In the two previous chapters the environment and its effects on personnel and equipment and preparations for desert operations were described. This chapter describes desert operations and is divided into three sections.

Section I. How the Desert Environment Affects Tactical Operations

The key to success in desert operations is mobility, and this was clearly evident in ground operations in Desert Storm. The tactics employed to achieve victory over Iraq were wide and rapid flanking movements similar to those Rommel and Montgomery executed in North Africa.

Trafficability and cross-country movement become critical to desert operations when using these tactics. Trafficability is generally good in the desert and cross-country movement is a lesser problem, but not always. Salt marshes can create NO-GO conditions during the rainy season. Sand can also bog down traffic and make foot movement slow and exhausting. The steep slopes of dunes and rocky mountains can make vehicular movement a NO-GO. The wadis create cross-compartmented terrain. The banks of these stream beds can be steep and unconsolidated. Then, when it rains, it becomes a torrent of dangerously rushing water, leading to flat lake beds that can create NO-GO mud conditions. Rock quarries and mining areas can also adversely affect mobility and trafficability. Often these areas are not reflected on maps. Satellite imagery can be helpful in identifying these areas, as was the case in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. In rocky terrain, tires can easily be punctured by sharp angular debris; however, overall movement is mostly uninhibited. Given ample fuel, water, and other resources, units can go around natural and man-made obstacles.

Movement can easily be detected because of sand and dust signatures left due to the loose surface material. In an actual engagement, this may not be all that bad because a unit is obscured from direct fire while advancing, but the element of surprise may be lost. Moving at night becomes the logical choice. The dust is still there, and vehicles (which should be widely spaced) can get separated. But at night, reflection of the sun's rays from glass, mirrors, or metal, which can give away movement and positions up to 20 kilometers away, is not a concern.

Using the ability to make fast and wide flanking movements, a unit can encircle and cut off enemy forces. The Israeli forces under General Ariel Sharon did just that to the Egyptian Third Army in the 1973 War, and the British did the same to the Italians in North Africa in January 1941. In Desert Storm, the night-fighting AH-64 helicopters, combined with field artillery fires, made for an unbeatable team in this regard.

Land navigation is a challenge during movement in the wide expanses of many arid regions. There are few landmarks to key on, and maps and even photos can become dated quickly, especially in the sandy deserts where dunes migrate. The global positioning system (GPS) with the small lightweight GPS receivers (SLGRs) is a major aid for desert operations.

Refuel and resupply operations require periods in which forces assume the defense, but only temporarily. The flat sandy desert topography that is characteristic of Saudi Arabia is not conducive to defense, compared to rocky plateau topography. In mountains and canyons, a defensive posture can be favorable. Controlling the passes, as mentioned earlier, can essentially close off vast areas to an attacker and make it extremely costly for him.

While a unit is in the defense, it needs both ground and air reconnaissance to detect enemy movement at long range. Obstacles must be placed in all types of topography, primarily to slow advances and channel columns. Neglecting these security measures in the flat sandy regions can lead to disaster.


The following paragraphs describe how terrain affects tactical operations in the desert. This discussion follows the outline of the terrain analysis process summarized by the factors of OCOKA.

Observation and Fields of Fire

Observation and fields of fire are generally excellent in most desert areas. The atmosphere is stable and dry, allowing unrestricted view over vast distances, but this can also be a problem. Range estimation by "gut feeling" is subject to error. The effective ranges of weapons can easily be reached, and a correct estimation of maximum ranges is critical for all weapons, especially for wire-guided munitions.

Flat desert terrain permits direct-fire weapons to be used to their maximum range. Open terrain and a predominantly clear atmosphere generally offer excellent long-range visibility; but at certain times of the day visibility may be limited or distorted by heat.

Two primary considerations in the desert environment are longer range observation, and fields of fire at the maximum effective ranges for weapons. However, rapid heating and cooling of the atmosphere hinder these factors and cause distortion of ranges to the aided and unaided eye. Mechanical and electronic means must be used to verify estimated ranges such as GSR and laser range finders. Boresight and zero more frequently at standard ranges.

The desert is not absolutely flat, so weapons are sited to provide mutual support. Dead space is a problem. Even though the landscape appears flat, upon closer inspection it can be undulating with relatively deep wadis and depressions. These areas must be covered by indirect fire.

When on the offense, attacks should be initiated with the sun at or near one's back whenever possible. This eliminates most shadows that degrade optical weapon guidance and makes visual target acquisition difficult.

When there is no usable dominant terrain available, the only means of observation may be from an aeroscout, or limited to short-range observation by the vehicle commander. Other visibility problems are caused by heat distortion. Heat waves at the desert surface cause images to shimmer making positive identification difficult and degrade depth perception. Ranges to targets may be distorted from heat rising from the desert surface. Use range finders to verify correct distances. Be prepared to use bracketing techniques with large adjustments to hit an enemy target with artillery.

Radars are unlikely to be affected by heat haze so they could be valuable on flat terrain during midday heat if optical vision is hopelessly distorted; however, they arc almost useless in sandstorms. Image intensification is of limited value in sandstorms, and depends on the phase of the moon at night. If there is no moon, use artificial illumination outside the field of view of the system.

Since thermal imagery devices depend on the difference between ambient temperature and equipment temperature, they are more useful at night than in the day. Because of the distinct advantages of thermal sights, they should be used as the primary sighting systems for vehicles so equipped.

Correction of field artillery fires, especially those of larger pieces, may be complicated by dust hanging in the air following the impact of ranging rounds. Forward observers should consider placing initial rounds beyond a target rather than short of the target. Observation of fires, especially direct fires by tanks, may be difficult due to dust clouds, so wingmen may have to observe direct fires.

Cover and Concealment

Cover and concealment are generally scarce in the desert. The flat sandy deserts provide little if any natural cover or concealment, especially from aerial attack or reconnaissance. Ground concealment and protection from fire can be found behind dunes or in wadis. Troops must be aware of the potential for flash floods when using wadis for ground concealment.

Some arid regions have vegetation that can provide limited concealment from ground observation. In rocky, mountainous deserts, cover and concealment are best found behind boulders and in crevices. Daytime vehicular movement eliminates nearly any possibility of surprise, as dust trails created by the traffic can be spotted for miles. At night noise and light discipline is critical, as both sound and light travel great distances because of the unobstructed flatness of the terrain and atmospheric stability. Camouflage can be effectively employed to improve on natural cover and concealment. See Appendix E for additional information on concealment and camouflage.


Natural obstacles do exist in the desert, and arid regions are well suited for man-made obstacles. The wadis and steep slopes of escarpments, mountains, hills, and dunes hinder cross-country movement. Sand dunes may stretch for miles and prevent direct movement across their length. These sand dunes are often more than 100 feet in elevation and consist of loose sand with high, steep downwind faces that make vehicular traversing next to impossible. Aerial reconnaissance immediately before any large movement is advisable because sand dunes migrate with shifting winds and they may not be where maps or even photographs show them.

In the Desert Storm area, the salt marshes have a crust on the top that can deceive a vehicle driver. These dry lake beds can become obstacles, especially in the wetter seasons when the water table is higher. A top crust forms on the surface, but below the crust the soil is moist, similar to marsh conditions. The surface may look like it has good trafficability, but the crust will collapse with the weight of a vehicle, and the vehicle becomes mired. The high premium on fuel and time makes it costly to go around these natural obstacles.

Sandy deserts are ideal for employing minefield. Although windstorms can reveal previously buried mines, these mines can still channel movement and deny access to certain areas. The battles of the Bi'R Hacheim Line and El Alamein were influenced by minefield. Other obstacles include ditches, revetments, and barriers, such as the Bar Lev Line along the Suez Canal, made by bulldozing sand mounds or by blasting in rocky mountainous areas to close passes.

Key Terrain

Key terrain in the desert can be any man-made feature, mountain pass, or source of water, and of course, high ground. Because there are few man-made features in the desert, those that do exist can become important, perhaps even key.

Passes through steep topography are also likely to be key, again because they are so few. The North African campaigns of World War II focused on the control of passes, specifically the Sollum and Halfaya. In the Sinai Wars between Egypt and Israel, the Mitla, Giddi, and Sudar passes were key. In Afghanistan, control of the mountain passes provided the Mujahideen safe haven from the Soviets. Oases, where wells exist, become important for water resupply. The high ground in desert terrain is usually key terrain. The relative flatness and great distances of some deserts, such as in Iraq, make even large sand dunes dominant features.

Avenues of Approach

Avenues of approach are not clearly defined in arid regions. The vast, relatively flat areas permit maneuver from virtually any direction. This point became obvious to units establishing defensive positions in Desert Storm. Wide envelopments are possible, as demonstrated in the Desert Storm ground campaign. Modem sensor technology, limited natural concealment, and improved observation make the element of surprise a challenge. Yet, surprise was achieved during Desert Storm-Iraqi commanders were shocked when they discovered US tanks in their perimeters.

The major limitation with respect to avenues of approach may be fuel. The great distances a unit must travel to outflank enemy positions require significant amounts of fuel and complicate resupply. In mountainous and canyon topography avenues are much more limited, and the wadis and valleys are likely to be the only possible access routes. Any roads that do exist are probably in the valleys. Nevertheless, none of the considerations outlined above are reasons to disregard flanking movements.


Army operations are ideally suited to desert environments. Its thrust of securing and retaining the initiative can be optimized in the open terrain associated with the desert environments of the world. In that environment, the terrain aspect of METT-T offers the potential to capitalize on the four basic tenets of the doctrine initiative, agility, depth, and synchronization.


Israeli efforts in 1967 and initial Egyptian assaults in 1973 clearly illustrate the effects of initiative in the desert environment.


The Egyptian success in 1973 was negated by their failure to ensure agility. Conversely, the Israeli actions on the flanks of the Egyptian force demonstrated the effects of a force capable of rapid and bold maneuver.


Depth does not necessarily relate to distance. In the nonlinear battlefield offered by the desert, depth often equates to an agile reserve force of sufficient size to counter enemy efforts into flanks and rear areas. Depth is also a concept of all-around defense for forces-the ability to fight in any direction.


To a large measure, the German successes against the British in the Western Desert were due to their ability to synchronize their operating systems. More recent events illustrate this tenet between and internal to, operating systems. Heavy/light operations have demonstrated that light forces can be key to achieving tactical and operational momentum. The Israeli airmobile assault against supporting artillery in the 1967 battle of Abu Ageila is a good example of the effective use of light forces in this type of environment.

Maneuver must be at the maximum tactical speed permitted by the terrain, dust conditions, and rate of march of the slowest vehicle, using whatever cover is available. Even a 10-foot sand dune will cover and conceal a combat vehicle. Air defense coverage is always necessary as aircraft can spot movement very easily due to accompanying dust clouds. In some situations movement may be slowed to reduce dust signatures. Rapid movement causes dramatic dust signatures and can reveal tactical movements.

Another consideration during maneuver is dust from NOE flight, which can be seen as far as 30 kilometers. This is especially true when the enemy is stationary. Aeroscouts must use caution to avoid blundering into enemy air defense weapons.

To achieve surprise, maneuver in conditions that preclude observation, such as at night, behind smoke, or during sandstorms. In certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to maneuvering in terrain where the enemy has long-range observation. Then it is necessary to move at the best speed possible while indirect fires are placed on suspected enemy positions. Speed, suppressive fires, close air support, and every other available combat multiplier must be brought to bear on the enemy.

Tactical mobility is the key to successful desert operations. Most deserts permit good to excellent movement by ground troops similar to that of a naval task force at sea. Use of natural obstacles may permit a force to establish a defensive position that theoretically cannot be turned from either flank; however, these are rare. Desert terrain facilitates bypassing enemy positions and obstacles, but detailed reconnaissance must be performed first to determine if bypassing is feasible and will provide an advantage to friendly forces.

Dismounted infantry may be used to clear passes and defiles to eliminate enemy ATGM positions prior to the mounted elements moving through.

Avenues of approach of large forces may be constrained due to limited cross-country capability of supply vehicles coupled with longer lines of communications. The limited hard-surface routes that do exist are necessary for resupply.


Reconnaissance is especially important in desert environments. Reconnaissance is a mission undertaken to obtain information by visual observation, or other detection methods, about the activities and resources of an enemy, or about the meteorologic, hydrographic, or geographic characteristics of a particular area. The desert environment may influence any or all of these techniques. The environmental effects on troops and their equipment may also influence observation techniques, or the frequency of vehicle and equipment maintenance that is required. Reconnaissance produces combat information. Combat information is a by-product of all operations, acquired as they are in progress. Reconnaissance, however, is a focused collection effort. It is performed prior to or in advance of other combat operations, as well as during that operation, to provide information used by the commander to confirm or modify his concept. Cavalry is the Army corps or division commander's principal reconnaissance organization.

Surveillance is a primary task of Army cavalry during reconnaissance operations. Surveillance is the systematic observation of airspace or surface areas by visual, aural, electronic. photographic, or other means. Scouts, ground and air, are the principal collectors of information. Scouts and their associated equipment are particularly affected by the environmental aspects of deserts. They require equipment that enhances their senses allowing them to conduct mounted and dismounted surveillance with stealth, at long-range, and in limited visibility, all of which can be adversely influenced by the desert environment.


Security operations obtain information about the enemy and provide reaction time, maneuver space, and protection to the main body. Security operations are characterized by aggressive reconnaissance to reduce terrain and enemy unknowns, gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy to ensure continuous information, and providing early and accurate reporting of information to the protected force. Security operations may be affected by various aspects of the desert environment including the sun, wind, sand, vegetation, sandstorms, terrain, and heat. Security operations include--

  • Screen.

  • Guard.

  • Cover.

Counterreconnaissance is an inherent task in all security operations. Counterreconnaissance is the sum of actions taken at all echelons to counter enemy reconnaissance and surveillance efforts through the depth of the area of operation. It is active and passive and includes combat action to destroy or repel enemy reconnaissance elements. It also denies the enemy information about friendly units.


The following paragraphs describe command, control, and communications considerations when operating in a desert environment.


The effort to synchronize battlefield operating systems during the planning process can be negated by the failure to continue the synchronization effort during the preparation phase of a mission. This is especially true in the construction of engagement areas for defensive operations. Direct fire, indirect fire, and obstacles are linked, and the adjustment of one requires the adjustment of all. The commander must know and have a feel for what his unit can do, how long his unit takes to accomplish a mission, and what he really wants his unit to accomplish.

Adjustment of the elements of the battlefield operating systems can unravel the focus of a commander's intent. This is especially true in open terrain. Tactical commanders should personally direct the synchronization of engagement areas. Obstacles should be positioned, indirect fires adjusted, and direct fires rehearsed under the personal supervision of the commander. The commander controls operations using a highly mobile command group located well forward. He personally directs the battle, but must not be drawn into personally commanding an isolated segment of the force to the detriment of the remainder of the command. As previously mentioned, dry desert conditions can sometimes reduce radio signal strength and create unforeseen blind spots, even in aircraft operating nap of the earth.

Units may employ either a jump TOC or retransmission stations to facilitate communications with rear areas, as maneuver units are unlikely to be in one place very long. (If wire is used it should be buried to a minimum depth of 12 inches to avoid damage from track vehicles or shell fire.) There must be plenty of slack in the line to allow for sand shift and accurate map plots of buried wire should be kept. If overhead wire must be used, it should be mounted on posts erected in the form of tripods to avoid falling during severe weather.

Air or vehicle mounted liaison officers can be used if units are stationary or under listening silence. They should be proficient in navigation and sufficiently equipped to facilitate parallel planning. Liaison officers are highly effective and should be employed at every opportunity.

Continuous Operations

Continuous operations are affected by a number of factors in a desert environment. Fatigue is probably the foremost degrader of performance. Performance and efficiency begin to deteriorate after 14 to 18 hours of continuous work and reach a low point after 22 to 24 hours. Most tasks involving perceptual skills begin to show a performance degradation after 36 to 48 hours without sleep. Soldiers/marines cease to be effective after 72 hours without sleep. Performance decreases dramatically in an NBC environment and sleep becomes more difficult in MOPP gear. Sleep deprivation coupled with the environmental factors of the desert and the stresses of combat can significantly affect mission accomplishment.

The two categories of personnel who can be expected to show signs of fatigue first are young immature soldiers/marines who are not sure of themselves and seasoned old soldiers/marines upon whom others have relied and who have sustained them at cost to themselves. Commanders and leaders often regard themselves as being the least vulnerable to fatigue. Tasks requiring quick reaction, complex reasoning, and detailed planning make leaders the most vulnerable to sleep deprivation. Leaders denying themselves sleep as an example of self-control is extremely counterproductive. These factors are complicated by the environmental aspects of desert operations and should be considerations for operational planning.


Clear identification of engagement areas is necessary to facilitate the massing and distribution of fires. In the absence of identifiable terrain, target reference points (TRPs) can be created with damaged/destroyed vehicles that are moved into required locations at the direction of commanders invested with the responsibility for specific engagement areas. Other types of TRPs could be used. For example, marker panels, visible and infrared chemical lights, flags, and white phosphorus/illumination rounds could be used. The construction or fabrication of TRPs must be resourced and well planned in order to be effective. For example, how will TRPs be replaced for subsequent defensive operations? Another common problem is TRP proliferation, which makes TRPs difficult to identify when each echelon of command has allocated too many TRPs.

Pyrotechnics are usually more effective in desert climates than in temperate climates; however, heat mirages and duststorms may impair or restrict their use. Even heliographs (signal mirrors) may be useful as they are directional and therefore can aid security. Sound communications are usually impractical due to distance, vehicular noise, and storms, but can be used for local alarm systems.

Colored flags with prearranged meanings can be used as a means of communication in the flat open terrain of the desert. Colored flags tied to antennas may also assist in vehicle/unit recognition during limited visibility operations and offensive operations.

As previously described, the desert offers excellent fields of fire. Tanks and heavy antitank weapons should be sited to take advantage of their long range and accuracy. Firing first and accurately are the most important considerations in desert operations.

Target identification is the recognition of a potential military target as being a particular object (such as a specific vehicle, by type). At a minimum, this identification must determine the potential target as friendly or threat (identify friend, foe, or neutral [IFFN]). Because it is easy to become disoriented, it is often necessary to mark sectors of fire on the ground with poles or rocks, if available.


