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Decision Point Tactics: Elevating Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield in a Decisive Action Training Environment

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Decision Point Tactics: Elevating Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield in a Decisive Action Training Environment

Eric Slater

The scope of this article is to provide tactics, techniques and procedures for the successful application of Decision Point Tactics while conducting Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield in a decisive action training environment. It is also meant to serve a launching point for discussion, provide a framework for the generation of products that will support your Commander in a decisive action environment and discuss staff integration into the intelligence process.

Current doctrine describing Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield argues that the culmination of the first three steps should yield several potential enemy courses of action.  ATP 2-01.3 states that an intelligence professional should develop as many complete enemy courses of action as time allows.  Quite frankly, this inevitably turns into two courses of action, a most likely and a most dangerous.  While many Commanders are satisfied with their MLCOA and MDCOA presented as a two slide product, intelligence sections are truly doing a disservice to our commanders.

There is an adage that states, the plan will never survive first contact with the enemy.  As an Army, we preach flexibility and tout our ability to respond to the unforeseen with the aid of a Decision Support Matrix and numerous products that collective staffs will work on for hours on end.  I posit a question that bares serious weight: Are we so arrogant that we assume that OPFOR commanders fail to incorporate flexibility into their own planning cycles?  The answer, of course, is that they obviously do.  This is the reason why S2s will collectively always be wrong.  We spend the majority of our time creating two, distinct courses of action and argue that this is what the enemy will do.  Any time we take this approach we are destined to fail, and look foolish as a result. 

Intelligence, as a whole, has a propensity to focus on the “how” as opposed to the “what” and “why.”  “How will the enemy attack or defend” is the fundamental question that we ask ourselves every time we conduct IPB.  Instead, our first question should be “what is the enemy commander attempting to achieve”.  Our second should be “why is he trying to achieve it?”  When the Army conducts MDMP we ask ourselves what and why in order to present task and purpose to our subordinate units.  We can reasonably expect that our enemies will conduct similar decision making processes.  By establishing the enemy’s mission, intent and end-state, intelligence professionals will be able to more accurately ascertain the how. 

In combat, the future exists not as a linear path but as a wave of possibilities.  As opposing commanders make decisions the wave of possibilities slowly collapses into a singularity that is only achieved at the culmination of any battle.  In order to depict this, there are two options.  The first is to have a team of analytical geniuses fueled by coffee and nicotine work 24 hours a day throughout the entirety of the military decision making process.  Working at an unimaginably grueling pace, these Soldiers, NCOs and Officers, could create dozens of courses of action.  Even if the Commander and staff had the time to consider each, they would be unable to attack or defend everywhere.  By overwhelming our boss with data, we fail to do our jobs.  The second option is the utilization of decision point tactics and branched course of action sketches. 

There is a finite number of options that any commander has at his disposal.  Resources such as manpower, weapons system availability, logistics and time available will all form limitations.  Nature creates its own obstacles such as terrain and weather conditions.  Knowing this, we can begin to generate an understanding of what possible courses of action the enemy may devise, and more importantly, what decisions he will have to make.  Identifying the enemy’s decision points is our first step. 

Take, for example, a hypothetical OPFOR commander.  Our hypothetical commander has a brigade at his disposal and he is fighting against another combined arms brigade (Figure 1).  His objective is to destroy his opposing brigade’s headquarters, deep in the support zone of their formation.  While preparing for the attack he notices that he can either go through a northern corridor, a central corridor, or a southern corridor, all three defended by a battalion.  Here in lies his first decision: Where do I go?  He sends his battalions to conduct probing attacks on all three corridors.  A new decision arises: Who appears to be achieving the most success?  If it is in the south, he can coalesce his forces to the south and attack at a 3 on 1 advantage.  The same can be said of the central and northern corridors creating three potential outcomes.  Maybe he is seeing success on two fronts, and decides to reinforce both, generating three more potential outcomes.  Perhaps all three are successful, creating another outcome.  Maybe he decides to reinforce one successful corridor but not the other.  Quickly this can get out of hand.   In this drastically oversimplified situation alone, with three CABs, fighting three CABs I have described a total of eleven outcomes.  An S2 conducting mission analysis on this problem set is neither going to have the time, nor the resources to create eleven courses of action.  More importantly, his commander is not going to want to hear them.  Can this situation even be adequately summed up in terms of a most likely or most dangerous course of action?  I posit that the response to that question is that it cannot.

Figure 1

However, it is possible to depict all of these courses of action on one course of action sketch that is not only easily digestible but also briefs well.  Not only that, but for once, the S2 stands a chance at accurately conveying the enemy’s operational plan.  Take for example the following COA Sketch (Figure 2). 

Figure 2

Through the utilization of a branched course of action sketch, I have just depicted all eleven courses of action I previously described.  How can you brief this?  Easily.  “Sir the enemy will utilize economy of force and conduct probing attacks on all three corridors and then coalesce at the location of perceived vulnerabilities to achieve mass and attempt to destroy our defensive formation.”  One sentence describes eleven possibilities.  Now granted, it is not only prudent but essential for an S2 to provide his or her commander with assessments as to where those weak points will be.  However, all subsequent course of action development is rooted in foundations that depict the true flexibility of our hypothetical OPFOR commander. 

Branched course of action sketches can easily be utilized to depict enemy defensive formations as well.  For example, look at the following COA Sketch.

Figure 3

Once again, overly simplified for the sake of easy digestion, however, all options are outlined.  The enemy commander can reinforce to his eastern flank or his western flank or split his third battalion.  Once he makes a choice, he will make part of his formation vulnerable.  With the addition of a time event matrix (more on that later), we now know our window of opportunity for attacking and how long it will take for the OPFOR commander to realign his forces to deal with an impending threat.

(I cannot over stress the over simplification of the courses of action sketches that I have provided.  They are meant to serve as examples.  Once a course of action sketch is thoroughly flushed out it will obviously include range fans for indirect fires systems, air mobility corridors, obstacle belts, chemical threat templates, reserve forces, and electronic warfare interference sectors.) 

Branched COAs will allow for the subsequent use of decision point tactics.  Because this specific variety of sketch outlines options rather than end-states, it can provide intelligence professionals and their commanders with the tools to visually depict every choice that the opposition force will have to make.  Having previously established the “why” and “what” branched course of action sketches develop the “how.”  More importantly than the “how” though, branched COAs flush out the multiple “what if’s.”  The next logical step in this process, is establishing the when.

The event template is one of the most misunderstood and therefore incorrectly utilized intelligence tools.  Because there is no real ability to train on battalion or brigade combined arms exercises on the majority of installations, the event template is usually an extraneous product that falls victim to a two sentence brief, followed by an abrupt “next slide.”  Even worse, many believe the Event Template is just a working product that leads to an NAI Overlay.  Unfortunately, as a result, the staff becomes accustomed to seeing this critical tool as being almost unnecessary, and the ramifications of its analysis are rarely appreciated.  This leads to substandard Decision Support Matrices which forces our Commander into a reactionary posture.  It is critical, therefore, to impart the importance of the event matrix to the commander and staff early and reinforce its importance often.

The event template should be utilized to produce a timetable where intelligence professionals can visually depict the locations of enemy forces on the battlefield at any given time.  By providing the enemy front line trace at H hour through the expected culmination of any engagement we can begin to populate overlays with a framework for the projected timeline of the battle.  Clearly it can appear overwhelming to give the front line trace of enemy elements given the vast number of variables that are presented, but given accurate terrain assessments and known rates of movement, you can start to make precise estimates.  To further strengthen your event template and provide additional insight into a branched COA, time displacement lines can be utilized.  By depicting how quickly the enemy Commander can reorient his forces in order to mutually reinforce himself, we can provide our Commander with windows of opportunity for successful interdictions.  Furthermore, we can modify our event template through the inclusion of decision points (Figure 4).

