We have spent considerable time over the years discussing the infantry-artillery team in combat, and likewise, the infantry-armor team (and when we discuss them, by implication, we’re also discussing artillery supporting them in the same matter as the traditional infantry-artillery team).

One supporting arm we haven’t discussed as much as we should is the Engineers. For most of the Army’s history, the Engineers were at the top of the food chain. They were the intellectuals of the Army. From the founding of West Point, to the cusp of World War II, virtually all of the top graduates of the Military Academy served in the Engineers. Indeed, from its founding until 1866, the Corps of Engineers ran the academy. Unlike the other arms and services, who were focused solely on their wartime missions, the Engineers also had another role outside of wartime, providing the expertise to build the nation’s infrastructure for defense and commercial operations. Virtually every canal, navigable waterway, and port in the United States has been a Corps of Engineers project. Many of the Works Progress Administration programs of the Depression Era were supervised by Army Engineers, often of astonishingly junior rank. Even to this day, the CoE has a nationwide mission in developing flood control projects and similar activities upon the nations waterways.


When I think of the Engineers, I tend to think of the Combat Engineer battalion assigned to divisions to act as part of the combined arms team. Traditionally, the three missions of the combat engineer units were mobility, countermobility, and survivability.

Mobility, from where I was at the bottom of the food chain, was generally understood to be the reduction of natural and manmade obstacles to combat units on the battlefield, such as bridging rivers, breaching minefields and wire obstacles, and making emergency repairs to roads on the forward edge of the battle area.

Countermobility was just the opposite, not surprisingly. Emplacing minefields, wire obstacles, anti-tank ditches, cratering roads, and demolishing bridges to deny them to the enemy.

Survivability meant to assist in the construction of fighting positions for armored vehicles, dismounted troops, and artillery, and digging in  command posts, and supply dumps. Given the relatively small number of engineers assigned to a division (and the similarly small number assigned to today’s Brigade Combat Teams), that’s a pretty full plate.

Further, Engineers are the only organization that have a stated mission to be prepared to fight as infantry. Now, every soldier, and every unit in the field, is expected to be able to fight to some extent. But those units are expected only to be able to provide a limited self defense capability. They are not expected to mount attacks and defense a given sector against the main body of the enemies forces. And it is a foolish commander that uses his valuable engineering assets in this manner in anything other than an emergency. But the fact remains that combat engineer battalions are organized and equipped to fulfill that mission should a critical need arise. In effect, they are a built in reserve for the unit commander.

But the Engineer mission is far more than merely breaching obstacles at the front. They have a mission that extends from the very tip of the spear to the most rearmost echelons any theater the Army might find itself in. Indeed, until the Engineers get crackin’, there IS no theater of operations.

When the US began building up forces in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of Desert Storm in August of 1990, the region was very austere. While there were some port facilities and airfields already extant, the infrastructure was nowhere near capable of supporting the massive force eventually deployed. The combat elements of a modern army are quite capable of moving off road, but the logistical elements need a somewhat more robust road port, road and depot network to sustain large forces with the massive amounts of fuel, ammunition, rations, spare parts and other sundries a modern army requires. Simply providing potable water to 400,000 troops in the desert is a massive challenge.  The Army’s Engineers built or contracted for the needed infrastructure in record time. Similarly, as the US built up its forces in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the Engineers were there to provide the network of roads and bases that comprised the supply chain sustaining US forces in theater. We Americans have long taken pride in our troops abilities as fighting men (and women). But we should not forget that it is our institutional ability to build and sustain forces in the field that truly sets our services apart from the rest of the world, and the Army Engineer’s role in that ability.

We’ll shortly take a look a historical look at Engineers in World War II, especially one of the more remarkable types of organizations, the Engineer Special Brigades, and the key role the ESBs played in both Normandy and in the campaigns in the Pacific Theater.

UPDATE:  D’oh!!!  Craig reminded me that not only has he written about the CoE’s extensive efforts in flood control, his post had ‘splodey as well. Go watch some explosions!

More Here.

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Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history

The Reverse Slope Defense

While discussing Okinawa the other day, I mentioned the Japanese forces masterful use of the reverse slope defense.

The wise commander uses terrain as another tool in his kit, taking it into consideration along with the Mission, Enemy, Troops, Time available, and Civilian consideration. If you are ordered to defend, and your enemy has stronger direct and indirect fire weapons than you, a reverse slope defense may be advised. So what is the reverse slope defense?

A reverse slope defense is a technique in which the defending force is positioned on the far side of any elevated terrain from the attacker. Take the picture below as an example:


The reverse slope defense:

  1. Typically used when the attacker has greater firepower.

  2. Allows the defender to deny long range direct fires.

  3. Denies the attacker observation of the defense.

  4. Often uses an obstacle just below the reverse slope military crest to deny the attacker momentum.

Often the defender will have pickets and outposts on the forward slope to call artillery and mortar fires on the attacker as he approaches. The defender may choose, however, to instead ambush the attacker just as he crosses the crest of the terrain.

Often in mechanized combat, terrain features far more subtle than that in the figure above are used.  I served as the Opposing Force several times in the Pinon Canyon training site and each time, we would establish a reinforced platoon in the defense, against which a reinforced mechanized infantry/tank company team would attack.  Although our positions were on the highest ground on the battlefield, it was actually a reverse slope defense. The slightly steeper lower slopes meant that the attacking force could not see the high ground until he had reached a false summit approximately 1500 meters from our positions. And that’s just where we placed an obstacle belt of triple-strand concertina wire, an anti-tank minefield, and an anti-tank ditch. We’d also plotted pre-planned fires on several locations just forward of the obstacle. And as a nice touch, 15oo meters is just about the optimum engagement range for the Bradley’s 25mm cannon against light armor.

As the attacking company team approached, our dismounted infantry in advanced positions on the front slope could easily track him and provide us with plenty of early warning.  When the enemy approached the “crest” he was confronted by the obstacle belt. Forced to halt while preparing to breach the obstacle, the attackers were inevitably sitting in one of our artillery “kill boxes” and almost instantly had intense concentrations of artillery falling on his head.

As his engineers and mine-plow equipped tanks rolled forward to start their breach, they were easy pickings for our tank and TOW missile fires. The tanks and Bradleys supporting the breach effort were confounded because every time they came up to try to locate our positions, they too were instantly subjected to withering fires.

It wasn’t very often that a company team was able to breach our defenses on the first try.

Of course, the reverse slope defense isn’t always called for. Often, the defender will have greater long range direct and indirect firepower. In that case, he would probably maximize the engagement ranges of his weapons. Further, if an attacking force is able to rupture the lines of a reverse slope defense, the defender will be forced to displace to the rear. This negates the advantages of the defense, and often finds the defender pushed into the open, and subject to the same superior firepower of the attacker he was attempting to avoid in the first place. Several times during the Okinawa campaign, US forces struggled for days against small outposts, taking grievous losses. When they finally forced the Japanese to fall back to subsequent positions, the Japanese were forced into the open, and subject to slaughter by small arms, automatic weapons, mortars, artillery fire, naval gunfire, and airstrikes. It’s a lot easier to kill people in the open than dug into caves. And our troops took advantage of every opportunity to do so.

The reverse slope defense isn’t the answer to every military problem, but the wise commander always uses every possible advantage terrain gives him.

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Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history


We’re still working our way (oh so slowly) through the Greenbooks. We’re currently about halfway through the history of the Army campaign at Okinawa (we’re NOT reading them in order).

One of the things that is most striking is just how little frontage there was for such huge numbers of troops involved. At the Shuri line defenses, the island is only about 5 miles wide, and yet three entire infantry divisions were line abreast. The divisions (and in turn each of their subordinate formations) tended to follow the “two up, one back” rule of thumb. That is, each division would have two regiments abreast, with one in reserve to exploit any successes, or refitting and receiving replacements. Likewise, the regiments, battalions, and companies would have two units forward, with one in reserve. Still, that’s a very narrow frontage for an entire army corps.

