No site, no Signal

Lessons-learned on Signal site defense

by Virgil Huston Jr.

Observation Post 2. It was almost 1 a.m., and it was my turn for guard duty at our sector�s perimeter observation post. The site occupied a small hill surrounded by open ground and two areas of trees in small ravines that came within a few meters of the perimeter. Observation Post 2 was between the two treelines and the farthest-out defensive position on the perimeter.

The site itself consisted of the company command section, mobile-subscriber-equipment node center, system control, remote-access unit, small extension node, communications-electronics maintenance, mess section, supply section and motor pool. Along with our dispersed Signal nodes, we were supporting a separate mechanized infantry brigade in a field-training exercise.

The first thing I did as I took over the observation post was a radio check. The battery was dead. I told the soldier I had just relieved to get a battery in the radio and bring it back before he went to bed. I settled down for my shift, waited for the radio and started scanning the sector with and without night-vision goggles. (Night-vision goggles are incredibly valuable, but when the moon is out, I find that scanning without them occasionally helps keep my surroundings in perspective.)

About 10 minutes later, I noticed two dim lights through the treeline to my right. Due to their position, they had to be on the other side of the ravine, although I had no idea how far away they might actually be. There was open ground and a dirt track over there.

The radio still wasn�t back and I wanted to report my sighting. I also was hesitant to leave my post. After all, the lights were probably nothing, and there was another fire point with a view of the area where I thought the lights were. The mysterious lights moved a couple of times and stayed on for at least five minutes.

I couldn�t just sit there, however, and finally left to find the radio. What I found was the soldier already in bed and the radio still without a new battery. I wasn�t impressed (to say the least), told my boss what I�d seen, asked him to call the node center to report it and again asked for someone to find a battery for the radio and bring it to me. I returned to my post, concerned that the position had been unmonitored while I was gone.

By now 15-20 minutes had elapsed since I first saw the lights. They were gone when I returned to the observation post. I settled in again, expecting someone to investigate the lights, and was extra-vigilant in scanning the sector. I still didn�t have a radio.

Suddenly, the night lit up with small-arms fire out of the treeline to my immediate left, not more than about 30 meters from my position. As I was sighting in on the muzzle flashes, the nuclear-biological-chemical attack alarm went off. By the time I had my mask on, I�d been killed without getting a shot off.

The opposing-forces squad had waited at my position until the NBC all-clear signal sounded, then came in with grenades and small arms to destroy the site. The OPFOR was counting on the all-clear signal to cause everyone to think the attack was over. They were correct. There was incredible confusion when they attacked again.

The OPFOR leader later told me that while they�d waited, they�d parked where I�d seen the lights (they were the vehicle�s blackout lights) and walked completely around the site to position themselves in the left treeline rather than come the short way across my sector. They also had another squad that attacked from the other side of the perimeter, creating even more confusion for us. It also turned out that the fire point with the view of the other side of that right-hand treeline had actually seen the OPFOR park, dismount and move out. They radioed the node center and reported it, but nothing had been done. My boss had called the node center multiple times but received no answer.

Knowing I wasn�t the only one who tried to sound the alarm might have made me feel better after frantically trying to report potential enemy activity and having no one pay attention, but I take field exercises seriously. We did wonderfully with our Signal mission during this exercise. We didn�t do so well with our site defense. It doesn�t matter how well your Signal mission is going if your site is wiped out � no site, no Signal. All of it was preventable.

What went wrong

The bottom line with this failure to properly defend the site was simply that site defense wasn�t a priority; the defense, such as it was, was inadequate due to lack of training on the part of noncommissioned officers and officers responsible for site operations.

Site defense was very much an afterthought. It was an exercise, after all, and the consequences for failure to defend the site were essentially nonexistent. Signal wasn�t shut down when the site was wiped out. The leaders knew this and perhaps allowed themselves to pay lip service to defense while concentrating on the �important� mission tasks.

However, this kind of thinking is fatal. In the real deal, a destroyed site can perform no mission, Signal or otherwise. Field exercises should be played as if the situation was real, and the proper consequences should be in place.

It was also evident there were training deficiencies in how to actually set up and maintain a defensive perimeter.

Training exercises are supposed to identify weaknesses so they may be corrected � they�re not designed to place blame and punish people. There are some important lessons to be learned from this exercise:

Make Signal site defense a priority; and
Develop and implement a site-defense plan.

Signal site defense as a priority

There were two main rationalizations I heard for lack of attention to site defense. A common misconception was that, in a real war, the site would have had infantry or military police to handle defense. This is simply not the case. Signal doctrine has dictated for years that Signal units must defend themselves. Even when Signal units are co-located with infantry or military police, Signaleers usually must defend a designated sector.

As Field Manual 11-43, The Signal Leader�s Guide, says, �Signal sites must be able to defend against sabotage, ground forces and airborne/air-assault forces with little or no outside help. They must also be prepared to survive enemy air, artillery and NBC attack.�

Site defense plan from FM 11-43

Signal site-defense plan from Field Manual 11-43, The Signal Leader's Guide.

The second problem was lack of personnel to adequately meet site-defense requirements while accomplishing the other duties required of the site�s various sections. The ideal site-defense plan includes manning fighting positions, listening posts, dismount point, a roving-guard force and external patrols. Our node center was isolated and had no nearby units to provide mutual support. We had to do it all with around 65 soldiers.

Every situation is different. �Current threat status/situation is an important factor when planning and committing assets and personnel to defend a site,� FM 11-43 states. In this scenario, guerrilla/small-unit attacks, including use of NBC agents, were to be expected.

Site-defense plan

A site reconnaissance was done before we occupied the position, but there�s no evidence that hasty defensive positions were identified and a security plan developed. The site-defense plan, which had evolved over time, was haphazard and considered a nuisance by those with Signal mission requirements on their minds. It was three days before an initial site-wide plan was implemented.

As we first occupied the site, no one appeared to be in charge of defense, and no hasty defensive positions were occupied to provide security while everyone was setting up. Individual fighting positions weren�t identified and assigned, and no defensive plan was worked up that I was aware of. A couple of sections, mine included, set up sector defenses, but these weren�t coordinated with any site-wide plan and only covered a small part of the perimeter. For the first two days, the only site defenses in evidence were these individual efforts.

While initiating and establishing Signal and other missions went very well, the observer/controllers made note of the lack of proper site defenses and other problems with site setup, such as vehicles parked too close together and too close to tents and working areas. On the exercise�s third day, a full site-defense plan had been developed and was implemented. It included a dismount point, control of entry and exit from the site, a quick-reaction force and 24-hour manning of perimeter fire points/observation posts. It didn�t include such things as aiming stakes and interlocking fields of fire; preplotted map coordinates for calling in fire support; simulated obstacles, mines and trip wires; identification and preparation of personal fighting positions for soldiers not on the fire points; communications checks; training of soldiers; and other requirements of site-defense doctrine.

The NCO put in charge of site defense did an exemplary job with minimal support. For him, it was a 24-hour job combined with his normal duties. When he had to sleep, no one was in charge. The soldiers who pulled guard duty did their jobs well, within the limitations of the situation in which they were placed. The node center was not manned 24 hours a day or, if it was, the soldiers manning it weren�t answering the radio.

Lack of personnel was a major problem. Some soldiers had guard duty three and more times a day. This eventually wore down those continuously pulling guard while doing their normal jobs day to day. Not all soldiers participated in site-defense duties.

Recommendations for Signal leaders and soldiers

I must point out that this exercise was very successful from an overall mission perspective, and the unit should be justly proud of its accomplishments. Everyone worked hard in difficult conditions and pulled together as a well-honed team. If there had been a viable site-defense plan from the start, this part of the mission would also have been accomplished without a hitch. All it will take to do it right next time is command emphasis and a little training of soldiers and leaders on execution.

Following are suggestions for improvement from this specific experience. Most of the suggestions are documented in FM 11-43, a must-read hip-pocket publication every Signal soldier should have.

Site defense. Consider site defense an essential part of accomplishing the Signal mission. No site, no Signal � it�s that simple. Leaders must ensure that defense is a top priority.

Site reconnaissance. During this operation, the officer or NCO designated as responsible for site defense should identify hasty defensive positions and develop a plan to be implemented immediately upon arrival. Individuals should be designated to man positions as the site is set up. Positioning vehicles, antennas and work/sleeping areas must be done with defense in mind and with all available mission, enemy, terrain, troops and time knowledge. And while it�s always a trade-off between area to defend/control and vulnerability to indirect fire, I prefer to see antennas not positioned right next to their radio shelters and the maximum possible distance kept between work areas. Having everything positioned on the top of the hill around the antennas makes for a very good target.

Site setup. Developing and implementing the permanent site-defense plan should be an integral part of the set-up procedure. Yes, it takes personnel to man positions and at least one dedicated NCO or officer to lay out fields of fire; set aiming stakes; place anti-personnel mines, obstacles and trip wires; map and call for fire coordinates; and prepare for ongoing operation of the defense plan. Also, personal fighting positions must be identified and assigned. These positions must fit into the overall situation framework (such as expected enemy avenue of approach or placement of permanently manned fighting positions).

Ongoing operations. This covers a lot of ground and involves implementing the plan and ensuring that site-defense tasks are carried out when the site is operational � including teardown in preparation for a jump, if applicable. Key considerations include ensuring continual communications is maintained between the command post and the observation/listening posts, dismount points, fighting positions and casualty-evacuation points. Personnel shortages must be addressed by developing a sleep plan that provides relief for those most affected by pulling multiple duties. Require everyone on the site to take their turn on guard duty, including officers.

Command of the defense plan must not be left in the hands of one NCO or officer. No one can be expected to work 24 hours a day every day � and defense is something that must be done continuously. Perhaps most important, make sure every soldier is trained on his or her site-defense tasks; practice procedures to follow when something out of the ordinary occurs in the soldier�s area of responsibility. Especially train soldiers on patrolling and rules of engagement.

Don�t ever forget that if your Signal site is wiped out, you can�t accomplish your Signal mission. No one ever said adding defense to an already full mission plate is easy. It is, however, essential, especially in this age of guerrilla warfare.

Mr. Huston serves in a Signal battalion in the Army National Guard. He has worked in the Signal Leadership Department and Directorate of Training and Doctrine at the Signal Center, Fort Gordon, Ga. He earned the Superior Civilian Service Medal for directing the Training and Doctrine Command�s training-base expansion during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Acronym QuickScan
FM � field manual
NBC � nuclear-biological-chemical
NCO � noncommissioned officer
OPFOR � opposing force

Also see CPT Scott Gress's article, "Site security and defense for Signal units," in Army Communicator's Spring 1998 edition.

dividing rule

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04/04/12

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