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Orchestrating the Direct Fire Fight

by MAJ Jay Allen and MAJ Mike Albertson

"The rarest thing in all battle is fires in good volume, accurately delivered and steadily maintained."

--SLA Marshall


Observer/Controllers (O/Cs) at the National Training Center (NTC) continue to record direct fire planning and execution as an area that needs emphasis. Direct fire planning and execution have been recorded as a general weakness, almost continuously, since trends have been collected by the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL).1

A RAND study was published in 1997 titled, "Company Performance at the National Training Center." The study covered NTC rotations over a period of one year, and included "330 battles involving 74 companies." In that study, the first of five conclusions state, "Overall execution performance, especially direct fire control, is poor."2

The Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)'s Trends Reversal Program, which is a framework to reverse systematic negative trends that emerge at the Combat Training Centers (CTCs), identified "Direct Fire Planning" in April 1999 as one of several areas that requires continued improvement.


1. During the "live fire defense" of a typical NTC rotation, a common oversight most units have during the planning phase of an upcoming direct fire fight is that the fires are not distributed to achieve mass. NTC O/Cs have a popular saying: "Massing of direct fires is not 14 vehicles all destroying one target. True massing of fires is 14 vehicles destroying 14 different targets." During the defensive phase of a live-fire exercise conducted during an NTC rotation, a unit will conduct a day defensive mission, followed by an O/C-delivered after-action review (AAR), whereby the strengths or weaknesses of the mission will be discovered. Immediately following that AAR, the unit will prepare to re-fight their defensive mission that night, incorporating the lessons from the day's live-fire defense. Understandably, units are consistently much more successful during the second live-fire defense.

2. One technique that has proven to be effective, and one that is taught by O/Cs during the first AAR, is to "script" the upcoming battle to ensure direct fires are evenly distributed throughout the depth of the engagement area, and that the effects of all direct fire assets are synchronized to effectively disrupt the enemy attack. Units are taught how to envision the effects that their direct fire weapon systems, both cumulative and simultaneous, will have on enemy formations. This may seem simple, and, for the most part, it is common sense tied to some effective techniques coupled with a thorough knowledge of both enemy and friendly weapon systems. The shortcoming in most fire plans is that they are overlooked at the company team level during the planning and preparation phase of mission accomplishment. To effectively script the battle, units must first gain an appreciation of the principles of fire control.


The following principles apply equally to both offensive and defensive close combat operations:

Mass - To concentrate, or bring together fires and mass the effects of multiple weapons or units. (Also a principle of war). Understanding the principle of mass is critical to plan development. Planners and commanders must understand how to maneuver to mass overwhelming fires on enemy forces. For purposes of direct fire planning, mass is not merely defined as having units close in proximity to each other. More accurately, mass is portrayed with the effects achieved by weapon systems, at that place, in time and space, where the commander desires to destroy an enemy force.

Control - Actions or procedures taken by commanders and leaders to execute fires at initial contact and during sustained engagements. Controls should be used to obtain the desired volume and sustainment of fires. Controls affect sustainment of fires, such as directing controlled bursts of two to three rounds or five to tens rounds. Controls also influence the volume of fire and can be used to economize ammunition usage. At platoon, company, battalion, and even brigade levels, leaders are responsible for controlling the fires of their vehicles and integrating the fire support systems and close air support assigned to their unit's area of operation. Leaders must position themselves forward to direct the battle their soldiers fight. To ensure mission success, leaders must plan and rehearse their role in conjunction with the unit's fire plan.

Fire Distribution - The relationship of positioning combat power to achieve a desired outcome against an enemy position, formation, or unit. Fire distribution is also a characteristic of the direct fire plan and should be addressed in the unit rehearsal. To achieve distributed weapons effects on an enemy formation, units must coordinate with adjacent units within a command and integrate all available fires, assigning clear engagement criteria, and prioritizing which targets should be destroyed first.

Shifting of Fires - The command to move the concentration and the effects of fires away from friendly maneuver forces to continue suppressing and destroying enemy formations. This technique is used to prevent endangering friendly forces, and is a characteristic of offensive direct fire plans. This is critical to the planning and execution of fire control to deny enemy freedom of action while maintaining the initiative to influence events. The key to shifting fires is that they must be planned, rehearsed and absolutely understood by everyone in the unit with a quick and concise method of confirmation understood by the unit.

Concentration of Fires - A well-defined area or enemy unit, on which all available fires are executed, within a specified time, to produce a desired outcome. An example would be a battalion that has maneuvered direct fire systems into both support-by-fire and attack-by-fire positions. Additionally, fire support systems are firing in support of the battalion, thereby achieving a battalion concentration of fires on an enemy position.

