What’s Your Next Move?: Author’s Solution to Tactical Vignette 14-02: ‘Showdown in the Central Corridor’

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Figure 1. Force organized for a movement-to-contact. (From FM 3-90-1, Page 2-2)

When you take some time to think about it, every operation is in some form a movement-to-contact. Whether moving to position for a deliberate attack, conducting counter-reconnaissance during a defense or executing movement in stability operations, each possesses key elements of a movement-to-contact. Units conduct a movement-to-contact when the enemy situation is vague or not specific enough to conduct a deliberate attack, and even then, the approach to a deliberate attack should be organized around a movement-to-contact’s guiding concepts. Consequently, it should be a standard operation for leaders to master.

Further, our responsibility as leaders at all levels is to manage transitions and, at its core, a movement-to-contact is simply a temporary state before a formation transitions to another type of operation. When conditions are properly set, formations possess the capacity to quickly transition to the attack or defense, and leaders can identify opportunity to seize the initiative, a movement-to-contact facilitates accomplishing subsequent more-decisive operations.

Doctrinal analysis and interpretation

Field Manual (FM) 3-90-1 states “a movement-to-contact employs purposeful and aggressive movement, decentralized control and the hasty deployment of combined-arms formations from the march to conduct offensive, defensive or stability tasks.”1 Based on that definition, doctrine describes the fundamentals of a movement-to-contact as:

  • Focus all efforts on finding the enemy.
  • Make initial contact with the smallest force possible, consistent with protecting the force.
  • Make initial contact with small, mobile, self-contained forces to avoid decisive engagement of the main body on ground chosen by the enemy. (This allows the commander maximum flexibility to develop the situation.)
  • Task-organize the force and use movement formations to deploy and attack rapidly in any direction.
  • Keep subordinate forces within supporting distances to facilitate a flexible response.
  • Once in contact, maintain contact regardless of the course of action adopted.
  • While a thorough definition and account of fundamentals, perhaps we can restate them in simpler terms for our use. Restated, they could read:
  • Find the enemy.
  • Gain and maintain contact with the smallest force possible.
  • Retain freedom of maneuver.
  • Rapidly transition to attack, defense or retrograde operations.
  • Finish decisively.

Basic organization and critical tasks

The ultimate purpose of a movement-to-contact is to gain contact with the enemy. As our fundamentals dictate, ideally, we make contact with the smallest force possible to allow us to preserve main-body combat power so it can deploy in a position of advantage. This allows us to seize and retain the initiative. The basic formation for a movement-to-contact consists of an advance guard, main body and flank- and rear-security elements. However, based on the formation’s size, it is often problematic to generate forces to accomplish these associated tasks and purposes without substantially degrading the main body. Therefore, at a minimum, a movement-to-contact has an advance guard and main body, and the commander looks for other methods to gain flank and rear situational awareness. Before we get to a solution for the tactical vignette, let us look at the key components of a movement-to-contact.

ADVANCE GUARD. The advance guard ensures the uninterrupted advance of the main body. To do this, the advance guard moves ahead of the main body and works to 1) find the enemy, 2) develop the situation for the commander, but most importantly, 3) facilitate the main body’s deployment at a time and place of the commander’s choosing. As a result, the designated formation should possess a degree of mobility, firepower and survivability that enables these tasks. Ideally, the advance guard operates within supporting range of the main body’s weapon systems, is often the initial priority of fires and possesses a mixture of combined-arms capabilities appropriate to the mission. It should be both lethal and mobile. Normally, the advance guard conducts the following critical tasks:

  • Gain and maintain contact. Reconnaissance assets typically conduct zone or area reconnaissance focused on finding the enemy, obstacle identification and pulling the advance guard into a position of advantage to assist in developing the situation for the main body. Following reconnaissance handoff, the advance guard maneuvers to determine enemy weaknesses for further exploitation by the main body.
  • Disrupt the enemy. Once the advance guard begins to maneuver on the enemy, it focuses effort on identifying enemy gaps and key terrain, along with destroying command-and-control (C2) elements that serve to disrupt the enemy effort. The intent is to set conditions for the main body to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses.
  • Fix the enemy. The advance guard then, within its capability, maneuvers to fix the enemy main body to prevent it from achieving a position of advantage over the friendly main body.

