TECUMSEH COURT, UNDISCLOSED LOCATION
An introduction to “Warfighting,” the how-to manual for the US Marines, and its practical application in Ukraine. Part II of III: The Main Effort, Intent, and Tactical Leadership
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” said productivity guru Stephen Covey. The advice is sound in business and war alike.
In Part I, we covered strategy. Now we’ll look at the fundamentals of tactics and explain how to translate intangibles like “will to fight” into effective action on the ground.
Ukrainian teachers-turned-paramilitaries are learning tactics under fire. The Ukrainian military has been distributing weapons and instructions for making Molotov cocktails; they’ve been forming volunteers, most of them military novices, into units.
Small unit leaders, whose names we’ll probably never know, will determine the war’s outcome. What do they need to know? What environmental factors should they consider? What should they do in a firefight? How will Russian soldiers counter and attack?
THE RULE OF THREES
You’re a 22-year-old Ukrainian who has just been handed a Kalashnikov, four magazines of thirty rounds, a helmet, and body armor. Last week you were studying architecture at Kyiv National University. Now you’re standing in the lead rank. An officer counts off and puts a hand on your shoulder. “You’re a fire team leader.” He points at the next three people in your rank. “That’s your team.”
There are three people behind you. You’ve never seen them before. They await your command.
Generals are not, contrary to popular belief, the most critical decision-makers on a battlefield. The leaders of the fire teams are. The fire team is the smallest unit in battle, usually made up of three people and a leader. Its task:
- Fire weapons at enemy forces; and
- Keep each other alive.
Modern militaries are usually organized according to the “Rule of Threes.” Three fire teams in a squad, three squads in a platoon, three platoons in a company. Why three? Because under the stress of combat, you can’t really keep more than three things in mind.
In Ukraine, the Rule of Threes will be the most practical organizing principle. First, it ensures clear lines of authority, responsibility, and management. This is critical in ground combat. When you take accurate enemy fire, chaos ensues. To maintain cohesion, your responsibility can’t extend beyond three people, be they team members or unit leaders.
Likewise, according to the Rule of Threes, you should have three tasks: a main task and two supporting tasks. If you have three people under your command, you have someone to cover the main task, and someone to cover each of the supporting tasks. The Rule of Three may sound primitive on paper, but the stress of ground combat will rid you of your fine motor coordination, your peripheral vision, and your ability to think past three. Sticking to “three tasks” reduces friction, keeps things simple, and gives you as little extraneous to deal with as possible—while allowing you to do the most you reasonably can.
It’s critical that the main and supporting tasks be clearly described. Everyone from the largest unit down to the fire team needs to know what they are. If they’re clearly explained and understood, leaders can improvise under fire instead of waiting around for guidance. Increasing the number of decisions small unit leaders can make, independently, reduces friction and allows them to adapt. Then your side can then make decisions faster than the other one: This matters a lot.
MAIN AND SUPPORTING EFFORTS
Back to Kyiv. You’ve had nine seconds to process your new responsibilities as a fire team leader when you meet your squad leader. He’s a Ukrainian junior sergeant, the only uniformed military person in the squad, and he’s your age, or maybe younger. He’s called Sergeant Kranakov, but you can call him Alex. “Team leaders up,” he says. This means you, you realize, as you step before the squad.
You’re joined by a man and a woman who both look as if they might be accountants or lawyers, both about ten years your senior. Or perhaps you’re joined by two men who look like they were just let out of prison. You may be unaccustomed to working with people like this. You may never have spoken before to someone like this. It doesn’t matter. You have a common goal: getting the Russians out. You’re motivated by a common emotion: love of your country. You’ll build your unit cohesion on this common purpose and emotion. Everyone, up and down the chain, needs to lose the ego. Talk it out. Yes, seriously. You’ll have a lot of time to talk. Most of combat is sheer boredom, punctuated by moments of terror. Make the most of the boredom.
Alex tells you that you’ll be reinforcing Kyiv’s western positions. A position—generally, in urban warfare, a window or a hole in the wall reinforced by sandbags—is a place from which you can shoot without necessarily being shot in return. He says, “We’re fortifying a building on Peremohy Ave. and Mykoly Ushakova St. on the Irpin River.” He shows you his phone, zooms in and out, and says you’ve been assigned to 3rd Company of 1st Civilian Defense Brigade. 3rd Company will be relieving several small groups of Ukrainian soldiers. They’re being split up and reassigned to support more people like you.
You learn next that 3rd Company’s task—holding that building and shooting from it—is the main effort of 1st Civilian Defense Brigade’s position. Warfighting explains the main effort as the single action “most critical to success at that moment.” Why is 3rd company’s task so critical? Because that building looks over the Irpin River. This means that you can use your AK-47, or whatever weapon you’ve got, to exploit a clear field of fire. A field of fire is whatever you can see. A clear field of fire is unobstructed. From that building you can readily shoot at Russians to prevent them from crossing the river and entering the city. Main effort. Their odds of shooting you won’t be as good, because the building is providing you with cover.
According to Alex, the tasks of 1st and 2nd Companies, whose positions are north and south of your location, are the supporting effort. Their tasks are probably the same as yours—they’re probably holding a building and shooting from it, too—but their buildings aren’t as critical. The supporting effort designation tells the leaders of those units that if 3rd Company starts taking heavy casualties, it’s okay for them to decide, without asking, to leave their position and reinforce you and your building. They can—and should—just do it. You, on the other hand, need to hold on to your building no matter what.
INTENT AND DECENTRALIZATION
You go back to your team—three people —and share the plan. Then you climb into the cargo vans now serving as troop carriers and depart for the front. On the way, Alex explains the Civilian Defense Brigade commander’s intent to everyone in the squad. As Warfighting puts it, the intent is the purpose behind the task assigned—not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. “The task describes the action to be taken… the intent explains why.”
Intent and main effort are conjoined. Your team is holding the building’s position, from which you can shoot the Russians (the main effort) to stop the Russians from crossing the river (the intent). If everyone in the Brigade understands the intent, they can then make decentralized decisions when circumstances change.
Say, for example, your position is annihilated, making your assigned task irrelevant. But somehow, you’re still alive. What else could you do to stop the Russians from crossing the river? Let’s hope someone has already mined the bridge to detonate it as a last resort. Blowing up the bridge—ideally with Russian forces on it—would express your intent.
No matter how low you are on the hierarchy, you must understand your main effort and your intent. It’s critical to decentralized decision-making. War is characterized by friction, confusion, and constantly changing circumstances. You need to push as many decisions as possible to the lowest level, and this isn’t just so everyone feels empowered; decentralized decision making is faster and more responsive to enemy action. A leader who knows the intent (keep the Russians from crossing), your company’s main effort (hold the building and shoot from it), your platoon’s main effort (hold the fifth floor), and your squad’s main effort (shoot from the third window) can adapt quickly under fire without asking what to do next.
Battlefield leaders at every level run through this decision cycle. Another way to describe it is “Observe-Orient-Decide-Act,” or the OODA Loop. In the 1980s, US Air Force Colonel John Boyd gave an influential presentation to military leaders called “Patterns of Conflict.’ He argued that in any conflict, the side that could complete repeating cycles of an OODA Loop fastest would gain the initiative and eventually win. Warfighting was born from the “Patterns of Conflict” brief, and Boyd was canonized in a well-reviewed biography as “the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu.”
SHOOT, MOVE, AND COMMUNICATE
Once you get to the building, your team offloads ammunition, loads spare magazines, and relieves the unit that’s being reassigned. Now you’re on the fifth floor. The windows you’ll be shooting from are fortified with wood and sandbags to make it harder for the Russians to kill you if they shoot you back. You notice multiple positions—places from which you can shoot—on the 5th floor.
You’re in charge of this team, however strange and awkward this might feel at first, so you put Mikhail on watch. To be on watch, in combat, is to be on the lookout for the approaching enemy and prepared to act if you spot him. You might wonder why that’s necessary: Wouldn’t that be hard to miss? No, it wouldn’t be. You get desensitized to bombardment. A lot of combat is just sitting around, bored. You might be on watch for several days without seeing a single Russian. That’s why you need to rotate: You need someone to be looking with fresh eyes.
You decide the third window—shooting out of it—will be your team’s main effort. You send Dmitri to ask Alex where to move casualties if someone’s wounded. Irina looks at all the positions on the fifth floor. “What’s our plan?” she asks, wondering what she should do while Mikhail is on watch. Fortunately, you read this article and you can tell her.
A firefight can last minutes or hours, you say. In a fight, whether we’re attacking or defending, we need to shoot, move, and communicate. We can rotate positions throughout the room and take turns shooting out of this window—that’s the main effort. If that position is taken out, we switch to another window, or another room on this floor, or another floor. If all of our positions are taken out and we’re still alive, we go support another squad.
“If you’re not shooting, you’re moving,” you say, which you remember from this article. “If you’re not moving, you’re communicating—use hand and arm signals if you have to. You need to make sure everyone knows what you’re doing.”
Shooting is important to your new job. But to shoot effectively, other things have to happen. This is why the military loves clichés, acronyms, and profanity: The simpler the slogan, the easier it is to remember, and the easier it is to remember, the better your chances of executing under stress. “Shoot, move, and communicate,” Irina repeats. “Shoot, move, and communicate.” “Shoot, move, and communicate.” She looks at you uncertainly.
“Seriously. ‘Shoot, move, and communicate.’ I read it in the Cosmopolitan Globalist.”
“Oh!” She looks brighter.
BRILLIANCE IN THE BASICS
Shoot, move, and communicate—the free world’s fate is resting on the shoulders of Ukrainian men and women who can remember this. The Ukrainians are in cities they know; the terrain is their advantage. Attacking units will take more casualties: It’s hard to get a foothold in a well-defended city. The Ukrainian will to fight seems, if anything, to be growing—and not surprisingly, given they both remember and can see exactly how much Russia values their lives and what Russian rule would mean.
Now thousands of provisional combat leaders need to adapt and perform under fire. They need to figure out how to sustain themselves with tricks like sleep plans. (Set rotations so everyone gets at least three uninterrupted hours: You need that for REM.) They need to manage the inevitable adrenaline spikes, morale slumps, and paralyzing fear. Try breathing deeply. Or laughing: After all, you’re a 22-year-old architecture student who suddenly finds himself in combat with the fucking Red Army, and you’re figuring out what to do by reading the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
Now you’re probably thinking, as I explain this, “But if I’m the Russians, I’ll just bomb the shit out of that building. Or I’ll mortar it. Or I’ll hit it with artillery.”
Trust me, any Ukrainian defending that building (or the thousands of other outposts just like it, all across the country) will be thinking the same thing.
Yes, the Russians will target defensive positions. But they’ll probably use their limited supply of guided missiles for the top-value targets, like the building they think President Zelensky is in, and you’re not a top-value target. It’s hard to hit targets precisely with mortars or artillery. Russians know very well how tough it is. From September 27 to November 25 in 1942, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov held a main effort house in Stalingrad while the German Army bombed it, attacked it, besieged it—but they couldn’t capture or destroy it. “Pavlov’s House” became a legend during the battle, symbolic of Soviet resistance.
The defenders of real buildings in Kyiv, just like the one I described above, can just as well become Ukrainian legends. If the provisional Ukrainian forces fight the way I advise, the Russian army will pay dearly for every meter they advance. With every casualty they inflict on the invaders, they’ll lose their terror of the convoys that are said to be bearing down on Kyiv.
They’ll know—as I’ll explain in the next and final part of this article—that all they have to do is hold on long enough for resupply—and keep fighting.
For now: Main effort. Supporting Effort. Shoot, move, and communicate.
Got it? Good.
Correction: Owing to editorial carelessness, we originally called our imaginary junior sergeant Alex Kranakova. We should, of course, have called him Alex Kranakov. We’ve changed this and regret the error.
Tecumseh Court is an American combat veteran.