Printer Friendly

Obstacle employment: what does it mean?

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Allied Joint Publication 3.12, Allied Joint Doctrine for Military Engineering, defines military engineering as those activities that physically shape the operating environment. (1) Over the past 11 years, U.S. military commanders have lost significant capability to shape terrain using the full range of persistent antivehicle and antipersonnel land mine systems without a reciprocal increase in a persistent land mine-alternative capability (except in the Korean Peninsula). Remote antiarmor mines and select Volcano munitions make up the remaining land mine terrain-shaping capability following U.S. policy changes. Between February 2004 and September 2014, the only significant addition to the terrain-shaping capability of commanders was the XM-7 Spider network command munition. The remaining U.S. Army terrain-shaping capabilities are similar to methods and obstacles meant to deny movement or maneuver to the enemy--such as ditches, earthworks, and abatis--used by armies for more than 2,000 years. The only difference is the terrain-shaping technology used to deny the enemy access to, or use of, advantageous terrain.

Engineers must understand the methods, theory, and employment of obstacles in shaping terrain to meet the intent of commanders. A knowledge of U.S. Army obstacle doctrine is no longer sufficient to effectively shape terrain against a near-peer threat. Effective obstacle application demands that engineers apply the five obstacle employment principles; possess a military sense of terrain; understand obstacle methods, capabilities, and effects; exercise adaptive, experience-based obstacle design; and use available, commercial, off-the-shelf, terrain-shaping technologies.

The five obstacle employment principles are-- (2)

* Support the maneuver commander's plan.

* Integrate with observation and fires.

* Integrate with other obstacles.

* Employ in depth.

* Employ for surprise.

This article focuses on these five principles and the ways a successful engineer planner can use obstacle employment planning to mitigate the loss of obstacle capabilities.

Combined arms obstacle integration operations commonly involve the defense, but obstacles are used throughout the spectrum of unified land operations. For example, commanders might use situational obstacles during an attack to protect a flank from an enemy spoiling attack or strike force in a mobile defense. Planning obstacle employment is generally left to engineers. They are introduced to the steps of engagement area development as a guide to planning obstacles, but these steps are primarily designed for the maneuver commander and staff as a planning checklist during the defense. The seven steps of engagement area development are-- (3)

* Step 1. Identify likely enemy avenues of approach.

* Step 2. Identify the enemy scheme of maneuver.

* Step 3. Determine where to kill the enemy.

* Step 4. Plan and integrate obstacles.

* Step 5. Emplace weapons systems.

* Step 6. Plan and integrate indirect fires.

* Step 7. Conduct an engagement area rehearsal.

During offensive operations, these steps do not always apply. The five obstacle employment principles provide guidance on obstacle planning for any operation type and complement Step 4, plan and integrate obstacles.

Support the Maneuver Commander's Plan

Supporting the maneuver commander's plan is arguably the most important of the five obstacle employment principles. Considering the maneuver commander's intent and operational concept during planning ensures that obstacles increase the probability of hits by direct and indirect fire systems and negatively affect the ability of the enemy to gain access to favorable terrain. The engineer planner must understand where the maneuver commander wants to mass effects on the enemy force and then plan terrain-shaping operations to influence the enemy force to that point. Engineers are susceptible to a few common pitfalls with this principle because they tend to--

* Overthink the maneuver commander's intent.

* Do not completely understand the commander's intent and/or operational concept.

* Develop unsupportable obstacle plans.

* Do not fully understand enemy mobility and counter obstacle capabilities or how the enemy maneuvers through the existing terrain.

Overthinking the commander's intent and operational concept during obstacle planning usually leads to an obstacle plan that does not support the commander's intent, is overly complicated, and commits more engineer effort than is required. Engineer planners participating in rotations at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC), Hohenfels, Germany, tend to develop obstacle plans to independently block enemy maneuver instead of developing plans that conform to the friendly maneuver plan.

In a recent rotation at JMRC, one maneuver commander's intent was to delay the opposing force (OPFOR) along two mobility corridors, attrit the enemy, and trade space for time to develop a substantive engagement area. The brigade engineer planned block obstacle groups in the mobility corridors instead of the fix effect the commander desired. Ultimately, the block obstacle groups were not emplaced, but significant time and resources that could have been used elsewhere were expended in preparation.

