Suppressive fire (also known as covering fire) is a term used in military science for firing weapons at or in the direction of enemy forces with the primary goal of reducing their ability to defend themselves or return fire, by forcing them to remain under cover.
Suppressive fire differs from lethal fire (i.e. shoot-to-kill) in that its primary objective is to get the enemy to "keep their heads down" with the intent of preventing the opposing force from moving, returning fire, or to observe their surroundings. While soldiers may be injured or killed by suppressive fire, this is not its main purpose.
To be effective, suppressive fire must be continuous enough to keep the enemy suppressed - that is, to force them to remain behind cover. As long as the enemy can be kept fearful of the next round coming in, they will not consider moving or shooting back. If there is so much incoming fire that the enemy can not move or shoot without knowingly exposing themselves, the enemy is said to be pinned.
Suppressive fire may be either aimed specifically (at an individual enemy soldier, group of soldiers, or vehicle) or generally (for example, at a building or treeline where enemy soldiers are suspected to be hiding.)
Suppression of enemy fire is vital during troop movement especially in tactical situations such as an attack on an enemy position.
The use of suppressive fire is not limited to the use of infantry weapons. During an amphibious assault, as often occurred during World War II, naval warships would open fire with their main armaments at known or suspected enemy artillery, mortar, or machine gun positions, on or behind the landing beaches. This was intended to suppress enemy fire from these positions which could be directed against the landing troops.
Some situations where suppressive fire might be used include: The enemy holds a position, such as a building or trench line, perhaps reinforced with sandbags, landmines, barbed wire or other obstacles.
The enemy has a clear field of fire, so any force attacking them has very few places to take cover.
To take the enemy's position, an attacker must be able to approach without getting shot and injured or killed. The enemy's ability to shoot at attackers must be reduced.
A typical application uses suppressive fire to advance a group of attackers against an enemy: To stop the enemy from shooting at attackers, the attacking force divides in two.
The first group of attackers fires on the enemy. This will cause the enemy to take cover, thus minimizing their ability to return fire.
While the first attacking group is firing at the enemy - keeping them suppressed - the second group of attackers advances toward the enemy position.
This second group now stops, and begins laying down their own suppressive fire. The first group can now advance under cover of the second group's suppressive fire.
The process repeats as needed, with each attacking group alternating roles (either advancing or laying down suppressive fire) until they can attack the defenders at close quarters, also called leapfrogging.
Examples of suppressive fire can be seen in television shows and movies. One film example of suppressive fire tactics is the final robbery scene in Michael Mann's Heat, in which the retreating robbers take turns laying down suppressive fire so their partners can make progress away from the police.
Suppressive fire became possible with the advent of firearms or projectile weapons capable of rapid fire, particularly of automatic weapons. Note that the use of large groups of archers or musketeers firing multiple arrows or projectiles at enemy troop concentrations is defined as massed, rather than suppressive, fire.
Any ranged weapon with a reasonably fast rate of fire can be used to suppress. But suppressive fire is usually delivered by specialized weapons, such as machine guns. Within an infantry squad, this role is usually filled by squad automatic weapons, also known as SAWs, like the FN Minimi, the RPK and the RPD, especially when attacking, as these weapons can be quickly deployed. Suppressive fire can also be delivered using other weapons such as assault rifles, but the volume and intensity of fire generated is less than that of machine guns, as the rifles overheat more rapidly and require reloading more often.
Differences between tactics
Suppressive fire is used with the objective of preventing opposing forces from taking any action, such as returning fire; and forcing them into cover. Spray and pray is used when the location of the enemy is unknown, the attacker is inexperienced, or the target is too far away or moving too fast to effectively be aimed at. Spray and pray may be used as a response to suppressive fire.
Reconnaissance by fire is used to provoke a response from a suspected enemy in cover. Suppressive fire is used when the enemy is known to be in a covered position, and the people initiating the suppressive fire know approximately where the opposing positions may be.1
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