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Assault Breaching: Generating Momentum and the Case for Assault Pioneers

We stay upright and move forward so long as we keep up the momentum.”  Ban Ki-Moon

The Job

In the ever evolving modern battlespace ‘every urban movement is a Breaching Operation’.[1] Enemy forces are saturating the battlespace with both explosive and non-explosive obstacles to achieve a disproportionate tactical effect. The lessons from Fallujah, Al Ramadi, Mosul, Tskhinvali (Georgia) and Marawi (Southern Philippines) have been instructive on this point. Assault breaching, using improvised satellite and satchel charges, Bangalore Torpedoes and other incendiaries, has eventually featured as a critical capability in all the modern battles mentioned above. Unfortunately in these battles, soldiers were not usually trained or equipped to apply these aids leading up to the operation; rather these techniques were developed and learnt in the fight through, between attacks, under fatigue and in some cases enemy fire.

This article seeks to outline that assault pioneers can achieve the routine mobility responsibilities for infantry-centric small teams through assault breaching and reduction of nuisance obstacles (IEDs and open booby traps) in the urban ‘fight through.’

The Challenge

“When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted”[2] Sun Tzu—The Art of War

Modern combined arms teaming sees units and sub-units task organized and equipped with infantry, armour, combat engineers, joint fires and combat service support to meet task specific demands. However, the paucity of these assets often means that one or more of those infantry sub-units are missing out, and are then halted in their advance (or during back clearing) by what are essentially minor obstacles. This requires reorganisation and concentration of assets, particularly combat engineers, in order to breach or bypass, and move a single section or platoon forward. The enemy then has the time to assess actions and re-orientate in response, multiplying the disproportionate effect achieved by minor obstacles.

“In Marawi, my company would have to delay our attack while we waited for the combat engineers to complete a breach with another company before we could move forward; this happened almost every block and let the enemy move before we could attack.”  CAPT Edward R of the 2nd Scout Ranger Bn (Philippines)

To learn from CAPT R’s vignette, we need to maintain the organic ability to treat sub-unit objectives in the attack, creating gaps in our enemy’s defences that can be rapidly exploited. This will hinge on the sections and platoons of the close fight and their capacity to fight through without having to constantly request or reorganise attachments. They must be trained and equipped to identify obstacles such as IEDs and booby traps, reducing these through an assault breach or explosively bypassing to continue without further assistance from higher headquarters. A barricaded door, booby trapped window or fortified machine gun position inside a room should not be beyond the capacity of a platoon to Observe, Suppress, Obscure, Secure, Reduce and Assault (O-SOSRA)[3].

 

Picture of Marawi showing the type of terrain where obstacles are ubiquitous[4]

The Response

“It doesn’t always take speed to build momentum, it merely takes moving more quickly than the enemy believes possible” [5] HJ Poole—The Last Hundred Yards: The NCOs Contribution to Warfare

One way to generate this momentum is to equip infantry teams with a modern evolution of assault pioneers. These assault pioneers would focus on mobility through assault breaching and obstacle reduction supported by an increased knowledge of search. An organic capability at the section and platoon level would see small teams gaining the initiative and generating momentum. This could see a greater freedom of action to exploit opportunities at the sub-unit level. Additionally, it would enable the already over tasked combat engineers to concentrate on battle group and brigade objectives.

Picture showing a typical building in Marawi that a platoon could be tasked to clear[6]

These methods of assault breaching are flexible and economical in resource investment with comparison to tactical gain. With a few hundred grams of explosives a small team can breach an enemy’s defenses, gain the initiative and physically dislocate their engagement area’s design for battle; without seeking assistance from their higher headquarters. This saves both time and resources. With a role to breach, bypass, reduce and defend as integrated specialists in close combat, modernised assault poneers will perform these tasks for combat teams.

Conclusion

Despite the development of advanced technologies made over the past decades, small teams still have a severely limited capacity to defeat the ‘routine’ minor obstacles employed in the modern battlespace. Combat engineers focusing on these ‘routine’ tasks, which are encountered in most section and platoon level objectives, rapidly degrades these specialist assets. This results in a capability deficiency when a truly specialist task presents, requiring a noticeable halt in the momentum and tempo, forcing reorganization and loss of the initiative to meet this in the fight through. Routine mobility and survivability tasks such as assault breaching and nuisance obstacle reduction should be expected of every infantry small team and can be achieved by assault pioneers.

 

About the authors: Ted Taber is an infantry officer currently posted Headquarters Joint Operations Command. He was responsible for assault pioneer instruction at the School of Infantry in 2017/18. Wes Walsh is a platoon commander with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.


Notes:

[1] LTCOL N, “Immediate Lessons Learnt from the Battle of Mosul” https://www.army.gov.au/our-future/blog/land-combat/immediate-lessons-from-the-battle-of-mosul accessed 15 Sep 18

[2] Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, trans. Samuel B. Griffith, p. 73.

[3] LTCOL N, “Immediate Lessons Learnt from the Battle of Mosul” https://www.army.gov.au/our-future/blog/land-combat/immediate-lessons-from-the-battle-of-mosul accessed 15 Sep 18

[4]Photo displaying Battle of Marawi devastation http://www.eaglenews.ph/news-in-photos-marawi-after-the-war/ accessed 20 Nov 18

[5] Poole, HJ, “The Last Hundred Yards: The NCOs Contribution to Warfare” Posterity Press (Emerald Isle, NC, 1994) p. 315.

[6] Photo displaying Battle of Marawi devastation http://www.eaglenews.ph/news-in-photos-marawi-after-the-war/ accessed 20 Nov 18

3 thoughts on “Assault Breaching: Generating Momentum and the Case for Assault Pioneers

  1. Great article and ideas. We agree strongly and hope the authors continue to advocate for such changes. One suggestion we would add is not to focus only on explosive breach but include mechanical, ballistic and other creative solutions. This is especially true in conventional conflict where small units might be engaged in extended fights in large sprawling cities etc. Clearing building after building, even with abundant and effective resupply, it is very easy to run out of charges so it helps to have non-explosive alternatives available. The Allies learned this lesson in the hedgerow fighting in 1944. There were so many obstacles to breach it would have been impossible to use explosives for all of them and combat engineers came up with many creative ideas like welding beach obstacles to the front of tanks to act as a ram etc. Once again, great ideas and we hope our comments add something to the discussion.

  2. Excellent article. The authors are absolutely right about the need for the capability to conduct assault breaching on urban terrain – as they put it, ‘using improvised satellite and satchel charges, Bangalore Torpedoes’. I disagree with the (probably unintended) inference that this is primarily a job for pioneers. Every infantryman should be able to use a set of standard breaching charges to blow entries and clear IED’s at crucial points – the pioneer contribution is probably to build them if they are not supplied ready for use. I suggest that as IED’s become more and more sophisticated, and probably ubiquitous, in the urban battle the pioneers are going to be flat out providing those capabilities (beyond simple light explosive charges) that provide an acceptable level of risk to personnel entering contested buildings. However, the use of hand place charges for breaching exposes our soldiers to unnecessary risk and should be exceptional act. There are now a range of ‘room safe’ portable munitions that will either breach walls (e.g. Matador and DND derivative) or provide behind wall effects (e.g. 84mm soft launch urban round) or both – we need them in service.

  3. As a sapper, a article I wholeheartedly agree with. A balanced discussion about the aslt pnr capability and it’s handoff between pioneers and cbt engineers. Unfortunately RTS realities reflects a zero sum game between the two capabilities…

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