspective on the problem, and by bringing a solution, he helps the battalion S-3 and commander formulate branches and sequels. If he fails to reach the battalion, then he will have to make a decision within what he believes is the battalion commander’s intent.

The tactic of using the tank section (led by the platoon leader) to establish a support-by-fire while the mech section (led by the platoon sergeant) dismounts and attempts to flank what most likely will be a defended position is fundamentally sound. The trick in this scenario is not to become decisively engaged and thereby compound the battalion’s problem. The interesting discussion would be at what point does the lieutenant act without guidance?


“The commander should train to be able to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its important elements and base decisions on those important elements as a part of mastering the Army profession. Commanders develop this capability after years of education in military schools, self-study and practical training experiences, which eventually develop the intuitive faculties required to solve tactical problems.” –ADRP 3-90

This is a lot to expect a lieutenant to do, and the scenario could easily expand to address the battalion problem set. With that, audacity and initiative are values we nurture and seek to grow within our command cultures; however, understanding when audacity and initiative become irresponsible derives from experience and good judgment. In this case – as in many cases – we are asking the lieutenant to interpret, anticipate, assume and take responsible initiative within his commander’s intent. This is normal in combat. How then do we grow audacity and initiative within our commands with limited access to training and combat experience? Perhaps, as ADRP 3-90 states, an element to that solution is in studying and solving tactical problems such as “Battle at Narrow Bridge.”

As we do these tactical problems, it is good to remember there are three elements to solving them. First is the ability to identify the problem and determine plausible solutions. This is perhaps the easiest of the three – especially when given the relative comfort of an office or classroom. Second is the ability to communicate a solution. Brevity and clarity combine with simplicity to ensure the orders are received correctly and often only over a radio. Can the leader help his subordinates visualize the problem and CoA? Finally is the ability to lead the execution of a solution. This is not necessarily “out front” but often from a position where you as the leader can make the decisions only you as a leader can make while providing the appropriate presence to feel the outcome.

As we explore solutions to this and other tactical problems, it is important to keep these three considerations in mind. Remember: while it might be a doctrinally correct answer, can the leader communicate it simply and quickly is almost as important as a correct answer.

These exercises allow us to get “mental reps” at dealing with tactical problems. Engaging in problem-solving sessions helps build experience in facing these types of tactical issues and provides mental references for future scenarios. Finally, when done in an open session with leaders and subordinates, the associated dialogue – and often debate – creates an opportunity to understand how leaders approach solving these types of tactical problems. Consequently, we as leaders are better able to anticipate and assume on the battlefield even with the lack of clear guidance and perhaps comprehend what it means to “force passage onto the plain.”

(Editor’s note: If you wish to present an alternative solution, please submit it to usarmy.benning.tradoc.mbx.armor-magazine@mail.mil within 30-45 days after this edition is posted on-line but no later than Jan. 14, 2015. The material to be submitted is a fragmentary order as if you were speaking on the radio or via Blue Force Tracker message. Then, following your initial FRAGO, clearly define the problem(s) as you see it/them. Please submit both your initial FRAGO and discussion of the problem, assumptions and rationale for your solution to ARMOR for possible publication.)


1Secure is a tactical mission task that involves preventing a unit, facility or geographical location from being damaged or destroyed due to enemy action.

2Clear is a tactical mission task that requires the commander to remove all enemy forces and eliminate organized resistance within an assigned area.

3Bypass is a tactical mission task in which the commander directs the unit to maneuver around an obstacle, position or enemy force to maintain the momentum of the operation while deliberately avoiding combat with an enemy force.

4For a more complete discussion of bypass maneuver, see FM 3-90-1, Page B4.

5Defeat is a tactical mission task that occurs when an enemy force has temporarily or permanently lost the physical means or the will to fight.

6Destroy is a tactical mission task that physically renders an enemy force combat-ineffective until it is reconstituted.

7The vagueness invoked by the simplistic guidance “to force passage onto the plan” is purposeful and meant to evoke conversation and highlight the importance of well-thought-out and clearly communicated commander’s intent.

8Follow and support is a tactical mission task in which a committed force follows and supports a lead force conducting an offensive task.

9Follow and assume is a tactical mission task in which a second committed force follows a force conducting an offensive task and is prepared to continue the mission if the lead force is fixed, attrited or unable to continue.