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by CPT Dale Watson and CPT Jason Walrath, Aviation Observer Controllers, JRTC


"Setting the conditions" is a common term used by brigade combat teams at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) to describe the conditions that must be achieved before attempting to accomplish a more critical, vulnerable mission. For example, the 101st Airborne Division requires "setting the conditions" prior to a brigade air assault operation. Similarly, the 82nd Airborne Division uses its cavalry and attack assets to conduct "pre-assault fires" prior to a brigade task force jumping into a hostile drop zone to establish a lodgment. Units must set the conditions for different missions; however, they often fail to define the desired conditions, understand the purpose or intent of condition-setting, or execute in a manner that is consistent with doctrine to achieve desired conditions. Light attack and air cavalry units play a major role in the condition-setting process, and that is the focus of this article. This article will answer several questions to include: what is condition-setting, what conditions must be set, when do we set the conditions, how do we set and verify the conditions, and what happens when we do not set the conditions?

What is condition-setting?

"Setting the conditions" often refers to preparing the battlefield for forced-entry missions such as air assaults, airborne insertions, and MOUT assaults. Condition-setting is a tool used by the commander to confirm or deny information relevant to mission success. This, in turn, helps him shape the battle space and mitigate risks associated with the mission. From a light aviation perspective, this equates to aggressive reconnaissance, security, and attack missions. Five important factors require thorough examination to accurately answer the commander's critical information requirements (CCIR) specified for the mission. These factors provide a framework for the conditions that must be set in order for the commander to make an educated assessment of mission feasibility. The factors include mission, enemy, terrain/weather, troops available, and time available (METT-T).

What are the conditions to be confirmed?

The process of collecting information needed to confirm or deny the S-2's information requirements (IR) is an ongoing effort closely tied to the intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB). Air cavalry and light attack aviation units play a pivotal role in collecting information for the commander throughout an operation. Obviously, aviation is not the only collection asset on the battlefield; the entire array of collection assets from theater level on down to division level may be used if available. For the purpose of this article, we will assume that these collection assets are providing information, and a light aviation task force is task organized to support the brigade combat team (BCT).

Mission analysis is the initial step towards defining specific conditions the commander needs verified for mission success. The dissection of the mission and associated specified tasks to identify implied and mission essential tasks provide a "blueprint" that drives the collection effort. Mission analysis determines what must be accomplished, purpose or endstate (commander's intent), and any limitations and/or constraints.

Verifying the enemy situation template produced by the S-2 is one of the most important factors of the condition-setting process. Understanding the enemy's location, disposition, strength, morale, capabilities, and composition is vital for calculating force ratios and assessing risk associated with the mission. Further, determining the enemy's most dangerous and most probable course of action helps define the tactics used to counter any enemy action (action-reaction-counteraction). This determination guides us during planning and execution to key on fighting the enemy's plan vice his systems.

There are several specific considerations light aviation units need to address regarding enemy forces, most notably the enemy's air defense weapons and capabilities. Enemy air defense systems have a tremendous adverse effect on aviation operations and, subsequently, are a serious threat to any airborne or air assault operation. Other specific considerations include hostile artillery locations and maneuver elements that can quickly flex to interdict and/or influence friendly forces on a landing zone (LZ) or objective area.

A thorough terrain analysis is important to understand how terrain affects friendly as well as enemy movement. This analysis includes observation and fields of fire, cover and concealment, obstacles, key terrain, and avenues of approach (OCOKA). How these factors influence the movement of friendly forces in the air and on the ground require consideration.

Weather is another element assessed during the condition-confirmation process. Adverse weather can hinder aviation operations in many ways. It is a random variable that can ruin a well-conceived plan; therefore, aviation should be planned for but not relied on as the BCT's sole course of action (COA). Local weather trends that may potentially affect the mission deserve careful consideration. For example, low ceilings and visibility reduce the effectiveness of certain weapon systems, such as the Hellfire missile, and pose an additional critical safety factor for the commander. Weapon systems are not the only systems affected; night-vision systems are affected as well. For example, forward-looking infrared on AH-64s and Kiowas is affected by rain and other weather conditions that tend to equalize the temperature differentials of objects, resulting in a degraded picture (IR crossover). In addition, certain environmental conditions (temperature, humidity and density altitude) affect aircraft performance, which can limit the number of soldiers or ammunition carried depending on the helicopter used. Other environmental factors affecting night operations are moon angle and illumination. These factors can have positive or negative effects on night-vision goggle operations for both ground and air forces.