Rehearsals - The process of practicing a plan before execution. Standing operating procedures (SOPs) should be in place and well trained so that each soldier knows his role in a fight. A plan and rehearsal should capitalize on battle drills for contact with the enemy forces. Each leader and each soldier should understand, without hesitation, his role in virtually any circumstance in which a unit may find itself. Rehearsals done well have a positive impact on a unit's ability to destroy the enemy when contact is made.


"The enemy however, committed the great mistake of not surveying the terrain in front of his position."

--Erwin Rommel, "The Rommel Papers"

Key direct fire planning considerations:

  • Conduct thorough Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) and reconnaissance to determine where the enemy is most vulnerable in order to mass fires on that location.

  • Understand weapons systems and ammunition characteristics. These two variables can directly influence enemy standoff (his effective/maximum range greater than our effective/maximum range). They also can directly impact unit and weapon system emplacement.

  • Understand the terrain. This understanding is derived from a marriage of the IPB, ground/leader reconnaissance, friendly and enemy weapons system characteristics, and maneuver task and purpose. Leaders take the information on the IPB and reconnaissance and develop a more refined plan based on:
    • How the terrain will affect enemy fires and moves.
    • How our weapons and units will destroy the enemy based on our positioning of vehicles.
    • What aspects of the terrain aid or mask our fires based on our weapons positioning and characteristics.
    • Whether or not we must reposition or can accomplish our higher headquarter's intent. We then build an engagement area and position our units based on unit SOP and related FMs.

  • Analyze and identify enemy weapons capabilities through IPB and reconnaissance to know:
    • When to trigger fire support and close air support (CAS) to allow freedom of maneuver over enemy capabilities in the offense.
    • When and where to concentrate all mass fires in the defense to quickly destroy enemy formations.

  • Designate control measures to initiate fires, shift fires, mass fires, and disengage fires.

  • Assign primary, alternate, and supplementary fighting positions to gain and retain the initiative.

  • Require range cards, sector sketches, direct and indirect fire plans to ensure subordinate leaders understand the plan for fires, and proper fire distribution and integration have been accomplished.

  • Conduct rehearsals to ensure subordinates two levels down understand the sequencing of the battle and are aware of any refinements to the plan.

  • Ensure the fire support plan is integrated into the maneuver plan along with CAS. Ensure that execution of CAS does not cancel critical call for fire missions. (For further study on this issue, refer to CALL Newsletter 98-13, Jul 98, Close Air Support, which addresses altitude deconfliction techniques that will allow for simultaneous CAS and indirect artillery missions.)

  • At higher echelons, be cognizant of positioning combat multipliers within surface danger zones of all direct fire systems and munitions. For example, commanders at all levels must know where brigade scouts and colt teams will be positioned in relation to the surface danger zone of M1A1 battle positions.

Scripting the Battle for the Defense

The RAND study that states execution of direct fire control is poor also states units need to "improve doctrinal coverage of company-level direct fire control and specific skills required for effective battlefield visualization."3Battlefield visualization is key. Rehearsals and wargames are well known planning tools that can reveal timing misconceptions and uncover possible enemy responses, allowing leaders to see beyond the expected. As enemy action is anticipated, direct fire plans can be designed to guarantee his complete destruction. When describing the reason for his success over his opponents, the German General Erwin Rommel said, "I see further ahead than they do."4The technique of scripting the battle, described below, can aid and assist company commanders design and execute a very lethal direct fire plan. To destroy a target, it must be seen.

Scripting the battle requires a vision of how the enemy is most likely to attack. The opposing forces (OPFOR) at the NTC fights in accordance with doctrine established by TRADOC Pamphlet 350-16, Heavy Opposing Force (OPFOR) Tactical Handbook. Heavy, armored OPFOR tactics are, for the most part, still derived from old doctrine of the former Soviet Union. The standard Krasnovian armored formation, because it is a well-established threat, provides a realistic tool for exercising the IPB process. The equipment is known and prevalent, and the doctrine provides the staff officer with an existing data base for analysis. The OPFOR at the NTC stresses the concepts of speed and mass to quickly overwhelm defending forces situated at the point of penetration, and then to quickly unhinge the rest of the defensive positions by destroying the brain, or the tactical operation centers, that provide command and control, as well as key logistic nodes. A significant event for the OPFOR is to turn off the logistical lifeblood of deployed mechanized forces. After smashing through initial battle positions, the OPFOR at the NTC penetrates deep into enemy territory with all available maneuver assets. The defenders may have an initial tactical advantage in the choice of terrain and time they have had to prepare defenses, but OPFOR doctrine believes that the attacker can seize the initiative and impose his will on the defender.

Visualize the Enemy

At company level, the commander must portray what the enemy will look like as he enters the engagement area (EA). This needs to be addressed in paragraph one of the company operations order (OPORD) when describing the enemy situation. For a company team defense, for example, a motorized rifle battalion may attack along a front or flank. The picture at the left illustrates what it would look like if the enemy attacked with all three companies in the first echelon, reinforcing platoon in reserve. The mission for the reserve platoon is to exploit any penetration that is achieved.

Another option for the enemy motorized rifle battalion is to attack with all tanks and two motor rifle companies in the first echelon. That leaves one motor rifle company in the second echelon as the picture at the left illustrates.

A third option available to the enemy is to attack with two tank platoons and two motor rifle companies in the first echelon, leaving the remainder in the second echelon, as shown at the left.

Commanders must do a thorough IPB and visually depict the possibilities during the operation order. If this visual image of what the enemy will resemble in the engagement area (EA) can be articulated to all the soldiers in the unit, success is assured.

For illustrative purposes, let's say the armored company commander expects an enemy force the size of a motorized rifle battalion (MRB) at the point where he intends to mass fires (referred to as the decisive point). The commander must conduct "battlefield calculus" to determine force ratios at this decisive point. For our example, each of the Krasnovian MRBs consists of 36 BMPs and 10 tanks, or 46 total combat vehicles.

First variable: Forty-six enemy vehicles to be destroyed by one armored company team.

Again for our example, the friendly battalion has two major avenues of approach (AOAs) to defend. But the terrain will allow the unit to shift fires from one AOA to another. The battalion, consisting of 30 tanks and 28 infantry fighting vehicles, is broken down into a task force of two tank companies and two Bradley companies. Realistically, for illustrative purposes, maintenance and attrition have left the battalion with a total of 25 tanks, and 25 Bradley M2s for the fight, or a total of 50 primary combat vehicles. Our armored company team in this example will have 10 tanks and 4 M2s.

Second variable: Ten tanks and four Bradleys in our armored company team.

The brigade combat team and the battalion task force, in this example, have shaped the battlefield so that the enemy formation can only attack into one AOA with one MRB at a time.

Third variable: One AOA.

We know that for most open terrain, a mechanized force moves at a rate of one kilometer for every three minutes.

Fourth variable: Enemy moves at one kilometer every three minutes.

Another variable we consider is how long it takes to call for fire. No statistical data is available to support a planning factor because of variations in the proficiency of units, their call for fire system, and their gun crews, and the availability of fire support at the time it is requested. Nevertheless, a reasonable planning factor based on timing observed in live fire at the NTC is approximately seven to ten minutes for preplanned targets.

Fifth variable: Length of time to call for fires is seven to ten minutes.

For the direct fire fight, a commander must take into consideration both weapons and ammunition capabilities and characteristics, as well as crew proficiency, to determine a probability of kill per round fired. Fort Knox has published an unofficial probability of kill or "PK" chart used for training purposes only.

Sixth variable: PK per round fired is identified.

From all this information a commander can begin to script his battle and determine an outcome of enemy destruction. He can forecast ammunition consumption and predict when critical shortages may arise. He can also weigh his effort if he determines a need.

As the commander scripts the upcoming battle, he determines how he wants to begin engaging and destroying the enemy with fire support systems, possibly including CAS. To facilitate this, he must emplace target reference points (TRPs) along phase lines that determine a field artillery trigger line.

  • Experience shows that the triggers should be emplaced approximately four kilometers from where the commander wants to engage enemy forces with artillery fire. If enemy rate of movement is one kilometer every three minutes, and it takes ten minutes to call for fire, then fire missions need to be requested when the enemy is approximately four kilometers from the decisive point.

  • Another required TRP, which indicates another trigger and phase line, is the point on the ground where the indirect will land among enemy lead forces.

    • At this second point, the commander determines what system he will use to begin his direct fire battle. Normally, for most task forces, the M2 TOW system has the highest PK beyond 3,000 meters. Because of this, the company commander should set the initial direct fire TRP on an AOA approximately 3,500 meters from his unit.

    • The company commander will determine how many Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles (BIFVs) will be required to reach a desired end state. For planning estimates, a typical BIFV platoon can effectively engage three to four at this initial direct fire TRP. We base this on PK from Fort Benning data which estimates a 50-percent PK at range 3,000-3,500 meters. Again, this is dependant on crew proficiency. Identification of the desired end state is crucial as the upcoming battle is scripted. For example, at this TRP, a desired end state could be to destroy any enemy combat reconnaissance patrols that are observed entering the EA, or quickly singling out and destroying any command vehicles that are seen in lead echelons of enemy formations that enter the EA (these can be distinguished by the number of antennas).