The Shuri line of defenses were so formidable, however, that the entire corps advance was dependent on platoon and company attacks on strongpoints on the line. If one strongpoint couldn’t be reduced, the units attempting to bypass it would be pinned by automatic weapons, mortars and artillery the Japanese had positioned on the reverse slopes. Time and again, US troops would pay a horrific price to seize the front slope of a ridge, only to be too depleted to advance upon the rear slope. For that matter, the reverse slope defenses of the Japanese were masterpieces of the military art. They would contest control of the crest of a ridge, showering mortars and grenades on US troops clinging to the front slope. They had caves, bunkers, pillboxes and spiderholes, all linked by extensive tunnels, that made attacking downhill on the reverse slope every bit as hazardous as seizing the front slope.  Their positions were virtually impervious to mortar, artillery, and even 16” naval gunfire.  To make matters worse, when US forces managed to get enough troops and firepower onto a ridge to contest the reverse slope, enemy position on the frontal slope of the next ridge would fire upon them.


NISHIBARU ESCARPMENT AREA, which the  96th Division took.  On 21 April  the 3d Battalion, 382d attacked  eastern  end  of  escarpment  by moving through  the 381st’s zone to the ridge, then turning east. (Original caption from The US Army in World War II)

That’s an entire division’s objective. And it would take over a week to capture.


The interlocking nature of the Japanese positions was such that the preferred tactic of flanking attacks was impossible. Any move to the flank of one position was just a move to the front of another. Consequently, US forces had to time and again make costly frontal attacks on the most carefully constructed infantry defensive positions seen in the entire war.  Time and again, platoons would attack to destroy a single strongpoint. Units that would normally have a strength of almost 50 men would finish the morning with a bare handful of effectives. But what option was there? A platoon’s objective for the day might be a single enemy position only 20 meters across, and only 50 meters away. Entire regiments would be gutted of infantry strength in just a few days of attack.

The Japanese knew they had no chance of defeating the US on the island. But then, that wasn’t their mission. Their role was to buy time, to bleed the US as much as possible and give the forces in the Home Islands more time to prepare for the inevitable invasion.  And not only were the Army forces (and Marines) ashore being whittled down. The Navy, tied to Okinawa waters to support the men ashore, was being bled white by the Kamikaze attacks day and night. Those losses meant the 10th Army ashore had to keep attacking, to wrap up the campaign as quickly as possible.

Fast forward 40 years, and my experiences as a light infantryman. I was used to light infantry operating over vastly larger frontages. A rifle company on a seek and destroy mission might cover a zone a mile wide and three miles deep over a 24 hour mission. And as a mechanized soldier, the space a single company might be expected to operate over was vastly increased.

But could today’s forces do any better against a defense such as 10th Army faced in Okinawa? I doubt it. In fact, in some ways, we’d be worse off. While we have more automatic weapons at the platoon level, the organic firepower of a platoon isn’t much more than it was then. And supporting arms aren’t that much greater up to the battalion level. And weapons that were key to destroying the Japanese then are nowhere to be found today. One of the most useful weapons was the flame-throwing tank. Modified M4 Shermans replaced the 75mm gun tube with a flamethrower with a range of roughly 150 yards.  Today, flame weapons are almost unheard of on the battlefield.

The Army would desperately like to avoid the awful “hugger-mugger” type fight that exemplified the Okinawa battlefield. But sometimes, that’s not always an option. Operations in Fallujah showed that the enemy gets his vote on where the battle will take place. And fighting in cities takes an enormous commitment in manpower.  A single small building takes at least one squad, and often an entire platoon to secure.  Our advantages in weapons and technology are nullified. Only our advantage in training remains. But training will only go so far. Two men in a room, one with an M16, one with an AK- that’s far to close to a fair fight for my tastes. And yet, the Army will have to face this situation again on battlefields of the future. Sometimes, it just comes down to guts.

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Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history, infantry

The Future of the Combat Outpost

From Tet during the Vietnam war to the present day, our enemies have intuitively grasped that the key to defeating the US lies not so much in success on the battlefield, but in eroding popular domestic support of US campaigns. In virtually every battle the US has fought in the last 50 years, the US has been able to seize terrain virtually at will, and inflict casualties on its enemies at ratios from 10-1 to 100-1.  In a strictly military sense, we’re unbeatable.

But unless and until the US is willing to reduce the lands of its enemies to utter wastelands, the enemy has only to remain a viable threat, and wait until the US forces inevitably return home. They then resume their campaign to overthrow any existing regime, and establish themselves as the ruling power, and in the process, crow about their victory of the the evil forces of America.

For a couple of reasons, such as media bias, as well as access to information, US victories over the forces of darkness receive far less coverage than US defeats. Accordingly, our enemies strive to defeat US forces in any venue, regardless of any tactical or operational military significance those operations may have.

In any counter-insurgency campaign, the first and most important objective of our forces is to secure the local population. That means US forces have to be co-located with them. Given the small numbers of troops we can commit at any one time and place, this necessarily means only small units can be positioned in most towns and villages, at most a company, but more commonly a reinforced platoon.  These forces are positioned in what are, in Army jargon, “Combat Outposts,” or COPs. Ideally, COPs are located close enough to be mutually supporting, either by fires or maneuver. Sadly, geography often means that isn’t possible.

Further, the small numbers of troops available to any COP means the commander is faced with the challenge of sustaining a viable defense of the COP, while also needed to get outside the wire. There are two reasons he needs to go out. First, the force MUST engage the local population. US forces must provide, and be SEEN to provide, physical security against insurgent forces, support host nation civic institutions and security forces, promote infrastructure development and generally “show the flag.” Further, US forces have to patrol within their areas of influence to deny enemy forces safe havens, and provide early warning of any impending attacks on their COP.  In Iraq, during the surge, the COP was part of an “ink blot” strategy in which a COP would first provide security for itself, then the immediate surrounding area, then through the use of offensive patrolling and attacks on insurgent hide positions, expand its region of security and influence. Obviously, the more terrain you secure, the more troops you need.

Hunkering down in FOBs and COPs just isn’t an option. Before the surge, US forces often didn’t have the manpower to get out among the population to the degree needed to establish control over any area greater than their compound.  But these compounds still needed to be supplied with fuel, food, ammunition, spare parts, and personnel. This lead to supply convoys having to travel through areas that US forces could not secure. Logistical units, those least suited for combat operations, became the focus of insurgent attacks, both from IEDs and from ambushes.  When your entire fight comes down to securing your supply lines solely to support bases which exist only to protect themselves, you’re fighting a losing battle. The initial impulse is to consolidate your forces in order to shorten your lines of supply and reduce the vulnerability of your supply lines. But granting an insurgent force a safe haven is a losing proposition.

Eventually, the Surge allowed US commanders enough manpower to both establish an interlocking network of COPs, and the forces to operate outside the wire to provide security to neighborhoods, villages, towns and entire cities.

Similar, though not identical, circumstances are in effect today in Afghanistan. There are combat outposts scattered throughout areas occupied by US forces.  While the Taliban forces have little chance of defeating US troop units on a large scale, that doesn’t mean that they cannot conceivable mass sufficient forces to defeat a platoon COP. Militarily, the destruction of one US platoon doesn’t mean much. The Taliban would not be able to retain the position. They’d be exposed to destruction by US forces. But that isn’t their objective, is it?   The blow to domestic American political support for operations there would be worth almost any price the Taliban paid. The secondary effect of showing the local population that the US was unable to guarantee their security would be an added bonus.

Via War News Updates, we find this article from Wired that discusses insurgent attempts to overrun one US COP.


