The Commander’s Toolbox - Use and Abuse of Battlefield Control Measures

Philip Stack

The Commander’s Toolbox - Use and Abuse of Battlefield Control Measures
To cite this article: Stack, Philip, “The Commander’s Toolbox - Use and Abuse of Battlefield Control Measures”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2014, pages 8-11.

The requirement for the coordination of units across wide frontages has long been an essential condition for the successful employment of ground forces. The key differences between an armed and violent rabble (an urban riot mob) and a military unit include the execution of a design for the use of force: feinting, blocking, attacking in a coordinated fashion to achieve success. Once the span of operations became too wide for a single commander supported by a team of messengers to supervise, the design of operations required increasingly sophisticated battlefield control measures. The structure of the military commander’s creative operational plan is built from battlefield control measures. Used wisely, they enable it to unfold as envisaged, in a scheme of manoeuvre and to be adaptable to changing circumstances.

In this article I will look at the development of battlefield control, using the British Army as my source of examples, and go on to look at how the requirement for control can be met today and in the future. I will argue that battlefield control measures are an essential part of the design of an operation, and that well-designed controls should be seen as permissive rather than restrictive factors in planning.

The Development of Battlefield Control Measures

The British Army entered the First World War with extensive operational experience from the Boer War. That experience was distilled into the Field Service Regulations of 1909, which provided the doctrinal underpinning in the first years of the war. The small professional pre-war Army emphasized the principles of delegation and giving freedom of action (‘An operation order should contain just what the recipient requires to know and nothing more. It should tell him nothing which he can and should arrange for himself’).[i] Where a superior commander felt it necessary to impose control measures they would be brief and basic: (in the attack) ‘the actual limits of frontage should be specified as far as possible… the direction of the attack to be made by each body should be distinctly stated’.[ii] At the Battle of the Aisne in September 1914, ‘cooperation… was confined generally to that fortuitously arranged by commanders on the spot’.[iii]

By 1917, the necessity for the intimate coordination of indirect fire and troop movement had been addressed through the use of the rolling barrage. The need for precise coordination of movement and fire created a requirement for clear control measures expressed in space and time.

The essential tool for command in this system is the linear control measure: a boundary; a line of departure; or a limit of exploitation. The introduction of gridded maps in October 1914 had increased the ability to refer to spatial features (before the War, locations would be referred to as ‘the wood 200 yds SW of the junction at x’). In doing this, and overlaying the timed artillery plan, the staff laid down a ‘combat clockwork’: a design to be ‘wound up’ by the assembly of forces and supplies, and then unwound at the defined time according to a pre-described direction and rate. Conditions and technology combined to require a new and comprehensive set of control measures.

The use of battlefield control measures developed through the Twentieth Century. The Battle of Alamein of 1942 bears a close resemblance, in terms of structure, to the opening battles of the Passchendaele campaign in late 1917; but as advances in command and control enabled more economical targeting of artillery, the pre-planned element of battlefield control receded in prominence.

During the Battle of Normandy in 1944, large formations were manoeuvring in close terrain. Despite the development of artillery command and control, the timed barrage still played a role. It was used for break-in operations, such as a 110 minute barrage on a 1.5 mile frontage fired during 8 Corps’ Operation BLUECOAT in July 1944, advancing at 100 yds every 4 minutes. BLUECOAT also shows the importance of land/air coordination, as can be seen by the waves of heavy bombers that were sequenced throughout the first day of the operation for each successive phase. At this stage of the war, the point of land/air coordination was to ensure the safety of ground forces, by designating safe distances from the targets. Safety of air forces – obtained by the close control of ground-based air defence – was not an issue that the ground force HQs sought to control.

Heavy bomber sorties in close support of ground forces were very difficult to amend. They required close control of movement for safety purposes, as well as to support the exploitation of the shock effect of the bombing. Terrain, narrow frontages and limited routes meant that control of movement was now a critical aspect of overall control. This required assembly areas, designated routes and a movement control organisation to ensure effective use of road space.

The technology, organization and tactics of Allied forces at the conclusion of the Second World War were subsequently adopted by NATO ground forces. This process was supported by the NATO standardization mechanism which ensured common terms and interoperable doctrine. Allied interoperability required that there was a common approach to battlefield control measures, with common definitions being laid down in NATO publication AAP-6, supported by common graphical symbols disseminated as AAP-6A. However, command and control technology showed little development for many decades. This lack of progress was most pronounced at the lower tactical levels, implying that the techniques for employing battlefield control measures remained little changed from the close of the Second World War. Despite the fact that the British Army introduced a step change with the introduction of the WAVELL computer system from the 1970s, it was confined to formation headquarters at brigade level and above. Battle groups continued to use insecure combat net radio throughout the Cold War (and beyond) with the implication that battlefield control measures needed to be all-encompassing and established prior to the start of an operation. Amendment was problematic with low confidence in full and timely transmission.

Controlling the Battlespace

Spatial battlefield control measures offer the advantage of being simple to demonstrate on maps and traces, a shorthand notation that permits rapid dissemination and enables the control measure to be related to the mission and the terrain. Sectors of operation are allocated to units to give them the space to achieve the allocated mission and role in the higher commander’s plan. Having decided to give a task such as ‘secure Hill Z’ to a unit, the lateral boundaries should be drawn in a manner that gives the unit commander sufficient freedom of action to execute that task as seen fit, rather than constraining him or her to a single course of action. Having allocated a mission in terms of a task and its purpose, and allocated resources, battlefield control measures control the use of time and space in the execution of the plan.

Spatial battlefield control measures can be categorized as one of several forms, imposing either permissive or restrictive control, or being aimed at the synchronization of time and space.

Permissive and Restrictive Control

The corollary of giving a commander freedom of action is that others must be restricted to avoid interference. Unit flank and rear boundaries define a zone of freedom for the nominated commander, while fire control measures, such as Restricted Fire Lines, reduce the chances of engaging friendly forces. Other fire control measures (such as the Fire Support Coordination Line) serve to designate the lead authority for targeting and employing weapons systems. The concepts of ‘permissive’ and ‘restrictive’ control are therefore complementary, and one unit’s freedom of action is another’s constraint.

In employing spatial control measures the commander is actually doing far more than merely avoiding fratricide or dividing up terrain. Control measures are employed to bring a scheme of manoeuvre to life. For example, unit sector widths (defined by lateral boundaries) are the most straightforward way of concentrating or dispersing firepower and therefore of adjusting the distribution of combat power in space.

Similarly, the establishment of fire co-ordination lines can have profound effects on the development of the battle. Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) employed a well orchestrated planning process (the ‘Rover Group’) that enabled planning staffs from five or six Corps, a Tactical Air Force and the Army Group staff to produce new plans in less than a working day. The location of the key fire co-ordination lines, such as the Reconnaissance and Interdiction Planning Line (RIPL) and Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL), which designated the targeting responsibilities for the Land and Air commanders, was often keenly discussed, as the staffs attempted to fulfill the requirements of their respective commanders. This tension tended to focus on the allocation of resources to the concurrent conduct of Offensive Counter Air operations against opposing air forces and Air Interdiction against second echelon ground forces. This imbalance would normally result in different targeting priorities, and the location of the coordination lines became critical in the development of planning.

Synchronization of Time and Space

Other control measures have the purpose of synchronizing movement of forces with each other or with other activities. The purpose of a Line of Departure is to enable activities, due to happen before and after a certain point in time (the H Hour in NATO parlance) to be coordinated, through the knowledge that at a pre-determined time, forces will be in a certain place. This enables indirect fire and the movement of forces to be coordinated. Other synchronizing lines (often known as Phase Lines or Report Lines) are used for similar purposes.

Although H Hours and Lines of Departure are fundamental to the practice of battle procedure, other synchronizing lines have often attracted adverse comment for constraining initiative by imposing restraint. This is a criticism that should more correctly be laid at the scheme of manoeuvre rather than the control measures imposed. Phase Lines are a means of maintaining control, enabling the full weight of pre-planned combat power to be applied at each stage of the battle. Whether this is appropriate is dependent on the prevailing situation. For every example of the decisive use of momentum and shock action by a small force, there will be a countervailing example where it leads to failure (the destruction of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry during Operation GOODWOOD in 1944 being one notable example). The ability to judge the dividing line between boldness and recklessness remains a key attribute of successful military leadership. However, there can be little doubt that over-imposition of control measures, to ensure synchronization, often serves to calm the nerves of a higher commander, giving confidence that his formation is operating coherently.

A commander’s need for situational awareness can therefore have a negative side, constraining subordinates and reducing momentum. This is an area where modern command and control technology enables battlefield control measures to be relaxed. With ‘Blue Force’ tracking, the commander can remain confident about the disposition of his forces while maintaining the pace of the operation.

The widely used synchronization matrix provides a mechanism for visualizing the coordination of resources, space and time, and a very efficient form of communication of a plan. As a tool for planning and for managing changes to a plan, it formalizes previous ad-hoc methods to achieve similar ends.

Battlefield Control Today

Following the tactical euphoria, verging on irrational exuberance, which followed the devastating turning movement employed by the US Army and its allies in the First Gulf War, questions were asked of the traditional battlefield control measures that had evolved, and served well, for nearly a century. British officers returning from the experience of the desert questioned whether unit boundaries were in fact serving as constraints on creativity and the free flowing development of operations. Could not operations be planned by designating unit axes alone, leaving out the clutter of boundaries, route networks and real estate control? These discussions centred on the developing doctrine establishments. In HQ 1(BR) Corps, there was a failure to notice the significant factors of environment and context in determining the requirement for control measures on the battlefield.

The relatively featureless area of operations of the First Gulf War lacked clutter and significant high points or obstacles and had few routes. In such an environment, the ability to move dispersed across multiple axes of advance, then concentrate for combat actions, as well as protect open flanks is key. Friendly fire incidents can be reduced by good recognition measures. Axes do indeed become more important than boundaries, providing the centre line for movement. The situation is very different in the cluttered environment that prevails elsewhere, in areas where the natural or man-made landscape constrains movement and visibility. The problems of cross country movement and inter-visibility require more positive controls in order to deconflict space and reduce uncertainty in the identification of forces.

In the two decades since the First Gulf War, battlefield control has been subject to factors and influences that both complicate and simplify the task. Technology speeds up the dissemination of instructions and the situational awareness of all HQs in the network. This enables more dynamic control of the operations, but also increases the demands on HQs as expectations of real-time control grow. The spread of UAV operations, in particular, has made the integration of the land-air battle a key concern of HQs at all levels. The land-air coordination task was formerly a concern of higher formations that were dealing with air operations and battlefield helicopters. However, the spread of UAV and mini-UAV operations, and counter-rocket and mortar systems, has created the need for HQs at all levels to operate in a network which coordinates land-air operations on a short-term basis.


The range of command and control measures employed by advanced armies has evolved from a requirement to deconflict and coordinate multiple activities occurring in a turbulent and dangerous environment. Once measures were set before the start of an operation, it was difficult to make changes, since until recently, command and control systems did not permit this level of dynamic control.

The inter-unit boundary, rather than being seen as a constraint, can be seen as an enabler. Within the given boundaries, the designated commander has freedom of action, subject to any limitations specifically imposed (such as areas of real estate being reserved for certain users) and without the need for liaison with any flanking units.

This article started with the British Field Service Regulations 1909, and the guidance that it contained. It stated that operation orders should ‘contain just what the recipient requires to know and nothing more’. That phrase continues to resonate today, recognizing that freedom of action cannot be given without also imposing some constraint. Clarity and simplicity should be the aspiration of military planners, following the maxim that if a plan cannot be drawn as an unambiguous operational trace then it is unlikely to work as an operation.

Well-crafted battlefield control measures continue to have an essential place in operations. If they are carefully structured, they offer freedom of action by imposing the minimum necessary constraints on battlefield activities. Experience shows that there is a further category of control measures beyond this: controls that are imposed for the benefit of the controlling headquarters to aid it in imposing order. Until recently, this form of control had a purpose, due to the limitations of technology. It was necessary to monitor the activities of forces in order to maintain a clear picture; preventing fratricide and ensuring that the full force of available combat power was deployed at each stage. However, as command and control systems have developed, this form of control can now move from positive to negative control: by automatically tracking forces the controlling HQ can intervene only when necessary. The same technology offers the ability to make changes in the control measures as required, with confidence that the changes will be transmitted throughout the force.

There is a clear vulnerability in relying on unconstrained use of the electro-magnetic spectrum for blue force tracking and the ability to amend control measures. The likelihood of enemy exploitation, interference or denial implies that an operation should still be set up with battlefield control measures. These should be robust to the loss of the free use of the EM spectrum. If EM superiority or parity is maintained, battlefield control measures can then be treated as dynamic, and amended as the operation develops, if this offers benefits.

Commanders and staff officers develop through formal training and experience. In today’s under-exercised armies the opportunities to learn from experience are limited and those teaching in staff colleges are themselves lacking in experience of conventional operations. If training and experience is lacking, there is a temptation to over-impose control. This implies a need for careful attention by trainers and doctrine writers to historical examples, studies and experience; realizing that well-applied battlefield control measures are key elements of the commander’s toolbox.


[i] The War Office, 1909, Field Service Regulations, p 27. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London
[ii] The War Office, 1909, Field Service Regulations, p132. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
[iii] The War Office, 1934, Battle of the Aisne - Tour of the Battlefield, p 40. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.