Figure 4

In the figure above we can see that within a half hour of his probing attacks being deployed, the enemy commander will come to his first decision point: Where will he commit his breaching capabilities?  His battalions will then reorient and commit to their point of penetration.  Additionally, we can see that it will take forces from the south ten minutes to reach the central avenue of approach, and an additional fifteen to reach the northern.  Finally we see his second decision point at H+1.5 where he is forced to evaluate his course of action and make a determination on the commitment of his exploitation force.  At this decision point he may alternatively conclude that his course of action selection was flawed and reorient his forces toward a different corridor.  In both scenarios, windows of opportunity arise from displacement times, and can provide inroads for interdiction.  Once again, this event template was intentionally simple, but when fully developed may include the employment of a reserve force, commitment of attack aviation, the use of chemical munitions, or when and how to conduct retrograde operations as additional decision points.  However, even despite being a simplistic example, it is evident how the use of a branched COA compliments and assists in the generation of an event template by graphically displaying the location of decision points. 

By establishing the enemy’s timetable and decision points, an intelligence professional can inform his commander as to how to affect the enemy commander’s OODA loop.  The OODA loop is a decision making cycle in which the enemy observes, orients, decides and finally acts.  Popularized for its use in counter-insurgency operations, John Boyd conceived the idea of the OODA loop as a natural cycle that can be applied to everything from individual organisms to multi-nation actors.  Therefore, even though it has not gained much traction in the decisive action fight, it most certainly can be applied quite well and to great effect.  If we know where the enemy will be forced to make a decision from our course of action sketch, and when he will be forced to make it from our event template, intelligence professionals can provide their commanders with the ability to take away our enemies decisions.  This can have one of two potential outcomes: the first is that enemy commanders may be forced into situations in which they must reorient their forces and enact a less favorable course of action; secondly, through successive attacks on his OODA loop, an enemy commander will be stuck in a cycle of observing and orienting, never able to make a decision and act.  The enemy is effectively denied the initiative and forced into being reactionary.  Furthermore, the amalgamation of the “what,” “why,” “how” and “when” will combine to form a concept that we are all familiar with: the enemies center of gravity.  By completing your products in the aforementioned manner, you can identify the center of gravity for your Commander, thereby providing him with the most crucial piece of information necessary for success in a decisive action environment.

Branched course of action sketches are a valuable tool, and the utilization of decision point tactics can change the course of a battle by forcing your enemy to become reactionary and allowing your Commander to seize and retain momentum.  By rethinking the way we conduct analysis we can generate products that truly aid our Commanders and their staff in visualizing the wide array of options that our enemy has in their possession.  Flushing out these ideas early on in MDMP allows the S2 to play a critical role in shaping every remaining step of the process.  For example, by utilizing branched COAs, wargaming can be transformed from a glorified game of risk into a thorough exercise in which courses of action can be fully evaluated.  Friendly and enemy forces will not be able to utilize a static, scripted course of action.  Every turn of the wargame will have tangible ramifications that can be analyzed, assessed and re-played.  The staff can rehearse identifying indicators that the enemy is reaching a decision point, and make judgements about when and where friendly forces can interdict.  This in turn will generate a valuable decision support matrix that the Commander can utilize throughout the duration of an engagement allowing for the quick and violent execution of lethal force.  However, before any of this can take place we must bring together our organizations and teach them the “so what” of our products.  Do your part as an intelligence professional to bring other staff members to the planning table when you are conducting IPB.  Your internal fires, maneuver, signal, logistics and electronic warfare personnel will have keen insights into how the enemy will employ its assets and integrating them early in the decision making process will give them a vested interest in ensuring the collective staff creates a cohesive final product. These tools and techniques that have been described are powerful, but your unit’s collective buy-in on their utilization is critical. Exercising these TTPs without shared understanding would be futile because knowledge that is not understood is as useless as knowledge that is not shared.

About the Author(s)

1LT Eric Slater is currently the Assistant S2 for 1-9 Cavalry Regiment.  He has additionally served as the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division Intelligence Collection Platoon Leader in support of Operation Enduring Freedom XII-XIII.  1LT Slater has completed three Combined Training Center rotations, to include one as an Observer, Coach and Trainer at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin.  He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross.