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by LTC David L. Lawrence, Senior Aviation Observer Controller, JRTC
CPT John C. White, Military Analyst, CALL

Search and attack is a premier infantry task at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). It also proves to be Army aviation's most challenging and futile mission. Piecemeal employment of aviation assets by the brigade combat team, without clear task and purpose, often prohibits light-Army aviation forces from Finding the enemy, much less contributing to Fixing and Finishing the enemy. We in Army aviation rely more on aircraft systems than tactics. This complicates matters as we struggle to define Search and Attack.

Aviation Doctrinal Base

Aviation doctrine, while giving us the definition of search and attack, does not give a commander a clear task and purpose to the search and attack mission. The first reference to search and attack is found in FM 1-100, Aviation Operations:

Search and attack operations (a form of movement to contact) are generally conducted by smaller, lighter maneuver forces in densely forested areas to destroy enemy forces; deny area to the enemy; and collect information. They may also conduct search and attack operations--
  • Against a dispersed enemy on close terrain unsuitable for armored forces.
  • In rear areas against enemy special operation forces.
  • As area security missions to clear assigned zones.

Search and attack operations can prevent the enemy from planning, assemblying and executing operations on his own initiative.

Most search and attack operations begin without detailed prior information about the enemy. The commander must produce much of his own intelligence as the operations unfold. These operations are conducted at company, battalion and brigade level with division support. Historically, units conduct search and attack operations--
  • In an environment of friendly air and fire support.
  • Against squad-to-company size forces equipped with small arms and mortars, but normally without artillery support.
  • Against both regular and guerrilla forces whose locations are unknown.
  • In an environment where the enemy has the advantage of knowing both the terrain and the local population.
There is a significant risk associated with this mission. If the aviation unit is surprised by a well-prepared, dug-in force, its effectiveness drops drastically; the probability of aircraft losses increases significantly.

As we progress through aviation doctrine, we still cannot find the "how" of search and attack. FM 1-111, Aviation Brigade, for example, continues to discuss the "why" of search and attack but does not focus on the "how."

Search and Attack

Attack aviation assets or air cavalry units search for, and attack, specific targets within generally defined search areas. These missions are conducted when the target location is not known but a general vicinity of the target is estimated. Examples of search and attack missions are--

  • Attack helicopters hunting an isolated theater missile launcher--with supporting vehicles--and destroying them.
  • Air cavalry and light infantry engaging bypassed enemy forces.
  • Aviation and infantry reacting to a Level III threat that has already landed in our rear area.

FM 1-112, Attack Helicopter Operations, does not speak to search and attack, and FM 17-95, Cavalry, only references search and attack as a mission for air cavalry, usually at squadron level.

The aviation doctrinal manuals do not define critical tasks, nor do they assist the aviation task force commander in developing tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP). The doctrinal manuals do not distinguish search and attack from other forms of aviation maneuver. The final draft of FM 1-114, Air Cavalry Squadron and Troop Operations, begins to provide the aviation commander with some doctrinal input on how to fight a search and attack mission. The manual is referenced throughout this article.

Infantry Doctrinal Base

The infantry views search and attack as a technique to conduct a movement to contact. Movement to contact is an offensive operation designed to establish or regain contact with the enemy. FM 7-30, Infantry Brigade, discusses three distinct techniques to conducting a movement to contact.

  • Approach march technique
  • Reconnaissance-in-force technique
  • Search and attack technique

The infantry continues to develop search and attack tactics in FM 7-20, Light Infantry Battalion, and FM 71-10, Infantry Rifle Company. In a search and attack mission, the infantry commander conducts a decentralized movement to contact against enemy forces. The unit operates as coordinated squad- or platoon-sized patrols. The commander uses Find-Fix-Finish as a method to organize his unit. The purpose of a search and attack is defined as one of more of the following:

  • Destruction of the enemy
  • Area denial
  • Force protection
  • Information collection

The Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) Newsletter No. 97-8, Search and Attack, gives the infantry three techniques on how to conduct a search and attack.

  • Decisive Point Technique - The infantry commander bases his course of action (COA) on a specific enemy location. This is either a known location or derived from the S-2's pattern analysis. This COA is planned similar to a deliberate attack.