The three remaining pitfalls are usually attributed to the engineer planner's lack of knowledge, education, and experience. Engineers should not be embarrassed to ask questions during the planning process to clarify misunderstandings of the operational concept. Engineer planners are expected to perform as the master craftsmen of all things related to countermobility. Inability or incompetence in the development of a supportable obstacle plan is inexcusable. Obstacle plans must consider all materiel, personnel, equipment, and time resources required and available to meet the operational concept. If a resource gap exists in the obstacle plan, then the plan is not supportable and must be modified until the resource gap is diminished. Unfamiliarity with enemy mobility and counter obstacle capabilities is normally rectified by close coordination with the intelligence section.

Through a lack of knowledge and experience, engineer planners habitually fail to develop obstacle plans that meet the maneuver commander's intent. At JMRC, this is usually highlighted in a mobility corridor referred to as the 15T. Engineer planners constantly develop obstacle groups in the 15T open space and do not tie the obstacle groups into the surrounding terrain. Normally, maneuver commanders want to canalize the OPFOR into the center of the 15T to mass effects on them. However, placing obstacles in the center of the 15T does not affect the OPFOR maneuver tactics, techniques, and procedures of using the terrain to the north and south of the open area. Instead, the OPFOR just diffuses around the obstacle groups with little or no effect on their maneuver. Engineer planners must understand how the enemy uses the existing terrain and then how to shape the existing terrain to change the enemy maneuver.

Integrate With Observation and Fires

The principles of integrating obstacles with observation, fires, and other obstacles are accomplished in concept and action. Conceptually, the engineer planner integrates obstacles in the planning and preparation phases and then the responsibility shifts to the emplacing engineer leader to actively integrate the obstacles on the ground with the covering unit. NATO Standardization Agreement 2036, Land Mine Laying, Marking, Recording and Reporting Procedures, states that obstacles cannot achieve the desired obstacle effect unless they are used in combination with observed fires. (4) Only then can the obstacle achieve its desired effect on the enemy. Unless obstacles and fires are properly integrated, the OPFOR can quickly negate any obstacle effect given enough time and adequate resources. Failure to integrate observation and fires with obstacles gives the OPFOR time and reduces the resources they need to breach or bypass an obstacle.

Engineer planners integrate obstacles with observation and fires through coordination with the maneuver, intelligence, and fires functional staff chiefs. Integrating observation and obstacles during planning is achieved by assigning unit responsibility and allocating assets. The maneuver U.S. and Bulgarian soldiers prepare a road-cratering demolition. and fires functional chiefs assign obstacle responsibilities to subordinate units and advise on observation system capabilities. The intelligence functional chief assists in synchronizing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets through the ISR collection manager, providing the observation of obstacles that are not directly overwatched by ground forces. Items to be considered when integrating obstacle observation include--

* Assignment of an owning unit to overwatch.

* Use of ground reconnaissance assets.

* Use of forward observers and joint terminal attack controllers.

* Capabilities of optical systems, limitations on range, and limited visibility operations.

* Use of rotary wing aircraft.

* Use of unmanned aerial surveillance assets.

Direct- and indirect-fire effects are amplified when properly integrated with obstacles. The engineer planner coordinates directly with the maneuver and fires functional chiefs to ensure that all obstacles are effectively integrated with fires. Considerations when integrating obstacles with fires include--

* Assignment of engagement responsibilities and criteria.

* Weapons system and effects desired.

* Use of direct versus indirect fires.

* Use of echelon fires using maximum-range weapons at maximum-range obstacles.

* Integration at seams, transitions, and endpoints.

* Orientation of obstacles to achieve the desired direct-fire engagement method (enfilade, oblique, flanking, or frontal).

* Determination of priority targets and target protection/ hardness.

At the JMRC, rotation unit obstacle plans seldom effectively integrate observations and fires, resulting in the OPFOR easily maneuvering around or through planned engagement areas with minimal negative effects. However, the OPFOR regularly integrates effective observed fires on existing and reinforcing obstacles with devastating effects on rotation unit maneuver. There are many reasons for the failure to integrate obstacles with fires, but the primary reason is that obstacle plans are developed in isolation from the rest of the maneuver plan. Engineer planners must develop effective working relationships with the maneuver, fires, and intelligence planners and must attain a working knowledge of maneuver, fires, and intelligence to better facilitate integration.

Integrate With Other Obstacles

While integrating observation and fires, the engineer planner should integrate obstacles with other reinforcing obstacles. The engineer planner makes every effort to maximize the use of existing obstacles and complement them with the minimum required reinforcing obstacles to achieve the desired obstacle intent. NATO Allied Tactical Publication 3.2.1, Allied Land Tactics, (5) points out that the engineer effort required to meet the commander's intent is rarely adequate, requiring engineer planners to maximize the use of existing obstacles. Reinforcing obstacles are planned to minimize the transition or gap between existing obstacles or to link existing obstacles together. This strengthens an obstacle group and increases the probability that the enemy will follow the planned script. Engineer planners ensure that the combined effect of integrated obstacles does not deviate from the desired obstacle group intent. Common pitfalls observed at the JMRC when planning obstacle integration with other obstacles are--

* Obstacles are not completely tied in; there are weak seams and transitions.

* Obstacle design strength is too little or too great; the desired intent/effect is diminished.

* Obstacles interfere with other obstacles.

* Obstacles are not emplaced to take advantage of existing terrain, or they are too dependent on existing terrain countermobility properties.

Employ in Depth

Obstacle control measures give commanders obstacle emplacement authority for a geographic area. Brigade and lower obstacle control measures are normally associated with obstacle intent to achieve a desired effect on the enemy throughout the depth of a specified geographic area. Engineer planners cannot ignore the concept of depth during obstacle planning. Obstacles employed in depth force the enemy to consume reduction assets early and often and eventually force the enemy to avoid the remaining obstacles, thereby achieving the obstacle intent. ATP 3-90.8, Combined Arms Countermobility Operations, lists the following benefits of employing obstacles in depth: (6)

* Disrupts the timing and tempo of an attack.

* Stresses enemy mission command.

* Depletes obstacle reduction assets.

* Increases exposure to fires.

* Degrades the will to fight.

Ultimately, obstacles employed in depth prevent the enemy from declaring a single breach operation as the decisive point of the battle and massing effects at that location to achieve success. There are many reasons why obstacles are not employed in depth. The most common reasons at JMRC are--

* Absence of plans to fight through the depth of the operating area.

* Failure to plan obstacles in depth.

* Obstacle resourcing not planned or not properly executed.

* Obstacle plans not completed early, resulting in incomplete obstacle execution.

* Obstacle plans not synchronized with the rest of the maneuver plan.

These trends are primarily observed during the planning and preparation phases of combined arms obstacle integration. Although engineer planners are not responsible for developing the maneuver concept of operation and ensuring that the plan maximizes the depth of the operating area, engineers can influence the plan by identifying the requirements gap in the current plan with the commander's intent. For example, the commander's intent is to delay the enemy advance along an avenue of approach for a set period of time. But in the plan developed by the staff, only one engagement area has a template, with a corresponding disrupt obstacle group located along a segment of that avenue of approach. Engineer planners should articulate to the commander and staff that adversely affecting the mobility of an enemy force along that avenue of approach in the most effective manner requires obstacles employed in depth. Most engineer planners recently observed on JMRC staff are pre-command captains who have not established their credibility as the technical and tactical masters of their craft. The ability of these captains to influence the maneuver plan is limited, but the engineer planner is obligated to address any identified military engineering gaps with the commander and staff.

Conversely, the maneuver plan may take advantage of the entire depth of the operating area to affect the enemy force, yet the engineer may not plan the corresponding obstacles to support the operation. Failure to plan obstacles occurs for various reasons, but usually originates from improper employment of the staff engineer or from a dearth of obstacle planning knowledge and experience. During one JMRC rotation, the maneuver commander's intent was to block enemy forces along an avenue of approach and disrupt enemy forces along another avenue of approach. Corresponding obstacle belts were assigned to the task forces, but staff engineers did not establish planned obstacles at either the brigade or task force level, resulting in obstacles being developed between engineer and maneuver platoon leaders. The depth of the obstacles employed in that rotation was generally 500 meters to either side of a designated phase line, through which the OPFOR quickly passed. Staff engineers must take the time to plan obstacle groups and directed obstacles that support the commander's plan and are placed in depth throughout the operational area. Senior engineer leaders in the brigade combat team must take the time to coach and mentor staff engineers on obstacle planning and review the plan before execution.

A great plan that precisely supports the maneuver commander's plan, is integrated with fires and existing obstacles, and covers the depth of the operating area will be ineffective unless it is resourced and synchronized. Ensuring that the barrier materials and explosives required for obstacle construction are available and delivered to centralized locations is critical to obstacle employment. Unit standard operating procedures outlining obstacle designs allow for the development of combat-configured loads of these materials. Combat-configured loads streamline the process of forecasting and delivering resources supporting an obstacle plan. The observation of recent trends at the JMRC indicate that units do not understand and use the combat-configured load concept for resourcing obstacles. These units habitually fail to emplace obstacles in depth because the required materials are not readily available to the emplacing unit. Additionally, units do not take the time during the course of action analysis or combined arms and sustainment rehearsals to synchronize the delivery of obstacle materials with the emplacing units. This also leads to the failure of units to employ obstacles in depth.

Employ for Surprise

Tactical surprise on the battlefield is difficult to achieve with the increase in ISR technologies and even harder to achieve when proven capabilities are no longer available. Obstacle plans designed to surprise the enemy give the maneuver commander flexibility regarding how, when, and where effects are brought to bear on the enemy. Scatterable mine capabilities can easily create countermobility effects triggered by the commander's decision points, but other obstacle methods may be used to create an uncertain mobility picture for the enemy. Current countermobility capabilities require engineer planners to apply imagination and ingenuity to achieve surprise with the obstacle plan. Considerations for employing obstacles for the element of surprise include--

* Obstacle intent.

* Triggers.

* Emplacement speed.

* Duration.

* Detectability.

* Predictability.

Obstacle intent is part of the obstacle planning process; however, the components of target, effect, and relative location can be used to create uncertainty with the enemy. Each obstacle should be emplaced with the intent to affect a specific element of the enemy force. For instance, the enemy force may organize into reconnaissance, advanced guard, and main body formations, with the intent to affect the main body. The reconnaissance and advanced guard formations may pass through a planned obstacle area, which is then triggered to affect the main body of the enemy. The main body may not expect to encounter an obstacle in that area if recent reports indicated that the area was free of obstacles. Additionally, the obstacle can generate surprise and uncertainty with the enemy formation if the obstacle effect is outside of the doctrinal application. This may cause enemy commanders to assess the perceived situation and change their course of action, thus disrupting operations. Finally, surprise may be generated if the obstacle is emplaced in an area that is not commonly restricted or in terrain that is capable of masking the obstacle, such as a wooded reverse slope.

Carefully planned obstacles that make use of triggers, maximum emplacement speed, and variable duration create a dynamic situation for the enemy. The use of triggers with scatterable mines and demolition obstacles allows the commander to affect a specific formation and requires fewer resources than simply emplacing obstacles along all possible avenues of approach. Individual obstacles and multiple obstacle groups may be planned, but may not be emplaced until a specific condition is met, thus increasing the uncertainty of the enemy force. Maximizing the emplacement speed of obstacles minimizes the enemy reaction time once the obstacle is emplaced. Once emplaced, varying the obstacle duration forces the enemy to actively respond to the emplaced obstacle. During one recent JMRC rotation, a brigade combat team employed a short-duration, remote, antiarmor minefield that effectively blocked the primary avenue of approach to the OPFOR objective. The obstacle was identified during emplacement; and because the OPFOR commander understood that it was unlikely that anything other than a short-duration mine would be emplaced, he adjusted his execution time by 4 hours. Once the minefield began to self-destruct, the OPFOR commander rapidly pushed a mechanized company team through the area without effect. If obstacle duration times had been varied, the OPFOR commander would have sent the company through a mined area or been forced to adjust his plan.


Conducting countermobility operations in a complex world against a near-peer adversary requires the engineer planner to fully understand and use all planning tools at his disposal. Recent JMRC rotations demonstrate that many units do not understand, and are not ready to successfully execute, combined arms obstacle integration operations against a near-peer threat. This trend is worrisome, considering the increase in hostilities in Eastern Europe from a near-peer adversary with a tremendous ability to rapidly maneuver and occupy advantageous terrain. The five obstacle employment principles provide engineer planners with a framework to develop unique solutions to deny the enemy the ability to maneuver or occupy advantageous terrain with the limited countermobility capability currently available to the force. To reverse the trend, engineer leaders must educate themselves on these principles and use them during the planning processes for all operations--not just for defensive operations.


(1) NATO Allied Joint Publication 3.12, Allied Joint Doctrine for Military Engineering, 20 June 2014.

(2) Army Techniques Publication 3-90.8, Combined Arms Counter-mobility Operations, 17 September 2014.

(3) Field Manual 3-21.8, The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, 28 March 2007.

(4) NATO Standardization Agreement 2036, Land Mine Laying, Marking, Recording and Reporting Procedures, 27 January 2007.

(5) Allied Tactical Publication 3.2.1, Allied Land Tactics, 9 November 2009.

(6) Army Techniques Publication 3-90.8.

Major Miller is the brigade engineer observer-coach trainer at the JMRC. He was formerly an observer-controller at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), and master's degrees in energetic concepts from the University of Maryland-College Park and national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.
COPYRIGHT 2015 U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Miller, John L.
Publication:Engineer: The Professional Bulletin for Army Engineers
Date:Sep 1, 2015
Previous Article:Strong Europe, strong project engineers.
Next Article:Before you dig that well ... an interview with the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |