Fighting At Night
AUTHOR Major Walter J. Wierzbicki, USMC
SUBJECT AREA - Warfighting
TITLE: FIGHTING AT NIGHT
I. Purpose: To review United States Marine Corps Doctrine
pertaining to the conduct of the night attack and to
make recommendations as to reguirements for change or
II. Problem: The proliferation of night vision technology
on today's battlefield has essentially turned the night
into day; in addition, the tempo of combat may lead to
extemporaneous night fighting necessitating a review of
our current night attack doctrine.
III. Data: USMC doctrine describes a very lock-step formula
for the successful conduct of a night attack. Even
though the doctrine is formulated from numerous
historical examples, the doctrine does not advance or
take into account the changes we have seen or expect to
see on today's battlefield. Foremost among these
changes is the superior advances that have been made in
night vision technology. Also the fact that extem-
poraneous night fighting may occur on the battlefield,
that is, night fighting that may be conducted without a
detailed reconnaissance, rehearsals and proper dissemi-
nation of the order will have a major impact on the way
we approach the night fight and the way we prepare for
it. History is replete with the successes gained
through the use of night combat. From the British
experience in the Falkland Islands in which they
employed their forces almost exclusively at night
conclusions can be drawn that the doctrine developed is
applicable with modifications.
IV. Conclusions: The night attack doctrine contained in
FMFMs 6-3 and 6-4 is valid and should be used but
modified based on the commander's evaluation of the
V. Recommendations: Training for the night fight should
be conducted at least fifty percent of the time and it
should include the hasty or impromptu night attack.
FIGHTING AT NIGHT
Thesis Statement: Unlike tacticians of old, today's tacti-
cian has no choice. Modern armies can and will fight
effectively at night, and the force that cannot cope with
darkness will lose the battle. Given the unquestioned
validity of these circumstances, our current doctrine for the
conduct of an infantry ground night attack is outdated.
I. Purposes for the Conduct of the Night Attack
A. Historical Overview of the Night Attack
B. Command and Control
II. Night Operations and Its Effects
A. Psychological and Physiological Considerations
B. Night Vision Technology Advances
III. Extemporaneous Night Fighting
A. Adequate Training for Night Operations
B. Selection of terrain--maximize cover and concealment
IV. Doctrinal Approach to Night Operations
A. Principles/Essentials of the Night Attack
B. Control Measures Required for the Conduct of the
C. Planning the Night Attack
V. The British Experience in the Falklands War--1982
VI. Deduced Modifications to the Doctrine
VII. Implications for USMC Doctrine
FIGHTING AT NIGHT
"The more that darkness is avoided, the better.
Daybreak is favorable because you can recognize one
another. You do not risk killing your own men and
the cowards, who think they can run away in the
shadows, are not able to do it as well when the
officers are able to distinguish them. In general,
I believe that night attacks are only good when you
are so weak that you do not dare attack the enemy in
daylight. " (6:13)
This military philosophy was voiced by Frederick the
Great, universally recognized as one of history's Great
Captains. Other such notables as Napoleon and Clausewitz
have cautioned that night operations should be undertaken
only under very unusual circumstances, and then only for
limited objectives. United States Marine Corps doctrine
states that night attacks are employed to achieve one or more
of the following purposes:
(1) To achieve tactical surprise.
(2) To complete or exploit a prior success.
(3) To maintain pressure against the enemy.
(4) To avoid heavy losses.
(5) To compensate for an inferiority in combat power.
(6) To seize terrain considered vital to the conduct of
subsequent daylight operations. (4:152)
Past tactics and technology permitted commanders to forego
night operations if they so chose. Darkness was a time of
rest for weary soldiers. Commanders leisurely planned the
following day's activities, confident that no civilized
opponent would spoil their sleep by initiating a night
action. Today's tactician has no choice. Modern armies can
and will fight effectively at night, and the force that
cannot cope with darkness will lose the battle. Given the
unquestioned validity of these circumstances, our current
doctrine for the conduct of an infantry ground night attack
When one thinks of conducting a night attack the command
and control of the attack should immediately come to mind.
Upon reviewing the inherent problem of controlling a night
attack, one may be inclined to agree with Frederick the Great
and just not do it. The need for additional control
measures, a reliance on navigation skills, the requirement
for rehearsals, all weigh heavily on a commander. Moreover,
the anticipation of a unit moving across hostile terrain,
encountering obstacles, taking enemy fire from unidentified
locations, and finally assaulting an enemy that is dug-in and
capable of shooting anything that moves is enough to faze
even the strongest commander.
Troops must compensate for the uncertainty and chaos
encountered in controlling a night attack. Night training
and constant rehearsals are essential to a unit's success at
night. However, in sustained combat operations, rehearsals
will sometimes be conducted completely devoid of the two main
ingredients for success: a detailed reconnaissance of the
terrain and an understanding of the enemy situation. (13:26)
These two requirements are key in any attack but take on an
even greater importance at night and if not conducted will
lead to failure.
Most likely, when one considers operating at night,
psychological and physiological considerations must be taken
into account. Man is not nocturnal by nature. Our
instinctive reaction to darkness is to find a secure place,
rest, and wait for daylight. Simple tasks take longer to
perform at night. Fatigue seems more debilitating. An enemy
felt but unseen is more sinister than one whose presence and
activity can be observed. Men charged with confidence during
the day may become tentative at night. Of course these
difficulties of the night apply to the enemy as well. But
here we must realize that a defending enemy, even though he
feels the effects of the night, has the advantage because he
is familiar with the terrain and has fixed positions which
provide him with a sense of security and confidence.
With the advances in night vision technology some long
established principles of night fighting have become
obsolete, thus antiquating those principles alluded to by B.
H. Liddell Hart in a 1955 article where he states, "a cloak
of invisibility is the best means of surprise and better than
any armor as a means of protection. Moreover, the cloak that
nature provides nightly has the advantage of being more con-
sistent and predictable than any artificial one." (6:13)
Only a few years ago the commander who could train men to a
high state of light and noise discipline, and follow
accurately a compass azimuth was well on his way toward
successful night operations. This is not to say that these
skills should not continue to be developed, but with the
proliferation of night observation devices on the field of
battle, stealth and accuracy cannot assure success or
survival. Attacking units must be judicious in the selection
of the terrain, maximizing cover and concealment and not
relying on the straight line approach from the line of
departure to the objective. Current doctrine fails to
address this salient issue.
Considering future war, or for that matter the war in
which we were recently involved wherein extensive night
ground action was planned, night attacks in some instances
became a continuation of the day's action into the period of
darkness. This type of extemporaneous night fighting may be
the most difficult of all to execute properly, for planning
will be rapid, support will be that which is available, and
selected units will be those already in contact, or most
nearly so. These circumstances will not fit the concept of
the meticulously planned night attack as our doctrine
currently addresses. But today's battle may likely deal
harshly with the theories of classic warfare.
Our operational forces do not train adequately for night
operations, neither does USMC doctrine address this training
even though this same doctrine describes such training as
essential to battlefield success. Training is the respon-
sibility of the commander. He is the one who sets the
objectives and ensures they are met through supervision. It
is here in the supervisory aspect that all too often the link
is broken. Simply going through the motions is inadequate.
Individuals learn the skill of night navigation by navigating
at night; they become familiar with night observation devices
by using them, and they attain confidence with their weapons
and each other at night through the conduct of live fire
exercises and combined arms exercises, not by simply paying
lip service to these necessities.
The proliferation of night-vision equipment and modern
weaponry has increased the advantages gained from night
operations but it has not substantially reduced the psycho-
logical effect of darkness on humans. We must realize,
however, that we are confronting or will confront an enemy
with equal capabilities, necessitating modification of our
doctrine and an examination of those purposes for which the
conduct of an infantry ground attack is made. And given the
situation in Southwest Asia where complex ground maneuver at
night was extensively planned for, we must recognize the time
for change is now!
History is replete with examples of the successes gained
through the conduct of the night attack. The success
achieved has been directly proportionate to the lessons
derived from each occurrence and our doctrine aptly commun-
icates those recurring themes. Those underlying or founding
principles of night warfare contained in the Marine Corps
FMFM 6-3 and FMFM 6-4 dictate that the essentials for a night
2. Detailed information on the enemy and terrain
3. Preparation time
4. Simple concept--detailed plan
5. Designation of the objective
6. Secrecy in preparation (3:229-235)
To expand on these principles for the night attack they
each need to be looked at both separately and in total
because a successful night attack depends on the aspects of
training and leadership and should include both individual
and unit training. To become more confident and aggressive
in our night operating abilities, our night training must be
more than superficial. In addition to emphasizing squad or
platoon size training (as is so often the case), we must also
gain experience in company and battalion-size night attacks.
Detailed information remains paramount to a successful
night attack and if any one aspect is critical to the success
of its operation it is having detailed information on both
the enemy and terrain. The particular emphasis should be on
the routes to and the nature of the objective. In conjunc-
tion with this information, the value of preparation time
comes to the forefront. Allowing for ample time to conduct
reconnaissance, formulate the plan, and above all disseminate
the plan becomes paramount to success.
In a seeming paradox, doctrine calls not only for a
simple concept but also for a detailed plan when developing
the scheme of maneuver. But the paradox is only superficial;
control and coordination are that much more difficult at
night. Understandably then the simpler the plan, the more
attention to detail may be realized. This concept is
relative though as doctrine dictates complexity in developing
a plan due to the number of control measures that are
required to complete the plan for the night attack.
Most doctrine describes the objective as easily identi-
fiable, limited in size, and singular. In other words, it
cannot be a simple plan if we have a problem in identifying
the objective. There must be no question as to what the
objective is. The criteria describing the objective of a
night attack appear to be terrain dependent but will it be
possible to maintain our focus if the objective is the
enemy? That remains to be seen.
Secrecy in preparation, the last of the principles/
essentials, relates directly to the degree of surprise one
will achieve in executing a night attack. Therefore it is
reasonable to assume we should not do anything out of the
ordinary to tip our hand in both preparation and execution.
A "business as usual" attitude should prevail and nothing out
of the ordinary should be done to reveal our intentions.
When planning a night attack control measures are
required by doctrine to assist in the command and control of
the attack. Points of departure (PD), start points (SP),
release points (RPs), directions of attack, probable lines of
deployment (PLD), and limits of advance (LOA) are all neces-
sary to better define the battlefield and control forces in
the attack. Certainly the requirements for this dramatic
increase in control measures will impact on the simple plan;
just remembering to use them is complex enough but all have a
The discussion thus far has a direct bearing on the
development of the plan for attack. Broadly speaking, when
one thinks of the night attack one will usually find oneself
thinking in terms of two types: either the non-illuminated,
non-supported, or the illuminated, supported attack.
(4:152) But there are other factors that must be taken into
account: the form of maneuver, type of formation, and time
of attack all lead to the scheme of maneuver.
After completing our initial estimate of the situation,
i.e., METT-TS-L, and after our objective selection one of the
first tasks in developing the plan will be to determine the
form of maneuver we will employ. Here our primary concern is
the disposition of the enemy and the nature of the terrain.
For simplicity in planning, doctrine alludes to the selection
of the frontal attack as the easier form of maneuver.
Obviously this form may meet the heaviest resistance and it
may be more prudent to attempt to develop the envelopment or
a flank attack. But these forms are inherently more complex
and neither would lend itself to the admonishment of doctrine
to "keep it simple."
In considering the formation that we will use in the
night attack, we must look further at the requirements for
the assault echelon and consider the mission of the reserve.
The size of the objective and the strength of the enemy
should be directly proportionate to the size of the assault
echelon. Doctrine implies the need for a relatively large
force as the makeup for the assault echelon because visual
contact must be maintained between individuals throughout the
assault. (4:156) What does that do to the normal mission
assigned to the force that has been given the responsibility
of handling the reserve mission? It surely hampers it as a
force of exploitation and once again violates the principle
of a simple but detailed plan.
The timing of the attack may actually be broken down into
two broad categories: attacks to be conducted before mid-
night and attacks to be conducted after midnight. Attacks
made before midnight will be made to strike the enemy while
he is reorganizing or to preempt his plans to attack. The
attacks are also made prior to midnight if we plan to seize
and hold terrain. Attacks are launched after midnight if we
plan to continue the attack at daylight with the purpose of
denying the enemy time to launch a counterattack.
These factors just discussed all have a major impact on
our scheme of maneuver for the night assault. And all must
and should be weighed by the commander just as is his
decision even to conduct a night attack. But, none of these
factors are absolute and they must be applied to the
situation at hand. In the final analysis, it will be the
commander's own best judgment that governs the situation.
Now that we've formulated an understanding of what the
basics are for the conduct of a night attack, some questions
l. With the advent of technological advances can a night
attack achieve success?
2. Does the night attack really require the prolifera-
tion of control measures required by doctrine?
3. Do more options exist for the type of night attack
than the standard unsupported-nonilluminated or the
4. Can we utilize a scheme of maneuver other than a
5. Can the focus of the night attack be the enemy rather
than the terrain?
Perhaps to best answer these questions we need to look at
the British experience and their attack on Mt. Harriet in the
1982 Falklands War. 42 Commando combated advanced technology
(first generation night vision technology) quite nicely
through the use of extensive patrolling, deliberate prepara-
tion and a diversionary attack. Even though the Argentinians
maintained an advantage in terrain that favored the defender
due to its lack of vegetation, the commandos managed to
prevent being discovered until the attacking units were at
the Probable Line of Deployment.
The second question pertaining to control measures
appears to be answered by the following quote:
There was now enough information to plan the attack
in detail. We had established a route; we had
identified a forming in position and we had
determined a start line. (9:27)
Although the terms used are unfamiliar in our doctrine, they
are synonymous to our attack position, direction of attack
and probable line of deployment. It appears from review of
the schematic of the attack that a minimum of control
measures were used to simplify things. (2:1-10)
Concerning options other than the nonsupported-
nonilluminated and supported-illuminated it appears that 42
Commando used a combination of these types of attack to gain
success. These variations ranged from using diversionary
attacks to focus the Argentinian attention to another area on
the battlefield, to the use of illumination in combination
with their Milan missile to suppress or silence identified
machinegun positions at a preplanned time. (9:28)
The scheme of maneuver used by the British, although
simple, was unique in that it presented several different
pictures for the defenders avoiding the frontal assault and
instead taking the indirect route to achieving success.
Their focus was on a piece of terrain but their objective
always remained the enemy.
As you read other accounts of the almost exclusive night
fighting that took place during the Falklands War of 1982 and
in doing a quick study of the British night attack doctrine
one quickly realizes that these units did not completely
discard their doctrine but only modified it in some form to
meet each differing situation. (2:1-56) Perhaps the best
description of their application of doctrine can be best
described by the commander of Co L. 42 Commando were he
stated. "Well, I found myself at the start line, doing what
I had done a hundred times before in training but never
believed I would actually be doing it in combat." (11)
So then, what can we gain from this review of only a
small element of our doctrine as we know it today? First of
all, the constant that when employing a ground night attack
things become twice as difficult, and only repetitive
training can overcome the fear of the night at all levels.
Secondly, there appears to be a great deal of value gained
from the conduct of the night attack. Surprise can, and
will, remain a factor; maybe not in relation to whether or
not our forces will use the night but when, where and from
what direction will we use it. As for our doctrine and
whether it is outdated or not, it appears that it remains
basically solid, but modification should take place to meet
the situation at hand. Remember, doctrine provides the
foundation upon which we build; it is not the finished
product. Today innovation is at its highest level ever in
the Marine Corps but it should not prevent us from
understanding the basics.
1. Day, John H., "Night Vision Technology." Marine Corps
Gazette, December 1982, 18-20.
2. Drummond, R. J., "The Night Attack--British Style as
Taught and as Practiced in the Falklands." U.S. Army
Infantry Center and School, December 1982, 1-56.
3. FMFM 6-3, "Marine Infantry Battalion," September 1981,
Chapter 3, Section III, 229-240.
4. FMFM 6-4, "Marine Rifle Company/Platoon," February 1978,
Chapter 3, Section IV, 152-161.
5. FM 100-5, "Operations," May 1986, Chapters 5-7.
6. Hart Liddel, B. H. "Development of Night Action."
Marine Corps Gazette, March 1985, 13-18.
7. Hicks, R. C., "Our Night Attack Doctrine is Outdated."
Marine Corps Gazette, May-June, 1972.
8. Jeppeson, R. N. "Night Firing--Time for Progress."
Marine Corps Gazette, April 1984, 18-20.
9. Klemp, Jack W. "Commando Night Attack." Marine Corps
Gazette, October 1983, 25-30.
10. McQuerry, T. O. "A Modernized Night Attack." Infantry
Officers Advanced Course 3-83, RN:18l, October 1983.
11. "Night Attack on Mt. Harriet," British Royal Marine Corps
Video, July 1983.
12. Osipenko, V. "Night Combat Operations." Soviet Military
Review, 11, October 1983.
13. Mason, Ott R. M. "Modern Night Operations," Asia-
Pacific Defense Forum 2, June 1974, 25-31.
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