Break In

The Vanguard: Lessons Learnt by a Combat Team Commander during Mechanisation

By Christian Johnston August 2, 2019
The M113AS4 Armoured Personnel Carrier now forms part of the 3 RAR ORBAT.

This year has marked another turning point in the storied history of ‘Old Faithful’ as it took its first steps down the path to becoming a mechanised infantry battalion under the Plan KEOGH restructure. Combat Team Alpha (CT A) constituted the battalion’s vanguard in this advance. In February 2018, the first tranche of M113-AS4 APCs arrived to generate 3 Bde’s first organic mechanised infantry sub-unit. Four major exercises, and a precipitous learning curve, ensued with limited time for assimilation. This article seeks to codify the seven key lessons from CT A's experiential process.

Tempo is King

To paraphrase the current Commander of 3 Brigade, Brigadier Scott Winter, mechanised warfare is all about executing battle drills faster and more violently than your opponent. An obvious truth falls out of this: tempo is king. By providing problems more rapidly than an opponent can react, you are relegating them to a decision cycle slower than yours, allowing those problems to compound in an insurmountable way that leads to defeat. 

In the age of 100 page OPORDs, quick orders are often mistakenly maligned as lacking detail and coordination. I disagree. A simple plan that allows instant action should be communicated simply by conveying the minimum information necessary to facilitate action and enable control. As OPFOR during force-on-force exercises, CT A had its best effect on the enemy when we acted rapidly and accepted risk in acting without a complete enemy picture. But when we took these actions in an aggressive manner, it often displaced our uncertainty to the enemy. By forcing a reaction, you are making an enemy staff deviate from a plan they are invested in. The key to this is concurrency: move now to gain the initiative then follow up later with detailed orders and coordination on the move. When caught stationary in a plan with too many moving parts and too little intuitive action, the CT would be overcome piecemeal.

Generating tempo through judicious use of mission command requires simple plans with clear commander’s intent, measurable endstates, limits of exploitation, and simple, understandable control measures that can be easily referenced. It means moving fast when you can and slow when you need to (eg. quick radio orders vs deliberate planning and orders). Most critical is the requirement for rehearsals and I would suggest they are nearly more important than orders. Mission command does not mean uncontrolled and reckless action because simple plans do not translate to simple execution. Mechanised warfare is inherently less nuanced then dismounted warfare; the complexity is not in the scheme of manoeuvre itself but rather in the speed at which it is executed. Synchronising combined arms effects whilst manoeuvring a disaggregated organisation around a battlespace at 30km/h, maintaining communications and rapidly transitioning types of operations is where the complexity lies. Mechanised warfare seeks simplicity in scheme of manoeuvre but it is far from a simple affair.

The key principle that underpins all of this is a common operating picture: the organisation must be running off the same universal, rehearsed SOPs that can be referenced instantly and executed rapidly. Battle drills minimise complexity of execution and are the touchpoint when all else fails. This is where tempo is generated: stringing together battle drills with minimal transition time.

Communications literacy is key

The majority of C2 issues experienced related to poor communications. Qualification as a crew commander on the APC by no means represents a comprehensive understanding of the vehicle communications harness. The most critical deficiency rested with fault finding and correction. Routine training must include these aspects as a priority. Too often the default setting was to just accept that “comms were stuffed,” resulting in degraded C2 when it could have been as simple as swapping an antenna. These skills must become the baseline, not just the realm of vehicle qualified personnel. When the driver and crew commander are occupied, someone in the back must have the ability to rectify problems. In the digitised battlespace, communications can no longer be an afterthought. 

Within a mechanised combat team environment, the all-informed net proved vital in rapid information capture and transfer, and significantly shortened the decision cycle. The obvious training liability to fall out was RATEL, which requires revision in the way it is taught in the infantry, noting the direction Plan KEOGH and LAND 400 are taking us. By reducing traffic to only to the essentials, removing the doctrinal call/response method, and thinking before talking, we saw a marked improvement in the ability to rapidly convey direction - a valuable lesson from our Armoured Corps brethren.

Hiding a mechanised combat team

During Ex HAMEL 18, CT A was under a constant UAV surveillance umbrella which arguably did not prove as effective as common perception holds. By tapping insecure UAV feeds using the JFT’s Rover, we noted that UAVs have a narrow field of vision; just as a sniper uses keyholes to identify targets, so does a UAV. Moreover, context is everything. The identification of one armoured vehicle does not mean the entire CT position has been compromised. It is important to remember that controlling the UAV is a human operator who is prone to deception like anyone else, so the one vehicle they see may not seem important enough to register concern. Our key takeaway is that dispersion and natural camouflage are vital. As a habit, CT A did not concentrate as a CT nor form positions any larger than platoon size, except for the execution of the Brigade counter-attack tasks. This had two key effects: (1) it masked our force dispositions and sizes, and thereby masked intent; and (2) if part of the CT was identified or targeted, it would not necessarily compromise the rest of the force. This required simple control measures (such as RVs and report/phase lines) that enabled rapid concentration and also served to de-conflict battlespace movements. 

Another observation was that erected camouflage nets stand out in medium to scattered vegetation, and in the short notice-to-move tasks like delays or counter-attacks, they proved time-consuming. We instead adopted natural camouflage coupled with reverse slope positioning. The best method proved to be stacking small trees up against the sides of the vehicle to break up the shape and to layer branches over the top, paying particular attention to thickening the layers over heat sources like the engine block and exhaust vents. This had the effect of breaking up the heat signature making it more difficult to identify as a vehicle. It is important to note that as UAV optics become more powerful, this method of concealment may prove to be insufficient. 

The JNCO Linchpin

Culture within a unit like ‘Old Faithful’ is a powerful factor to contend with when attempting to affect meaningful change, such as the transition from light-role to mechanised infantry, and the COG proved to be the JNCOs. They are the interface with the diggers. A soldier will typically adopt the opinions of his section commander; they are the first person of rank and experience they see on a daily basis and the one with whom they spend the most time working and training with. Regardless of how often an officer spruiks catch phrases like “enhanced lethality and mobility,” the experience and opinion of the JNCOs is likely to be more relatable to a soldier. Influencing the CT’s attitude rested with enlisting the support of the JNCOs. 

JNCO Accountability

Initially, it was easy to think of the vehicles as belonging to the crew commanders; after all they are the ones qualified to command it. This belief held weight for all ranks, including myself, which resulted in a separation of the CT. The drivers and crew commanders would spend their days working on the vehicles, the rest of the section would not. The way to mitigate this was to make the vehicle a section vehicle by signing the APC and all its CES to section commanders rather than crew commanders. This gave section commanders formal 'sklin in the game', which in turn filtered down to the section. That, coupled with scheduled maintenance periods in the training week which sought maximum section involvement, saw a turnaround in barracks attitude. 

This idea of JNCO ownership of the vehicle was also relevant to the tactical setting: a highly mobile .50 cal within the section is a force multiplier in the break in. When we conducted live fire section attacks, the simple addition of an APC to the activity not only allowed the section to practice the mechanics of a “stop drop”, but also encouraged section commanders to bring to bear the heavy machine gun during critical moments of the attack by coordinating fires just as they would with their own dismounted machine gunner.

And vs Or

Early on, the prevailing attitude was that we were sacrificing our dismounted abilities in order to become a mechanised force. The turning point for CT A was when we realised, as the CO of 3 RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kearns, phrased it, it is not dismounted or mounted but rather dismounted and mounted. A mechanised section is a system in which every component plays a part in a complementary fashion to be fully effective: the vehicle, the crew, and the dismounts. Some of our most decisive moments were dismount-led actions: anti-armour ambushes at vulnerable points forward of defensive positions; concealed armoured attack-by-fire positions cued on by forward dismounted elements; or dismounts silently clearing ground by night, then calling the vehicles forward, which allowed the Coy to steal a night march on the enemy and evade the screen. Perhaps most critically from an identity point of view, this realisation demonstrated to the Coy that there is room in the Battalion for dismounted and mounted specialists.  

Maintenance must be ring fenced

There was also an adjustment required at the BHQ level, not just the soldier level. CT A’s road to mechanisation was very well planned with a well-considered progression of training that allowed us to focus on learning and execution. However, this high tempo period exposed gaps in understanding across the battalion, at all levels, on how to execute an effective maintenance schedule. During the four month period of mechanisation, CT A participated in four major exercises with significant APC usage but did not once complete an uninterrupted post-exercise maintenance procedure. The key learning point here is that for a vehicle husbandry culture to be fostered, maintenance needs to be placed on the same level as training and it must become automatic. The cultural shift required at the planning level relates to scheduling: a two week exercise really means a three week exercise when you factor in the necessary maintenance period, which needs to be quarantined just as training is. Culture is a function of habit, and habit is a function of repetition.



Christian Johnston

Major Christian Johnston is a company commander within 'Old Faithful', the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment in Townsville.


Hi Christian,  Great to see lessons being identified as you have. I'm interested in the crew commander/section commander separation. I can understand the situation when dismounted, ie. the section commander being in command on the ground and the IFV providing support as he orders; but how does this work during a mounted assault accompanying tanks onto a defended enemy position?  The IFV is closed down.  Only the crew commanders have adequate vision; with section commanders and platoon commander 'blind'.  I'd previously thought that one way of addressing this would be for the section commander to be the nominal crew commander, with a 'spare' crew commander ready to take over when he dismounts.  Did CT A gain any insights into this aspect of mech ops? 

Great article Christian! Huge amount to chew on when making the transtion from foot to mounted and I think you hit it on the head when you said it is not either or, but both. You have become Dragoons, mounted infantry.  I was involved in the transition of lots of units coming to Germany from the foot role to the Armoured Infantry (AI) role. Almost to a man they fought the transition. They were patiently nursed by two superb organisations (which I am sure have equivalents in the Australian Army): The Armoured Infantry Training Advisory Team (AITAT), who took them through the learning and was manned by hugely experienced armoured infantrymen; and the Armoured Infantry Manning Increment (AIMI (Amy)) which was made up from stay behind parties of men from previous AI units. Whilst AITAT taught the syllabus, the AIMI held the new unit's hand, cajouling and encouraging in equal measure and ensuring that being "on the park" was recognised as a team sport involving 'even' the youngest officers.  The worm began to turn as they progressed from ranges and formal training packages to manoeuvring under their own steam as Companies, till finally, on after their first outing to Battle Group exercises in Canada, the penny finally dropped. We in the Light Aid Detachments knew all was finally well when the vehicle casualty rates suddenly began to fall! Spontaneous maintenance had broken out and usually spread like wildfire as crews (ALL those on the vehicle) realised the link between effectiveness and maint. I would like to offer this from an armoured theorist, perhaps the UK's pre-eminent in his time, Richard Simkin. His superb book, "Red Armour" is seminal (if a little head ache inducing on first read!). But, on the subject of the fundamental differences in EVERYTHING between the mounted and dismounted experiences wrote "Rotor is to Track as Track is to Boot".  A helicopter crew has to think at the speed their platform acts. Distance to them is measured in high tens of kilometres. Their sight lines are equally long. And they need an entire wood block to hide behind. Tank crews think in kilometres travelled; see bounds in thousands of metres; and need a significant hole for concealment. But the infantry man can move hundreds of metres; sees no more than a couple of hundred; and can hide in a divet!  Soldier's brains develop with their initial contact with technology: converting a bloke who thinks 300 metre night patrols are a long slog to thinking about navigating his vehicle 8 ks to an RV, cross country, in the dark, takes time. The reason the transition takes time is, in my opinion, all about rewiring the brain. The successful Mech Battalion, as Dragoons, must somehow do that without losing the hard won skill at dismounted ops.  Makes a bit of a mockery of those who say grunts are think!!! 

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