Blackhorse Perspectives: Reflections of a Blackhorse Commander

(Editor’s note: This column in ARMOR magazine is provided by 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment to inform maneuver units what the best practices for success are when deploying to the National Training Center for their rotations.)

The operational environment has changed since we left Iraq and started drawing down in Afghanistan. National Training Center (NTC) scenario design adjusted accordingly from a majority of security-force assistance team mission-rehearsal exercises to decisive-action rotations in 2014. In addition, brigade combat teams (BCTs) are arriving under the BCT 20/20 concept with an additional combined-arms battalion and a brigade engineer battalion. It is important to note that these 20/20 BCTs outnumber the Blackhorse Regiment by about three to one.

Blackhorse is asked every rotation to challenge the BCT in rotation, which usually arrives with superior weapons, sights, optics, vehicles, air weapons teams (AWT), close air support and unmanned aircraft systems assets. After every battle period, the BCT contemplates a few things: How/why did the exercise go the way it did? What really happened vs. what we thought happened? What were our shortcomings?

Blackhorse is great at fighting the enemy, not the plan, using the information-collection and analysis capabilities at our disposal. I have broken down a few areas where I think Blackhorse is leading the way and how these areas contribute success to every rotation. This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list; this is my perspective after a year of being a mechanized-infantry commander. As the commander for the observers/controllers/trainers for Blackhorse, my job entails the following: make sure Blackhorse is following the exercise operating procedures, report to the squadron commanders (SCOs) and regimental commander on what happened during the battle period, and give my recommendations on improvements through after-action reviews.

These are what I believe to be key components for achieving success:

  • Understand doctrine;
  • Conduct full dress rehearsals;
  • Implement mission command down to the lowest level;
  • Maintain tempo and quickly transition from movement to maneuver;
  • Find the point of penetration and violently exploit it; and
  • Fight the enemy, not the plan.

Understanding doctrine

Every unit receives Soldiers with the same baseline understanding of doctrine. Our privates go to the same basic and advanced-individual-training courses; our lieutenants come from the same basic officer’s leadership courses; and our captains come from the same career-development courses. In other words, all BCTs have roughly the same general knowledge.

However, it is one thing to read and understand doctrine, and another to implement it. Each month, Blackhorse executes three to four force-on-force operations. If our Soldiers were conducting a movement-to-contact, I would break open a field manual and read what the tasks associated with a movement-to-contact were. I would take out all the key points and make sure I covered them in my operations order (OPORD). Having the definition to key operational terms or graphics defined at the beginning of my OPORD is helpful in making sure everyone is on the same page.

When conducting any operation, it is important that everyone in your formation understands the plan down to the lowest level. The only way for this to happen is through full rehearsals. Practice the operation continuously until the commander knows everyone understands the plan and what part their adjacent elements are playing in case they are called to accept their role.

Full dress rehearsals

Mission orders are critical, but too much detail can come at the expense of time, which is one of your most limited resources. We would much rather have an OPORD that covers the key tasks and still have a large amount of time to rehearse. I don’t think any extensive OPORD can replicate the type of comprehensive understanding that Soldiers at the lowest level receive by having your entire troop/company rehearse a plan several times. If time permits, the timeline should look like the following: issue the OPORD, go over it on a terrain model and use the land available to you to get all tracks or Soldiers out to rehearse your plans.

If we could conduct a full dress rehearsal three times, I always felt like we would be successful on the battlefield, and most of the time, we were. We might not always feel like taking the time to rehearse, especially after a battle period; however, the benefit of the rehearsal pays many dividends. Don’t forget to cover actions on the objective and after the breach or decisive point during rehearsals. Leaders often forget to rehearse beyond the decisive point, resulting in confusion and loss of tempo when it is most important.

Mission command

Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 6-0 defines mission command as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”

I had read a lot on mission command in ADP 6-0 and in Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0, but a briefing by a command sergeant major in Operations Group helped me better understand what mission command is and how important it is. He broke mission command down into two things:

  • Shared vision (understanding the commander’s intent/vision and understanding the outcome); and
  • Mutual trust (trust up and down).

Blackhorse relies heavily on this concept. When our leaders at any level understand the commander’s vision and gain mutual trust, that troop or company is an effective fighting machine with smart, thinking leaders. Success is earned when a commander can trust a team leader or tank commander to call up a fire mission on a target of opportunity, high-payoff target (HPT)/high-value target (HVT) or priority information requirement (PIR). The commander/fire-support officer (FSO) then verifies the accuracy of the grid and that fire mission is executed. This creates a rapid and streamlined process with only two checks, one with the commander and one with the FSO at battalion.

Enabling quick fires that will facilitate maneuver is how Blackhorse is able to get quick effect with fire missions. A shared vision and mutual trust makes for a more effective and efficient fighting force and saves many more lives than it will cost.

Transition and tempo

ADRP 3-0 covers the movement and maneuver warfighting function, but I am going to cover it in a more simplistic way. Many of the offensive operations we conduct at NTC cover a great deal of ground. We may move 20 to 30 kilometers before we expect contact. Once we make contact, we may have another 20 to 30 kilometers to move until we reach our final objective. Moving a mechanized infantry battalion (MIBN) in a file may not be the safest way to move a formation, but it is a lot more practical when you have time constraints.