Another part of condition-confirmation involves an assessment of where the unit stands in terms of preparation for combat. Friendly forces information requirements (FFIR) are critical to mission success and are the first conditions confirmed or denied. For example, do we have the necessary combat power to execute the mission? Where does the unit stand in terms of aircraft and aircrew availability? What is our state and what does this mean (status versus state)? In addition, are the necessary logistical requirements such as Class III and V available? Pre-combat inspections on critical assets, such as command and control console aircraft, forward area rearming and refueling points (FARP) equipment, and communication equipment, need to be accomplished so that equipment issues can be addressed in a timely manner. The answers to these preliminary conditions show the feasibility of mission accomplishment.

When do we "Set the Conditions?" (Integration into the brigade battle rhythm)

The aviation task force's portion of setting the conditions for a BCT operation must be deliberately embedded and synchronized with the brigade's military decision-making process and battle rhythm. It also closely follows the targeting process of deciding, detecting, delivering, and assessing. Although weather dependent, the aviation task force constitutes a sizable amount of the brigade combat team's reconnaissance force and cannot be used haphazardly. The brigade staff must plan for the use of aviation assets in accordance with inherent capabilities and limitations, and must provide a clearly defined task, purpose, and adequate coordinating data. Keep in mind that each mission into hostile airspace must be planned and resourced as a combined arms operation.

The BCT initiates the condition-confirmation process upon receipt of the mission and condition definition as determined by the S-2. As previously mentioned, exact conditions to be set are determined by METT-T, as is the degree of risk the commander is willing to accept in regard to each condition. In support of the condition-setting effort in a forced-entry operation, aviation's participation is organized generically in four phases: initial (terrain) reconnaissance, threat reconnaissance, condition-setting, and attack operations. The emphasis placed on and the amount of detailed information gained from each phase is primarily a function of time available. It is very important to note that a compressed timeline may exist for a forced-entry mission; however, the complexity of the detailed planning and coordination required for such an operation at the brigade level precludes it from being conducted in a hasty manner.

If synchronized properly, the four phases fit well into the BCT and subordinate battalions' planning and execution timelines, potentially providing timely intelligence for the associated phase of the brigade's and subordinate battalions' MDMP. For example, during the air assault planning process, aviation conducts area reconnaissance (LZ reconnaissance) during the initial phases of the brigade's MDMP. This is accomplished in order to verify the suitability of LZs (or DZs for airborne operations) determined from a map reconnaissance or imagery to aid in COA development prior to the initial planning conference (IPC).

Phase I is initial reconnaissance (primarily terrain-oriented). During this phase the unit is confirming conditions outlined by the S-2 during mission analysis, with primary emphasis on terrain. As mentioned earlier, the unit is likely determining the suitability of LZs or DZs through area reconnaissance. Information obtained from this reconnaissance will help build the ground scheme of maneuver during course of action development and must be completed prior to the IPC in the air assault planning process in order for the brigade to initiate firm planning for routes and LZs. Secondarily, the purpose of this phase is to report on enemy disposition, so determination of bypass criteria is of paramount importance. Units at the JRTC normally do not perform a terrain reconnaissance in their zeal to get a perspective on the enemy disposition, or just do not get started early enough and subsequently prioritize force-oriented reconnaissance at the expense of seeing the terrain.

