Taliban gunmen opened fire simultaneously and a large number of rounds flew into the area. The Marines fighting in northern Marja had endured numerous attacks like this, but for all the noise it was largely ineffective as no Americans were hit. One day, after a few hours of incoming fire, a junior NCO stood upright, exposing himself above the waist as bullets flew high overhead. In typical Marine fashion he looked to his mates and asked, “What’s everybody ducking for?” Then he cupped his hand to his mouth and shouted a stream of expletives at the Taliban that translates to “You guys can’t shoot!” in any language.
This tale was reported in The New York Times and it illustrates a fallacy too common in military training. Suppressive fire has little to do with volume of fire. Firepower, alone and poorly directed, is useless. Actually, it is worse than that. Shooting without effect wastes ammo and gives away your position while allowing forces to continue to maneuver against you. Suppressive fire can be defined, trained and controlled, and it needs to be for full effect.
Machine guns only provide effective suppressive fire when employed with precision. These machine guns, like all belt-fed guns, should be aimed at individual targets.
What is suppressive fire? When I taught the machine gun gunnery course at First Army’s Small Arms Instructor Academy in Camp Bullis, Texas, I posed this question to every class. The most common, regurgitated response was, “keeping their heads down.” A response with solid info, much less a measurable standard, was never offered. I can understand the lack of useful definition because in researching material for the class to find an official, published answer, I was disappointed in the number of manuals they freely threw the term “suppressive fire” out without defining it. Apparently, suppressive fire is an important concept that soldiers are supposed to use but few want to adequately define.
NATO defines this as “fire that degrades the performance of a target below the level needed to fulfill its mission.” Suppressing fire takes in human factors and is probably the least understood characteristic of weapon performance. All things being equal, the weapon with the most easily observed signature in the impact area closest to the target will be perceived as having the greatest suppressive effect. Weapon power is a factor but the best way for this signature to be observed is to land it directly in front of (or on top of) your foe.