Communications support is also adversely affected by high temperatures. The heat causes anomalies in radio and other electrical transmissions, and radio battery life is reduced. Radio range is shorter during the day than at night. At night, range improves but static electricity may cause interference. FM communications range can be reduced by as much as 50 percent because of high temperatures. HF ground wave propagation over the dry sandy soil is reduced.

Night communications make communications security a concern, as it always should be. Experience in Desert Shield and Desert Storm indicates vastly expanded ranges of FM radios. Communications between units 40 to 50 kilometers apart was not unusual. Communications obviously affect command and control as well as intelligence collection and dissemination, and their importance must not be underestimated.


A force operating in the desert must be a balanced force with combat support and combat service support--it must be a combined arms team. While principles of combat support operations are found in doctrinal manuals dealing with a specific arm of service, there are some techniques that must be modified or emphasized in the desert.


The relative importance of intelligence sources may vary from that expected in more conventional areas. Enemy prisoners of war require immediate interrogation as the flexibility of operations will rapidly make their information outdated. Information given by civilians encountered in desert operations should be treated with caution unless corroborated. Military intelligence teams located in the area of operations can determine if these EPWs and civilians are in fact what they say they are, or infiltrators sent to harass the rear area and commit acts of sabotage. Electronic support measures are a major source of intelligence in desert warfare. Enemy activity, or the lack of it, is a good source of information; so punctual, accurate reports by all sources, both positive and negative, are necessary.


The Allies in North Africa in 1942 found that placing small field artillery units in support of small maneuver units gave the units a sense of security, but produced limited results. Field artillery was effective only when massed (battalion or higher) and only when continued for some time because of the protective posture and mobility of the target. Typically, the control of massed fires was the responsibility of the division artillery.

The Allies in North Africa in 1942 experienced heavy casualties from Axis units overrunning the artillery positions after penetrating the armor and infantry positions. Often, the Axis units would attack from the east at one time, from the west later, and from several directions simultaneously. At first, the Allies simply emphasized direct fire. Later, the Allies attached antitank gun units to the artillery battalions to increase the artillery's antitank ability.

When armor and infantry units move, the artillery must move with them. The most useful technique is for the artillery to move in a formation with a lead vehicle so that, immediately upon stopping, the artillery is in a position or formation to deliver fire in any direction and simultaneously defend the position from any direction. The Allies in North Africa in 1942 and units in Desert Shield/Storm found that the armor and infantry units would outdistance the artillery unless the artillery moved with them. The artillery moved within 2-3 kilometers of the leading troops to provide responsive fires. The armor and infantry provided protection for the artillery. The whole group moved in one cohesive formation, sometimes in a large box or diamond formation.

Due to the fluid nature of desert operations and the possibilities for excellent enemy observation, close and continuous field-artillery support for all levels of the force is necessary. Field-artillery pieces should be at least as mobile as the force they are supporting. Crews must be proficient in direct fire and prepared to defend against a ground attack.

Due to the threat of immediate counterbattery fire, field artillery units must be prepared to move into position, fire, and rapidly displace to another position. A battery should be prepared to displace several times a day.

Field artillery units employed in desert operations should be equipped with the most sophisticated survey devices available. Manual systems are slower and not necessarily as accurate, thus affecting tactical employment and reducing response time.

Aerial observation may often be extremely difficult due to enemy air defense, so most adjustment is by ground observers. How the environment affects observation of fires was described previously in this chapter in the paragraph, "Observation and Fields of Fire." Recompute weather conditions frequently as weather conditions can change rapidly from the morning to the evening, and thus affect the accuracy of fires.

Fires are planned as in temperate climates. When there are no significant terrain features along a route of advance, targets are planned using coordinates.

A moving force in a desert is at a disadvantage in comparison with a stationary unit due to lack of concealment and the presence of dust clouds. The defender may engage with missiles from an unexpected direction or from terrain features of no apparent significance. The attacker must be prepared to rapidly shift fires to suppress unforeseen targets. Tactical aircraft may be used to suppress or destroy targets. Targets for aircraft can be marked with indirect- or direct-fire smoke. White phosphorus or illuminating rounds set for low-air burst are also effective.

Indirect fires are used to slow the enemy advance, to suppress enemy weapons and observers, and to conceal movement between positions using smoke. Defensive operations in deserts are characterized by long-range engagement with tanks and ATGMs.


Identification of friend or foe is difficult. Throughout the entire theater of operations there will be numerous weapon systems that are common to both sides of the conflict. The individual soldier/marine is going to be faced with the monumental task of separating friend from foe by more than just from the recognition of the manufacturer or silhouette of a piece of equipment. This will be true of both air and ground systems. This identification problem will be compounded by the nonlinear battlefield where the focus of operations will not be separated by a line.

The desert is an outstanding environment for employing aircraft. Every unit must be extremely proficient at passive and active air defense. The Allies in North Africa and the Israelis in the Middle East found that dispersion limited the effects of air attacks, and small arms air-defense techniques were effective. Almost every weapon in North Africa had a secondary antiaircraft or antitank mission.

Emphasize to each unit that, when in position, units must disperse very widely making a less lucrative target. When moving in column and under air attack, units must move at least 40 to 50 meters off the road because aircraft normally have nose guns trained on troth sides of the road. A vehicle on the road or on both sides of the road will die.

Because of the wide open spaces characteristic of many deserts and the relatively large areas associated with desert operations, forces fighting in the desert should be reinforced with additional air-defense weapons. Still, there may not be sufficient dedicated air-defense systems to fully cover the force. When this is the case, commanders must be especially careful when establishing air-defense priorities in view of relatively long lines of communication and the tendency to maneuver over relatively large areas. In any event, all units must include a scheme for countering air attacks in their battle plans using both active and passive measures.

Although Army armored and mechanized infantry division air-defense weapons are tracked, this does not necessarily apply to corps medium-altitude air defense units. However, Army corps surface-to-air missile (SAM) units have considerably greater ranges and are equipped with more sophisticated early warning and control systems. Some corps units should be employed well forward. These weapons will have to displace by section to ensure continuous coverage.

Air-defense units should be located close to elements of supported units to provide for ground defense. When the supported unit moves, the air defense unit must also move, which requires careful coordination to ensure that movement of the supported unit is not delayed. Airspace management difficulties are compounded in the multinational environment. SOPS should be exchanged among multinational forces to lessen the confusion of airspace management.


Engineer operations in the desert are similar to those in temperate climates although there are fewer natural terrain obstacles to be crossed. Depending on the terrain anticipated in the operations area, a dry-gap crossing capability may have to be obtained from corps support units. Important tasks for engineers in desert operations include--

  • Mobility/countermobility/survivability support, including construction of obstacles, logistics facilities and routes, field fortifications, airfields, and helicopter landing pads.

  • Water supply.

  • Topographic support (map-making).


The vastness of the desert makes mobility a prime concern. Roads are usually scarce and primitive. Cross-country mobility is possible in some areas, but trafficability is poor in soft sand, rocky areas, and salt flats. Engineers assist maneuver by reducing slopes, smoothing rock steps, and bridging dry gaps.

Expanded engineer reconnaissance capability will be needed to identify routes, existing obstacles, and minefield locations. Flat, open areas provide good sites for aircraft landing strips; however, in most cases the soil must be stabilized. Normally, desert soil produces extensive dust and has limited weight-bearing capacity.

Engineers use various agents to alleviate severe dust conditions (diesel, JP4, or oil mixtures for example). This is particularly critical in reducing engine wear in areas supporting rotary wing aircraft. It is also important along heavily traveled roads and in cantonment areas. Engineers also use soil-stabilization techniques to increase soil-bearing capacity for airstrips and MSRs.

The application of the fundamentals of breaching-suppress, obscure, secure, and reduce-and the organization of the force in terms of supporting, breaching, and assaulting elements, are even more important in the desert due to the enhanced observation and fields of fire. However, the desert does offer greater opportunities to bypass enemy obstacles because of the greater range of mobility afforded by desert terrain. Caution must be exercised when choosing to bypass enemy obstacles since the bypass may lead the force to the enemy's kill sack.

The increased mobility in the desert makes it easier for the enemy to counterattack exposed flanks of attacking forces. Plan obstacles to protect flanks during offensive operations. Beyond conventionally emplaced minefield, FASCAM, which includes artillery-delivered mines, GEMSS, and air-delivered Gator munitions, are all systems that lend themselves to situational development. FASCAM and conventional minefield may be appropriate, but consider the time required to employ FASCAM when selecting this option. Artillery-delivered FASCAM does not deploy well in soft sand and removes a majority of your indirect-fire assets from the fight.


Due to the mobility inherent in desert operations, obstacles must be extensive and used in conjunction with each other and with any natural obstacles, and covered by direct and indirect fires. Isolated obstacles are easily bypassed.

Mines are easily emplaced in a sand desert, and blowing sand will effectively conceal evidence of emplacement. However, the following potential problem areas must be considered when emplacing mines:

  • Large quantities of mines are required for effectiveness.

  • Sand can cause malfunctioning.