Phase II is characterized by reconnaissance efforts focused on the enemy. Force-oriented reconnaissance is aimed at refining the approved COA based on the enemy's disposition and further validates the detailed IPB situation template through steady collection work by aviators, ground scouts, electronic sensors, and possibly national assets. During this phase, aviation is reconnoitering enemy ADA, hostile artillery or mortars, command and control (C2) nodes, maneuver forces on or near prospective LZs/DZs, supply points and caches, and detailed information on the objective area. Although it is important to determine the location and disposition of the aforementioned assets, the unit must not become overly fixated on the systems and disregard the enemy's total plan.

Phase III is the active condition-setting phase. During the previous two phases, aviation verified the conditions determined during mission analysis and validated IPB products such as the situational template. Here the BCT is fighting the enemy's plan in order to shape the battle space in the hours prior to H-hour in preparation for its entry and subsequent operations. Light attack and air cavalry units kill high-priority targets that can influence the mission using direct and indirect fires.

Phase IV is the attack operation. During this phase, light attack and air cavalry assets destroy targets in support of the ground tactical plan. This phase is discussed in depth later; however, it is important to note that aviation must be synchronized with and made an integral part of the ground scheme of maneuver in order to capitalize on its potential.

Missed windows and the effects

Failure to plan or synchronize aviation's efforts correctly in time and space in the condition-setting process can have potentially devastating effects. As an example, for air assault forced-entry operations, area reconnaissance of LZs is a must. LZ reconnaissance must be conducted almost immediately upon receipt of the mission in order for the brigade staff to formulate COAs and initiate the air assault planning process. In 17 rotations at the JRTC, every unit that has failed to conduct LZ reconnaissance has failed to determine one or more LZs as unsuitable or unusable for the ground tactical plan as initially conceived. The entire operation is desynchronized when lift one, serial one of an air assault cannot land at the primary or alternate LZs because they are unsuitable.

How do we set the conditions?

Phase I: Initial Reconnaissance

Light attack and air cavalry units can expect specific missions in support of an assault operation. The timing of these missions must be synchronized with the BCT battle rhythm as mentioned above. During the initial phase, aviation assets are conducting reconnaissance missions to help build the ground commander's plan. The "building blocks" the ground commander needs are those that will help him shape his plan as it relates to the battlefield. Therefore, the primary purpose of collection efforts during this phase is terrain-oriented.

The primary task light attack and air cavalry assets need to conduct in order to gather this information is a zone reconnaissance, with the primary reconnaissance objective being terrain-oriented. Focusing on key terrain in zone that can influence the ground fight is paramount. The critical task list associated with a zone reconnaissance and the commander's priority intelligence requirements (PIR) will define what critical information needs to be reported: routes, obstacles, natural barriers, bypass criteria, choke points, possible ambush and mortar sites, bridges, and avenues of approach, to name a few. A complete zone reconnaissance is a time-consuming task and can be modified to accomplish those tasks relevant to the mission. In other words, complete classification of all roads and bridges may not be necessary if an estimate will suffice. The information requirements must be looked at with an eye for the ground tactical plan.

A common trend for units at the JRTC is not to plan a zone reconnaissance mission during this phase. Often units will merely focus on the proposed LZs with little regard to the entire area of operation. A zone reconnaissance will force aviation units to conduct a thorough and methodical reconnaissance by the very nature of the mission. In other words, the control measures and graphics associated with a zone reconnaissance break a zone up into logical segments that allow for reconnaissance continuity. This ensures that the entire area is reconnoitered and allows for coordinated relief on station with other elements to continue the reconnaissance. Embedded in a zone reconnaissance are additional tasks which help the ground commander develop his plan.

Additional subtasks in zone reconnaissance include area and route reconnaissance. Area reconnaissance of primary and alternate landing zones and objectives is vital. Determining the size and suitability of landing zones and their relationship to the objective is critical information for the ground tactical commander. For example, guidance must be specific for area reconnaissance of landing zones to not just look at size and suitability, but to also look at terrain that will affect the ground forces after they leave the LZ. This example occurred during a JRTC rotation where a unit conducted an area reconnaissance of a LZ to determine its capability to hold aircraft. The aircrew did not look at how the LZ would support the ground tactical plan because it failed to notice a fence to keep out livestock that encircled the entire field. The aircrew reported to higher that the field could hold six UH-60s without a problem. On the night of the air assault, the infantry exited the aircraft and found itself pinned in the field. Luckily, the opposing forces were not there to capitalize on the "sitting ducks." The lesson here is to ensure that reconnaissance efforts are directly related to the ground commander's plan. This involves looking at all terrain and obstacles in zone that can impact on the ground plan.

The second subtask is route reconnaissance focusing on air routes for assault aircraft as well as ground routes for the infantry. A thorough route reconnaissance from the LZ to the objective may have prevented the mistake mentioned above. Every critical task associated with route reconnaissance can impact the ground commander's plan. Aircrews need to have these tasks specifically addressed as reporting requirements to ensure a thorough reconnaissance is conducted. These tasks include:

  • Reconnoiter and determine trafficability of the route.
  • Reconnoiter all terrain the enemy can use to dominate movement along the route.
  • Reconnoiter all built-up areas along the route.
  • Reconnoiter all lateral routes.
  • Reconnoiter all bridges on the route.
  • Locate all fords or crossing sites near bridges.
  • Reconnoiter all defiles along the route.
  • Locate obstacles along the route.
  • Locate bypass around obstacles and built-up areas.
  • Find and report all enemy along route.

The purpose of listing these critical tasks is to define essential information the ground commander may need to shape his plan. Guidance to aircrews should be this specific for each type of reconnaissance conducted. Some of these tasks may not apply; however, the tasks that do apply should be articulated to the aircrews. A trend at the JRTC is to not define the reconnaissance objective in sufficient detail for the platoon/team leaders. Often aircrews are sent on a mission with a task to conduct route reconnaissance to determine trafficability and to locate obstacles. This begins to meet the mark, but fails to look at the overall ground plan and all the elements that could affect it. A failsafe for units is to refer to FM 17-95, Cavalry Operations, for each mission, and incorporate critical tasks and PIR into guidance to the aircrews. Remember, if you do not ask for it, you may not get it.

This raises the question, "Who should receive the information collected during the reconnaissance?" The common trend is for all information to be reported to the aviation task force, which may or may not be reported up to brigade. The primary purpose of the initial reconnaissance is to shape the brigade's plan. For this reason, reporting should be passed on the brigade operations and intelligence (O&I) net to the BCT S-2. The brigade S-2 can update his map, refine his situation template (SITEMP), and disseminate the information in a timely manner.

A secondary reconnaissance objective during the zone reconnaissance is the reporting of enemy dispositions; however, it is important for units not to lose focus on their primary reconnaissance objective, which is terrain-oriented. Enemy positions should be reported and bypassed during this phase. This is very dependent on several factors, not the least of which is METT-T. Generally, enemy forces are never bypassed by the cavalry unless the commander has given specific orders to do so.

Phase I: Initial Reconnaissance

Phase II: Threat Reconnaissance

Following the initial reconnaissance that dealt primarily with terrain-oriented information requirements, light attack and air cavalry assets will begin shaping the battlefield in terms of enemy location during Phase II. Aviation assets are confirming the S-2's enemy situation template, which will allow further refinement of the ground commander's plan.

The task to aviation during this phase remains zone reconnaissance, with the purpose of finding the enemy. Again, it is essential that a zone reconnaissance be conducted to ensure that the entire area is reconnoitered. Merely focusing on the enemy disposition vicinity the LZ or objective fails to take into consideration those enemy assets that can affect the battle from a distance; for example, mortar positions, artillery positions, SA-14/18 positions, and possible counter-attack forces. Knowing the ranges of these systems will help determine the arc or width of the zone reconnaissance.

The force-oriented zone reconnaissance has some unique challenges for aircrews conducting the reconnaissance. Perhaps the most important element of this mission is a thorough understanding of the bypass criteria. A trend for units at the JRTC is to conduct force-oriented zone reconnaissance with no clear guidance for bypass criteria. This tends to cause problems during execution because aircrews become decisively engaged and are often shot down at the expense of the mission. Units cannot lose sight of the primary purpose during this phase: to confirm the situation template for the commander to refine his plan. Bypass criteria must be thoroughly understood at all levels; for example, bypass criteria that allows crews to specifically engage and destroy high-payoff targets of opportunity such as ADA systems, mortar sites, and cache sites. The criteria should further stipulate that aircrews will not become decisively engaged with enemy troop concentrations, but should maintain contact and report.

Information gained about enemy disposition during this phase will be crucial for the fire support plan, SEAD, and naval surface fires during the actual assault. Other considerations for aircrews are the position of friendly elements in zone. LRSD, Special Forces teams, and pathfinders can be expected to be working in the area of operations (AO) during this phase. As with any operation, aircrews must have a thorough understanding of friendly locations to prevent fratricide.

Phase II: Threat Reconnaisssance

Phase III: Setting the Conditions

Immediately prior to the assault, the focus for light-attack and air cavalry assets is "setting the conditions." This is the final action before mission execution, and the emphasis should be on preventing the enemy from interdicting the assault. One task aviation units can expect to perform is area security with the purpose of defeating enemy opposition in a specified area (the landing zone or drop zone), which provides reaction time and maneuver space to the ground force. Area security missions can screen, reconnoiter, and attack as necessary to accomplish its mission. Area security operations can be offensive or defensive in nature, and focus on the enemy, the force being protected, or a combination of the two.

The primary subtask assigned to aviation is to screen. Light attack and air cavalry assets must screen the intended landing zone to ensure the enemy cannot affect the landing. It is a difficult task for aviation to screen a 360-degree battle. Dedicating enough assets to cover all the major avenues of approach into a LZ or lodgment as well as provide security for the landing aircraft is a challenge. A detailed plan to accomplish this mission should be planned to take into consideration enemy reaction; for example, planning considerations to destroy enemy direct-fire weapon systems that may have escaped detection during the force-oriented zone reconnaissance; planning considerations to screen avenues of approach that possible counterattack forces may use to affect the mission; and planning considerations to target possible mortar positions based on terrain and max effective range of the enemy mortar systems. The bottom line is that there are many options to consider.

Several trends occur at the JRTC during this phase. The first trend is that units often plan inadequate forces to secure the area. At a minimum, this is a company-/troop-level mission. Often units send only a team of aircraft to set the conditions. The number of tasks assigned to the aviation unit conducting the mission will drive the number of assets needed to complete the missions assigned. Often a team of aircraft is not adequate to accomplish all the tasks assigned. As mentioned previously, it is a challenge to screen a 360-degree area, especially with only two aircraft. A troop or company can adequately screen all major avenues of approach to include patrolling between observation posts as necessary to close the seams. Another team can be dedicated to prevent enemy direct fire into the LZ (inner circle) while the screen is oriented outside of the LZ (outer circle).

A second trend is not allowing enough time for the aircrews to conduct the security mission. Shortchanging the time allotted for condition-setting will allow only a cursory glance at the LZ or objective. Enemy elements can "slip through the cracks" and can significantly affect the mission. At a minimum, the troop or company needs at least one hour to secure the LZ. Often the argument is that the element of surprise will be compromised. At this point, force protection through aggressive destruction of enemy forces capable of affecting the LZ should outweigh surprise. Even with the element of surprise gone, a properly secured LZ will be hard to influence.

A third trend is not defining the conditions to be set. In other words, what is the purpose of the security mission and what are the quantifiable and measurable conditions to be set? Are the aircrews merely calling "cherry" or "ice" to signify a hot or cold LZ, or are they conducting other tasks that will constitute the commander's final condition check? Do they have input in initiating SEAD; what other planning considerations mentioned above are they tasked to do? Detailed planning and a clear understanding of the commander's intent are essential for the mission. Condition definition must be clear and quantifiable to the aviation units setting the conditions. Examples of specific conditions to be set could include:

  • No vehicle-mounted weapon systems able to place direct or observed indirect fires onto the LZ .
  • The three major avenues of approach and corresponding named areas of interest (NAIs) screened to prevent enemy reinforcements.
  • SEAD initiation.
  • Confirmation or destruction of the templated ADA systems capable of influencing the LZ.
  • Confirmation that LZ is clear of obstacles/barriers.
  • Based on the above conditions, call "cherry" or "ice."