  • Linear Technique - Use this technique when there are strong indications of enemy in a specific area and when the terrain presents linear-type boundaries. This technique is planned similar to a zone reconnaissance.

  • Independent Squad Technique - This technique focuses squads and platoons on Finding the enemy, but makes it difficult to mass in order to Fix or Finish the enemy once contact is established. This technique is best used when the following conditions apply:

    • There is little knowledge of the enemy's location.
    • Enemy forces are unconventional in nature.
    • The enemy operates in small teams using "hit and run" tactics.
    • The enemy conducts operations over a very large area, forcing friendly forces to disperse to locate the enemy, and then mass to destroy the enemy.

Current JRTC Trends in Search and Attack

At JRTC most light infantry task forces conduct platoon- and squad-sized search and attack in specified areas dividing the battalion sector. They often resemble an artillery "horse-blanket" graphic used to support quick clearance of fires on a non-linear battlefield. This graphic is basically a collation of areas or "globules" as depicted in Figure 1. It clearly defines sector responsibility for the infantry squad or platoon but further complicates employment for the aviation commander.

Figure 1
Light Infantry Search and Attack Graphic

The brigade combat team (BCT) subdivides each battalion sector into small, defined areas. Each area is assigned to an infantry company or platoon to Find-Fix-Finish the enemy using the search and attack method of movement to contact. Restricting the use of aviation scout weapon teams (SWT) exclusively to each small area limits the effects of aircraft tactics, optics, and weapons systems. This usually piecemeals the aerial reconnaissance effort, gives the infantry a false sense of close air-ground integration, and fails to maximize reconnaissance forces forward. This polarized employment method prohibits early development of the situation as SWTs and air cavalry platoons are restricted from reconnoitering adjacent areas that will likely subsequently affect infantry in sector. The infantry battalion commander's reconnaissance objective will likely be templated at a decisive point in his sector. If the SWT or air cavalry platoon is focused on the commander's reconnaissance objective, the likelihood of tactical success increases, even though each company or platoon does not have dedicated aviation support in their respective assigned areas of responsibility.

Army Aviation's Role in Search and Attack

The infantry defines search and attack in great detail because it tactically matters. Perhaps therein lies the problem in Army aviation: Is it necessary to perform search and attack as a specialized form of movement to contact? Is zone reconnaissance or movement to contact sufficient for light-Army aviation?

The aviation commander must determine his unit's role in Finding-Fixing-Finishing the enemy. According to cavalry and attack doctrine, we Find the enemy by performing reconnaissance (area or zone -- usually force-oriented) or movement to contact. We Fix the enemy by performing security or hasty attacks to block or restrict movement. We Finish the enemy by massing fires while performing hasty and deliberate attacks to destroy enemy forces - either in contact with infantry or as a meeting engagement following reconnaissance in sector.

The aviation commander and staff can derive critical tasks from these doctrinal missions. They are essential to conducting the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP), synchronizing the battle, and achieving air-to-ground integration. Defining the mission is only part of the problem for Army aviation; it must still ensure proper tactical employment on the battlefield.

Army Aviation Finding the Enemy

The most recent final draft of FM 1-114 discusses the Find portion of search and attack as follows:


The find portion obviously breaks down into a specified type of reconnaissance mission. The specified tasks for the reconnaissance will be dependent on the exact size and composition of the current enemy. The reconnaissance is specifically focused on the enemy force location and composition; it is not focused on the destruction of the enemy. Depending on the enemy force, the reconnaissance can be completed by any type of unit that is habitually trained in reconnaissance missions. Stealth of the reconnaissance force is of great importance. If the reconnaissance force is able to locate the enemy force without being detected, it allows the commander time to develop the situation properly with the fixing and the finishing elements.

The BCT commander must develop a strategy to employ limited aviation assets based on tactical objectives. By stating his intent clearly and prioritizing tasks, the aviation commander will ensure the efficient allocation of his forces. If his priority is Find the enemy, the staff must develop a reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) plan that is fully integrated with the ground maneuver battalions. Executing the light aviation mission, either by doctrinal reconnaissance or movement to contact, ensures the infantry battalion zone is completely reconnoitered. Aviation commanders must avoid the urge to merely jump from zone to zone, randomly "clearing each globule." Experience at the JRTC shows that aviation continuously miss the seams along each zone and fail to reconnoiter adjacent terrain that will affect light infantry later in the fight.

