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The Role of the Breach Force Commander

by LTC Robert R. Varela, Senior Brigade Engineer Observer/Controller

Often during offensive operations, the Engineer Commander is assigned the mission of the Breach Force Commander for Task Force and Brigade-level Deliberate Breaches. Sounds like something that an engineer can handle with relative ease, doesn't it? On the contrary, there is considerable debate on whether to assign this mission to an Engineer. Despite the controversy, there are a number of factors for the Breach Force Commander to consider. This article provide some insights helpful hints for the Engineer Commander in case he is called upon to be the Breach Force Commander.

When the Engineer Commander is the Breach Force Commander he is frequently assigned additional vehicles, mainly plow and roller tanks. In some cases, he has Bradleys, smokers and possibly an additional tank or mechanized platoon. The commander has to decide how to incorporate these pieces of equipment into his scheme of maneuver. He must determine how to assign tasks, prioritize missions and command and control his breach force. He must fully understand what the maneuver commander expects him to accomplish. He must also articulate his scheme of maneuver clearly to ensure synchronization with the overall plan.

PLANNING AND PREPARATION

Planning:

A successful operation begins with a successful breach. The successful breach force commander must consider the following items during the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP):

  • Personal limitations. Do not take on missions that you are professionally unprepared to execute. Acknowledge your personal limitations. Brief them to the maneuver commander and battle staff.

  • Unit capability. Recognize the capabilities and training proficiency of your unit. Ensure that the planners task the breach force only missions it is capable of executing.

  • Resource the force. Make sure the battle staff identifies the support force and the assault force during the MDMP. The staff must task and resource these units to execute their missions.

  • Know the fire support plan. Ensure the fire support officer plans for CFZs over likely breach locations.

  • Rehearsals. Ensure the staff allows adequate time on the execution time line to conduct a combined arms breach rehearsal. Ideally, this is a mounted rehearsal consisting of a tactical movement followed by a breach on an inert, complex obstacle system. Seek the maneuver commander's support to make this event happen. Historically, deliberate breach operations at the CTCs fail because of the units' inability to synchronizethe support, breach and assault forces.

  • Develop a comprehensive casualty and vehicle recovery plan. Request additional medical support and recovery vehicles from the maneuver battalion.

  • Plan for subsequent breach operations. Develop a maneuver scheme to keep engineer assets with the lead maneuver units on the objective.

  • Ensure the planners develop a definitive command and control system that addresses:

    • What is the trigger to commit the breach force? Who makes the call to initiate the breach?

    • Who is calling for, and adjusting, smoke?

    • Who is controlling indirect fires during the breach?

    • Which force provides local security at the breach?

    • What is the trigger to commit the assault force?

Recently, in a deliberate attack at the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC), an Engineer Commander had the dual missions of Breach Force Commander and leading a night covert breach team. Although this highly motivated and competent individual executed both missions with vigor, he could not apply the necessary attention to both missions. He was unable to fully prepare for either mission. His effectiveness decreased as he became increasingly tired.

Had the task force commander realized the effect of assigning both missions to one individual, he would have more than likely reallocated the tasks and assets so that the engineer commander could assign the covert breach to a subordinate. This would have allowed the commander to focus on his primary mission.

Preparation - Rehearsals:

Remember to apply the following techniques when conducting your own breach force rehearsal:

  • Rehearse moving to the obstacle. Often the breach force rehearses actions at the obstacle. But it fails to rehearse the tactical movement that gets the unit from a release point to the obstacle in the correct formation. Practice movement techniques enroute; use the terrain; react to actions on contact with direct and indirect fires.

  • Make sure everyone knows the conditions for the breach. Know the conditions that you are establishing for the breach.

  • Construct an obstacle system that closely resembles the obstacle you expect to breach.

  • Use smoke during your rehearsal. If available, use smoke assets. If smoke assets are not available, use smoke pots and grenades. The closer you replicate the conditions you expect to encounter at the breach the better.

  • Rehearse calls for fire. Rehearse the calls for fire if you are assigned indirect fire targets. If the engineer commander is allocated a forward observer (FO) for the mission, ensure the FO participates in the rehearsal.