Other conditions can be specified to check, but caution needs to be exercised to ensure the aircrews are not task overloaded. This is a function of how many assets are dedicated to the mission. When the conditions are not set, the commander must decide to abort the mission or accept risk and allow the mission to continue. The communication link between the aircraft on site and the commander during the condition-setting phase is vital so that the commander can make decisions based on the success of the condition-setting.

Phase III: Setting the Conditions

Phase IV: Attack Operations

Attack operations constitute the last phase of aviation's role in the assault, specifically attack operations in support of the ground element's movement to the objective and its assault on the objective. Tasks for light attack and air cavalry assets during this phase are deliberate and hasty attacks, with the preponderance of attacks being hasty. However, mission planning prior to this mission can be accomplished with a higher level of fidelity if the unit capitalizes on pre-mission planning early on in the condition-setting phases. In other words, during Phase I (terrain-oriented reconnaissance), aviation reconnaissance efforts can confirm or deny proposed attack-by-fires (ABFs) and support-by-fires (SBFs) that will support the assault on the objective. Fields of fire, altitude and visibility restrictions into the objective area, and other factors can be obtained in the collection process. This will facilitate the execution of hasty attacks that will occur in this phase.

Other considerations include preplanned targets, friendly identification, friendly marking, and weapons effects of aircraft systems in the close fight. Fratricide is a major concern during this phase, and the limitations of what aviation can and cannot do for the infantry must be coordinated.

Phase IV: Attack Operations

The BCT may make a lucky mission decision based solely on a map reconnaissance, simple analysis, and intuition. However, the best decision will not hold up unless the brigade sets the conditions for victory through effective use of light attack and air cavalry aviation in the collection effort. With aggressiveness and smart tactical employment of aviation, condition-setting operations will defeat the enemy before execution of the actual forced-entry operation.

Aviation is a key player for ensuring the conditions mentioned previously are met. Attack and cavalry units must be aware of the different phases and purpose for each when supporting an assault. The table below summarizes the discussion above as far as task and purpose for each phase of the operation.

I: Initial ReconnaissancePrimary task: Zone Reconnaissance
Additional tasks: Area Reconnaissance
Additional tasks: Route Reconnaissance
Primary reconnaissance objective is terrain-oriented.
Secondary reconnaissance objective is force-oriented.
II: Threat ReconnaissancePrimary task: Zone ReconnaissanceReconnaissance objective is force-oriented.
III: Condition-settingPrimary task: Area Security
Subtask: Screen
Subtask: Hasty Attack
Primary purpose is to defeat enemy operations in a specified area.
Purpose of screen is to provide early warning, destroy enemy elements within capability, and use indirect/direct fires.
IV: Attack OperationsTask: Deliberate and Hasty AttackPrimary purpose is to destroy the enemy.

Command and control of a forced-entry operation undergoes its greatest test during condition-setting. The requirements to gather information necessary for the commander to assess mission feasibility is a tough challenge, especially when there are time constraints and the enemy does not cooperate. Despite the challenges involved, condition-setting is vital for the success of a mission. Confirming or denying information based on METT-T allows the commander to make accurate decisions and directly affects mission accomplishment. Aviation's role in all the phases leading up to execution cannot be underplayed. It is imperative that units understand the tasks and purpose during each phase in order to support the brigade combat team. A common fallacy is the notion that condition-setting is accomplished just prior to H-hour. This is not the case. The thorough terrain and force-oriented reconnaissance efforts leading up to H-hour will shape the battle for the BCT. A trend seen at the JRTC is that units will skip one or more of the phases leading up to the assault. Reasons for this are a lack of understanding of missions needed to support the brigade and how these missions should "look," battle rhythms not synchronized with brigade, and time and weather limitations. The bottom line is that condition-setting is a continual effort that keeps the commander informed and allows him to build the framework for the eventual operation.

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