We tend to focus more on our aircraft systems than aviation tactics. Superior technology is not a stand-alone solution in this situation. This is especially true of Kiowa Warrior crews. Aircrews hovering for long periods of time while manipulating the mast-mounted sight are vulnerable to enemy small arms, surface-to-air missiles, and RPG engagements. Likewise, hastily buzzing around the area of operations at high speeds, while avoiding direct engagements from the enemy, render the Kiowa Warrior impotent in the conduct of reconnaissance. Using proven air cavalry doctrine and TTP, scout-weapons teams or air cavalry platoons will contribute to tactical success.

Conducting zone reconnaissance in support of the infantry battalion in sector is one such proven doctrinal mission that effectively supports search and attack. A zone reconnaissance gathers detailed information within specified boundaries when the enemy situation is in doubt. Lateral boundaries, a line of departure (LD), and an objective define the zone. If conducted by an air cavalry troop, phase lines are used to synchronize movement between platoons and may be used as a termination point or limit of advance (LOA). Platoons abreast reconnoiter within lateral limits of responsibility that are normally forward extensions of the boundaries of the headquarters assigning the mission. Though a "horse-blanket" graphic might be employed by the infantry battalion in search and attack, the BCT and maneuver battalions' boundaries would serve to define the zone for the air cavalry troop's reconnaissance.

Figure 2
Aviation Finding the Enemy

After establishing platoon sectors in zone, the unit designates an LD and a crossing time. The unit conducts force-oriented reconnaissance -- methodically and fully integrated with the ground force, across the depth and breadth of the zone to the LOA. The value of methodical reconnaissance is not always measured in what is observed. Conducting continuous aerial reconnaissance in zone and reporting progress to the infantry battalion commander will also determine where the enemy is not. Thus, S-2s can predict where the enemy might be. This information is critical to the commander, who can now focus his effort on the S-2's predictive analysis of where the enemy should be. Light aviation might rapidly transition from finding the enemy to fixing by denying access along creek outskirts (in effect, restricting enemy movement to the streams) or screening enemy aviation movements to locate and eventually destroy supply caches and C2 nodes. In conjunction with the infantry, the combined arms team would subsequently attack to finish the enemy in templated enemy locations based on earlier aerial reconnaissance efforts and predictive intelligence. Specific tasks for light-Army aviation include:

  • Reconnoiter terrain not easily accessible to ground troops.
  • Rapidly check key points in zone, locate bypasses around obstacles, and provide security on the far side of obstacles while ground troops continue their movement.
  • Locate and maintain contact with enemy elements before they make contact with the light infantry in zone.

The aviation commander must further focus his reconnaissance element by including bypass and engagement criteria in his instructions. Failure to do so causes confusion for troops and platoons following initial contact with the enemy. Furthermore, the result might be an unplanned or undesired branch that completely desynchronizes the BCT plan. Understanding the BCT commander's visualization of the battlefield and decisive point will define the reconnaissance objective.

Clearly stating the reconnaissance objective is essential towards shaping the subordinate light aviation commander's R&S plan. Based on his stated criteria, a hasty attack might be required - or maintaining contact while a ground element maneuvers to contact might be more appropriate.

Army Aviation Fixing the Enemy

FM 1-114 goes on to further discuss the Fix portion of search and attack by stating:

The fix portion may be accomplished in a variety of methods. The most common task would be to block an enemy element from moving along his most likely avenue of departure from the area. This task can be accomplished by mounted or dismounted forces, aviation forces, or by mines and obstacles that are covered by fire. The key to the fix portion of the operation is to ensure your fixing unit is appropriate for the type of enemy force in question, and has the capability to react to the enemy in unanticipated locations.

When directed, aviation is capable of Fixing the enemy. Consideration must be made towards augmenting aviation with engineers, ground cavalry, or light infantry unless the requirement is to Fix by fires. The light-Army aviation commander will select attack-by-fire (ABF) and support-by-fire (SBF) positions to engage the enemy. If well integrated with the ground force, the SBF position will serve as a base of fire or overwatch position to fix the target so the infantry force may maneuver. If assigning this mission to light-Army aviation, expect the enemy to be fixed for a short duration due to station time and available ordnance limitations. In many ways, sound tactical employment of Kiowa Warriors and Apaches with their inherent menacing presence on the JRTC battlefield fixes the enemy. OPFOR readily admit that they "go to ground" when helicopters appear in vicinity. Their number one task is to avoid detection and acquisition.

Figure 3
Aviation Fixing the Enemy

Army Aviation Finishing the Enemy

FM 1-114 further assists the aviation commander by defining the Finish portion of search and attack:


The finishing portion may be accomplished by any maneuver force with the combat power to destroy the enemy force in question. The key to success for this portion of the mission is the ability to bring the finishing forces' combat power to bear on the enemy at the key time when he has been located by the finding force, and his egree has been halted by the fixing force.

Finishing the enemy is a task that Army aviation does well. Following contact with the enemy, the scout element deploys to clear the ABF or SBF position, maintains contact, and conducts a target handover to the attack aircraft. Clearance of fires (direct and indirect) and application of anti-fratricide measures constitutes a challenge in the close fight as hasty attacks are performed in the ground maneuver battalion sector. Aviation elements must ensure that specific coordination is done to ensure accurate friendly location, enemy location, and target marking. Both ground and aviation units must exchange frequencies and call signs to ensure this coordination can be done between the unit in contact and the cavalry or attack helicopters.

Figure 4
Aviation Finishing the Enemy

The "911" Syndrome

Too often, Army aviation is diverted from the commander's stated priority (Find the enemy) to perform "911" missions that resemble a hasty movement to contact against an undetermined enemy in contact with infantry elements. More often than not, the infantry was capable of maneuvering against the enemy, but relied on the flexibility and lethality of Army aviation to influence the outcome. Too often, Army aviation does not affect the enemy contact or, worse yet, since they immediately executed the "911" without any semblance of planning, they are engaged or destroyed upon reaching the target area. When, and if, they continue their previous reconnaissance, the enemy has moved and Army aviation has once again proven ineffective. How can we avoid this? Designating a quick reaction force (QRF) element (Reserve) whose mission is to conduct a hasty attack provides the infantry with a potent response to a "911" without sacrificing reconnaissance. This further limits the amount of support that can be provided throughout a 24-hour day, but ensures that Army aviation is focused at the decisive time and place as established by the BCT commander.

Air to Ground Integration

While Army aviation can achieve success conducting unilateral reconnaissance for the BCT, full integration with the ground maneuver battalion must eventually be achieved, especially to Fix or Finish the enemy. Light aviation is capable of securing the route. It can provide reaction time and maneuver space by assuming a moving screen along the flank of the infantry battalion as it moves to mass and finish the enemy. The infantry battalion commander might issue the following instructions:

"Your zone reconnaissance must be continuous through nightfall, when I expect the enemy to go to ground. I want you to assume a screen to prevent enemy detection and interdiction of our movement to attack positions. I am most concerned about our chosen route - we are vulnerable while on the march. If you detect the enemy reconnaissance element forward of PL Red, I want you to destroy it. However, this hasty attack is a secondary task - your mission is to secure our movement."

This graduate-level of air-ground integration requires a common visualization of the battlefield, capitalization on light aviation capabilities, and a clearly stated task and purpose by the BCT commander and staff.

Achieving air-ground integration, aimed in concert against an enemy's scheme of maneuver, requires the BCT to maximize the capabilities of all tactical elements. It is largely a function of the professional relationship achieved by the aviation commander and staff with the BCT. The aviation commander cannot depend on his liaison team at brigade to perform all the staff functions required to achieve tactical success against a world-class enemy. COA development, wargaming, and targeting must be synchronized with the BCT. The BCT's R&S plan must be further refined and fighter management cycles adjusted to accomplish the mission according to the IPB and predictive intelligence. Frequent cross-talking with adjacent ground maneuver battalions assures an accurate read on the enemy as well as current locations of friendly forces.

Allocation of aviation forces is a function of priorities and missions. Hasty attacks and reconnaissance both require massing of aviation - massing of direct fires or maximizing reconnaissance elements forward. It is highly likely, if applying combat power according to the BCT commander's intent and based on the IPB, there will be periods of non-coverage by Army aviation. This becomes manageable risk if portrayed early and in doctrinal terminology to the BCT commander. Too often, this information is withheld or neglected until too late - when the enemy tells on us! Unless the commander is willing to accept this risk, Army aviation will piecemeal into the fight.

Command Relationships

Air-ground integration is also shaped by the designated command relationship. Avoid accepting command relationships such as "working for," "in support of," or "direct support" - these will not play out well once the fight begins. Use of doctrinal relationships will shape the aviation staff effort and ensure the aviation maneuver element performs its tasks properly. Consider tactical control (TACON) depending on the length of the mission or the amount of flexibility desired to be retained at either the BCT or aviation commander level. Rarely do Army aviation units conduct the required tasks to achieve a true operational control (OPCON) command relationship. Time usually does not permit physical, face-to-face coordination, joint planning, or timely exchange of graphics. TACON does not diminish integration with the ground force or the amount of control maintained by the maneuver commander. A robust liaison team at the BCT TOC, though not a substitute for the MDMP performed by the aviation battalion staff, is a tremendous boost to attaining effective air-ground integration. Consider the tactical experience, grade, and maturity of the officers and NCOs selected since they will not only influence the BCT MDMP but will affect the timeliness and quality of information received by the aviation task force. Designate one officer as the liaison OIC, someone who knows the aviation commander's expectations and is prepared to derive the minimal stated information required for the aviation staff to commence planning. Keeping the aviation commander and staff informed ensures they maintain a meaningful presence at the brigade TOC.

Aviation Organization

Light-Army aviation success in the search and attack under command and control of the aviation task force is further frustrated by the stove-pipe organizational structure of battalions. Assault battalions are not trained or manned to perform attack and cavalry missions. The same is true of attack and cavalry organizations. They exhibit considerable difficulty performing air assaults and logistics movements. Aviation brigade commanders must frequently train the battalions/squadrons as task force maneuver organizations. Augmentation with the fire support element, air liaison officer, engineer officer, air defense officer, and other special staff officers normally found at brigade level will ensure the light aviation battalion (squadron) task force has the requisite specialized staff personnel to perform maneuver missions at JRTC. Furthermore, aviation brigade commanders must consider the necessary augmentation required for planning and executing non-organic missions that must be performed as a task force. The staff must be robust enough to perform the MDMP for current and future operations: reconnaissance, attack, and assault.


Army aviation is essential to the light infantry fight. However, we must decide for ourselves HOW we conduct Search and Attack. Given that we already fight in small units at JRTC (platoon and company/troop), is it necessary to further define search and attack? Perhaps our only doctrinal problem is that we have not stated that search and attack is nothing more than zone reconnaissance (force oriented) or a movement to contact, security, and hasty attack.

Perhaps it is that simple. If we can derive critical tasks from these doctrinal missions, then we ensure we do not "clear globules" in a methodology that, though it works quite well for light infantry, results in Army aviation failing to reconnoiter the seams and adjacent terrain.

The challenge for Army aviation is to train search and attack by employing action drills that ensure flexibility and lethality without sacrificing the reconnaissance objective. The challenge for the BCT commander is to avoid the urge to piecemeal his aviation forces, instead requiring the aviation commander to accomplish doctrinal reconnaissance and security missions according to stated intent and prioritization of effort. He must be willing to accept that aviation might not be available 24 hours a day, that he might have to accept manageable risk in order to achieve his stated intent for light Army aviation in the search and attack.


FM 1-112, Attack Helicopter Operations
FM 1-114, Air Cavalry Squadron and Troop Operations
FM 7-20, The Infantry Battalion
FM 7-30, Infantry Brigade
FM 17-95, Cavalry
FM 71-10, Infantry Rifle Company
CALL Newsletter No. 97-8, Search and Attack
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