Squad and Platoon Combat Drill

If you’ve ever played sports, you’ve run drills in practice. Not surprisingly, the Army uses drills as well. It is impossible for a platoon to prepare for every situation on the battlefield. But a platoon can prepare for the most likely events. One common instance is contact with the enemy while the platoon is moving from one point to another.

We discussed movement formations earlier. The most common formation for a platoon is for the fire teams to be in wedge formation, while the squads and the platoon as a whole is in column.

plt wedge

Not surprisingly, the lead squad is usually the squad that makes the initial contact with the enemy. Often, making contact means “the lead squad is taking small arms fire.” When this happens, the squad combat drill (and the platoon combat drill, concurrently) instantly and without orders begins.

First and foremost is the most natural reaction. The lead fireteam takes cover and starts to return fire. The team leader for this lead team is doing several things at once. He’s making sure his team has taken cover, he’s attempting to locate the enemy and discern their strength, and he’s directing the fire of his team onto the enemy. He’s making sure his automatic rifleman is suppressing any enemy machine guns and his grenadier is either engaging the most threatening targets, or firing smoke to provide concealment as needed. And oh, yeah, he’s getting ready to report to his squad leader.

The squad leader, in the meantime is moving up to the lead team to locate the enemy and determine if the lead team can suppress them. By “suppression” we mean, can they put enough fire on them to keep them from accurately targeting our guys. You don’t necessarily have to hit the bad guys to suppress them. Enough fire to keep their heads down will do the job. Of course, as my first company commander was fond of saying, one round to the head is effective suppression.  If the lead team can suppress the enemy, he can immediately use his second team to move to the enemy flank and assault them to kill or capture them.

Here’s the beautiful thing about tactics- this flanking maneuver, where one element serves as a base of fire to suppress the enemy and another moves to a flank to assault works at every level. Whether it is called a flank attack, a holding attack, or fire and maneuver, it is essentially the only tactic you need to know, from squad level to division level.

If the lead team cannot suppress the enemy, the second team of the lead squad is brought up to add its firepower to the base of fire. While this is happening, the platoon leader and the machine gun team travelling with him moves into position. The platoon leader makes his estimate of the situation, emplaces the machine gun team and has it engage to suppress the enemy, and makes a determination as to whether the lead squad has suppressed the enemy, and if so, can one or both of the following squads make a flank attack. Alternatively, he can bring a second squad (and the other machine gun team) up to add suppressive fires, while sending the third squad to attack from the flank. Normally, the platoon leader will accompany the flanking assault, but he may decide to remain with the base of fire. It is a judgment call.

Right about this time, our platoon leader is a very busy young man. In addition to moving up to take control of the engagement, emplacing the machine gun team, and determining how and where to make his flank attack (or even if he can- he may need to use the entire platoon as a base of fire, and let another of the company’s platoons maneuver to make a flank attack), he’s also on the radio to the company commander telling him where he’s made contact, and what type of contact he’s facing. He’s also busy getting the ball rolling on getting fire support into the fight. This might be in the form of mortar fire from the company’s two 60mm mortars, or it might be artillery support or even getting supporting Apache gunships overhead. He has his Forward Observer with him to help, but it is still a lot for a young man a year or two out of college to handle.

While our young platoon leader is doing this, his platoon sergeant, the most experienced soldier in the platoon, is busy bringing up the second machine gun team, getting the feel for what the situation is, preparing to either take charge of the base of fire, or lead the assault on the enemy flank.

In a well trained platoon, these actions have been practiced dozens of times, and are as familiar and automatic as an NFL team  running a screen pass on second down. This is bread and butter stuff. You simply MUST be able to do these fundamental actions, and you simply MUST have practiced them enough that they are second nature. There is no time to sit back and think what your reactions should be. Once you have a bit of a grip on the situation, THEN you can take a moment to figure out your next steps. But your platoon must have the basics down. I’ve probably walked through the drill a thousand times. Most of the time, it’s just that, a walk-through. After that, increasingly realistic practice builds on the basics. And once you’ve mastered the simple drills such as this, you and your platoon can move on to more complex endeavors (such as doing it at night!).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yajq24GyZY8&w=448&h=336&hd=1]

In the video above, you can see the beginning of the combat drill. The troops are laying suppressive fires on the enemy, and getting fire support rolling. They’re a bit far out to attempt to immediately flank the enemy (and there’s a depressing lack of covered and concealed routes to move for that attack). But they clearly have rehearsed for this moment many a time.

5 thoughts on “Squad and Platoon Combat Drill”

  1. Every time I see those black and white diagrams depicting the formations, I think of a platoon advancing across a flat chalkboard. Then reality sets in, with trees, fence-lines, roads, and creeks. My mind recalls a particular patrol at Fort Riley that started out in a column of wedges. One by one the squad wedges collapsed into columns until one big column walked through the wood line. “At what point did you order a formation change, platoon leader?” asked the TAC during the AAR following the ambush….

  2. Thanks for this. And the video was helpful, especially because it shows mountainous terrain, which, as Craig commented, changes things.

    Seeing the terrain here reminded me of high school Latin II class and translating Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Most of us were busy making sure we translated correctly, but now I wish I had spent more time comprehending what Caesar was communicating. It would help me to understand more of this, I think. I remember that Caesar assessed terrain and used it to his advantage whenever possible. Maybe I’ll go back now and read these works in English (available online) to learn more about the combat challenges.

    Got a few questions:

    Do lead squads generally suffer higher causalities than the center and trail squads? If so, is this generally known among the troops?

    Are squad assignments made based upon the personal skill or ability with equipment of the squads or simply done arbitrarily?

    It appears that in some cases when the terrain is challenging that flanking the enemy might require more squads. Does terrain like mountains enter into the deciding factors or orders given to bring more troops into the battle by higher ranking officers? Or are the present squads sorta left to do with what they have?

    Sorry. I’m certain my questions reveal just how little I know about all this, but I am interested and want to learn.

    Thanks, Xbrad, (or anyone else) for any clarification or correction you might offer.

    1. Do lead squads generally suffer higher causalities than the center and trail squads? If so, is this generally known among the troops?

      It’s a high risk position. Normally, most platoons rotate the order of march, but it seems to me, squads never seem to rotate which team will lead. That is, every squad I was in always led with A team, and trailed with B team.

      Are squad assignments made based upon the personal skill or ability with equipment of the squads or simply done arbitrarily?

      Generally, the platoon sergeant handles the assignment of personnel in the platoon. This is, he’s given all the troops, and then places them in squads as he sees fit, in consultation with the platoon leader, and input from the squad leaders. He tries to achieve a balance of experience throughout all the squads.

      It appears that in some cases when the terrain is challenging that flanking the enemy might require more squads. Does terrain like mountains enter into the deciding factors or orders given to bring more troops into the battle by higher ranking officers? Or are the present squads sorta left to do with what they have?

      Terrain is a two edged sword. While the terrain may be challenging, it also offers covered and concealed routes to maneuver. We’re jumping the gun here a bit, and getting into a future post, but the terrain has a huge influence on the planning that the platoon leader (and higher headquarters) conduct before every operation. Leaders conduct an analysis using METT-TC: Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops available, Time available, and Civilian environment. We’ll get into the planning process (known as the Troop Leading Procedure, and the Military Decision Making Process in the near future.

  3. So, lead squad is high risk. I sense some people have the personality and internal drive for it and others do not. But just because some seem gifted for it should not necessarily put them in harm’s way more than others.

    We’re jumping the gun here a bit, and getting into a future post…

    Thanks. Glad to be anticipating the direction headed. Looking forward to future posts. The analysis employing METT-TC intrigues me.

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