MAIN BODY. The main body is the element designated to conduct the decisive operation resulting from gaining contact. As such, its organization varies based on the amount of combat power the commander task-organizes to the various security elements supporting the main body. However, the main body typically transitions from an approach march to either a hasty attack or a defense ideally positioned to take advantage of an enemy’s weakness through maneuver.2 As such, its task-organization should reflect the ability to maneuver to conduct decisive operations. The typical critical tasks the main body conducts are:

  • Maneuver. Tempo is the key to successful maneuver and transition from the approach march into another type of operation. Ideally, the main body is capable of deploying faster than the enemy deploys and thereby forces the enemy to react to friendly maneuver. Critical to this concept is the successful battle handoff and passage of lines between the security forces (usually the advance guard) and the main body. The object is to place the main body’s strength against the enemy’s weaknesses as swiftly as possible, and the advance guard and reconnaissance elements serve to facilitate the commander’s knowledge of those weaknesses. Effectively, this is what developing the situation means.
  • Follow-on actions. This task accomplishes the overall task and purpose of the operation and typically serves as the decisive task. The subordinate formation’s task and purpose nest within the higher headquarters to ensure complementary efforts. The result of the maneuver is ordinarily a transition to an attack, or depending on the terrain and enemy, transition to a defense.

Analysis of the tactical problem

What we know. As we said earlier, we know we are in visual contact with 20 vehicles moving east and starting to deploy north of Checkpoint (CP) 3. (We suspect this is the reconnaissance detachment.) We also know that there are 35 vehicles moving rapidly toward CP 4. (We suspect this is the advance guard.) Our hasty time-distance analysis puts the suspected reconnaissance detachment in position to affect our main body before it reaches CP 2. With that, the most important fact we know is that we are in contact (visual only at this point). We are unable to receive battalion guidance. We also know that our task is to destroy the reconnaissance detachment so that our battalion can destroy the advance guard.3 However, the developing situation causes some concern of whether that is still relevant.

What we think we know. We will assume that the enemy’s organization consists of one to three combat reconnaissance patrols, a reconnaissance detachment, an advanced guard, a main body and a reserve. Further, we will also assume that the enemy will flow to success, meaning that where he finds the least resistance, he will move his follow-on echelons, rather than reinforcing failure. We can also assume that our separation from the main body is allowing the enemy unhindered deployment against our main body.

Given this information, we have several options. First: we are in contact and must begin developing the situation for the main body; however, our decision is complicated. Do we assume that the contact to our north is the reconnaissance detachment and “action right” to address it in accordance with our stated task and purpose? Alternatively, do we assume that we should ignore contact with the reconnaissance detachment, pass it off to our main body and attempt to gain contact with the expected enemy main body moving from our east? Are there other options?

Option 1: Engage the reconnaissance detachment

Our task clearly states to destroy the reconnaissance detachment. However, how do we know if the contact to our north is the reconnaissance detachment? Normally, intelligence sections (S-2s) are best at classifying echelons in that they have a better situational understanding of often-conflicting spot reports.4 In this case, based in some part on our inability to talk to battalion, we are unsure of our contact. Nevertheless, what we do have is a spot report of an element that meets the basic outline of what we expect of a reconnaissance detachment’s composition (20 vehicles deploying to our north).

We have several other considerations. First, to stay true to our fundamentals, we must work to maintain contact (ideally with the smallest force possible), and that dictates a transition from the march to maneuver against the suspected reconnaissance detachment. This action could disrupt or fix the reconnaissance detachment and, depending on how we capitalize on the terrain, we could destroy it. However, if we wait too long, the main body will pass through CP 2 and begin receiving direct fires – violating our overall purpose. Further, and perhaps most importantly, as we maneuver against the reconnaissance detachment, we expose our own flank to the oncoming advanced guard.

