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3. Patrol Formations and Tactics

The Basics of Tactics

The fundamentals of tactics include the following basic concepts:

  1. Maneuver to attack when the enemy is off guard (surprise).
  2. Detect the enemy before he detects you (reconnaissance and surveillance).
  3. Use stealth and surprise to their maximum advantage. Doing the unexpected is a small unit’s most effective asset.
  4. Apply disciplined, accurate, and concentrated firepower.
  5. Take and maintain the initiative; take decisive violent action when attacking.
  6. Use the terrain and environment with greater flexibility, more stealth and cunning, and superior aggression than the enemy

Formations and Movement Techniques

Formations are ways to place and organize patrol members in relation to one another. Movement techniques differ in that they encompass various methods that may be used from a variety of formations. Both formations and movement techniques provide the PL options for the different tactical situations he may encounter.


Because of their small unit size (i.e., platoon or smaller element), Combat Patrols move as a single unit in a file formation.

Figure File Formation (Fields of Fire Depicted by Arrows)

Depending on a variety of factors such as the enemy situation, likelihood of contact, terrain, size of the patrol, and time available, there may be times when it is more appropriate to use one of the infantry movement techniques or formations discussed in the following sections.

The most important factor in selecting a movement technique or formation is training the patrol members. Patrol IADs (Immediate Action Drills) must be rehearsed extensively for each anticipated technique/formation.

Fields of Fire

The term “Field of Fire” defines a specific area of coverage assigned to an individual or element within a formation. Both fire and visual surveillance are included. Fields of fire are designed so that the responsible individual or element can effectively fire at the enemy without endangering other patrol members or friendly personnel in the vicinity.

Movement Techniques

The following techniques can be used in various formations. The descriptions below refer to distances between individuals, FTs, and squads. All distances are approximate and will vary with the terrain and situation. The techniques described involve separating the patrol into sub-units.

  1. Traveling. Traveling is a patrolling technique used when contact with the enemy is not expected or probable, and when speed of advance is important. Traveling requires the patrol to be split into two units. When traveling as a platoon, the two squads will be separated by approximately 20 meters, depending on the terrain. See Figure Traveling (In File)
  2. Traveling Overwatch. Traveling overwatch is the technique used when contact is possible, but speed is still necessary. The platoon is divided into two squads (or the squad into two FTs). The trailing team drops about 50 meters behind the lead teamand is prepared to support the lead squad. If the lead squad receives fire, the trailing squad is far enough away so that it shouldn’t be hit by the same enemy fire, yet close enough to maneuver in support of the lead squad.
  3. Bounding Overwatch. Bounding overwatch is used when contact is probable. This technique reduces the speed of advance. One squad moves while the other remains in a good fire position, covering the moving squad. The key to this movement technique is using terrain features for cover and concealment. A bound is normally about 100-150 meters forward of the overwatching squad (depending on terrain and visibility). This technique is also referred to as the leapfrog method or “leapfrogging”.

Figure Traveling (In File)

Selection of Movement Techniques

The primary consideration in selecting a movement technique should be the threat of enemy contact. In addition, the following factors should be considered:

  1. Speed requirements
  2. Dispersion inherent to each technique
  3. Control requirements
  4. Security requirements.
Not Probable Traveling
Possible Traveling Overwatch
Probable Bounding Overwatch


Formations are common to all military units. They provide frameworks for tactics for fighting or withdrawing and optimize the security and firepower of the patrol. Formations may be offensive or defensive.

  1. File Formation. The file formation is the most common formation used by patrols. It may also be referred to as a column. In infantry terms, it offers little fighting advantage and is generally reserved for low threat areas.
    1. Formation Basics. The best time to use the file is during hours of limited visibility and in thick vegetation. It is also appropriate for narrow trails.
      1. Normally the PL is the number two man in the file. In situations presenting a higher probability of enemy contact, an AW man can move into the number two position ahead of the PL. This places the AW man in a better position to immediately engage the enemy with concentrated firepower while the rest of the formation comes on line.
      2. Once in contact and the AW man has expended his first rounds, the patrol should, if feasible, engage the enemy with an M203 grenade launcher. A grenade can have a significant and immediate impact on the enemy, often providing a better maneuver opportunity than engaging the enemy with only rifle fire.
    2. Advantages.
      1. Good C2
      2. Stealth
      3. Ease of movement at night and in thick vegetation
      4. Good for quick movement.
    3. Disadvantages. Unless moving through urban or well-traveled areas, the greatest threat from inadvertent contact with the enemy generally comes from the front of the patrol where the file has the least amount of fire coverage (the PT only). For this reason, more conventional units usually discourage use of the file in medium to high threat areas.
    4. Effects of Fire
      1. Frontal, enfilade fire is most effective against a file formation.
      2. The file formation represents an area target when exposed to frontal fire.
      3. Flanking fire requires point target corrections in windage and elevation.
  2. Staggered File Formation. The staggered file (sometimes referred to as a staggered column) uses all the strong points of a file formation but adds depth. It is best used on trails, paths, and cuts where a file formation would be less appropriate. It can be used in vegetation of medium density.

    Figure Staggered File

    1. Formation Basics. The standard file is usually preferred for squad or smaller formations; however, a staggered file shortens the distance between the PT and RS, thus increasing C². The simplest way to form this formation is from a standard file: each man steps toward his field of fire and then resumes patrolling. (The number three and four men, the RTO and AW men, can step opposite from their fields of fire in order to keep the RTO next to the PL). See Figure Staggered File
    2. Advantages.
      1. Gives the front of the formation more firepower than a standard file.
      2. Good when the platoon is operating together as two squads.
      3. Good C2
      4. Ease of movement on wider trails/areas where file would be too dispersed.
      5. Accentuates individual fields of fire.
      6. In certain urban environments it can be used to cover both sides of a street at the same time.
      7. Aids in movement of prisoners or rescued personnel.
    3. Disadvantages.
      1. Requires clearing of two adjacent trails, increasing the booby trap threat and the possibility of being tracked.
      2. Make more noise than a file.
      3. Requires training and IADs to ensure instinctive reaction if contacted.
    4. Effects of Fires. Increases the number of people in the kill zone, Include the same effects of the file formation.
  3. Line Formation. The line formation is normally used to make the final rush on an objective.
    1. Formation Basics.In this formation, patrol members are positioned in a line perpendicular to the direction of movement. See Figure Line Formation. This formation is sometimes used when crossing linear danger areas and in some IADs. It is also known as a skirmish line, line abreast, or being on-line.
    2. Advantages.
      1. Provides for maximum firepower in the direction of the threat or contact.
      2. Fastest for crossing a linear danger area.
      3. Allows for an immediate leapfrog forward or rearward.
      4. When contacted from front or rear, this formation allows immediate lateral movement out of the danger area through a side peel left or right.
    3. Disadvantages.
      1. The entire formation enters danger areas simultaneously, thus exposing the whole patrol to unknown threats (instead of a point element only) and decreasing stealth.
      2. Provides very limited security to the flanks and rear.
      3. More difficult to control than a file formation.
      4. Can’t be used on narrow trails or in heavy vegetation.
    4. Effects of Fire. Exposes the entire formation to enfilade fire from the flanks. Same effects of fire as the file formation given flanking fire.
  4. Wedge Formation. The wedge formation is best used in relatively open terrain such as farm country, or sand dunes near a beach or desert.
    1. Formation Basics. The wedge is an excellent formation to break out of an enemy encirclement or when approaching a probable danger situation. The wedge can also be employed when in open terrain.
    2. Advantages.
      1. Concentrates firepower in primary movement direction with good fields of fire.
      2. Easy transitions to overwatch and bounding overwatch movement techniques.
      3. Provides good C².
      4. Good dispersal of personnel.
      5. Allows for ease in coming on line or returning to file.
    3. Disadvantages.
      1. Require solid IADs and training
      2. Noisier than a file
      3. Requires good control of fields of fire
      4. Can’t be used on narrow trails or in heavy vegetation
      5. Leaves the patrol vulnerable in the rear
      6. Hard to control if used with larger numbers of personnel (more than 5 or 6 persons).

Immediate Action Drills

Basics of Immediate Action Drills

IADs are actions taken by patrol members upon inadvertent contact with the enemy. They should be practiced with regularity and applied with consistency so that each patrol member instinctively knows what his counterparts will do when contacted.

Immediate Action Drill Fundamentals

Tactically sound IADs should include the following:

  1. Maximum utilization of available cover and concealment. Personnel conducting IADs should minimize exposure to enemy fire. It is not realistic to run, stand, or kneel when taking effective fire. IAD training should reflect this fact.
  2. A means to suppress enemy fire. This is done by concentrated application of accurate firepower. While all patrol members play a part in this, it is often quite difficult for members caught in a fire zone to provide their own suppressive fire.
  3. A means to quickly move patrol members out of the enemy’s fire zone. This is done by personnel movement, usually in element or squad units, covered by suppressive fire and making use of available cover/concealment and patrol equipment (smokes, white phosphorous (WP) grenades, etc.).
  4. An effective way to consolidate and account for personnel and equipment after contact is broken.

Immediate Action Drill Movement