  • Shifting sand can cause mine drift.

  • An excessive accumulation of sand over the mines can degrade performance.

  • Sand may be blown away and expose the mines.

In suitable terrain, antitank ditches that exceed the vertical step of enemy main battle tanks may be used. Because antitank ditches cannot be conceded, they must be dug so they do not outline a defensive front or flank. They have the advantage of not requiring as much logistic support as minefield. They must be covered by observation and fire to prohibit enemy infantry using them as ready-made trenches.

Because of limited off-road mobility of most combat service support vehicles, considerable engineer efforts may be necessary to construct and maintain routes forward to maneuver units. Local resources, such as salt-marsh mud laid on sand can be used. Track vehicles should not use these routes since they could easily ruin them.

Most desert regions have a natural terrain structure that restricts maneuver such as sandy dunes, rocky plateaus, mountains, and wadis. These structures must be interpreted rapidly and correctly, and then reinforced with obstacles to fix, turn, or disrupt enemy movement, according to the commander's plan.

Minefield and antitank ditches are the primary means of creating obstacles in the desert. Antitank ditches require extensive preparations, but they are effective when adequate preparation time is available. Many desert villages have irrigation ditches that can be used tactically. Other countermobility methods are generally not effective. Road craters, for example, are usually easy to bypass. In sandy areas, ditches can easily be filled in, so they are not good obstacles. Opportunities for bridge destruction are rare, and local materials for expedient obstacles are scarce.

Engineers and combat forces should coordinate the siting of planned obstacles to support the defensive concept. In defensive operations the effectiveness of obstacles requires synchronization.


Desert terrain varies from region to region. Generally, however, observation is excellent and concealment is difficult. Deserts provide little cover and concealment from ground-based observers and even less from aircraft. These conditions make modem weapon systems more lethal in deserts than in any other environment.

In the desert, hull and turret defilades for tactical vehicles are essential. This allows the defending force to take advantage of their long-range weapon systems in the face of enemy fires. Dispersion and frequent moves are other survivability techniques that can be used.

The preparation of fortifications in the desert is difficult. Fortifications in sandy soil often require revetments. In rocky plains or plateaus it may be impossible to dig. To counter this problem, build up emplacements with rocks and use depressions.

Camouflage is very effective when properly employed; however, patterns and techniques must be carefully selected to match the local desert environment. Camouflage nets should be provided for all equipment. See Appendix E for additional comments on desert concealment and camouflage.

Desert Survivability Positions

Defensive positions are very vulnerable to offensive fire due to long-range observation and fields of fire in the desert. This, coupled with a lack of natural obstacles, may lead the commander to invest the bulk of his engineer effort into survivability positions. Survivability positions enhance the ability of all direct-fire elements to survive indirect-fire and to return fire on the enemy. Survivability positions are normally more important than antitank ditches, especially in open terrain. See Figures 3-1 through 3-6, for examples of survivability positions. The following are some things you should or should not do when preparing survivability positions:


  • Ensure adequate material
    is available.

  • Dig down as much as possible.

  • Maintain, repair, and improve
    positions continuously.

  • Inspect and test position safety
    daily, after heavy rain,
    and after receiving
    direct and indirect fires.

  • Revet excavations in sandy soil.

  • Interlock sandbags for
    double-walled constructions and corners.

  • Check stabilization of wall bases.

  • Fill sandbags approximately 75 percent.

  • Construct to standard.

  • Use common sense.


  • Fail to supervise.

  • Use sand for structural support.

  • Forget to camouflage.

  • Drive vehicles within 6 feet of a position.

  • Overfill sandbags.

  • Put troops in marginally safe bunkers.

  • Take shortcuts.

  • Build above ground unless absolutely necessary.

  • Forget lateral bracing on stringers.

The commander's responsibilities during construction of survivability positions are to--

  • Protect troops.

  • Continuously improve and maintain unit survivability.

  • Provide materials.

  • Periodically inspect.

  • Plan and select fighting position sites.

  • Get technical advice from engineers, as required.

In a combat situation, it may be necessary to improvise construction of a survivability position by using materials not normally associated with the construction. Some examples of field-expedient materiel are-

Wall Revetment

  • Sheet metal.

  • Corrugated sheet metal.

  • Plastic sheeting.

  • Plywood.

  • Air mat panels.

  • Air Force air-load pallets.

Overhead Cover Stringers

  • Single pickets.

  • Double pickets.

  • Railroad rails.

  • "I" beams.

  • Two-inch diameter pipe or larger.

  • Timbers 2" x 4", 4 " x 4 ", and larger.

  • Reinforced concrete beams.

  • 55-gallon drums cut in half longitudinally.

  • Large diameter pipe/culvert, cut in half.

  • Precast concrete panels, 6-8 inches thick.

  • Airfield panels.

  • Air Force air-load pallets.

  • Shipping pallets.

Wall Construction (Building up)

  • Sand-grid material.

  • 55-gallon drums filled with sand.

  • Expended artillery shells filled with sand.

  • Shipping boxes/packing material.

  • Prefabricated concrete panels.

  • Prefabricated concrete traffic barriers.

Stand-Alone Positions

  • Prefab concrete catch basins, valve pits, and utility boxes.

  • Military vans.

  • Connexes or shipping containers.

  • Large diameter pipe/culvert.

  • Steel water tanks.

  • Other storage tanks (cleaned and ventilated).

  • Vehicle hulks.

The following is a suggested inspection checklist to follow when preparing survivability positions:

  • Location is sited tactically sound.

  • Low profile is maintained.

  • Materials are of structural quality (standard construction material).

  • Excavation-walls are sloped.

  • The setback for overhead is a minimum of 1 foot or 1/4 the depth of cut.

  • Stringers-

      - Are firmly on a structural support.

      - Have lateral bracing emplaced along supports.

  • 2" x 4" or 2" x 6" stringers are used on the edge; the strength is on the depth of the lumber.

  • Supports-

      - Stringers are firmly on supports.

      - Supports extend past the excavation by 1/2 the depth of cut.

  • Revetments--

      - Quality of construction is checked.

      - Sheeting is supported by pickets.

      - Pickets are tied back.

  • Overhead cover-

      - Quality of structural layer is inspected.

      - Quality of dust layer-plywood or panels-is inspected.

      - Layer is cushioned at least 18 inches deep.

The one-man fighting position is the individual's basic defensive position. The one-man fighting position with overhead cover (see Figure 3-1) provides protection from airburst weapon fragments. A good position has overhead cover that allows the soldier/marine to fire from beneath it. Stringers extend at least 1 foot on each side of the position to provide a good load-bearing surface for overhead cover.

Generally, the two-man fighting position is preferred over a one-man position since one soldier/marine can provide security while the other is digging or resting. The position can be effectively manned for longer periods of time; if one soldier/marine becomes a casualty, the position is still occupied. Further, the psychological effect of two men working together permits occupation of the position for longer periods. Overhead cover also improves the position's effectiveness; it is made as described for the one-man position (see Figure 3-2).

Fighting positions for machine guns are constructed so the fires are to the front or oblique; the primary sector of fire is usually oblique so the gun can fire across the unit's front. The position is shaped so the gunner and assistant gunner can get to the gun and fire it to either side of the frontal direction. Overhead cover is built over the middle of the position (see Figure 3-3). It is constructed as described for the one-man position.

Protective shelters and fighting bunkers are usually constructed using a combination of the components of positions mentioned thus far. Protective shelters are primarily used as command posts, observation posts, medical aid stations, supply and ammunition shelters, and sleeping or resting shelters. Figure 3-4 shows an example of a command bunker.

The Dragon position requires some unique considerations. The soldier/marine must consider the Dragon's extensive backblast and muzzle blast, as well as cleared fields of fire. When a Dragon is fired, the muzzle extends 6 inches beyond the front of the position, and the rear of the launcher extends out over the rear of the position. As the missile leaves the launcher, stabilizing fins unfold. Therefore, the soldier keeps the weapon at least 6 inches above the ground when firing to leave room for the fins. A waist-deep position will allow the gunner to move while tracking a target. Because of the Dragon's above ground height, soldiers/marines should construct frontal cover high enough to hide the soldier's/marine's head and, if possible, the Dragon's backblast. The soldier/marine must dig a hole in the front of the position for the biped legs. If cover is built on the flanks of a Dragon position, it must cover the tracker, missiles, and the gunner. Overhead cover that would allow firing from beneath it is usually built if the backblast area is clear (see Figure 3-5).

A fighting position for the dismounted TOW must not interfere with the launch or tracking operations of the weapon. As with Dragon and LAW positions allowances for backblast effects are necessary. Backblast and deflection requirements restrict the size of overhead cover for the weapon. See Figure 3-6.

Designers of fighting positions and protective positions in desert areas must consider the lack of available cover and concealment. Fighting positions should have the lowest profile possible, but mountain and plateau deserts have rocky soil or "surface chalk" soil which makes digging difficult. In these areas, rocks and boulders are used for cover. Because target acquisition and observation are relatively easy in desert terrain, camouflage and concealment, as well as light and noise discipline, are important considerations during position construction.

Indigenous materials are usually used in desert position construction. However, prefabricated structures and revetments, if available, are ideal for excavations. Metal culvert revetments can be quickly emplaced in easily excavated sand. Sandbags and sand-filled ammunition boxes are also used to prevent side walk of positions from collapsing.

FM 5-103 discusses vehicle fighting positions in detail and should be consulted for more information. Figure 3-7 provides specifications for vehicle survivability defilade positions that can be dug by the D-7 dozer.

Logistics areas (BSA/DSA) require additional survivability support. Desert operations require that logistics concentrations such as BSAs and DSAs be given additional considerations for survivability support. These sites are large, relatively static, and difficult to camouflage. As a result, these support areas are vulnerable to enemy interdiction. Military vans or connexes should be covered with sandbags to improve protection. Additionally, if they are covered with heavy plastic, with plastic drapes over the entrances, protection against NBC effects can be improved.

Engineer digging assets, such as bulldozers, should be tasked to provide survivability support to these sites with particular emphasis placed on hardening ammunition and fuel storage locations. Caution should be used when digging foxholes and tank hide positions since some areas have a tendency to cave in.

Water Supply

Water supply is the most important mission of engineers in the desert. The search for water sources requires continuous, intensive reconnaissance. Water may be obtained by drilling beds of dry water courses, or by deepening dry wells. Once found, water must be made potable and stored or transported. Since water purification trucks may be high-priority targets and barely sufficient for the task, any force operating in the desert must be augmented with water supply units (including well drilling), water purification and water distillation teams, and transportation teams. Another possible water source is the reverse osmosis water purification unit (ROWPU). This unit is an IS0 frame-mounted, portable water purification system capable of purifying water from almost any shallow well, deep well, and surface water or raw water source. The ROWPU is capable of removing NBC contaminants, minerals, and biological impurities. The single greatest benefit of the reverse osmosis process is the ability to desalinate sea water. The ROWPU is capable of producing potable water at a rate of 600 gph. The ROWPU is powered by a 30-kilowatt generator set.

Topographic Support (Map-making)

Large areas of the world's deserts are not covered by maps of any useful tactical scale. Existing maps are frequently inaccurate and increase the difficulties of navigation. Therefore, engineer topographic companies must augment the force by preparing, printing, and distributing up-to-date maps of the operational area. USAF, Army, and Marine aviation support can be used to produce gridded maps from aerial photography of the area forward of the line of contact.


Combat support provided well forward by military police will continue in desert operations, although over increasingly extended distances. MP tactical and physical security will be of special importance over extended lines of communication, such as petroleum pipelines and viaducts transporting water over long distances. Protection of these critical items demands both active and passive measures, including overflight by returning aircraft or overwatch by convoy movements. The storage sites for water, food, POL, and ammunition have historically been principal targets for enemy action, and consequently must receive augmented security.

The indefinite conditions and number of roadways will require increased circulation control points to direct traffic, redirect stragglers, and provide information so that throughput forward to the fighting elements will be expedited. Military police are especially valuable when the combat commander must employ concentration or economy of force in the face of the enemy to gain a favorable combat ratio. MPs can secure the roadways, enforce priority movement, and prevent any delay of the elements undertaking passage of lines to blocking or defensive positions. MPs can also assist in the handling of EPWs.


US Army and Marine forces fighting in the desert can expect to be supported by USAF tactical fighter-bomber and airlift aircraft. Close air support by USAF tactical fighter bombers is more important in desert warfare in view of lack of concealment, relatively large areas of operations, and mobility of forces employed by each side. Air support in a desert environment has advantages over more temperate areas of operations. For example, it is easier to locate targets; visual observation is normally far superior to that in temperate climates; and ground movement is more readily apparent.

Air attacks can be handicapped by lack of covered approaches, but increased visibility permits engagement from standoff ranges. When flying close air support missions it is important for pilots to be able to differentiate between enemy and friendly forces. Use panels or other visual or electronic identification means to assist in identification.

Because of the extended lines of communication likely in desert operations, USAF tactical airlift should be used whenever possible. This is particularly true of resupply operations conducted from a lodgement area to forward trains areas when considerable distances are involved.

Planning for air support must be as detailed as time permits to determine mission and armament requirements, time over target, and method of control. The joint air-ground operations system (AGOS) used to request and coordinate the use of US Air Force tactical air support is described in FM 100-26.


When the force is being supported by US Navy gunfire, or Navy or Marine aircraft, elements of a Marine air and naval gunfire liaison company (ANGLICO) are attached to Army ground forces. The mission of the company is to support an Army division by providing control and liaison agencies for employment of this support.

ANGLICO platoons and teams can advise commanders on the capabilities, limitations, and employment of naval gunfire, and USN or USMC air support. Platoons are normally placed with brigades or higher headquarters, and air and gunfire support teams placed with battalion task forces. Although the company has organic vehicles and some combat services support capability, its elements generally require additional administrative and logistical assistance from the supported unit. In order to communicate with Army/Marine units, additional communications equipment may also have to be provided. Additional information on ANGLICO employment can be found in FM 31-12.


Combat service support for desert operations is described in detail in Chapter 4. When planning a desert operation it is necessary to consider the following factors:

  • The speed of supply may be slowed and lines of communication can be vulnerable due to the distances between units. Except for Class V and sometimes Class III, resupply should beat night for reasons of security.

  • A great demand for water can tie down large quantities of transport and may involve laying pipelines. Water is vital, so consider the water situation during every operation estimate.

  • Increased maintenance is required due to heat, sand, and dust damage to equipment. This not only increases the repair work load, but also increases demand for replacement items due to increased wear.


Offensive operations in this environment may involve considerable expenditure of ammunition and high POL consumption. Units must carry maximum combat supplies, and plans for resupply must be widely disseminated and clearly understood. Use every opportunity for resupply.

Due to the importance of combat service support, attacking the rear will be more immediate y effective at lower levels of command in the desert than in temperate climates. In the case of water, for example, the enemy must be able to obtain resupply. Degradation of the enemy's trains places him in a situation where his troops must maneuver against the attacker regardless of the planned scheme of defense.

Combat service support must be reliable and timely, using vehicles that can travel over difficult terrain to reach combat units. In the desert, more than anywhere else, the commander must ensure that he has support that is capable of maintaining his unit for a specified period of time, even if the logistic line of communication is temporarily broken.

The mobility and freedom of tactical maneuver are tied to the ability of the logistic chain to supply maneuver units. Two alternatives are available: increase the rate of supply, probably requiring more vehicles, or prestock, which ties units to the stocked area. Some important supply considerations are outlined below:

  • Class I. It is often impractical to supply hot rations from mess trucks, especially when the unit is subject to enemy air reconnaissance or target acquisition devices. T rations and B rations are the usual method of troop feeding.

  • Class III. Daily requirements for POL in desert operations can be expected to be high. Estimates for POL requirements should take into consideration large-scale maneuver inherent in desert operations.

  • Class V. Estimates of ammunition requirements should reflect the high level of commitment that can be anticipated in desert operations.


Disabled vehicles are vulnerable targets. Both disabled vehicles and the maintenance vehicles used in working on them must be concealed during the day, and strict light and sound discipline imposed at night. Maintenance contact teams should carry Class IX supplies that have a quick turnover.

Section II. Offensive Operations

This section discusses offensive operations as they are modified by desert terrain.


The main purpose of offensive operations in desert terrain is to destroy the enemy, Operations may be undertaken to secure key or decisive terrain, to deprive the enemy of resources or decisive terrain, to deceive and divert the enemy, to develop intelligence, and to hold the enemy in position. Destruction of the enemy can be accomplished by concentrating friendly forces at a weak point in the enemy's defense and destroying enemy combat units, or by driving deep into the enemy's rear to destroy his combat service support and cut his lines of communication. No force can survive in the desert for long without combat service support.

An imaginative commander is not bound by terrain constraints in seeking and destroying the enemy. Due to the scarcity of key terrain in the desert, normally the only constraints placed upon a maneuvering force is its ability to maintain the only constraints placed upon a maneuvering force is its ability to maintain responsive combat service support and to protect its combat service support from enemy attack. The longer the lines of communication become, the more susceptible they are to being cut.

In most deserts, the scarcity of large areas of defensible terrain means that an enemy force has at least one flank open to attack, The attacking force must seek this flank and attempt to maneuver around it into the enemy's rear before the enemy can react and block the envelopment with mobile reserves.

Successful offensive operations depend on rapid, responsive, and violent maneuver, seeking a vulnerable enemy flank while exposing none to the enemy. The enemy, realizing the danger of remaining stationary in this terrain, may choose to conduct spoiling attacks or to counterattack. The resulting meeting engagement between the two attacking forces will often be a series of flanking actions and reactions with success going to the one who can find the other's unguarded flank first.

Attacking forces may conduct or participate in movement to contacts or hasty or deliberate attacks. Within a division, lead elements of forward units may be conducting a deliberate attack on the enemy's weak point or flank to open a gap for following units to move through and exploit success. Lead units of the exploiting force will be conducting a movement to contact and hasty attacks to overcome pockets of enemy resistance. Regardless of the type of operation being conducted, attacking units use the fundamentals for offensive operations described in FM 100-5/FMFM 6-1 and other tactical manuals, modified to suit the terrain.


The attacker must conduct active and aggressive reconnaissance to the front, flanks, and rear, not only to locate and identify enemy obstacles, units, weak points, and flanks, but also to give early warning of threats to his flanks and combat service support elements. A moving force is at a disadvantage in the desert due to a lack of concealment. Therefore, it is necessary to push reconnaissance units as far out from the main body as possible to allow early warning and to deny the enemy close-in observation.

Information gathered by this reconnaissance must be passed promptly to all units. In the desert, a negative report may be as important as an enemy sighting. Commanders and staffs must avoid the two extremes of either passing too little information or overwhelming their subordinates with useless trivia. Similarly, reconnaissance units must also avoid extremes. There is a very real possibility that extensive reconnaissance in one area will alert the enemy of intended operations in that area. Therefore, the need for reconnaissance must be tempered with the need for deception. In fact, reconnaissance may even serve as a deceptive measure to draw the enemy's attention away from the real objective or area of operations.

Concentrate on overwhelming combat power. Mass is achieved in both time and space. Units must be able to rapidly concentrate at a given time and place, and then disperse just as rapidly to avoid offering a lucrative target to the enemy. Concentration does not necessarily mean that vehicles and men are massed in a small area, but that units have the ability to place an overwhelming concentration of fires on the enemy.

Mutual support is as important in the desert as in temperate climates. Due to the large distances covered by maneuver in the desert, mutual support does not mean that any one unit is always in position to fire against an enemy threatening another unit. However, units must be capable of maneuvering in support of one another without disrupting the scheme of maneuver.

Concentration requires movement, and possibly weakening of forces facing the enemy in another part of the zone. Due to the enemy's observation capabilities, movement should take place at night or in conditions of limited visibility whenever possible. Deception measures play an important part in concentration, either to mislead the enemy as to the strength or true intentions of the opposing forces, or their avenues of approach. In this environment of negligible concealment, deception cannot be overemphasized.

The enemy's objective is to stop and destroy the attacking force by direct and indirect fires, obstacles, and counterattacks. The attacker must in turn suppress enemy weapon and surveillance systems to degrade their effects and their intelligence-gathering capability.

Attack helicopters and high-performance aircraft are extremely useful due to their ability to maneuver and apply firepower over a large battlefield in a short time. So, suppression of enemy air defense has a high priority during offensive operations. The destruction of enemy antitank capabilities must also have a high priority due to the shock potential of armor in the desert. No target that has a long-range antitank capability should be disregarded. Good gunnery and well-planned fire distribution are preeminent.

In featureless desert terrain, the requirement to shock, overwhelm, and destroy the enemy demands accurate reconnaissance to identify actual positions from false positions, and excellent navigation so that a commander may be certain of the deployment of his forces. Reconnoiter to find a gap or assailable flank (without alerting the enemy that the area is being reconnoitered) and concentrate the main body to go through or around it with suppressive fires on the flank(s). A gap must be wide enough to allow one unit to bypass another unit that could be stalled. Obstacles are likely to be placed so that attempts to go around them will often lead the attacker into a tire sack. Equipment capable of breaching obstacles must be located well forward.


As a general rule, a force attacking in daylight should try to wait until the sun is comparatively low and position behind it. This enables enemy targets to be plainly seen without their shadows, while the defenders are handicapped by glare, mirages, and haze. It is not always possible (nor essential) for the sun to be directly behind the attackers. To rely on this leads to a stereotyped method of attack which could become evident to the defenders. The commander of a maneuver force should attempt to keep the sun somewhere on a 3,200-mil arc to his flanks or rear, giving a wide choice of angle of attack.

Dust is an observational hazard to a maneuvering force, especially where there is little or no wind. Teams should move in echelon with overmatching elements on the upwind side, and observers and attack helicopters should operate well to the flank. Since it is impossible to disguise movement during daylight, the assault should be as rapid as possible to minimize enemy reaction time.

The decision to move through a sandstorm will depend on the unit's distance from the enemy, trafficability, the presence of minefield, and the direction and density of the storm. If the advancing unit is caught in a storm blowing from the enemy's direction, the safest alternative is to halt until it abates, although this may not always be possible. In some situations it may be possible for platoons to form close column, using taillights only, and continue movement. When the storm is blowing toward the enemy it is possible (and extremely effective) to conduct an attack immediately behind the storm.

In certain circumstances equipment or positions that are camouflaged and are less than 1 meter from the ground are invisible to an observer at the same height out to approximately 2,000 meters. At the same time, mirages allow observation of objects below the horizon, although these may be distorted, enlarged, or fuzzy to the point of being unrecognizable. These effects often depend entirely on the angle of the sun to the observer and are best combated by-

  • Maintaining observers as high above the desert floor as possible, even if only in hull-down positions behind sand dunes.

  • Allowing a vehicle's crew on one side of a position to warn a crew on the other side of a possible threat to his front by crews observing over wide areas.

Many offensive operations take place at night. Observation in these conditions varies according to the amount of ambient light. During nights when the moon is full or almost full, the clear desert sky and ample ambient light allow good observation, both with the naked eye and with night observation devices. Maneuvering units using night-vision devices must continually scan the surrounding terrain to pickup enemy activity that normally would be acquired by peripheral vision in the daylight.

The desert night is extremely dark when there is little or no moon. Under these conditions passive-vision devices, with the exception of thermal imagery, are of little value unless artificial light is used. Active light sources will have to be relied upon. Employment of artificial light must be strictly controlled by the headquarters directing the operation to maintain surprise. As a general rule, direct-fire weapons should not illuminate their target themselves, as their vision will be obscured by debris kicked up due to muzzle blast. Following contact, when some targets should be on fire, passive devices can be used.


If the terrain permits masking of maneuvering units, and trafficability is good, normal fundamentals of fire and maneuver are used. Trafficability may be restricted by rocky terrain as in the Golan Heights, or the ground may be so flat that the defender has total observation of the area. Movement in these circumstances requires speed of maneuver, deception, and considerable suppression to degrade enemy observation and fires. Frontal attacks should be avoided, especially in conditions of restricted trafficability. It is preferable to maintain pressure on enemy units in unfavorable terrain, while other forces find enemy weaknesses in terrain that is more favorable for an attack.

Lack of clearly defined terrain features complicates navigation and phased operations. Units conducting an enveloping maneuver are apt to lose direction unless routes have been carefully reconnoitered by the maximum number of leaders.

Section III. Defensive Operations

This section discusses defensive operations as they are modified by desert terrain.


It is unlikely that a US force will be fully deployed in a desert country before an enemy attack. The more probable situation, assuming a secure lodgement area, will be that part of the force will be in position supporting an allied force, while the remainder is moving in by air and sea. Tactically, the allied force will be outnumbered, so the initial mission will be to gain time until the entire force is present in the operational area. This will require a defensive posture initially, but a defense undertaken so aggressively as to convince the enemy that his offensive action will be too costly in personnel and equipment to be worth maintaining. The enemy will be well aware that US forces are arriving in the area, and will make every effort to conclude his operation successfully before the force is fully prepared for combat operations.

The force may conduct defensive operations during subsequent stages of the operation for any of the reasons described in FM 100-5/FMFM 6-1. Portions of the force may be required to defend the important types of terrain described below:

  • Man-made features such as ports, key logistic installations, roads, railroads, water pumping stations, airfields, and wells.

  • Natural features, such as mountain passes, or dominating ground, such as Mount Hermon on the border of Syria and Israel, or the Sollum escarpment near the sea between Libya and Egypt.

  • Key or decisive terrain that need not necessarily be a major feature, but one whose loss will inhibit the force in some manner. For example, the loss of terrain relatively close to a lodgement area may hinder the planned rate of buildup.

With the exception of the above cases, the retention of desert terrain normally makes little difference to the final outcome of battle. This does not mean that a commander has complete discretion to move his force wherever and whenever he wishes, as this movement will affect the dispositions of other US forces or allies. It means that possession of terrain is less important than the destruction of enemy forces. Although it will be necessary to dominate certain terrain or retain freedom to maneuver in large areas of the desert, there is no more sense in permanently occupying such areas than occupying a patch of sea. Assuming equal equipment capabilities for both opposing forces, the critical factor in defense will be the force ratios involved and the state of morale and training of the opposing forces.

A defense using aggressive maneuver at all levels is the best way to destroy large numbers of enemy without being destroyed in the process. If the defending force fails to remain mobile and active, the enemy will easily outflank it and strike directly at vital targets, such as the lodgement area. It is almost certain that one flank or the other will be open as were the south flanks of the British and German forces in Egypt and Libya in 1940-43. Since it will not be possible to maintain an unbroken line between strategic obstacles, air and ground security forces must be positioned in width and depth to guard against an enemy trying to outflank the defender.

Obstacles, both natural and artificial, are used to slow, contain, or isolate enemy units in order to defeat and destroy his units one at a time. Forward units block the enemy and canalize him into one or two avenues where he can be engaged from the flank. A reserve can then counterattack to destroy any remaining enemy.

Mutual support is normally a factor of time rather than weapon range due to the large areas to be covered. Gaps in initial positions may have to be accepted between and within task forces; although the ideal is to site units in such a manner that forces in at least two positions can engage an enemy maneuvering on any one of them. This greatly reduces any possibility of defeat in detail. When gaps exist they must be kept under surveillance. The defensive plan must include provisions for maneuvering to fire on any part of a gap before the enemy can move through it. A unit's area of responsibility must be defined by higher headquarters and should be clearly identifiable on the ground, which, due to the absence of significant terrain features, may require marking by artificial means.


The fundamentals of defense are described in FM 100-5/FMFM 6-1 and in doctrinal manuals appropriate to each level of command. The following paragraphs discuss some points to remember in desert operations as they apply to the fundamentals of defense.

Reconnaissance and security units and force surveillance systems must focus on--

  • What is the enemy's short-term objective?

  • What are the enemy's avenues of approach, and what force is employed on each of them?

  • Are the apparent movements real or feints?

As soon as these questions have been answered the commander will be able to maneuver to destroy the enemy. Until they are confirmed he can do nothing more than react to enemy initiatives, This is dangerous in any circumstance and doubly so in the desert as the side with the greatest potential for maneuver is more likely to win.

Direct-fire weapons must be used to their maximum effective range both by day and night. Limitations in night-vision equipment cannot be allowed to reduce depth or frontages; so plans for field artillery or mortar illumination are made for defense during limited visibility.

It is essential that all elements of a force retain their tactical mobility and efficient communications so that they can immediately react to changes in the commander's plans. Each individual weapon must be sited in a number of firing positions, even though vehicular movement may be exposed to air attack. Infantry fighting vehicles must remain in positions where they are concealed, capable of giving fire support to the dismounted squad, and available for immediate remounting.

Combined arms teams are essential to give the commander the capability he requires to fight the defensive battle. Defending forces orient on primary enemy approaches but units must also be prepared for attack from any other direction. Itis neither possible nor necessary to have maximum firepower in all directions, provided weapons can be moved to threatened areas before the enemy reaches them. Air cover or an air defense umbrella is necessary for a successful defense.

It is rare to find positions where any substantial part of the unit area of operations can be protected by natural obstacles. This require extensive use of artificial obstacles, depending on time, personnel, and combat service support available. Obstacles are used to divide the enemy force to improve local force ratios, and to slow the enemy's advance, thus permitting a flank attack. Conventional minefield must be clearly marked on the friendly side and recorded to avoid unnecessary losses if friendly forces later maneuver over the area.


Strongpoints are rare in desert warfare; however, they may be necessary to defend an oasis, mountain pass, or other key terrain essential to the defender's scheme of maneuver. When it is necessary to deny terrain to an enemy force, it is far better to initiate the defense well forward of the terrain feature, conduct the defense in depth, and destroy the enemy or force him to break off his attack before he reaches the critical feature.

In some cases the level of fortification and the deployment of the enemy may be a function of time, or the enemy's intention and his understanding of what our forces are intending to do. The effectiveness of these strongpoints depends on the range of fires, the level of fortifications, and the decision of the opponent to attack them.

Deeply dug and well-prepared strongpoints surrounded by a minefield and having underground accommodations are usually used in the desert. Although these strongpoints may be neutralized by air or artillery fire and bypassed, eventually they will have to be assaulted. If they have been carefully sited and are well defended they can be quite effective. Variations of the strongpoint defense are used in rear operations. Combat service support units will use this method in perimeter defenses or base-cluster defenses. See Figure 3-8 for an example of a strongpoint and Figure 3-9 for an example of a strongpoint holding key terrain.


The use of the reverse slope defense takes on added importance in the desert. Concealment is hard to achieve in the open desert. Detection of a unit's location invites both direct and indirect fires in abundance. The use of reverse slope positions will deny the enemy direct observation of positions until he is within the range of direct-fire weapons. Reverse slopes can even be found on seemingly flat desert floors; an intervisibility line will provide the reference for the establishment of engagement areas to support a reverse slope defense. A common misconception is that the desert is flat, when in fact, deserts are normally very uneven, with large breaks in the terrain.

Desert environments give special significance to the terrain aspect of METT-T. Commanders at all levels should place emphasis on the impact of desert terrain as it relates to the other factors of METT-T. The reverse slope defense in desert terrain warrants special considerations.

Direct-fire positions should be placed at the maximum effective ranges from the intervisibility line. This is where the enemy cannot see or engage a force with direct fire until he is within its engagement area. He can only deploy limited forces at a time. This allows the defender to mass fires on one portion of the enemy force at a time. The attacking force will have difficulty in observing and adjusting indirect fires. Obstacles may not be seen by the enemy until he is upon them and force him to breach under massed frees. Observation posts (OPs) positioned forward to see the advance of the enemy can influence the fight through indirect fires. The OPs can direct indirect fires on enemy forces that are slowed or stopped outside direct-fire ranges.

This defensive technique may be used in all defensive missions. Light infantry units use the reverse slope for protection against enemy long-range fires and to reduce the effects of massive indirect fires (artillery and close air support). The reverse slope defense brings the battle into the defender's weapons' ranges. Use of the reverse slope provides an opportunity to gain surprise.

The goal is to cause the enemy to commit his forces against the forward slope of the defense, resulting in his force attacking in an uncoordinated fashion across the crest. A reverse slope defense is organized on the portion of a terrain feature or slope that is masked from enemy direct fires and observation by the topographical crest, and extends rearward from the crest to maximize the range of the defender's weapon systems. See Figure 3-10 for an example of a reverse slope defense and Figure 3-11 for the organization of the reverse slope defense.

A disadvantage may be that the maximum ranges of weapon systems may not be employed due to the terrain available. The desert may be the best environment for the reverse slope defense. It may allow the use of weapons at maximum ranges as well as facilitating advantages. The following are advantages of a reverse slope defense:

  • It hinders or prevents enemy observation of the defensive position.

  • Attacking forces will not be able to receive direct-fire support from following forces.

  • Enemy long-range antitank fires will be degraded.

  • Attacking enemy forces will be silhouetted on the crest of the hill.

  • Engineer work can be conducted away from direct-fire and observation from the enemy.

Reverse slope defense is not one concept, but a series of concepts that produce the potential for success. The concepts are-

  • Pursue offensive opportunities through surprise and deceptive actions, with the intent of stealing the initiative, imposing the commander's will on the enemy, and breaking the enemy's morale.

  • Afford the defender a variety of options in positioning his troops, with each option designed to draw the enemy into unfamiliar terrain.

  • Enhance light infantry effectiveness and survivability.

A hasty or deliberate reverse slope defense may be considered when any of the following conditions exist:

  • When the forward slope lacks cover and concealment, and effective enemy fire makes that position untenable.

  • When the terrain on the reverse slope affords appreciably better fields of fire than those available on the forward slope.

  • When it is desirable to avoid creating a distortion or dangerous salient in friendly lines by relying on forward slope positions.

  • When it is essential to surprise and deceive the enemy as to the unit's true defensive positions or main effort.

  • When seeking to gain protection from the enemy as he is massing fires.


When it is necessary to delay or withdraw, a desert offers many advantages to the defender. Long-range fields of fire allow engagements at maximum effective range of direct-fire weapon systems, and disengagement before the defender's position. However, dust clouds created by a moving force make it necessary to disengage under cover of smoke or darkness. Even a sandstorm can be used to the advantage. Field artillery, US Air Force fighter bombers, and attack helicopters can also be used to allow a ground maneuver unit to disengage and move rapidly to the next position.

When it is necessary to trade space for time, often a counterattack to destroy enemy advance units will do more good than trying to defend longer from an intermediate position.

Commanders at all levels should clearly understand the scheme of maneuver concept of the operation, and what it is they are expected to do, especially if communications should fail. Plans must include provisions for alternate means of communication. Routes should be clearly marked and reconnoitered to the maximum extent practical.

Due to the distances involved and constantly changing task organization, passage of lines is more difficult to coordinate and control. Pay extra attention to the identification of vehicles, routes of passage, signals, and coordination of movements.

Deception should be a part of all desert retrograde operations. The object of deception is to conceal the fact that a retrograde operation is taking place and that units are thinning out. Smoke and dummy positions can be used, false radio messages transmitted, and even dust clouds used to deceive the enemy.


In the desert it is necessary to modify the techniques of defense as described in doctrinal manuals applicable to each level of command and according to the mission, the fundamentals described in the preceding paragraph, and to the environmental considerations that are described in the following paragraphs.


The enemy will try to attack when the sun is low and behind him so as to dazzle the defender. The defender's observers must be as high as possible above the desert floor to see the advancing enemy as soon as possible.

Active light sources can be detected from great distances, especially during nights with low ambient light. Positive control of active light sources must be maintained until the battle is joined. Even then, the force equipped with passive devices will have the advantage over the force that is not equipped with these devices.

Heat from combat vehicles can give an enemy using thermal imagery devices a complete picture of the defensive scheme. So, combat vehicles should not prematurely occupy battle positions at night.


Sandstorms may be used by the enemy to hide an offensive operation especially if the storm is blowing from the enemy's direction. When this is the case, units should immediately occupy their battle positions before the storm arrives. The unit should remain there until it ends, ready to fire and maneuver against the attacker after the storm abates. If vehicle patrolling is possible, a scout platoon or similar unit should cover all gaps, preferably moving in pairs, and on straight lines in view of navigational difficulties.


From the point of view of a defending brigade or battalion task force commander, avenues of approach will often seem unlimited. Long-range observation must be maximized and scouts employed well forward to offset this problem. Radars should also be used extensively to provide early warning. It is necessary to identify the enemy's main effort early in order to move to concentrate.

Lack of concealment, especially from the aerial detection, prohibits units from occupying firing positions until just before engaging the enemy. Combat vehicles must displace immediately after engagement or risk destruction. Because of frequent displacement, mutes between battle positions should be reconnoitered and marked when possible, without revealing the scheme of defense. Smoke must be used frequently to conceal movement.


Analysis of desert operations from World War II to the present day indicates that tactical deception and surprise are clearly linked to the ability to move and mass forces during periods of limited visibility.

Operational planning should emphasize night movement of units. To minimize the problems of dust and to enhance deception, movement should be accomplished using multiple routes. Place priority on training to support this requirement. Associated with night movement is the requirement for night passage through lanes in minefield and forward passage through friendly forces.

In every modem desert war, deception has played a major role. The lack of concealment leads commanders to believe that with a reasonable reconnaissance effort they can gain an accurate picture of the enemy's dispositions. Reconnaissance by German, British, Israeli, Egyptian, and Syrian forces in modern desert warfare has been sufficient to detect the presence of combat forces in the desert. Deception has been successfully used in each of the modem desert conflicts to mislead commanders. .

Since the desert environment makes it difficult to hide forces, the alternative is to make them look like something else--trucks and plywood made to look like tanks, and tanks made to look like trucks.

The movement of personnel and equipment and the placement of logistic support installations are normally indicators of a force's intent. The movement of empty boxes or pallets of ammunition and the establishment of fuel storage areas with real or dummy assets can deceive the enemy as to planned offensive actions. Use minimal actual transportation assets and make numerous, visible trips to simulate a large effort.

There are many examples of successful deception efforts by US forces from World War II In September 1944, the 43rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Reinforced) occupied a 23-mile fronton the left flank of XX (US) Corps on the Metz Front. This squadron portrayed an armored division for several weeks and was so successful that the German Order of Battle Maps showed the 14th (US) Armored Division (AD) to be in the area. The 14th AD was not even in Europe at the time. Expertise in deception operations is critical to success.

Deception plays a key part in offensive operations and has two objectives: the first objective is to weaken the local defense by drawing reserves to another part of the battlefield. This may be done by making a small force seem larger than it is. The second objective is to conceal the avenue of approach and timing of the main attack. Some deception methods that can be used in offensive operations are--

  • Using dummy units and installations.

  • Using phony radio traffic.

  • Using movement and suppressive fires in other areas timed to coincide with the real attack.

  • Using small convoys to generate dust clouds.

  • Filling ration boxes with sand and stacking them at landfills.

  • Moving trucks into and out of the area giving it the appearance of being a storage facility or logistic base.

  • Emulating damage to induce the enemy to leave important targets alone. For example, ragged patterns can be painted on the walls and roof of a building with tar and coal dust, and covers placed over them.

  • Stacking debris nearby and wiring any unused portions for demolition. During an attack, covers are removed under cover of smoke generators, debris scattered, and demolitions blown. Subsequent enemy air photography will disclose a building that is too badly damaged to be used. Troops using the building after an attack must guard against heat emissions after dark and care must be taken to control electromagnetic emissions.

  • Using phony minefield to simulate live minefields. For example, disturb the ground so that it appears that mines have been emplaced and mark boundaries with appropriate warnings.

  • Making a real minefield to appear as phony or camouflaging it. For example, once a real minefield is settled, a wheel or a specially made circular wooden tank track marker can be run through the field, leaving track or tire marks to lure the enemy onto live mines. Antipersonnel mines should not be sown in such a field until the track marks have been laid. Another method is to leave gaps in the mechanically laid field, run vehicles through the gaps, and then close them with hand-laid mines without disturbing the track marks.

  • Using decoys to confuse the enemy as to the strength of friendly forces and the unit's identity, or to conceal unit movement by being sited in a position after the real unit has moved. For more information on deception operations, see FM 90-2.


Desert characteristics affecting LRS operations are: lack of water (a major problem), scarcity of vegetation, extensive sand areas, extreme temperature ranges, brilliant sunlight, and usually excellent observation. Movement using animals, vehicles, or by foot may be considered and is generally restricted to darkness. More training in land or air navigation and terrain orientation procedures may be necessary.


An air assault task force provides commanders with truly unique capabilities. They can extend the battlefield, move, and rapidly concentrate combat power like no other forces.

An air assault task force uses the helicopter to move to and close with the enemy. Initial assault elements must be light and mobile. They are often separated from weapon systems, equipment, and materiel that provide protection and survivability on the battlefield. Thus, an air assault task force may be particularly vulnerable in a desert environment to enemy-

  • Attack by aircraft and air defense weapon systems during the movement phase due to differences in desert effects on observation and fields of fire.

  • Attacks (ground, air, artillery) during the loading and unloading phases and at other times when the infantry is not dug in.

  • Small arms fire that presents a significant threat to helicopters.

  • Artillery or other fires that may destroy helicopters and air assault forces during PZ (pickup zone) or LZ (landing zone) operations.

Air assault operations are discussed in greater detail in FM 90-4. Marine Corps assault support ensures the rapid buildup of combat power and facilitates the quick maneuver of ground forces. See FMFM 5-35 for more information.


The airborne division is organized to rapidly deploy anywhere in the world. It is the only US Army division with a rapid, strategic, combined arms, forced-entry capability. It will most likely be the initial force deployed for contingency operations. It is ideally suited and primarily designed to seize, secure, and repair airfields in order to provide an airhead for follow-on forces and to delay, disrupt, and reduce enemy forces.

Airborne operations can be adversely affected by various environmental considerations of the desert. High winds, sandstorms, and heavy rainfall or thunderstorms may impact on mission accomplishment. Planning considerations for combat service support are complicated by the fact that airborne forces will be the first Army forces in an immature and austere desert theater. For more information on airborne operations, see FM 90-26.


Marine operating forces are organized for combat as Marine air ground task forces (MAGTFs) composed of command, ground combat, aviation combat, and combat service support elements. The MAGTFs are closely integrated combat forces capable of rapid response to any crisis or contingency. Their Naval/Marine Corps expeditionary nature makes them ideal for immature and austere environments as was seen in Operations Desert Shield/Storm (Southwest Asia) and Restore Hope (Somalia).

A variety of types of MAGTFs may be formed in support of national strategy and rapid crisis response. The Marine expeditionary force (MEF) is the Corps' principal organization for combat and peacetime readiness, and is formed from the legislated division and aircraft wing teams. These MEFs provide a reservoir of integrated combined arms combat power that can be task organized to simultaneously execute a wide range of global missions. The MAGTFs are mission tailored and range in size from very powerful MEFs, capable of prosecuting operational campaigns against the most capable potential threat through rapidly deployable and employable Marine expeditionary units (MEUs), to small special purpose forces (SPMAGTFs) formed for specific missions or crises. In the early moments of Operation Desert Shield, a MEF provided the nation a powerful combined arms combat force to stand against aggression, while US forces and equipment and supplies were being assembled in Southwest Asia. For more information on MAGTF operations, see FMFRP 2-12.


The maritime pre-positioning force (MPF) gives the nation an added dimension in mobility, readiness, and global responsiveness. The MPF program involves 13 ships, organized in three squadrons. Maritime pre-positioning squadron one (MPSRON-1) operates in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, MPSRON-2 in the Indian Ocean, and MPSRON-3 in the western Pacific. The MPF, when called upon, provides equipment and 30 (days of supplies for a 16,000-man Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB). The MEB's personnel and selected equipment can be airlifted quickly using roughly 250 airlift sorties to an objective area to join with its equipment at a secure site. Equipment and supplies can also be selectively off-loaded to support smaller MAGTFs. During Operation Desert Shield/Storm, all three MPFs were off-loaded in Southwest Asia providing immediate support to deploying forces. During Restore Hope, one MPF supported operations. For more information on MPF operations, see FMFM 1-5.


To meet our nation's global commitments, the Army maintains a balanced force of armored, light, special operations, and support forces for use across the operational continuum. Army special operation forces (ARSOF) are an integral part of the total Army force. ARSOF have five elements: special forces, rangers, Army special operations aviation (ARSOA), PSYOP, and civil affairs. These forces offer significant capabilities to the desert theater of operations. Details of ARSOF capabilities are discussed in FM 100-25.


Because there are few man-made features throughout the expanse of the desert, those that do exist can become important, perhaps even key. Key terrain in the desert can be any man-made feature. Settlements (where a logistics base may be established), road junctions, shelters, and airfields, all become important, simply because they are so few in number. Growing villages and settlements straddle these lines of communication, and small villages may exist near water sources and other key terrain. It may be necessary to conduct MOUT operations to control these areas. In areas involved with Desert Storm, paved roads and even dirt roads were considered key terrain for both high-speed movement and for providing clearly defined directions and locations. Commanders must be prepared to fight on terrain that is constantly being modified by man. More information on conducting MOUT can be found in FM 90-10.

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