There’s an old saying that folks don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. And that’s true in war as well. To avoid that trap, the Army has a standardized method of planning that guides our young platoon leader as he prepares to lead his platoon in battle. This Troop Leading Procedure can serve as a checklist for the young platoon leader to help ensure he’s not overlooking anything, and it also serves as a guide to critical thinking to give him a better idea of how to best employ his platoon. As a practical matter, if he implements it properly, it also gives his subordinates the information and time needed to successfully execute his orders and accomplish the mission.
The Army has a long history of using “mission orders.” That is, a commander will assign a mission to his subordinate leaders, but leave the planning of how to accomplish that mission to the subordinate. You can tell me what to do, just don’t tell me how to do it. While the subordinate has to make sure his plan falls within the broader scope of his commander’s mission, he generally has a fairly good amount of discretion in how he goes abut doing that. At least, that’s the book answer. Quite often, at the platoon level, there isn’t a whole lot of scope for independence in the platoon’s plan (especially in mechanized units, where it is fairly rare to see platoons acting indecently of the company). At a minimum, however, having the platoon leader go through the steps of the troop leading procedure is good training for the future, and helps ensure nothing critical is overlooked in the planning process.
Our platoon leader doesn’t generally get to decide for himself what it is his platoon will be doing on an operation. He’s assigned a mission by his company commander. It might be “attack that village” or “defend this hill.” In any even, the platoon’s mission is almost always a subset of the company mission
The first step is simple: receive the mission. Of course, now is the time to make darn certain to understand you know exactly what it is you are being ordered to do. The company commander (who’s doing his own troop leading procedure at the same time) doesn’t have his complete order ready yet, but he has enough information to give a heads up to let the platoon leader start the planning process. The platoon leader analyzes the mission by using METT-T
- Mission- what is the platoon being ordered to do? Attack, defend? Destroy the enemy? Deny terrain to the enemy?
- Enemy- What is known about enemy forces likely to be encountered?
- Terrain- what is the terrain the mission will take place on? Are there certain key terrain features that will dominate the battlefield?
- Troops- What troops will be available for the mission? Will there be attachments to or detachments from the platoon?
- Time- time is the most valuable resource on the battlefield. The supply sergeant can never get a replacement for any time you waste. How long does the platoon leader have to prepare for the mission? When does the mission start?
Step Two is to issue a warning order: It’s a good idea to let the rest of the platoon know there is a mission coming up as soon as possible. The platoon sergeant and the squad leaders have things they need to do to get ready. They need to draw rations, water and ammunition, conduct rehearsals, draw up their own orders, and generally get ready. The warning order simply tells the platoon what the mission is, when they can expect the full order, and what special preparations should be made before the order is issued.
Steps Three through Eight often take place out of sequence, and are rarely done in great detail. But they have to be done, if only in abbreviated form.
The third step is to make a tentative plan. The platoon leader begins to sketch out his operations order (we’ll discuss the OPORD in greater detail in another post) again using METT-T as an analytical tool.
- Mission- The platoon leader needs to understand not just what his company commander’s mission is, but what is the mission of the parent battalion. For instance, if a battalion is attacking through a valley, and the company mission is to secure the right side of the valley, the platoon may have a mission to seize and hold a hilltop along that side of the valley. Knowing the purpose of seizing the hill gives the platoon leader of better idea of how to accomplish his mission. In this example, the platoon is being used to keep the enemy from attacking the main body of the battalion in the flank. Our platoon leader now knows that just seizing the hill, while it is the critical part of the mission, might not be enough. He also knows enough to be able to react to events on the battlefield as things change. As long as he understands his role in securing the battalion’s flank, he’s more likely to make a correct decision.
- Enemy- again, what type of enemy is the platoon likely to encounter? Tanks? Other armor? IEDs? How are they armed? Are they uniformed troops or are the insurgents in civilian clothing?
- Terrain- There’s an mnemonic device to help leaders analyze terrain: OCOKA- Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles, Key Terrain, Avenues of Approach.
- Troops- Which of his troops does the platoon leader expect to have available? Will there be any other troops or assets assigned to assist the platoon? Will there be artillery, mortars or helicopter support available? And during this time, the platoon leader will start thinking about what part each of his squads will play in accomplishing the platoon mission.
- Time: Generally, a leader is expected to use one-third of the available time to plan his mission, leaving the other two thirds of the time for his subordinates planning and mission preparations. As a practical matter, at the platoon level, chances are, the platoon leader is going to use pretty much all the available time for preparation, but should have a complete order completed and issued well before the time of the mission.
Step Four: Start necessary movement. If the platoon has to defend a hilltop, now might be a good time to start moving toward the hilltop. If the platoon is attacking, it’s a good time to start moving the the jump off point. The platoon leader might not lead the movement himself. That’s what he’s got a platoon sergeant and squad leaders for.
Step Five is reconnaissance. The platoon leader absolutely must make some form of reconnaissance. In a perfect world, he can visit the terrain he’s going to be operating on, and take his squad leaders with him. More likely, he’ll have to settle for a detailed study of maps and photographs of the terrain. But the German Army of WWII had a very wise saying- time spent on reconnaissance is never time wasted. For instance, the platoon might have to cross what the map shows as a small stream during its mission. It would be a very, very good idea to go look and make sure the stream can be forded before the mission starts. Getting to the stream during the mission and then having to call your boss and tell him you can’t get across is not going to make the boss happy…
Step Six: Complete the plan. Having made a recon, and taking into account any changes in the situation, the platoon leader can finalize his plans. Now is a good time for the platoon leader to review the plan and make sure it is designed to accomplish the mission he was assigned. Remember, the point of the planning process is to help accomplish the mission. The mission isn’t assigned to facilitate planning.
Step Seven: Issue the complete order. Now that the platoon leader has a plan for accomplishing his assigned mission, it is time to tell the platoon just how he plans to get ‘er done. He issues the order in a standardized format called the Five Paragraph Operations Order (which we’ll cover in a later post). The platoon leader needs to make sure the platoon und
erstands both what the mission is, and how it will be done.
Step 8: Supervise- The platoon leader supervises the platoons preparations for the mission. He’ll use rehearsals to ensure that everyone understands the plan, and to reveal any flaws in the plan. Rehearsals might include walk-throughs, briefbacks, a map exercise, or a sketch or model of the terrain. At a bare minimum, the platoon needs to rehears the actions on the objective- that is, how will the platoon attack or defend its objective? Inspections are also used. Does everyone have all the equipment they need for the mission? Do all troops have water and ammo? Are the medics present? Does everyone have the right frequencies set on their radios? Squad leaders and the platoon sergeant will normally conduct these inspections, while the platoon leader will spot check to make sure.
One of the elegant things about the Troop Leading Procedure is that it is scalable, and it is portable. The same TLP framework is used at the platoon level all the way up to the division, corps, and theater level. GEN Petraeus in Afghanistan uses the same process to plan operations. And it is portable. It works for infantry and other combat arms units, support units like artillery, and logistical units. Heck, you can use the same basic process in business and education. I used a slightly altered checklist in college to make sure my papers were done correctly and on time.
[While instructors at Ft. Leavenworth are more than welcome to comment, please understand, this isn’t a post to make platoon leader, but rather a post to help our civilian readers understand a little better what it is their Army does]