Option 2: Bypass reconnaissance detachment and engage advanced guard

Option 2 is to continue movement toward CP 6 and find suitable ground to establish a hasty defense between Hills 560 and 210 oriented on CP 4. The intent of this option is to turn the advanced guard toward CP 2, thereby forcing them toward our main body. The assumption is if we can effectively turn the advanced guard, then the main body would be in position to both destroy the reconnaissance detachment and disrupt the advanced guard. Many assumptions roll into this decision; however, we do address the battalion’s overall task to destroy the advanced guard, but we also fail to meet our specified task to destroy the reconnaissance detachment.

That said, there are many permutations of dealing with the reconnaissance detachment (should we choose this course of action), but mostly they fall into either “maintain contact” or “report the reconnaissance detachment and continue mission.”

Author’s solution

“Apache, this is Apache 6. FRAGO follows.

“Blue has visual contact with approximately 20 vehicles moving north of CP 3. I don’t know if that is the reconnaissance detachment or not, but we can’t let something that large affect our main body; therefore, we are going to attack to destroy that formation before they reach CP 2 and are able to fix the battalion.

“My intent is to gain contact, develop the situation and then either attack or find good ground to defend. I expect that once we gain contact, they will try to fix us and bypass us to the east between CP 2 and Hill 110; we cannot let that happen. Bottom line, that formation cannot put direct fire on the main body.

“Tasks to subordinate units:

  • Blue (tank). Reverse march and maintain visual contact on the lead enemy elements. Find good cover and wait for White to move on-line.
  • White (tank). Move to Blue’s left flank and establish a support-by-fire position overwatching Blue’s movement. Once on-line, begin bounding overwatch with Blue to gain contact. If you do not get contact, press toward CP 2 as quickly as you can so we can establish a hasty defense protecting the main body’s move south of CP 2.
  • Red (mech). You are our reserve. Stay with me and be prepared to transition to hasty attack or defense.
  • Apache Redleg. Priority of fires is Blue. I want to use fires to disrupt and assist in breaking contact.

“Coordinating instructions:

  • Stay mobile; we cannot get fixed. The idea is to stay between our main body and their main effort.
  • Engagement criteria. Engage C2 vehicles, armor and anti-tank systems.
  • Bypass criteria. Bypass one to three vehicles. Focus efforts on greater than three vehicle formations.”

Rationale and conclusion

Generally, this solution lines up with the first option based on the rationale that we must gain and maintain contact above almost all other considerations. Given this, there are still some concerns based on this decision.

First, the lack of comms, combined with the separation from the main body, presents the very real consideration that we have to deal with the gap in both guidance and supporting fires. This gap really drives our ultimate decision and outweighs the perceived benefits of moving toward the advance guard. Since the spot report came across Blue Force Tracker, you can assume the battalion and brigade commanders are working on how to deal with the advance guard, but you cannot assume that they know about the reconnaissance detachment moving into their flank; therefore, that has to be your priority.

Finally, what this scenario provides is reinforcement of units having well-practiced standing operating procedures, detailed engagement criteria and well-understood bypass criteria. In the lack of guidance, units and leaders make many decisions within the left and right limit of these types of coordinating instructions.

As units discuss this and other tactical scenarios, it is useful to take some time and discuss how current operating procedures would or could be used within the scenario. As always, the more we talk about these and other tactical problems, the better we are at solving the ones to come.


1 FM 3-90-1, Page 2-3.

2 An approach march is the advance of a combat unit when direct contact with the enemy is intended (Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 3-90).

3 Destroy is a tactical mission task that physically renders an enemy force combat-ineffective until it is reconstituted (FM 3-90-1, C1).

4 The contemporary threat depicted in the combat training centers constantly adjusts based on the desired training objectives. However, there was a time that the timing of the various opposing-force elements moving through the National Training Center’s Central Corridor was widely known. Combat-arms officers knew the composition and disposition of the threat better than intelligence officers did, and while that time has passed, mechanized or mobile movements still require the same basic echeloning of forces and should be discussed within the overall enemy order of battle.