January 12, 2014

The Patience to See - LTC Scott Coulson

The following article was written by a friend of mine who just happens to be a US Army serving armor officer. I would take his advice to heart if I were you and attempt to apply the concepts he describes while playing CM.


The Patience to See

By LTC Scott Coulson

We have all heard that reconnaissance is one of the keys to successful combat; see the enemy so that you understand his intentions and maneuver to a position of advantage, focus and concentrate firepower on his weak points, and exploit your success. This sounds great and briefs well, but doesn't necessarily translate into effective actions when you - the Combat Mission unit Commander - are looking at your forces during the deployment phase of your next PBEM scenario. At the Platoon and Company level - the aspect best modeled in CM - how do you plan and execute a recon plan that actually finds enough of the enemy to let you make informed decisions without losing half your force in the process? The answer is, largely, through patience, planning and attention to detail.

The first thing a commander must do to 'see' the enemy is to look at the terrain through his enemy's eyes. Maybe you aren't willing to commit the time to screenshot the map and draw pretty arrows and blobs on it in Photoshop to represent the Obstacles, Cover/concealment, Observation/Fields of Fire, Key Terrain, and Avenues of Approach. I propose you at least do the following: take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and then fly the camera to the far side of the screen and look at the terrain from the perspective of the enemy. Assume he knows about what your forces are and look at the map from his perspective. If you were him, where would you want to be? Where would you not want to be? Try to imagine where he could position himself or where he could go based on what he knows or assumes about you and your force. Will he defend forward, back or in depth? Will he have strongpoints? Obstacles? Will he attack right up the middle, or seek a flank? Which side? What must he do, and what are things he simply cannot ignore? You will likely come up with more than one option for him, but remember, he cannot be everywhere - he has limited resources too. Scribble down a few notes or pictures to represent his top 2 or 3 likely plans. 

Now, spin the map around and try to figure out where on the map he would be if he went with plan A. Identify a point or two on the map where he would either have to position a unit or would have to pass through to do A. Now do the same for his plan B and plan C. If the areas spots overlap some, that is okay, but you should try to determine if possible points on the map that will discriminate between A B and C. Pare them down as much as possible and try to figure out what your units seeing forces in any one of these locations would tell you. Write them down - the doctrinal US term for what you have come up with is a Named Area of Interest or NAI, and these are what US planners build reconnaissance and surveillance plans around. If one or more of your NAIs represents a critical capability or unit for the enemy (if I see his heavy AT gun 'here' it represents the key position on this side of the battlefield) you could designate it as a Targeted Area of Interest or TAI.

Now take a look at your force structure for the scenario. What unit(s) primary mission will be to find the enemy and identify his plans and disposition? Do you have dedicated recon units? If not, who will you assign this mission to, because it is a mission, and if you don't know what elements will find the enemy, you won't find him - he will find you. In playing the game I frequently forget this and simply snip off a few scout teams from my platoons as they move forward - one of my classic blunders. Take each NAI and assign it to at least one unit. They are responsible for placing eyes on that NAI. Look for a position from which they can do so. Try to find another one. Look for at least 2 potential positions to observe from. Remember the limitations of terrain in CM while you do this. Check the unit you have chosen - does it have binoculars or optics? Radio? How is its leadership rating? What will it require to get to the observation point? How many open fields or dangerous areas will it have to traverse to get there? I recommend assigning NAIs to platoons, and then down to an individual team. Try to craft a plan for the platoon to cover the moves of the scout team to get him into a position to observe your NAI. Make liberal use of the LOS check function by placing a movement waypoint for the unit onto your proposed observation point, highlighting it, and then using the target command to check LOS from there. Always remember that in CM you can often 'see' a bit better than the LOS tool gives you credit. 

