Thursday, April 09, 2015

Killer Queens

Although when I tend to think of myself as a soldier I think of myself as a redleg for much of my time in the service I was in some form of infantry outfit or another, whether as a line medic, evac driver, or as an infantryman of some sort (and yes, earthpigs, mortars do SO count...)
So it was with interest I read Gerry Long's article in this month's Journal of Military Operations about "organizing infantry." Long provides a concise history of the U.S. Army's fiddling with the infantry squad between 1946 and today and then comes up with three recommendations of his own. They are:
1. "The squad/section weaponry should be based around one LMG and one grenade launcher.
2. (E)liminate the fire-team structure. Organise the squad (or in the British case, section) around a squad leader (section commander) & 2ic. The 2ic could still command an ad-hoc fire-team if the tactical situation required.
3. (S)implify the light infantryman’s tactical employment. The squad (or section) would either fire or manoeuvre, not both. Battle drill along with fire-teams should be seen for what they were designed for: a vehicle to train the squad, not a basis for offensive doctrine. This would simplify the low level commander’s tactical duties and training."
Now I'll be the first to admit that I don't have strong feelings about this one way or the other. The issue seems to be, in Long's words, that "...although a fire-team squad might be useful when at full strength, in combat it would remain to brittle. The four man fire-team could not stand casualties and remain effective. After a few losses, the squad would either reorganise into fewer fire-teams or else stop using its fire-team organisational structure. Either way this to-fro with squad organisation in combat would needlessly complicate an already confusing situation, adding to the friction of war."Hmmm.

I think one factor in this question that Long doesn't take into account is the one that (in my opinion) has been a big, if unexamined, problem that currently afflicts and will continue to afflict my Army; the impact of rebellion-suppression guerrilla wars, both on unit organization and skills.

The 1946 conference that Long cites in his article as having come up with the gold standard for infantry small-unit organizations had just come away from the "high-intensity" fighting of WW2. The U.S. Army has not since then faced a peer foe equivalent to the German military of the Forties or even the Japanese Army of the 1942-43 period except for the CPVA in Korea (where the post-WW2 reorganization seems to have worked effectively) and, in isolated engagements, the NVA between about 1965-1972.

Since then the U.S. Army's opponents have been exclusively either local guerrillas or the sort of half-assed Third World "armies" typified by the Saddam-era Iraqi military. Much of the fighting the U.S. infantry has done has been against lightly-armed, poorly-organized, and badly-led rebels like the Sunni muj in Iraq and the Talib irregulars in Afghanistan. Frankly, there is very little that sort of enemy can do that will expose a flawed organization...assuming that the organization is flawed. One of the lessons from WW1 was that imperial policing of the sort that the British Army had trained on for most of the 99 years prior to 1914 was not a good way to train a modern army for a mechanized First World War. I suspect that if - Moloch forfend! - the U.S. Army gets into a similar sort of war that we will find that fighting a bunch of raggedy-assed Third World mooks will have done us very little good.

But...let's be real. Mechanized warfare is a bloody business for infantrymen. Something like, what, 90% of the combat casualties from WW2 were infantry. For a low birthrate, danger-averse society like the 21st Century United States to get involved in a WW2-level of infantry fighting would take...well, it'd take another Korea, and I don't see where that could happen (except maybe...Korea...)

So perhaps there's nothing to be concerned about, this question of fire teams and squads and what they can and can't do...

Or perhaps there should be.

But I am hopeful we will never have to find out.


Brian said...

Well, if you were in mortars that makes you an honourary infantryman in my book. It was a mistake when they took the 81s out of the Canadian rifle battalions.

Anyway, can't read the article because login required; thank you for the main points though.

When I was in the Canadian Infantry (1980s) we started our section tactics with a method that had been used since WW 2: fire section with two automatic rifles (30-round magazines, a bipod and heavier barrel, like an overgrown BAR; these replaced two Bren guns, which were fiddly to load and almost too accurate), overseen by the 2iC; and maneuver section consisting of riflemen (self-loading semi-auto rifles) led by the section commander. Fire section laid the base, maneuver section did a flanking, fire section moved up when the grenading and bayonetting was done. (This was all in training, so you at least got to pretend to do that!)

By the end of the decade we had gone to a section built on two 4 or 5-man fireteams, each one commmanded by section commander or 2iC, each with a light machine gun (like an M249) and assault rifles (Canadian version of the M16) - no grenade launchers then. These two teams were in theory equal halves of the section, and could be used for flanking, or even frontals with one team bounding by another.

It all came down to the same thing, though, once the section started taking casualties: people moved to take over the automatic weapons, whatever they were, and keep them firing. I suppose when it got down to it a rifle platoon could get down to a minimum strength of 10 or 12, consisting of 7 machine guns (6 light, one medium)!

FDChief said...

That was the main point of the article, Brian - that the section (squad) is really the smallest practical tactical element. The fire teams are a) too difficult to control in the real world, and b) too small to be resilient. All it takes is one guy down and the fire team is pretty screwed, but a 9- to 11-man squad can get down to 5 guys or so and still perform half-decently in a pinch.

I guess my question is "Will we ever find out whether this organization really works or not?" just because I can't imagine the U.S. getting into a high-intensity war anytime in the foreseeable future. The issue only becomes crucial when infantry is exposed to prolonged, high-casualty combat, and the U.S. just doesn't fight those sorts of wars anymore.

So, while its an interesting question (to me) I'm not sure if we'll ever find out the answer...

Brian said...

Well, for us, it was about "fire and movement", the principle that someone should be putting rounds downrange while someone else was moving into a better position to put rounds downrange for the other guys. This principle applied from section/squad level, all the way up to brigade I suppose: I was never in maneuvers that involved anything more than parts of a battalion.

And while the US Army may have done its last "thunder runs" in 2003, the principle of fire and movement, and control of the elements that fire and move, remains the same down at section level, which also rapidly becomes synonymous with platoon level once you take a few casualties. And it also stays the same whenever you have riflemen in combat, in an insurgency or a higher-intensity war.

In the latter days of WW 2 the Marines had an interesting variation on this: a 13-man squad with one squad leader and three 4-man fire teams, each with 1 BAR and led by a Cpl. The squad leader's only job was to lead the squad, not also running a fire team.

But I imagine once the squad had taken more than a couple of casualties, the three teams became two.