For movements greater than 30 kilometers before expected contact, we use a high-speed avenue of approach such as a main supply route. We travel in a file (ensuring we maintain roughly 200-meters spacing between tracks) until we close to within two kilometers from the probable line of contact. This is where we will make contact, or are one terrain feature from possible contact. We are then able to transition to maneuver.

Mastering the transition from movement to maneuver is key. It’s vital that mechanized-infantry companies or platoons make the transition quickly, giving the opposition as little time to react as possible. Elements that are able to make the transition while maintaining their tempo achieve greatest success on the battlefield. This can only be done through detailed rehearsals. We live and train here every month, but if we are not able to master the transition, we sustain heavy losses.

Whether it’s Blackhorse or a BCT that’s going through a rotation, it’s naive to think you are not going to sustain any losses during a movement at NTC once you are close to the enemy. The biggest key to success is to maintain tempo! When troops/companies or platoons get bogged down with the initial contact – usually a screen or disruption force – that is when the fight is lost. Once a formation stops maneuvering, they become targets of opportunity.

I‘ve watched a BCT bring a squadron or battalion through an area where I only had two Javelin teams; once the lead element was engaged, the lead platoon stopped, which halted the whole squadron. Once this happens, the lead platoon and company are as good as dead. I watched this one battle period and explained to my radio operator that if we hit them and they stop, we are going to win because they lose their tempo and it clogs up their whole formation. If we hit them and they keep maneuvering forward, set up a support-by-fire (SBF), call for fire and move on, then we are going to be overrun and lose the fight.

Maintaining your tempo is key, which ties in nicely with my next talking point.

Finding point of penetration

Finding a point of penetration is not just conducting a breach. It’s also finding a weak spot in the enemy’s defense or finding a route that bypasses the defense and enables you to maneuver behind enemy lines. In an offensive operation, you know you are going to attack a defense and are more likely to sustain causalities.

One of the biggest issues the BCT has is creating a point of penetration and exploiting it. Blackhorse excels at this. When a commander identifies a weakness in a defense, it is vital that we use all available assets to exploit it as lethally and violently as possible so the MIBN following doesn’t get left out in the open. Once said weakness is identified, it’s important to use AWT, fires and direct fires to open that gap, massing effects to achieve situational overmatch. Once that gap is opened, there is a small amount of time to get forces though it.

If you are able to get a few tracks though this gap, there are a few second- and third-order effects that challenge the enemy. There is so much radio traffic going to the commander that it clogs the nets, so Soldiers are afraid to fire at the tracks that made it through for fear of fratricide – they don’t know whether the track is friendly or enemy (from a long distance, it can be very hard to tell), or is violating their safety danger zones. This is the time to exploit success and press on to the deep objectives. Losing tempo gives the enemy a chance to gather situational awareness and react, endangering the success of the mission.

Once you are through, it is important to leave a security element behind to secure and improve the breach or to act as an SBF. The security element then assists in guiding follow-on forces. Once a company/troop-size element is through that gap, you have reached your decisive point, and victory is inevitable.

It is important to maintain your tempo and focus on the HPT/HVT, rather than be distracted by ground combat power. This will further diminish the enemy’s ability to fight you and communicate within themselves.

Fight the enemy

The enemy has a vote in every fight. It’s vital to have a well-rehearsed plan, but if the enemy is not adhering to your initial assessment, the plan must adapt. Fighting for key terrain is important and can be your objective, but remember there is more than one way to get there. Make sure you are using your S-6 to get line-of-sight analysis that tells you where there is dead space on certain avenues of approach, so you are able to choose the best route that gives you the most cover/concealment during movement.

Sometimes you have to breach to get to a certain area, but if the enemy has taken the time to put an obstacle there, you have to deal with mines, direct, indirect and observation. If the terrain allows it, look at using the land available and use a different direction.

Look for a weak spot to the north or south and move there. This is what reconnaissance is for; however, the scouts may miss certain PIR, and you may encounter an obstacle when you get there.

It’s up to the commander on the ground to either execute the breach or make a suggestion to the SCO on a way to bypass. Tactical patience is hard to come by, but if you can practice tactical patience on the battlefield and move when the time is right, or once you have a good read on the enemy, your chance of successfully penetrating is much higher.

In nearly three years at NTC, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in 20 training rotations. In that time, I have learned a great deal about combined-arms maneuver and wide-area security. Maneuvering a MIBN or a company seems easy enough in theory, but it’s vastly more difficult when you are executing it. It’s important to ensure that your Soldiers have a mastery of maneuver tactics down to the lowest level and understand your plan. This facilitates a shared vision and mutual trust, allowing for disciplined initiative. Having a good OPORD is great, but it can’t replace full dress rehearsals, so you need to be conscious of time.

Tempo is key, whether it is transitioning from movement to maneuver or maintaining momentum though a breach/point of penetration. Once you have penetrated the enemy’s lines, exploit violently and make sure you have rehearsed your plan beyond the breach. The enemy always has a vote, so you need to be able to adapt to any situation. Wargaming definitely helps with this, but don’t ever be too set in your ways that you can’t adjust your plan. Tactical flexibility is as important to your success as a good plan.