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Fires in the Close Fight Newsletter
Final Protective Fires: Last Chance So Do It Right!
FPF for the Light Infantry Fight
by SFC Steven L. Payton
JRTC Ops Group Fire Support

The Brigade Commander received word from division that the enemy planned to attack in the brigade area of responsibility in 72 hours. Recognizing that he had no time to waste, the commander issued guidance to the staff and had a warning order immediately sent to the brigade combat team. During the next three days the brigade combat team went through the deliberate planning process. Elements of the unit prepared their defensive sectors and rehearsed, all the while refining their plans. When the deadline for the defense arrived, the commander and his combat team felt confident. They had crafted, set, and rehearsed a combined arms defense that would surely do the job and punish the enemy.

On the morning of the attack, the enemy main attack crashed into the two infantry battalions set in a deliberate defense. The enemy’s goal was to break through the main defense and reach key terrain on the brigade rear area. In what seemed but a blink of an eye, the enemy main sliced through the security zone and into the brigade’s main defenses. The infantry battalions fought an aggressive and intensive fight using every weapon system available to them against an ever-pressing enemy. Yet the enemy came on and as enemy forces closed within 600 meters of the brigade’s last line of defense, the commander saw that he had but one chance to save his unit. He ordered the infantry to disengage and break contact. The soldiers scrambled from their foxholes to reach a more secure area where they could consolidate and reorganize their forces. The withdrawal, however, was done without cover and the enemy was left free to charge forward. They closed on the withdrawing units and enveloped them. The defenders suffered heavy losses. The survivors were left battered physically and morally. What had happened to their covering fire? Did the artillery forget? In the chaos of the retreat, no one had called for the final protective fires, previously planned to cover such a possibility. At the end of the day, the maneuver commander could only wonder what more could have been done to ensure that his indirect fires were effectively integrated into his maneuver plan.

If the above sounds inconceivable, think again! Observer/controllers at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) consistently report that fire support elements (FSE) fail to properly plan, rehearse, and execute final protective fires (FPF) during defensive operations as called for by doctrine. In some cases final protective fires are not planned at all. Final protective fires assist in building that final wall of steel that allows the maneuver commander to protect his force. It can give him the time and space necessary to either continue the mission or make adjustments to his maneuver plan. It is essential that fire support elements have the necessary assets, resources available, and institutional knowledge required to provide effective final protective fires that support the maneuver plan.

The Purpose of Final Protective Fires

In the last two years, the opposing force at JRTC has enjoyed tremendous success against BLUFOR defensive operations. Intimate familiarity with the terrain and knowing the best routes to exploit certainly affects the OPFOR’s ability to penetrate BLUFOR defenses with success. But rotational units’ failure to use the tools available to them to counter the OPFOR initiative also plays a major role. Final protective fires are just such a tool. The purpose of a final protective fires is to stop and destroy enemy forces crossing a defensive line or into a defensive area (FM 6-20-20, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Fire Support for Fire Support at Battalion Task Force and Below, Chapter 1, page 1-23). Before a purpose is assigned to final protective fires, consideration must be given to the effects desired. Artillery and mortar final protective fires are usually planned to destroy dismounted infantry and to limit or delay lightly armored vehicles. When properly planned and executed, these indirect fires can be deadly. Many rotational units define success in defensive operations by end state. In doing so, the commander must clearly emphasize how important the final protective fires are in accomplishing his mission. The appropriate staff or commander must reiterate the purpose of the final protective fires, and provide solid attack guidance and engagement criteria to the responsible agency. This is critical when the trigger to fire the final protective fires is established. Many units fail to execute final protective fires because they simply do not know the engagement criteria and triggers.

Planning Final Protective Fires: “The How and Where”

Allocation of final protective fires to a battalion or task force is the brigade commander’s responsibility. Artillery final protective fires are normally allocated to the battalion or task force, working as the brigade main effort or to the task force defending the no penetration line. The decision to allocate more than one final protective fire usually occurs during the military decision making process (MDMP). Commanders often distribute them throughout the brigade combat team for force protection and to allow flexibility in the plan. The assets and ammunition available play a vital role in this allocation of final protective fires. The fire support elements within the brigade combat team must have an effective system in place to track these resources and be intricately involved in ensuring that each is available to the supported unit. The final protective fires are then distributed to subordinate units appropriately, that is from task force to company.

The battalion and company fire support element must be prepared to plan and execute final protective fires that follow the maneuver commander’s intent and support the scheme of maneuver. That scheme of maneuver evolves from the brigade commander’s read of the enemy’s most likely course of action. Fires should be planned in accordance with the intelligence analysis and how the commander wants to employ his indirect fire systems. Intelligence analyzes the terrain and identifies high-speed avenues of approach. The lowest level commander allocates final protective fires and positions them with the advice of the fire support officer. Final protective fires are usually planned along an avenue of approach and tied to the maneuver element’s final protective line. The company’s objective should be to eliminate gaps in the defense that the enemy may attempt to exploit. Figure 1-1 depicts a light infantry company postured in a defensive battle position with direct fire weapon systems emplaced to cover the defensive sector. The final protective fires support the defensive scheme. They are tied to the direct fire weapons and at the same time provide protective fires for the maneuver force. When positioned in a specific platoon sector, a primary and alternate observer should be clearly identified to execute the final protective fires. A sector sketch similar to Figure 1-1 is a great tool for each observer to have when choosing his observation post. This tool gives the observer a picture of the sector he is covering and helps ensure that all forces are not within danger close of indirect fires. The appropriate commander should identify the engagement criteria during planning and provide it to the executor or team of executors. This process can never be over emphasized. Engagement criterion becomes vital when a trigger to fire the final protective fires is established.

A gun without a trigger is hard to fire; so are final protective fires. There are any numbers of tools to use in selecting triggers. Vehicles can be used to replicate the enemy vehicle’s movement rate. Personnel can simulate the breech of covered obstacles. Regardless of method, all players involved in executing the final protective fires should be in position and armed with proper guidance. These resources must be available to establish a valid trigger for the final protective fires. In establishing triggers to attack moving targets, the observer must use procedures such as those outlined in FM 6-30, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Observed Fire, Chapter 5, pages 5-23 through 5-26. An observer to identify the enemy and forewarn the executor as they move toward a specific point on the ground identified as the line of execution is another example of a trigger for final protective fires.

When planning final protective fires, rotational units at JRTC often refer to final protective fires planning tables in FM 6-20-20, Chapter 1, page 1-4 as if they were the Ten Commandments. That data is not written in stone; the final protective fires widths shown in table 1-4 of the 6-20-20 are neither precise nor restrictive. The sheaf can be opened or closed to cover specific terrain. When tied to direct fire weapon systems, the commander should plan the dimensions of the target in order to alleviate gaps in that portion of the defensive sector.

The final protective fires are more effective when adjusted, depending on the tactical situation and ammunition on-hand. When adjusting artillery final protective fires the observer can adjust each weapon firing the final protective fires or adjust only the center weapon. When adjusting only the center weapon, the fire direction center must use the battery computer system or backup computer system, muzzle velocity variations, and special corrections. This technique can save time and ammunition that might be critical later in the mission. Instances occur when time does not permit units to shoot in the final protective fires. In this instance, the grids of the two ends or the center grid and attitude must be given. If the fire direction center is using a battery computer system, then length, width, and attitude or a laser draw should be sent. Procedures for processing and adjusting final protective fires are in FM 6-30, Chapter 7, pages 7-3 and 7-4, and Appendix B, page B-26 and 27 for digital operations. When the adjustments are complete, the final protective fires should be established as a priority target and can be given a code name for easy identification when initiated.

Final Protective Fires As Part of The Fire Support and Combined Arms Rehearsal

Prior to attending the brigade fire support and maneuver rehearsals, battalion and company fire support officers responsible for the artillery final protective fires should prepare to brief. They must know the final protective fires’ purpose, location, and primary and alternate observers. They should state what will trigger final protective fires, the communication net it will be executed on, and any restrictions that might apply to this specific target. Using a commonly used acronym, PLOTC-R, fire supporters can identify these criterion. All that aside, observer controllers at JRTC report that rotational units consistently fail to cover these details during the rehearsal process. All key players at the rehearsals should discuss final protective fires in detail. This same process for covering final protective fires should be used at the company fire support and maneuver rehearsal.

Execution Of Final Protective Fires: “The When and How”

If the time comes to execute final protective fires, the unit should replay what was seen in rehearsal. This depends upon whether or not all aspects of planning and rehearsals were done to standard. As discussed previously, the final protective fires should be tied to the final protective line and synchronized to produce the results the commander expects to achieve. To effectively execute the final protective fires the observer must either see the trigger or have an early warning asset. An observer who can see the enemy hit the trigger and is aware of the attack/execution criteria is an effective early warning device—if he has the proper communications link. It is wise to establish a quick-fire net between the sensor and shooter to ensure responsive fires. When the observer identifies the enemy moving towards the trigger point, he alerts the approving authority for firing the final protective fires and the fire direction center of the firing unit responsible. In alerting the fire direction center, the observer sends the mission "At My Command" in the event the situation dictates that the final protective fires not be fired. Upon receiving clearance to fire the final protective fires, the executor sends the command of fire to the fire direction center on the quick-fire net. He should be prepared to stop the firing unit if the fires achieve the desired results. In the event the final protective fires is not executed or is no longer required, it should be cancelled to make the designated firing unit available to support other missions.

Conclusion: Final Protective Fire; "Plan it Right, Rehearse it Right, Get it Right"

Putting the proper time and effort into planning, rehearsing, and executing final protective fires is a consistent problem at JRTC. Ensuring the final protective fires are planned to support the maneuver commander’s intent, properly rehearsing the details of the final protective fires, understanding the attack criteria, and being prepared to execute will improve the effectiveness of the fires and, more importantly, assist the maneuver unit in disengaging from a pressing enemy force. Fire support elements must use the TTPs associated with final protective fires and make them standard for defensive operations. Battalion and company fire support elements have to take an aggressive approach to accomplishing the tasks associated with producing valid final protective fires for the supported maneuver unit. The Fire Support System stands on the forefront of the battlefield denying the enemy access to key terrain when these tasks are accomplished.

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