Suppressive Fire for the Irregular War Fighter

shutterstock_48172648Well-executed suppressive fire is, arguably, the critical task in an effective contact. The maneuver element cannot move to, or exit, their covered approach route until/unless enemy weapons can be destroyed, or effectively disabled. Effective suppressive fire is a prerequisite for assault or any other maneuver!

The reality is conventional military forces are not historically trained in direct-fire suppression, using their personal small arms. Whether at the fire-team/stick level, or the platoon or company echelons, this is unfortunate because well-trained riflemen using semi-automatic, aimed fire can actually suppress the enemy more effectively than automatic weapons such as crew-served machine guns (John Poole cites a couple of different studies illustrating this in The Last 100 Yards. My copy is packed up currently, so I won’t cite chapter and verse).

Suppressive fire.

In order to counter this, for the irregular war fighter, we have to first define exactly what “suppressive fire” is. In my mind, based on my personal experiences, a belt-fed M240 hosing down the objective is decidedly NOT suppressive fire. Between the limitations of reality, with non-combatants possibly on the objective or down-range from the objective, to the fact that, too often, the gun crew hosing down the objective is doing more property damage than personnel damage, it’s just not very effective. This becomes more important both to the irregular war fighter and the conventional force small unit leader when you consider the political implications of blindly firing into an objective that may have significant numbers of non-combatants present. I define suppressive fire, quite simply, as “fire that keeps the enemy more concerned with not being shot than he is with shooting at you.” In other words, suppressive fire is protection… cover. To me, that means well-directed fire aimed at the enemy rather than the objective. As I like to point out during classes, “the best cover on the battlefield is accurate, outgoing fire.”

Tactically speaking, to be most effective, at a minimum, half your element should be providing accurate, precision suppressive fire. Ideally, it should be more like 2/3 to 3/4 of the element firing as the maneuver element moves. In his classic work “Infantry Attacks,” Erwin Rommel (arguably, one of the finest tactical thinkers in the history of warfare, and certainly in the last century) describes a number of attacks he led as a young lieutenant in World War I. His assault element was always notably smaller than his suppression element, and the disparity grew as his experience increased. The key however, was that his suppressive fire elements always had their fires directed at specific enemy positions on the target. Control and direction of organic fires is certainly one of the most critical key leader tasks, if not the most critical. You need to know how to direct your subordinates’ fires, as well as where to direct those fires.

Because conventional doctrine focuses on the use of indirect fire and crew-served weapons for suppression (and don’t misunderstand, I’m a BIG fan of mortars. I absolutely love wreaking havoc and discontent with a 60mm mortar in the “knee mortar” role), there is little to no doctrine defining training and application standards for direct fire suppression with individual small-arms. The classic British model of 30 rounds per minute is certainly a valid starting point, but is only a starting point. Suppressive fire at 400 meters, to be effectively accurate, may not be any more rapid than one round every two seconds, but at half that distance, it might be twice as rapid, or even faster. It’s METT-TC dependent. (I can make solid, upper torso hits all day long at 200M at a firing rate of one round/second, without even trying, and I make no claims to being any Alvin York… any competent shooter should be able to do so.) At 50M, you might need to fire 2-3 accurate rounds per second, in order to be effective in keeping their heads down.

How do we control subordinate element suppressive fires in order to prevent fratricide while still ensuring adequate rounds downrange?

Controlling the rate and distribution of fires involves communicating when to start firing, where (general area as well as specific targets) to fire, and at what rate to fire (it’s critical to note that while this is a leader task, techniques for controlling team fires depends on collective training of the entire team). There are various ways to control organic fires at the fire team/stick level. The noise and confusion inherent in a real gunfight may limit the effective use of some of these. You have to possess the ability to utilize whichever method is effective and feasible based on the immediate situation. Don’t get tied to just one.

Verbal control.

The first method, and most obvious, is verbal control. This is arguably the best method except when the leader is too far away from his men, or the roar of battle limits their ability to hear his commands (the use of electronic hearing protection, such as Peltors, and/or intra-team radios MAY mitigate these limitations to some degree).

Hand-and-arm signals.

Hand-and-arm signals are of some value in the midst of the fight, since they are not limited by noise. There are two major drawbacks to hand-and-arm signals, in my experience. First of all, subordinates may miss seeing the signal as they focus on the enemy and their own rifle sights. Second, too often guys try to use hand-and-arm signals because they’re trying to be stealthy and not give away information to the enemy. The reality is that once the gunfire starts, the enemy knows you’re there. Quit worrying about surprise/stealth, and focus on aggressive violence of action.

Leading by example.

Leading by example should always be the first choice of good tactical leaders. This is the most common and typically the most effective method of initiating and directing fires. It is not restricted by noise and if the subordinate can see you, he knows where you are firing. Then they mimic him by shooting in the same direction he’s firing and at the same rate he’s firing. Team leaders (TL) should use tracers to help direct their subordinates’ fire to specific target areas (or an IR designator at night, if all team members are equipped with NODs). The target zone can quickly be marked by the TL first firing at the center of the target area, then at the left and right limits of fire. This method, accompanied by the TL then moving to individual riflemen and specifically guiding their fire, is my personal “go-to” method, and the one I generally teach. It does require moral and physical courage from the TL, because he has to get up and move, even under enemy fire. If you lack moral and physical courage however, you’re probably not team leader material anyway.

Pre-arranged event.

The final method of controlling fires can be a pre-arranged event. Subordinates can simply be told to start firing when the approaching enemy reaches a certain terrain feature. I personally despise this method. In my experience, it leads to a ragged initial burst as every individual has a different perspective on what constitutes “crossing the line” (wow, there could be a LOT of unintended meaning read into that. There was no political intent in that statement. I promise.).

Well dispersed, accurately distributed suppressive fires are the best way to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop and stay there, by ensuring that accurate fire covers all parts of the target area. A team SOP may call for one buddy team to cover the left side of the objective while the other buddy team covers the right, until specifically instructed to direct their fires elsewhere by the TL.

Ultimately, the maximum effectiveness of suppressive fires can be most positively ensured by prioritizing known, suspected, or likely positions of enemy cover/concealment.

a) Engage any exposed enemy personnel, specifically targeting, in order, crew-served weapons, grenadiers, communications personnel, then key leaders. In other words, the most immediately threatening, most casualty-producing weapons, then working your way down the threat matrix; followed by positions indicated by enemy muzzle flashes (if you can see his muzzle flashes, it’s a pretty good indication that he’s firing in your direction, and thus a pretty immediate threat).

b) Once all known positions have been engaged effectively, work on suspected positions. These may include edges of doors and windows (why the f**k would you bother shooting into the middle of an open door?), the top front edge of fighting positions, both sides of the bases of trees, stumps and rocks, etc; anywhere you’d be hiding if you were in the enemy’s position.

c) Finally, target fire at any likely positions of enemy cover/concealment you haven’t already engaged in your specified sector of fire. This may include the ridge of a building rooftop, next to chimneys/smokestacks, bushes that may be concealing enemy combatants, etc.

There are a couple of things to consider, from the irregular/guerrilla view, of engaging suspected and likely positions of enemy cover/concealment.  First of all, if you can’t see the enemy there, you don’t have a specific target. Instead of just one round, it is more effective to fire two or three quick rounds into the space a bad guy would be in if he was there, whether you see him or not. The inherent dispersion of these rounds means you’ve got a better chance of hitting him if he is there.

Second, and arguably more critical, is the realization that if it’s a good hiding spot but no one is actively shooting at you from there, doesn’t mean there’s not someone there, they just may not be a bad guy. If I were stuck in the middle of a gunfight that I wasn’t part of and didn’t have a firearm (yeah, right…), I’d damned sure find a position of cover until I could determine the safest egress route. For the irregular war fighter, this consideration means you may have to limit your subordinates’ fires to known positions of enemy cover. If they’re not shooting at you,or your buddies, you don’t get to shoot back. Fortunately for me, that would ultimately be a local concern to deal with so I don’t have to prescribe a set of guidance.

The rate of fire should be directed by the team leader and needs to be high enough to prevent the enemy from returning fire accurately. That having been said, there is one caveat: the initial rate of fire in an unexpected, surprise contact should be as fast as humanly possible while still placing accurately aimed fire at those known, likely, or suspected positions of enemy cover/concealment. As soon as the first magazine is expended, perform a speed reload, then resume fire at a slightly reduced rate of fire (mimicking the TL’s rate of fire or following his specific instructions), in order to keep the enemy from being able to respond effectively.

John Mosby is a former Army Ranger and Green Beret, and the author of the Mountain Guerrilla blog.

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