  • The commander can now begin keeping a running total of enemy vehicle destruction and the consumption of ammunition that is required. For example, if eight TOW rounds are fired, and they have a 50-percent PK rate, that equates to four enemy vehicles that are disabled or destroyed (remember each M2 has two TOWS ready to fire). The picture on page 8 depicts lead elements of the first MRB having crossed the artillery trigger and beginning to enter the initial direct fire trigger at 3500 meters from our defensive battle position. This trigger launches the long-range TOW fires.

Our attached BIFV platoon fires eight missiles, effectively destroying four enemy vehicles. The enemy has 42 vehicles remaining. (The commander can have the whole platoon reload missiles simultaneously, or can direct a portion to switch to 25mm while the remainder reload missiles.)

The company is now ready to script the long-range fires of their tanks. According to observations at the NTC and Fort Knox, long-range M1A1 fire for experienced, distinguished rated crews is between 2,500-3,200m, depending on crew proficiency. For this example, let's establish PK at 50- to 65-percent at the 2,200-meter range. As a result, the commander will designate another TRP, phase line trigger just for long-range tank fires, and give specific guidance to subordinate units that only long-range, or "sniper tanks" will be allowed to fire at this range. The commander then will give specific guidance on the engagement criteria, and identify the priority and number of rounds to be fired. A tank company team will normally have two to three such shooters. The commander should designate the shooters and give specific guidance. When the enemy approaches the trigger, the leaders will give fire commands to the designated long-range shooters.

In our example, our company has four long-range shooters, and the commander specifies three rounds of sabot for initial engagement. At 50- to 65-percent PK, the commander expects to kill about seven enemy vehicles with 12 rounds of sabot.

Our sniper tanks fire 12 sabot, effectively destroying seven enemy vehicles. The enemy has 35 vehicles remaining.

At this point, the enemy would probably stop marching, set AT-5 firing lines, and call for fire support to engage us. Now our commander has a decision to make: whether to continue firing in depth with TOWs and long-range fires, or to distribute all his fires at his decisive point. This decision is based largely on how the enemy is maneuvering and what effect our fires have had. Some thought should be given throughout this methodology to increasing the probability of kill, with combat multipliers such as obstacles. The effect of obstacles on enemy maneuver is critical, and their importance cannot be understated.

The company commander must now concentrate his effort of scripting the battle for his engagement area around his decisive point. Normally, the effective fire of a company team is at ranges of 1,500 to 2,400 meters. The individual gunnery range tables are from 1,200 to 2,100 meters. The commander sets his unit's TRPs to maximize fire distribution and control of his units fires. The commander incorporates a company team volley fire into his engagement area and battle position development. He scripts his battle to open his fires at enemy first echelon forces at about 1,800 meters based on an expected PK of 65 to 70percent. The BIFV platoon will fire 16 missiles throughout the depth of the enemy's formation. The battle position should be designed so that the remaining 10 tanks can fire into the enemy flanks at as much of an oblique angle as possible. In the example pictured below, the commander will designate a company volley fire of three rounds per tank and two rounds per M2.

Our tanks destroy 21 enemy vehicles and our TOWs destroy an additional four enemy vehicles. The enemy has 10 vehicles remaining.

Out of 46 original vehicles in the MRB, now only 10 remain. Up to 24 enemy vehicles could remain if the enemy MRB is reinforced with an AT platoon and engineers. The battle is now a platoon fight, and it should be scripted as a platoon fight. Three good company volley fires is really all that a company can expect against a MRB. If the commander's track is rendered inoperable, the XO or next platoon leader in line needs to assume command. This drill must be rehearsed.

Script the platoon volley fire complete enemy destruction in our Engagement Area.

The company's next step is to reconsolidate and prepare for the second echelon.

This outline has been written as a basis, or methodology, for thinking about direct fire planning in the defense. It is a great tool for a commander to "script" an upcoming battle. The methodology assists the commander in identifying decision points based on enemy and friendly actions, and it allows the company to anticipate actions such as shifting fires, moving between positions, and rearming parts or all of its forces.

The variables that were discussed in this article for "scripting" the defensive direct fire battle are listed again below:

  • Enemy MRB = 46 combat vehicles.
  • Company Team = 10 M1A1s and 4 M2s.
  • One Avenue of Approach (AA).
  • Enemy march rate = 1 kilometer per 3 minutes.
  • Expect 7-10 minutes to call for indirect artillery to impact.
  • Training PK/Crew proficiency identified.

There are many techniques used to define boundaries of units, to assist with the distribution of direct fire throughout the depth of the engagement area. Target Reference Points (TRPs) are the tool units use to control their direct fire. Two 9-volt batteries snapped together make good hasty TRPs that can be viewed with thermal sights. But the drawback with batteries is that they do not last very long. Cans with dirt, soaked with fuel and ignited, are also good heat signatures. The problem here is that the flame they emit can be seen by the enemy, and they need to be serviced often to remain hot. One good technique is to use a commercially produced propane stove that can provide a good signature that can last up to 30 hours. The picture shows how a propane lantern can be used in conjunction with the pipes of a military "pot belly stove." Simply install a section of stove pipe over the mantle. Holes can be drilled into the stove pipe to aid in TRP identification when viewed from a thermal sight. Tie-down straps can be emplaced to ensure the TRP will not "blow" over. This has been shown to be an effective TRP that cannot be easily seen by the enemy.


"I think, if we should say that 'fire is the Queen of Battles,' we should avoid arm arguments and come nearer telling the truth. Battles are won by fire and movement. The purpose of movement is to get the fire in a more advantageous place to play on the enemy. This is from the rear or flank."

--George S. Patton Jr., War as I Knew It

In March 1998, the CALL published a Special Study, Closing with the Enemy; Company Team Maneuver. In that publication, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for offensive operations are addressed in detail. As with defensive direct fire planning, the key to the offensive direct fire planning is visualizing the enemy through an effective IPB. Just as important are effective and well-established battle drills and unit SOPs. Leaders must be aware of known and suspected enemy positions as their unit moves. Integral to this is enemy weapon systems and capability. Weapon ranges, and their effects against unit vehicles and equipment can be the difference between life and death. Templating enemy positions and overlaying enemy range fans will allow the unit leader to develop and visualize how the enemy commander intends to fight. Maneuvering to where the enemy is expected to be strongest is not a smart way to attack. By developing the enemy situation, the unit can determine a probable line of deployment, and begin to maneuver while triggering suppression and obscuring fires. Movement can occur only if there are accurate and effective suppressive fires. Without suppression, the unit will find it very difficult to tactically move into the support-and-attack-by-fire positions. In fact, this is where many battalion task force deliberate attacks disintegrate.

At this point the principles of suppress, obscure, secure, and reduce (SOSR) must be put into effect. As an offensive direct fire plan is scripted, the unit direct fire suppression, breach, and assault drills must be perfected. Whether attacking by fire, supporting by fire, conducting actions on contact or firing while in a moving formation, the unit leader still must distribute his fire. He can do this with pre-determined sectors of fire that are redundant, in that they are designed to take into account the probable loss of elements in the unit. Also, the hasty establishment of TRPs with direct fires, pyrotechnics, and or indirect fires is critical. From here the unit commander can issue fire commands in accordance with FM 17-12-1/2 and FM 23-1 to distribute his fires and destroy enemy positions and vehicles.

"Fortune favors the prepared man."


Offensive direct fire principles must be part of a unit's SOP. Through numerous iterations of realistic training, battle drills must be rehearsed to the point of being second nature to squads and crews. No methodology can work effectively if it is used for the first time during execution. The commander must impart a visual picture of each technique in the mind of each soldier. Difficult situations can be overcome if each soldier has an accurate picture in his mind of the direct fire plan, his role in that plan, and the fires that will be distributed and sustained over time. Each tank and Bradley should immediately scan and return fire according to a prearranged scripted battle plan or unit SOP, rather than spend critical time trying to figure out where to orient fires. By establishing a well-rehearsed and redundant direct fire plan for the offense, every unit will increase their warfighting proficiency.



1. Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) Newsletters No. 99-1, NTC Trends Compendium, Jan 99, pgs 28-30, and No. 99-10, NTC Trends, "Direct Fire Planning," pgs 101-102 (Fort Leavenworth, KS).
2. Hallmark, Bryan W., and Crowley, James C., Company Performance at the National Training Center: Battle Staff and Execution, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND's Arroyo Center, 1997), p. 46 .
3. Hallmark, Bryan W., and Crowley, James C., Company Performance at the National Training Center: Battle Staff and Execution (Santa Monica, CA: RAND's Arroyo Center, 1997), p. 62.
4. Irving, David, On the Trail of the Fox (New York: Avon Books, 1980), p. 186.

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