  • Rehearse actions on contact with direct and indirect fires. If chemical use is possible, rehearse in an NBC environment.

  • Plan for, and allocate for, losses along the way to the obstacle as well as losing forces during the breach.

  • Rehearse the casualty and vehicle recovery plans at the breach site.

  • Rehearse subsequent breaches with a reduced force. If time allows, rehearse obstacle reduction.

Ideally, the maneuver battalion conducts a fullup, combined arms rehearsal covering each phase of the operation. It includes contingency and branch plans. In addition to the techniques outlined above, the combined arms rehearsal should also include:

  • Explain the details of your plan to the maneuver commander and your fellow commanders. Specify route. Confirm the marking procedures for both near and far markings. Don't forget to articulate the conditions you expect to be set before executing the breach.

  • Tell it like it is. If you and your staff have determined that it will take an hour to breach, explain why.

  • Take your second in command to the rehearsal if possible. This way, he is in tune with the whole plan in case he has to take over.

  • Rehearse the breach in detail. To get a "Go," each participant executes and reports his respective functions in sequence.

  • Make the going tough! Creating the conditions for a successful deliberate breach takes time. The support force needs time to position itself to suppress the enemy and obscure the obstacle. The breach force must array vehicles to execute the breach. These need to be rehearsed. Avoid the temptation to make the enemy a "roll-over-and-die" foe.

MANEUVER PLANNING CONSIDERATIONS

An often-overlooked fact of life: the breach force commander must develop his own breach force scheme of maneuver to get the force to the breach site. It must be designed within the framework of the battalion scheme. When planning the breach force maneuver scheme, keep the following in mind:

  • Assign an axis of advance or specific routes as applicable. If the battalion control measures are insufficient, add internal control measures. Make sure everyone understands the scheme of maneuver including traveling technique (traveling overwatch, bounding overwatch), and the procedure you will use to control direct fires.

  • Plan alternate routes to the obstacle.

  • Develop an indirect fire plan for smoke and artillery. Although it is the support force's responsibility to call and adjust smoke and indirect fire, the tactical situation often shifts rapidly and the breach force is required to perform these tasks. If you are lucky, you will have an FSO assigned for the operation.

  • Employ control measures such as Restricted Fire Lines (RFLs), Limit of Advances (LOAs), or phase lines. Remember you will execute SOSR in the micro or local level, so plan accordingly. Assign support-by-fire positions for your support force.

  • Identify and assign primary and alternate missions to your forces so they can react as the tactical situation changes.

  • Have a plan on how you will reduce the obstacle. Include the number of lanes required for a successful operation.

  • Don't forget far-side security and make sure you plan to array your forces on the far side of obstacles in such a manner that you are ready to execute subsequent breaches.

  • Make sure that you report obstacle locations and mark bypasses along the way to your main breaching effort. Often maneuver units bypass obstacles along the axis of attack without reporting them. Trailing units often lose vehicles when they run into these obstacles. It disrupts the formation and slows down the unit's momentum.

The breach site:

  • Maintain focus on your primary mission -- to breach a lane to facilitate the maneuver force's attack on the objective.

  • Avoid falling into the trap of trying to kill all the bad guys. Let the support force and the tactical commander concentrate on isolating the breach site. Focus on the forces in the immediate vicinity of the obstacle.

  • Allocate sufficient time in your planning process to ensure that you are fully prepared to breach and mark the obstacle. This is hard. You will be challenged on getting there, killing the enemy, breaching, marking, conducting subsequent breaches and continuing the attack.

Maneuver Force Commanders expect their Breach Force commanders to be smart, aggressive, versatile, technically and tactically proficient, and independent. The breach commander must understand his commander's intent. He must plan a successful operation without promising too much and delivering very little. The trick is to become an asset and not a liability to the commander. You must also be able to articulate your plan to your subordinates. Do this through your commander's intent by a clear and concise statement of what you want to accomplish.

Breach operations are complex operations. They require a tremendous amount of skill, coordination, and hard work. Hopefully we have provided you with some additional tools and thought-provoking comments that will enable you to be successful if you are ever called upon to clear the way for your maneuver brethren.


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