If you can build a plan to place observation on all of your NAIs, and direct or indirect fires on all of your TAIs, you will find that it will take you half the scenario to execute it and you won't have moved the bulk of your force one meter. Please see the title to this article. Recon takes time, as well as planning. It will take time to get your recon forces into position, and more time for them to learn anything useful. Do not assume that once you get to your NAI they will instantly and automatically spot all enemies there and give you perfect understanding. The more I play this 'game' the more I learn that it models the real world quite well. Your scouts may be in position several turns with enemy directly within their LOS, but not spot them. I recently learned that in one scenario I played, I had heavy panzers in an awesome overwatch position, but they didn't spot anything of the US defensive line, despite going ‘open hatch’ and having the enemy within LOS. However, if I had waited another 10 or 15 turns, the dawning sun would have much more clearly illuminated the US forces and I could have spotted them and brought effective long range fires on them. Instead, I assumed it was clear and drove forward into their AT ambush. Do not emulate this technique. Keep environmental factors that CM does model at the front of your mind as you play. Use patience. Advance your scouts a bound or two, then let them sit for a turn... or two or three. Frequently, you can have them ‘hide’ for their first turn or two in a new position, then ‘unhide’ them to look around a bit later. Then advance them again. Cover their moves as much as possible, and plan where you can place MGs or other squad’s area fires to help them get into their positions. 

For mounted recon, consider whether to actually dismount at some locations (yes, vehicle crews can perform limited scouting and get back in their vehicles) and check around the corner or over the little rise. Also consider noise and how much your vehicles make; CM models sound well, both for giving away your position and for hearing your enemy's. Think about the US ambush on the German half-track recon element in “Saving Private Ryan.” How would that have worked out differently if the Germans had put a half-squad of alert scouts out in front? Whenever possible, try to combine mounted recon with dismounted elements, and keep the dismounts far enough out to have a shot at finding AT assets before they can nail the vehicle. This technique – scout team followed at 1-200m by a recon vehicle – has the added advantage of placing immediate suppressive fire on anyone the dismounts stumble over, making it easier for them to back off and survive. Just don’t fall into the trap of automatically and immediately assaulting anything they find with your armored vehicle. When your scouts find one enemy icon, there are usually others around they don’t see yet – sometimes that ‘other’ is the enemy AT gunner on a ‘target armor’ firing arc! Also remember to carefully manage your vehicle’s open hatch status. The game defaults to closed hatch and if you forget to open them your halftracks and tanks are blundering around in the dark. This is especially important for halftracks, as the visual cue that they are ‘buttoned’ is not as glaring. If they aren’t ‘up’ they will suffer the full penalties of trying to see through vision blocks/slits, and will rarely spot anything before it shoots at them. I subscribe to the LTC Abrams mantra of ‘welding the hatches open,’ and usually keep my tank commanders and halftrack crews up until enemy fire forces them down. This results in more TC casualties, but gives my AFVs a better chance of generating that all important ‘full spot’ icon with enough time to do something about it. The final consideration on mounted recon is to remember that if you are trailing dismounted elements, your mounted guys will spend more time sitting than moving. Select each one of their positions with care – see Bil’s other comments on finding ‘hull down’ positions, and also check to see whether your vehicle is exposed to fire from the position your scouts are approaching and/or can lay down suppression on it if the scouts make contact. The decision to expose your vehicle or not is scenario/enemy dependent, but ensure it is an actual decision you make rather than something you blunder into from imprecise waypoint plotting. Put the waypoint on the map, then select it and check the ‘target’ function from it. Do you have a ‘blue’ line to the potential target location? Are you hull down, partial hull down, or exposed? 

Sometimes it will be difficult or impossible to execute a perfect recon plan - back to principles of maneuver, always remember to try to make contact with the smallest possible element first - in CM that is a two man scout team or a 3-4 man scout section. In this way, even if they die for the information that the enemy is in the NAI, at least the loss is minimized. It also allows for leaving the bulk of the squad or platoon to maneuver to a supporting position without being directly involved in the fight. If they don’t die, but take casualties are badly shocked, leave them in place. I have made extensive use of the information garnered by the remnants of shattered teams that I unwisely advanced too far forward with insufficient support. If faced with an enemy counterattack, consider placing small teams in concealed locations with sufficiently small firing arcs (a 10m circle works well) so that they never engage. Place them on ‘hide’ as the enemy approaches, then unhide them after he passes. Again, realistically, CM doesn’t ‘spot’ things to the rear as quickly as those to the front, and they will likely give you a very accurate picture of the enemy’s force, as well as potentially being able to ambush more vulnerable, valuable assets. 

Another thing that works well that CM players are reluctant to do is to simply back up. If your recon element encounters the enemy and gets fired on, run away! Pop smoke, ‘slow’ crawl to the rear until out of LOS then ‘quick’ to a new covered/concealed position so you can reconsider. In the real world your Soldiers would not simply stand there and take it, and we shouldn’t be so reluctant to back up in CM either. Once you back up, look at your recon objective and determine if you need to approach it from another direction, or if you have answered the question you had in the first place. Do you need to ‘see’ that guy again? You know he is there – or do you? Another thing to do in CM, especially when playing WEGO, is to watch your recon elements suppression indicators. Frequently your units will take fire and you will be unaware because you haven’t watched their full move with enough attention during the replay. Look at each scout team at the beginning of the replay and confirm they have no ‘suppression bars.’ Then click to the end of the turn and see if any of them have acquired any, despite no enemy icons appearing. If they have, go back in to the replay and follow that team for the entire turn, attempting to determine from the terrain and the sounds where the fire is coming from. If you then drop the team into ‘slow’ and to nearby cover, they may localize the enemy and generate an icon for you in a turn or two without taking casualties. If you keep moving them forward you will undoubtedly generate some red crosses instead. 

Finally, remember the value of ‘negative’ recon. If you figured the enemy had to put forces into, or traverse, NAI 1 in order to execute plan A, and then you put eyes on NAI 1 and he is NOT there despite several turns of watching, then the enemy is not executing plan A. He is doing plan B, C or X. His forces are most likely still on the map, and you may have garnered new info along the way. Do a reassessment – what plan is he likely executing now? Where on the map does that place his forces? In the middle of that wheat field? Not likely – he is probably in the treeline or the buildings, because just like you, he prefers a little cover to go with his concealment. Make logical assumptions based on your enemy’s known habits, aggression level, the scenario objectives and the pieces of information your troops fight for, and figure out where you are likely to see his forces go. Remember that players often over fixate on scenario terrain objectives – these pieces of turf are much easier to occupy and hold once your enemy’s force is rendered combat ineffective! Find him, figure out where he is vulnerable, focus as much firepower on the vulnerable point, and then WAIT for him to go there! 

If properly executed, recon planning can lead you naturally to the most effective plan for your actual operation. All that should be left is to devise the best possible plan to counter your enemy’s plan A, B, or C and then execute it. This too is simple in principal, but difficult in practice. As a young lieutenant, my Squadron Commander in 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry told me that the solution to nearly every tactical problem is to make your enemy fight in more than one direction at once. Find the enemy with recon, fix his attention to the front with suppressive fires, then maneuver to a flank and shoot at him from there. Typically the elements supporting your recon troops should be organized ahead of time to make this happen. The element putting down supporting fires to help the scouts disengage becomes the base of fire. The guys behind them do the maneuvering. If fire from two directions is insufficient, bring up bigger support elements, place indirect fires, seek a bypass, or displace to attempt to induce an unwise counterattack or move on the part of your opponent. Never let the terrain dictate too much of your plan to you – there is almost always a solution to be found. The more time you spend considering the terrain, the enemy, your forces and likely future movements and outcomes, the better you will do. Scribble all over your piece of paper – take notes, make reminders to yourself and take your time. I am not advocating the tactics of Field Marshal Montgomery, but this ‘game’ is not a ‘real time strategy game’ where bum-rushing frontal assaults are the preferred technique. Learning real-world tactics and out thinking your enemy are the keys to victory.

More to follow....


  1. The logical question to make after reading this

    Always remember that in CM you can often 'see' a bit better than the LOS tool gives you credit.

    "how much better?". From my experience, if the LOS tools reads dark blue it means you'll be generally be able to shoot at anything that is higher than whatever the obstacle preventing you from getting full LOS is. Nonetheless, I tend to find it somewhat aggravating that direct fire weapons can't be made to do area fire right at low stone wall, for instance.

    1. Miguel, how much better? Well, you never really know as it really depends on where your little pixel soldiers deploy when they get there. For example when deploying to a hedgerow, if you select the end waypoint and plot a target line many times you will not be able to "see" past the hedgerow, but when your team/squad arrives and deploys it can indeed spot through the hedge as it closes up on it, something you cannot do when plotting your move. LOS seems like it is plotted from the center of the team, but in the game as the turn plays out each soldier spots and fires independently.

    2. I guess that the same thing applies to tank crews as well. Which makes me think, that what would be very nice to have in CM is a display of the actual LOS/LOF as an overlay over the terrain, as in Graviteam's games.

      PS: I owe you an e-mail