Twice in the span of a month, the Taliban has unleashed human waves on one of the U.S. Army’s most isolated Afghan outposts. Twice, the American soldiers guarding the tiny fort have beat back the attackers, killing scores of extremists while suffering no losses of their own.

The U.S. troops’ skill, and luck, have been remarkable. They’re going to need both, as more large-scale attacks seem likely.

The Oct. 7 and Nov. 8 assaults on Combat Outpost Margah, in remote Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan, came almost exactly a year after one of the biggest pitched battles of the decade-long war. An October 2010 attack on COP Margah by hundreds of Taliban foot soldiers wielding rockets and AK-47s resulted in a lopsided tactical victory for the Americans. More than 90 Taliban died in a counter-barrage of gunfire, helicopter-fired missiles and satellite-guided bombs. As in the recent assaults, no Americans died — though the fighting left deep psychological scars.

If Army forces can keep the Taliban at bay for as little as 30 minutes, they can call upon massive amounts of firepower to support them, and break the back of the enemy’s assault.  But relying on luck isn’t what we are paying our military leaders for.

ADP 3.0, the Army’s capstone doctrine publication, foresees a future battlefield where combat will take place across a spectrum from low-level civil disturbances, to small scale insurgency, to mid-intensity conflict*, all simultaneously in a single theater.  As such, it is almost inevitable that any future theater the US deploys to will see distributed operations that include numbers of small troop formations establishing COPs.

Back in 2008, at what came to be known as the Battle of Wanat, the enemy was able to seize the initiative and inflict significant casualties on a US platoon as it was establishing a COP. A combination of geography, lack of troops, bad weather, and lack of early warning lead to the loss of 9 US soldiers lives, with many more wounded.  The Rand Corporation, a think tank with a long history of providing analytical support to the US defense industry, has provided a “hot wash” review of the situation at Wanat, and offers a look at potential solutions that the leadership on the ground faced there.  The document is a 36 page .pdf, but the meat of the document is only about 15 pages. I’d encourage you to download it and read it for yourself.

While most of the proposed solutions to the tactical problems described are technical, the fact is, the answer is, as always, in leadership and training. Small unit leaders such as platoon leaders, must be trained and capable of applying METT-TC analysis and implementing troop leadership procedures to prepare for operations in remote locations in which supporting ISR assets, fire support, and reinforcement from other units may not be close at hand. Leaders at company, battalion, and brigade level have to be aware of the difficulties they are imposing on these small detachments. They have to have a plan in place to support them. In fact, they’d better have a strong plan in place to determine whether establishing a COP at a given location at a given time is a wise use of their limited resources, or whether operations elsewhere should be used first to facilitate follow-on operations with a greater chance of success.

*Mid-intensity conflict being what we think of as traditional war, force on force, organized army against organized army. High-intensity war being reserved to describe nuclear war.


Filed under Afghanistan, ARMY TRAINING, history, infantry, iraq

Having a Blast

Two stories about demolitions.

John B in the comments of the earlier posts talks about routinely training on demolitions. It’s a perishable skill. Practice may not make perfect, but it DOES keep you from blowing yourself up.

In the run-up to Desert Storm, I was the only guy in my entire company that had ever done live demolitions before. Accordingly, I was tasked to “train the trainer” and teach representatives from each platoon in the company how to rig some simple non-electric charges for breaching minefields. We had plenty of demolitions equipment- C-4, det cord, time fuse, igniters, and what have you. But no training materiel. Given that, all our training was live fire. Still, it’s not rocket science. After setting up (and blowing) a few charges, the newly trained “Subject Matter Experts” went back to their own platoons, and began to teach them. I wandered from platoon to platoon to check up on them. Most of them caught on very quickly.

One platoon, however, had a misfire. They pulled the fuse igniter. They waited the appointed time. No boom. Not good. They waited the required interval to ensure it wasn’t just a delayed explosion. Still nothing. Getting engineers or EOD out (as normal range practice would require) wasn’t really an option in the desert. So I was nominated to begin OTJ training for EOD.

I very slowly walked up to their charges, thinking that it would be a damn shame if Mrs. Xbrad’s little boy was kilt, and by a US caused accident at that. Turns out, there was very little risk of that happening.

The charge was laid out almost exactly as if they had consulted the manual. They could have been justifiably proud of their handiwork. Except for one little problem.

The fuse igniter had worked as advertised. The reason it hadn’t ignited the fuse? Well, they apparently got confused somewhere, because they were using det cord for fuse. And everywhere they should have had det cord, they had time fuse.


The other incident took place back when I first received demo training in Hawaii.  Det cord is often used to cut down trees and telephone poles. And sure enough, one of the “targets” on the demo range was a telephone pole. My battle buddy and I figured chopping it neatly in half would be pretty nifty. So we wrapped det cord around it. And wrapped and wrapped. I’d guess we probably put about 20 or 3o wraps around that thing.

The only problem? Nobody told us that cutting a telephone pole only takes about 2 wraps of det cord. PETN is pretty powerful stuff.

When we cranked the blasting machine, the top half of that pole went up like a Saturn V rocket.  When you’re 300 meters from the blast, and it there’s a real possibility you might have to dodge half a telephone pole, you just might have used too much.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, Personal


So it came to pass, right at the time in early 1986 when I reported to my first duty station in Hawaii, that unit, the 25th Infantry Division was in the midst of converting from the old ROAD division to the Div86 “Light” configuration.

More than simply a change in organization, the goal was to infuse a spirit of excellence throughout the entire organization, but most especially in the rifle companies that formed the heart of the division.  An intense “Lightfighter” training program was instituted across the entire division.  In addition to honing traditional infantry skills in the attack and the defense, a strong emphasis was placed on patrolling, and such tactics as raids and ambushes.  Training emphasized fieldcraft and self sufficiency. Among the many skills taught to us was demolitions- the use of high explosives.

Traditionally, demolitions are the province of the combat engineers. And truth be told, even after reading the field manual on demolitions, if I needed to drop a bridge or a building, I’d probably leave that to them.  But there aren’t a lot of engineers, so support isn’t always available. But there are often things that need to be blow’d up real good. Bunkers, captured enemy weapons, vehicles or other equipment, you name it. Obviously, providing some rudimentary level of demolitions competence to the infantry was a good idea.

So it came to pass that my platoon was scheduled for two whole days on the post demolitions range.  We had a Staff Sergeant and a Specialist from our supporting engineer company with us. They gave us the briefest introduction  to methods and to safety, they let us loose on several hundred pounds of high explosives.

The Army has in its inventory all kinds of explosives, but by far the most common is Composition Four, or C-4. It’s available in a wide variety of packages, but the standard is the M112 Demolition Charge. It’s a simple block of 1-1/4 pound of C-4 wrapped in a green plastic cover with an adhesive on one side.  C-4 is a plastic explosive. You can cut it, mold it, shape it, and do all sorts of things with it, like make a little Mr. Bill doll. Or if one block isn’t enough to blow up whatever it is you’re blowing up, you can stick multiple blocks together to make as big a charge as you need.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Unexploded ordnance destroyed by the 455th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal Airmen on Jan. 23 included everything from small arms, aircraft ammunitions and rockets, to Howitzer casings, large projectiles, rifle grenades and anti-tank mines. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Catie Hague)-Via Wikipedia

Back in those days, there were two methods of setting off C-4- electric and non-electric. Electric detonation was through the use of an electrical blasting cap, blasting wire, and a blasting machine, which was really just a small dynamo to generate an electrical charge. The charge travelled down the wire to the blasting cap, which detonated, and set off the main charge of C-4.  Truth be told, I was somewhat intimidated by electrical blasting. The list of safety precautions was long and detailed.  The odd thing is, the M18 Claymore mine uses electrical blasting,  and I was never concerned when using that. But weird things can happen with electrical blasting. If there’s enough radio frequency energy in the area, the long wires can actually build up an inductive charge and cause a premature detonation.

The other method, non-electrical, was simply time fuse and a blasting cap. Time fuse looks like green plastic tubing with a yellow ring painted on it every 18 inches or so. Unlike the fuse you see in the old western movies and whatnot, it is waterproof. A special pair of pliers is used to crimp a blasting cap one end of the fuse. The other end has a friction fuse igniter clamped onto it. The blasting cap is inserted into a hole in the C-4 (which, you poked the hole using the handle of the crimping pliers, usually). Pull the fuse igniter, and walk to a safe distance.  After a while… BOOM!

Non-electrical demolitions was pretty simple. There were only a few things you really had to remember (primarily about how not to blow your hand off while crimping the blasting cap).

The other piece of demolitions that we used was det cord. Det cord is a plastic tubing that looks similar to time fuse, but without the painted yellow rings. Inside the tubing is an explosive known at PETN. Det cord can be used as an explosive in its own right. For instance, wrap it around a tree or a telephone pole a couple times, and it will cut it neatly in half. But more commonly, det cord is used to link two separate main charges of C-4. You might want to destroy a captured bunker, a truck and a mortar. Rather than setting up time fuse three separate times, simply set up one charge with time fuse, and connect the other charges with a length of det cord. They’ll all go off simultaneously. That’s safer and quicker.

Those two days of blowing stuff up were probably the most fun I’d ever had on an Army range. Other than a strict instruction not to put charges under anything, always on top*, we had few restrictions placed on us. I think they may have had a limit of something like no more than 10 blocks in any one charge, but that was OK with me. We blew up old trucks and jeeps, cut down trees and telephone poles, dug instant foxholes, cut an old Bailey bridge and just generally had fun blowin’ stuff up.  The only thing that could have made it better was if I could have said “Here, hold my beer and watch this!”

The LT and I did get into a bit of trouble.  We were using det cord to cut a telephone pole in half.  No one told us we’d only need one or two wraps.  We wrapped it 20 or 30 times. Sent the top half of that thing flying like a Saturn 5.

Fast forward five years to Desert Storm. I was in a heavy mechanized Bradley infantry company. There was a real, if slim,  possibility that  we would have to use demolitions to breach bunkers or blast our way through minefields. Accordingly, we needed to refresh our demo skills. As it turned out, of an entire infantry company, only ONE soldier had ever done live demolitions. Guess who got to give a LOT of instruction to his fellow soldiers? In the event, we never had to use our skills on the battlefield. But soon after the cease fire, we were tasked to travel across the battlefield, and destroy any Iraqi equipment they had abandoned, so they couldn’t salvage it for later use.  Most vehicles and such were easily dispatched with a thermite grenade on the engine block, but armored vehicles had to be more thoroughly disabled. And so our skills were put to the test. Placing a 1-1/4 charge of C-4 with a 4 minute time fuse on the main ammo racks of BMP pretty much ensured it would never again be of any use. Plus, it was fun to blow stuff up!

*That pushes debris down.  You don’t really want to blow stuff UP, cuz it will come raining down on your head.


Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING


So, we’ll be posting more historical stuff about the Army of World War II. Many of the terms readers are familiar with today didn’t exist back then. Remember, there wasn’t even a Department of Defense back then. There were two cabinet level Departments, the Department of the Navy, and the Department of War.

The War Department was of course the office of the Secretary of War, but it was also the office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, or CSA  (which during the period we’ll be discussing was GEN George C. Marshall).  The CSA in the days before the war was the senior officer of the Army, but he was outside the chain of command. The SecWar gave the orders directly to commanders in the field (though as a practical matter, he transmitted them via the CSA).  The CSA wasn’t so much in charge of the troop units, but rather with the institutions of the Army, such as the various arms and services. The arms were the Coast Artillery, Field Artillery, Cavalry, and Infantry. These arms were established by law. Similarly, the various services such as the Quartermaster Corps, Signal Corps and Ordnance Corps were established by law. Each of these branches was led by a Major General, and ran that branch’s center and school. Each branch established its own training and doctrine, and developed its own equipment, and ran the school establishment that served as each branches repository of corporate knowledge.  The CSA also ran The Army Staff, which was responsible for the personnel (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Plans and Training (G-3) and Supply (G-4) policy of the Army as a whole. The Army Staff likewise was outside the chain of command.

In an era when the wartime mission of the Army was seen as one of continental defense (or a single expeditionary force, such as in Mexico in 1917 or France in World War I), having the SecWar serve as the direct superior of the field forces wasn’t impractical. But Marshall and the staff foresaw that the coming world war would be different. The Army would likely have to fight in multiple theaters spread across the entire globe. Few Secretaries had the military background to effectively manage such a wide spanning endeavor.

Americans traditionally loathed the thought of a national general staff on the lines of the continental powers, preferring to keep a far greater degree of civilian control over the Army. But Congress finally recognized the need to centralize control of field forces under a uniformed commander in Washington. The Secretary would still be his superior, and responsible for overall policy and strategy. But the actual command would be vested in a general. But not just yet. A law was passed permitting the formation of General Headquarters, US Army. But the law restricted GHQ to plans and training until such time as the Army actually entered the war. Marshall was finally in the chain of command, sorta. In the interim, the Chief of Staff of GHQ, LTG Leslie McNair assumed responsibility for training of all troop units in the entire Army.

After Pearl Harbor, Marshall was determined to get a better grasp of the reins of the Army. He needed to reduce the influences of the branch chiefs, and cut back on the number of people that theoretically had the right to demand an audience form him. There was already the autonomous Army Air Forces, run by Hap Arnold, with its own Air Staff. Marshall in turn transformed GHQ into The Army Ground Forces, and simultaneously formed the Services of Supply (later renamed the Army Service Forces). This three legged stool was the stable platform that built the wartime Army.

Most of our posts that look at the Army in World War II will focus on the ground forces, and thus AGF.

AGF was what today would be called a “force provider.” That is, AGF didn’t command the troops in the field. Instead, it created, equipped, trained and prepared for deployment the troops that the various theater commanders would command in battle.

We’ll examine the creation and command of theaters of war later.

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Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history

Before there was Basic

Even the most unmilitary civilian knows about Basic Training. But the concept of centrally training new soldiers at one location before sending them to a troop unit is actually a fairly new concept.

For most of the Army’s history, a man would enlist, and then be shipped directly to a troop unit. There the unit would train him in soldierly skills. In the peacetime Army of yesteryear, when the skills of the individual soldier were little more than musketry and the manual of arms, that was all that was needed. But as World War II loomed, the increasing sophistication of weapons and infantry tactics meant something more was needed.

For a large part of the draftee Army, the old practice still held sway. As the Army expanded after Pearl Harbor, the War Department brought new divisions into existence on almost a monthly basis. A cadre of officers and senior non-commissioned officers would be gathered, assigned to a camp or fort, and prepare to activate a brand new division.  About 1100 officers and men would be in this cadre. Soon, a troop train would pull into the camp railhead and offload 12,000 or so men. For the next year, the division would train. Theoretically, the first 13 weeks of the division’s existence would be dedicated training individual soldier skills such as marksmanship, drill and ceremonies, physical fitness, and other tasks that we would today see trained at a basic training center. After that level of training, the division would then move on to unit training. Training would progress from the platoon, to company, battalion, and finally regimental levels. As the training progressed, the individuals gathered more experience. Further, that progressive training allowed staffs at the battalion and regimental levels more experience and training time for their own needs. Also, this building block approach was needed, because until the troops were trained, there weren’t any assets for the battalion and regimental staffs and commanders to train with!

After mastering the unit level training program, the division would move to “combined arms” training, where the division as a whole was integrated in the field, combing infantry, artillery and supporting arms and services into one combat team. The capstone of the division training program would see the division either “fighting itself” by using one regiment as an opposing force and maneuvering against it with its other two regiments, or, in the best case scenario, the entire division engaging in maneuvers against another division in its capstone exercises. Once the division had completed its training cycle, it would be ready for deployment overseas. In this way, an infantry division could go from a blank sheet of paper to a potent combat force in one year.

Sounds easy and sensible, right? Well, of course, in practice, it wasn’t.  The problem was, as units started to go overseas, they started to need replacement personnel for losses. These losses ranged from the mundane (people with bad teeth couldn’t deploy) to the obvious replacement of casualties.

Divisions in training were repeatedly raided of personnel to provide replacements for the deployed divisions. That caused a great deal of personnel “turbulence” as they then would have to receive new troops, and start training them all over again. Further, most divisions had to “calve off” a cadre of 1100 or so of their best, most trained people to form yet another division. This constant turnover meant that divisions training schedules were rarely neat orderly progression envisioned. Training took longer than hoped for, and the end result of the training was rarely as satisfactory. Units were further handicapped by equipment shortages as well. Production shortages meant that divisions in training rarely had more than 50% of their allotted equipment on hand until they were alerted for deployment. Only then would they be brought up to full equipment. And that equipment usually came from raiding the stocks on hand of divisions further back in the training cycle.

To some extent, this problem, especially with regards to personnel, had been anticipated. In 1940, the Army set up its first basic training centers (though then they were known as Replacement Training Centers). Each of the combat arms (Coast Artillery, Field Artillery, Cavalry, and of course, Infantry) set up one or more RTCs. So did the then nascent Armored Force and a few of the technical services.

The RTC provided the thirteen weeks of individual training that was considered the minimum needed to prepare a soldier to deploy overseas and join a fully trained unit.

In 1942 and 1943, not many divisions had deployed overseas, so casualties were fairly light in the Army. The bulk of RTC grads were used to fill up shortages of divisions in the training pipeline. That was still personnel turbulence, but at least the divisions didn’t have to start all over again with “ this is the M1 rifle…”

But almost all Army divisions were activated by late 1943, and casualties in deployed divisions were increasing. By 1944, the demand for casualty replacements overseas was soaring. More and more, an inductees likely career path upon being drafted would be a thirteen week stint of basic training, then shipment overseas to a replacement depot, and eventually he’d find himself slotted in a rifle squad in one of the divisions.

After World War II, the size of the Army was slashed. No new units were activating, so the division making machine described above wasn’t a viable training model. Further, as the Cold War heated up (and as Korea amply demonstrated) units had to be maintained at a high level of training and readiness. They wouldn’t have the luxury of months of training before deployment.  Putting all soldiers through a basic training program to prepare them to join existing units was the only sensible scheme. And it continues to this day.

Troop units in the Army today, especially in the past decade, face many of the same problems. Ideally, a commander of an Infantry Brigade Combat Team alerted for deployment to Afghanistan would like a solid year of training to prepare. And ideally, he’d spend that year training the same troops, and deploying with those same troops. But it is a practical impossibility for a unit to have no turnover in two years. In that time, some soldiers will see their enlistments end, others will be promoted, and still others will prove unsuitable for military life and be administratively discharged. But the principle of minimizing turnover remains. Department of the Army works hard to keep the turnover to a minimum. But I’m sure the officers who read this blog know that rule is honored more in the breach…


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history


Still working my way through the first of the Army Green Books. I’m still studying the Army Ground Forces, responsible for fielding the the forces that theater, army group, army and corps commanders would eventually employ to defeat Italy, Germany and Japan.

We tend to remember the massive Army at the end of World War II, with millions of combat-hardened men under arms, a highly mechanized force, with enough motor transport to move the entire force, and lavishly supported by excellent artillery and tactical air forces. But the state of the Army in 1939 was parlous. There were only about 100,000 men on active duty, and no unit larger than a regiment. Divisions were organized, but with the regiments of the divisions scattered among posts across the country, they had no tactical cohesion.  While many officers had served on division and corps staffs during World War I, few officers had any real experience commanding large formations. Further, the highly maneuverable forces of World War II were far more challenging to command.

Even before the Selective Service brought millions of men to the colors, Army officers had to envision their training and employment. For an able and ambitious officer, the paradigm shift from the sleepy days of peacetime routines of battalions and regiments to the employment of an army group of a million men or more was heady stuff. Some officers thrived and were immortalized in history, Bradley foremost among them. Many other officers were simply unable to make the mental transition to such a challenge and were shunted aside.

In the interwar period, the 1920s and 1930s, the tactical role of the Army was really little more than to keep a small force in existence. The upper echelons of the Army, however, had broader horizons. Almost from the day the Armistice was signed in 1918, intellectuals in the Army realized it was likely that another large scale conflagration would erupt on the continent. The whole emphasis of the institutional side of the Army would be on preparing for a massive mobilization of the population, inducting, training, equipping and fielding a massive army.

While this foresight does credit to the Army leadership, let’s not give them too much…

Ever since the days of Napoleon, the model for modern armies had been just that, the industrial scale mobilization of conscripted troops. From the American Civil War, to the Franco-German War of 1870, to the First World War and leading up to World War II, military staffs had devised plans to rapidly induct and train masses of men to field huge formations. As the era of the mass conscription army progressed, the military art and science progressed, and staffs refined the concept further and further. By World War II, it was no longer enough to simply issue men rifles and packs. Sophisticated training for specialized troops for motor transport, artillery, aviation and engineering was needed.

Our Army was faced with budgets in the interwar years that were almost inconceivably tiny. The Army was shunned by the citizenry to a degree that we today just cannot grasp. After the wholesale slaughter of World War I, there was great revulsion amongst the population, and virtually no support for any defense spending. Even in the 1930s, Roosevelt was far more comfortable supporting the Navy than the Army. The Army was on a starvation diet, sometimes almost literally. Troop units could barely afford rations for their men. But somehow, the Army managed to scrape together a tiny bit of money and invest it. And it invested it wisely, into its schools system. At a time when an officer could spend twenty years in the service and barely make Captain, and it was rare for a unit larger than a battalion to take the field, the Command and General Staff School was encouraging senior Captains and junior Majors to imagine themselves as being on the staffs, or even commanding, corps, armies and entire army groups. The Army also founded the Army Industrial College. If the time for mobilization came, the Army would somehow have to equip millions of men. The industrial mobilization of the First World War had been neither industrious nor really mobilized. The Army could ill afford another such disaster.   The AIC’s job was to teach officers what industry could and couldn’t do, and sketch out where the Army would turn to to find the myriad and massive supplies it would need in the next war. The AIC also worked with leaders of industry to give them an idea of what it would be like to have the Army as a customer, and the unique needs of the Army.

Finally, given the level of sophistication any massive conscript army would have, the Army had to prepare to train not just large troop units, but the incredible numbers of soldiers in those specialized fields such as logistics and maintenance. Long before the schools were built for them, even before the idea for a draft was proposed, lesson plans and courses of instruction for hundreds of military specialties had to be devised, and then constantly revised to reflect advances in technology and equipment.

Possibly the most incredible feature of this great intellectual endeavor was just how small it was. General Headquarters, or GHQ, the staff responsible for training of troop units after the draft was enacted, was less than 100 officers, and yet was set to oversee the training of almost a hundred divisions, hundreds of separate tank, tank destroyer, artillery, and anti-aircraft battalions, as well as a plethora of other specialized units.


Filed under army, history

What do you call a Stryker Brigade with no Stryker’s?

The Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) was the Army’s interim unit design to implement highly networked, highly mobile, lightly armored units. The Stryker itself was seen as an interim vehicle until the (now cancelled) Future Combat System family of vehicles were produced.

The SBCT organization was a carefully developed blend of infantry and supporting arms, and supporting services. A properly organized unit is more than the sum of its parts.

But we came across this blurb at Murdoc Online that the next SBCT to deploy to Afghanistan will actually leave its Styrkers behind.

3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is readying for a deployment to Afghanistan in December, and it will leave its fleet of roughly 300 eight-wheeled Strykers at home.

Instead, about 3,000 soldiers from the brigade will drive a mix of armored vehicles that are already in Afghanistan, such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) and its all-terrain variety, the M-ATV.

Hmm… Interesting.

I can think of two reasons to leave the Strykers behind, and fall in on a fleet of MRAPs and M-ATVs already in theater.

First, the original flat-bottomed Stryker is quite vulnerable to mines and IEDs. New production double-vee hulled Strykers are addressing this problem, but there aren’t a lot in service yet.  So perhaps 3rd BDE/2ID is looking to minimize its casualties from IEDs. Depending on where the brigade deploys in Afghanistan, IEDs may well be the greatest threat, and using the MRAP fleet would make sense.

The other possibility that occurs to me is less charitable to the motives of the Army. There’s a good deal of pressure to maximize resources, and minimize expenditures. Is it possible the Army is just trying to save the costs of shipping a brigade’s worth of Strykers half way around the world? Dunno…

At the rifle squad level, the impact of changing the vehicles shouldn’t be too bad. Drivers will be challenged to learn just how to drive the new (to them) vehicles. And there will be some reorganization on the fly, since MRAPs have different capacities than Strykers. Squad integrity may be slightly compromised.

When the Strykers were introduced, they were just about the only vehicles in the Army fleet using the Army’s networked battle management system. For the most part, the combat vehicle fleet has been equipped with the systems. Hopefully, that includes the MRAP/M-ATV fleet the 3rd BDE will use.

But at levels above the rifle squad, some issues could arise. At the company level, Stryker units are supposed to have organic fire support via Stryker MGS 105mm guns, and Stryker mounted mortar systems. At a minimum, these companies are going to have to do without the 105mm direct fires they’ve trained with. The mortar systems will probably be towed systems behind MRAPs.

The worst part of this is that the brigade went through its predeployment training on its Strkers, and not on MRAPs. They lost any chance to shake out any problems before hand. The chances of them having to relearn the hard way MRAP equipped units have already learned are pretty high.


Filed under Afghanistan, ARMY TRAINING

General Donn Starry, RIP

Via Esli:

At the Army’s Command and General Staff College, in the Hall of Fame, there hangs a picture of one of the true giants of the army.  I pass it by on pretty much a daily basis, but don’t often pause to give it much thought.  But I did today. I just found out that he died on the 26th of August, at the age of 86. 

You can talk all you want about the current crop of generals, and indeed they are famous for a variety of reasons:  Generals Petraeus, Casey, Odierno, ad infinitum.  With the nation involved in multiple wars, we see their names in the news every day.  But few of them have, or will, make an impact as large as General Don Starry. 
General Starry was the driving force behind bringing the army out of the malaise of Vietnam.  From the standpoint of both Training and Doctrine, he was a visionary, and pushed for the development of “the Big Five.”  Those are the same weapons systems that we still use, and are still without peer on the battlefield:  the M1 Abrams, the M2 Bradley, the AH 64 Apache, the UH 60 Blackhawk, and of course the Patriot missile.  Not only did he push for the development of those systems, but fathered the doctrine of AirLand Battle with which to employ them, and developed the institutional training base on which to hone that Army to a lethal edge.

The Army’s Combined Arms Center recently ran a poll, asking if the Army had ever developed an operational concept as powerful as AirLand Battle.  By a margin of 85% the respondents (all masters of history and/or Army doctrine) replied in the negative.  You can argue that in this more modern, more complex operational environment, that ALB was passé; however, for the decades that it was the guiding operational concept for t he army, it had no match, and was certainly validated in combat in the Middle East.  Twice. 
Not to mention, Starry was a Soldier’s Soldier.  Rising from his enlisted roots (I must say that I am partial to that, myself), he commanded the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam on his way to greatness.

Though XBrad mentions AirLand Battle doctrine frequently (having been a product of that training), I suspect that General Starry’s name is not commonly known in America today. That is too bad.  Amongst those that do know it, his is an incredible and lasting legacy, one that is still realized, every day, in the day to day actions of the greatest army in the world. 

XBrad here. For my money, GEN Starry’s work revamping and revolutionizing the Army’s training in the post-Vietnam era was even more important. But most folks who study that phase of the Army’s history understand that the doctrine and the training were developed symbiotically. One would not happen without the other.

GEN Starry also had a personal influence on me. A large factor in my decision to accept orders to Germany (and thus transition from light infantry to mech infantry) was reading his excellent history Armored Combat in Vietnam.

The AUSA obituary for this remarkable man is here.

Gen. Donald A. Starry, USA, Ret., who began his service in the U.S. Army as a private during World War II and rose to the rank of four-star general to command U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and U.S. Readiness Command, died after a lengthy illness in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 26. He was 86.

Known as a great soldier, scholar, mentor, author and visionary, Starry, after serving two years as a private, entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1948 as a second lieutenant in the Transportation Corps. He eventually became an armor officer.

Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., president of the Association of the United States Army, said, “ The nation has lost one of our most courageous, selfless, perspective and innovative Army leaders. His accomplishments are many and his legacy is found in the very being of countless American soldiers.”


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history

Army Doctrine and Individual Equipment

After the Korean War, when the stark reality of the Cold War stared the Army in the face, money finally became available to modernize the forces from their World War II equipment. Faced with the threat of nuclear battlefields (and in those days it was pretty much assumed every battlefield would see nukes being employed almost willy-nilly) the Army modernized its organizations, doctrine, and equipment, right down to the soldier’s rifle and his individual equipment.

And so it came to pass that the Army adopted the M1956 Load Carrying Equipment.


Designed to carry the soldier’s ammunition, water, ration and sleeping equipment, the M1956 set was actually a fairly well thought out set of gear. It was more comfortable and lighter than its WWII predecessor. It was flexible and adaptable to changing needs and loads. It consisted of a equipment belt, suspenders, ammo cases, canteen cover and canteen, a small pack held by the belt and suspenders  (universally known as a “butt-pack”), and sundries such as the dressing case, entrenching tool case and sleeping equipment carrier.

It also reflected a view of how the Army anticipated the battlefield of the future would look. The Army of WWII was the most heavily motorized army in the world, and that trend had only increased in the years since. Large elements of infantry were being mounted in armored personnel carriers, and even those that weren’t mechanized still had large numbers of wheeled vehicles.  Mobility on the battlefield was a key feature of the “Pentomic” division organization, and most troop movements behind the very front lines were expected to be by truck, rather than foot march. Troops would dismount the trucks, and move directly into the attack (or defense, as the case may be). The point was, it was expected to be quite rare that troops would be away from resupply by wheeled vehicles for more than one day. At a minimum, an M274 Mule would make its way to them.

If you’ve been watching some of the “atomic age” videos I’ve posted lately, you’ll notice troops wearing the M1956 gear, to include the field pack. The buttpack had just enough room to hold one Meal, Combat Individual (the infamous C-ration), a change of socks, and maybe a shaving kit. If it was cold weather, the sleeping carrier straps could carry a sleeping bag and a poncho. So the soldier was carrying enough for one day, but not much more. It just never occurred to Army planners that troops would not be on a linear battlefield, getting supplied by truck daily.

Vietnam may not have been a rude shock to planners, but it did find infantry units ill equipped for multi-day operations in dense remote terrain, where the only resupply would be by helicopter, and even then only infrequently. The Army didn’t even have a rucksack in widespread issue at that time. It wasn’t until well after major troop units had been in combat for a year that the Lightweight Rucksack started to be issued to most troops in country.

Of course, by the time I’d joined the Army, the individual equipment had advanced to ALICE gear, and the Army had rediscovered the character building aspects of burdening young soldiers with 80 pound packs.

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Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history

Ground Surveillance Radar

One often overlooked piece of “own the night” gear that the Army has long used is ground surveillance radar. We’ve all seen ships and aircraft detected by radar, but the Army uses small portable radars to detect, locate, and track vehicles and even dismounted troops at long range and under limited visibility. In the era before widespread adoption of image intensification devices (starlight scopes) and thermal imagers, spotting enemy movement at night was limited to the naked eyeball, or relying on artillery illumination rounds. GSR was able to penetrate the darkness and spot movement at ranges of up to several miles. While they were of limited utility in close terrain such as forests, they were quite capable tools in the hands of skilled operators, particularly in open terrain such as rice paddies, or the farm lands of Western Europe.

I particularly recall during my one and only rotation to the National Training Center (NTC) we had a GSR team working in support of our company once. My squad of dismount infantry was located about 4 kilometers forward of the company defensive position. We were supposed to detect and destroy any reconnaissance forces the Opposing Forces (OpFor) sent in against us. We had been briefed to expect teams of two or three men. We had plenty of night vision goggles, but it was a particularly dark night, and they only offered a range of a couple hundred meters. The GSR team was able to spot OpFor recon teams two or three kilometers out, and even guide us to intercept the enemy. They also gave us early warning when the OpFor sent in two companies of light infantry to destroy us. At least we knew we were doomed.

One long serving set was the AN/PPS-5 GSR. A product of the mid-1960s, the Pips Five was relatively light and quite simple to operate (though achieving best results required an extensively trained operator). They were assigned to GSR teams located in the Military Intelligence Battalion of each division.

This is all a pretty long winded way of introducing this video.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history

Tools of the Com-El trade- Old School

Since I was talking about Army jargon, and the tools of command (C4ISR), I had a flashback to some of the toys I used to play with.

As a young PFC in Hawaii in 1986, I was the senior (of two) Radio Telephone Operators (RTO) in my light infantry platoon. And so it fell upon me to maintain not only my weapon and personal equipment, but also ensure the rest of the Communications-Electronics (or Com-El, a little more jargon for you!) of the platoon were properly maintained.

In addition to radios, the platoon had a generous amount of other equipment. Going by memory, here’s a run-down of the equipment:

Two AN/PRC-77 man-pack radios, with accessories

Four AN/PRC-68 walkie talkie radios, with accessories

One RC-292 long range antenna

Five AN/PVS-2 night vision weapon sights (starlight scopes)- later replaced by AN/PVS-4 starlight scopes

Six AN/PVS-5 night vision goggles

Four TA-1 Sound powered telephones

One TA-312 Sound/battery powered telephone

One switchboard (I’ll admit, I cannot for the life of me remember the nomenclature, and never once used it in Hawaii. I did set up a switchboard complex once in Colorado, just to see how it was done)

Two DR-8 Wire laying reels, each with about 1000 feet of WD-1 aluminum telephone wire

Two AN/PAS-7 handheld thermal viewers

One AN/TRS-2 Platoon Early Warning System

I didn’t have to do all the maintenance on this pile by myself. But I did have to ensure everything was cleaned and serviceable, and ensure all the maintenance paperwork was up to speed (and in the Army, if the paperwork doesn’t say the job was done, it wasn’t done).

For a platoon that rarely had more than 30 people able to deploy to the field, that’s a pretty good haul of equipment. So even back in the Stone Age of the 1980s, the Army clearly put a lot of emphasis on both communications, and owning the night. The emphasis has only grown stronger since then.

Craig had an excellent series of posts about tactical radios in the Army a while back, so let’s talk a bit about two of the “own the night” systems.

The AN/PAS-7 was an early thermal imaging system. And for a piece fielded in the early 1980s, it actually worked fairly well. It was somewhat bulky and heavy, and the resolution was terrible. Humans would show up as reddish white blobs. But it was enough. Unlike starlight scopes, thermal viewers don’t need any ambient light. They work just as well on the darkest nights as in bright moonlight. You couldn’t really spot anything through vegetation, but if you had a fairly open area to watch, it could be pretty handy. The batteries didn’t last long, and they too were bulky (and unique to the system, so you never had enough), but you could in fact tell that people were out there. But improvements to image intensification systems like the PVS-7 night vision goggles and PVS-4 starlight scopes led to the PAS-7 being dropped as obsolete.

The TRS-2 PEWS was an interesting approach to a vexing problem. Light infantry platoon were just that- light. They relied a great deal on surprise and stealth for their effectiveness. So they couldn’t afford to be surprised themselves when in a patrol base or the defense. The PEWS was a set of 10 seismic sensors that would radio back to a central monitoring base with the platoon to warn of any foot or vehicular traffic. Platoons would emplace the sensors on the most likely avenues of approach, and monitor the base station. Of course, this didn’t obviate the need to maintain security the old fashioned way, but when the system worked, it did provide cueing to the leadership as to which way a threat was approaching from. We didn’t use the PEWS very often, but we did use it and even came up with some interesting variations on its employment.

We would generally try to have a squad sized ambush emplaced on the most likely avenue of approach. But there was always a good chance that the enemy wouldn’t cooperate, and would find some other way of approaching our position. So instead of just using the PEWS for early warning, when we laid in our sensors, we would also coordinate with our mortar and artillery fire support to pre-plan fire missions on those locations. That way, if we sensed troops coming at us, but knew they weren’t going to run into our ambush, we could still attack by a “bolt from the blue” artillery strike. Now, we never actually fired artillery or mortars at our comrades portraying the forces of evil, but the times we tested it, it seemed to work pretty well.

But the PEWS was very finicky. The range from the sensors to the base station was never nearly as good as advertised, and like so many items of its day, the batteries were in short supply, and had short lives. Further, the sensors were not terribly robust. After a few days in the field, you’d be lucky if half of them still worked. And spare parts were tough to come by. And woe, woe! to the platoon that emplaced a sensor, and then couldn’t find it in the morning. You’d be there all day looking for it. Finally, these factors led to us just leaving the PEWS behind, and concentrating our training on the meat and potatoes of our jobs, patrolling, raids, and ambushes.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, history

What’s Old is New Again

For almost a decade, the Army has been focused on low intensity conflict (a very relative term!) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, there’s no such thing as low intensity to the guy in a firefight, but the fact remains that Afghanistan and post-invasion Iraq were fought primarily against insurgent forces, not near-peer competitors fielding what we tend to think of as modern armies.

But with the reduction of US troops in Iraq, and the possible drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan in the near future, the Army is again looking at the need to train for higher intensity conflict, what they now call “full spectrum operations.”

YAKIMA – Capt. Dan Ferriter is used to facing elusive insurgents on his combat tours of in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve been the Army’s main enemy during his six-year career, planting roadside bombs and taking shots at American soldiers from hidden places.

Now the former Ranger is training to fight a different foe, but one just as lethal for American forces who have been emphasizing counterinsurgency warfare for nearly a decade.

Ferriter, a Stryker brigade officer from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is getting back to basics and preparing to go to war against another military rather than a shadowy network of terrorists.

“This is pre-9/11,” the dirt-covered captain said last week during his company’s drills at the Yakima Training Center. “The guys that were in the Army pre-9/11 are starting to get few and far between.”

Ferriter is in the desert of central Washington this month with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The 4,000-soldier brigade has deployed to Iraq three times since 2003 – it was the first of the Army’s eight Stryker brigades – but it doesn’t have another mission to Iraq or Afghanistan on the horizon.

It’s using this opportunity to build skills for what the Army calls “full-spectrum operations.”

“The hard part is not losing how good we’ve become at (counterinsurgency) and making the right balance,” said Ferriter, 28, of DuPont.

Back in my day, this was meat and potatoes, bread and butter stuff. Mechanized force on force warfare was the focus of much of the Army from the immediate post-Vietnam era through the end of the Cold War. And we were very good at it (see: Storm, Desert).

It wasn’t until the messy and bothersome interventions in such garden spots as Somalia and the Balkans that the Army even began to realize that it might have to fight in ways it didn’t really want to, in urbanized terrain, against non-state actors such as terrorists and insurgents. As an institution, the Army was slow to grasp some of the difficulties of fighting in that environment. Stability and support operations doctrine was slow to evolve, and to say that many troops early in Iraq had only On the Job Training would be accurate.

Faced with the need to deploy large numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in these counter-insurgency campaigns, the Army tailored the pre-deployment training of its forces to their next deployment, and focused on the roles and missions those units would be tasked with. That’s only right and proper. We call it battle focused training for a reason. And it would be immoral for the Army to not provide the best suited training for its soldiers as they were spun up to deploy.

But while the Army was largely focused on those two theaters, the rest of the world didn’t go away. The possibility of conflict with near-peer nations hasn’t disappeared. And a lot of the skillsets that troops in combat arms units used to practice have withered from disuse. As the article notes, (and as Esli and LTC F note in a pair of excellent comments left at NepLex’s post on this subject) the people who grew up doing “full spectrum” operations are largely gone. The Army, despite excellent retention, has a lot of personnel turnover, and the “tribal knowledge” has been diluted by that.

An armor or “heavy” infantry officer in the days of “AirLand Battle Doctrine” had a fairly predictable career path, much of which allowed the doctrine of maneuver warfare to sink into his bones. A tour as a platoon leader, then either as a company XO or specialty platoon leader, time as a company commander, then as a junior staff officer at battalion or brigade, time for advanced military and civilian schooling, time as a senior staff member or battalion XO, and then on to battalion command. All that time, he’d be using the same basic doctrine, and learning ever more complex ways to utilize the basic tools available to him, and how the various units and staff sections, and supporting arms and services worked hand in hand to achieve victory against a large maneuvering enemy force, usually heavy with armor and motorized infantry.

Today, while our young officer might have many of the same assignments, his focus has been elsewhere. As Esli will attest, not since his days as a company commander has unit training been focused on fighting enemy tanks.

It is about time the Army return to this capability. One of the reasons we have faced insurgent forces is that our enemies realized in the wake of Desert Storm that a stand up fight against us was a good way to get your ass kicked. But as we have focused more on the counter-insurgency fight, some potential enemies may start to feel froggy enough to take us on under certain circumstances. We need to be prepared for that.

A couple of complications lie ahead, not just from the lack of experience throughout the force in maneuver warfare.  One, the Army has transitioned form a division based organizational structure to a brigade centric organization. The Army had 50 years of experience in learning how to fight a division in high intensity warfare. It has almost no practical experience with the new brigade concept. It will learn (and they DO have the practical experience of actually using the brigade organization in the real world for a decade now), but there will certainly be some bumps in the road, and some surprises.

Second, the Army isn’t facing an “either/or” situation, where it gets to choose between a “heavy” fight, or a COIN campaign. The new doctrinal name “full spectrum operations” recognizes that any heavy fight will almost certainly also involve a lot of stuff the Army would prefer not to deal with, such as insurgents, paramilitary forces, the need to perform stability and support operations simultaneously ( or nearly simultaneously) with combat operations, and interfacing with civilian populations, allied forces, and non-governmental organizations, all while trying to fight a fast moving heavy opponent.

The practical effect of that is, they have far more tasks that units simply must train for. And there is only so much time, money and other resources available to train units. Finding the right balance, as CPT Ferriter says, is going to be the hard part.

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Filed under Afghanistan, armor, army, ARMY TRAINING, iraq

The False Allure of the Draft

Universal Military Service would be a disaster for the Army. As long as I’ve been reading blogs, I’ve seen commenters arguing that the nation should bring back the draft. For several reasons, this would not be advisable. The electoral political problems are outside the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that there is not popular political support for the idea. But if there were some crazy confluence of opinion that  brought it about, the supporters of the idea would quickly come to regret the decision.

Almost every discussion of universal military service claims it would be beneficial to the youth of America to serve the nation. But that isn’t the metric by which these things are measured. The only valid question is “does this improve the defense of the nation?” I’ve railed against social engineering in the service where “diversity” is proclaimed as a good in and of itself, and a goal that must be reached. No one has ever shown me the metric by which diversity makes a unit more combat ready. Most of my audience is politically conservative (as am I). How can we argue against using the military as an agent of social engineering in the case of diversity, then turn about and argue for a massive shift in our defense posture based solely on the desire to engage in social engineering of our own? If the draft isn’t implemented to improve the combat readiness of the Army, why do it? And if the draft can be shown to hurt combat readiness, doesn’t that mean that any supposed benefits to society are not worth the price?

The foremost problem with the idea of universal military service is that there are just too many people in the country compared to the size of the Army we’re willing to support. Our active Army is currently somewhat more than half a million troops, and a roughly similar size for the reserve components. Roll in the other branches of the service, and the total comes out to just under 1% of our population. For the Army to maintain its strength, it currently recruits roughly 1% of the seniors in high school, and a similar number of recent graduates.  If we were to truly implement universal military students, we’d be looking at inducting somewhere around 47% of high school seniors. That’s a massive number of people, far beyond any capacity for the army to house, let alone train.  How many male seniors graduate each year? And how many divisions would that amount to?

Further, large swaths of this population of seniors is unsuited for military service.  Many suffer from health issues that would make them liabilities more than assets. Large numbers graduate from high school with such poor reading and math skills as to be virtually untrainable for even the most minor technical fields. Far too many have already had such encounters with law enforcement demonstrating the lack of moral fiber to be successful in the service. And of course, there are an enormous number of young Americans that are just too fat to make good soldiers. Under the current standards of service, just finding sufficient numbers of people qualified to serve is a challenge. What would we do with those people that are unsuitable? Our options would be to either drastically change the standards of service (thereby lowering combat readiness, and saddling commanders with troops that just can’t do the job) or exempt those unqualified under the current standards of service, and in effect, punish those folks who do meet the standards by forcing them into the service while others who made poor choices (ate too much, smoked dope, broke the law, failed to study) are rewarded with an exemption from service. That’s a perverse incentive system there, and one almost guaranteed to have unhappy second order consequences.

Any large increase in the number of soldiers will cost enormous sums of money. That’s money we just don’t have, and frankly, I don’t think the Chinese are all that willing to finance a large expansion of our military right now. Faced with a large increase in the end strength of the Army, the choice would be to raise and equip units to the standards we employ now, in terms of equipment and supporting logistics, at ruinous costs; or to raise large numbers of formations that are primarily infantry based, with a lesser standard of equipment and support (and probably lesser standards of training as well- training dollars and space to train troops ain’t cheap). But what would we do with these large, poorly equipped, poorly trained units? Are we willing to have two levels of competency in the Army? Regular units that are equipped and trained as they are today, and then large draftee units that, if committed to combat, would be certain to sustain higher casualties, and less likely to achieve their missions? I think not. It would neither raise the combat readiness of the Army, nor would it be fair to those people drafted.

Indeed, as much in favor as I am of a larger Army, what would the mission of all these units be? Having a large Army sitting around doing nothing isn’t very useful. It smacks of the worst sort of government make-work.

If we can’t accept ALL the available manpower into service, then the draft ceases to be Universal Military Service, and instead becomes Selective Service. But who would decide who would be selected? Almost invariably, a series of exemptions would be carved out that would allow either deferment or exemption from service. How likely is it that those exemptions would lead to the wealthiest, most privileged finding a way to avoid an unpleasant couple years of service, while the poorer (and more minority laden) slices of America would be more likely to be called to the colors? It was largely because of this injustice in how the draft was implemented that we went to an all-volunteer force in the first place.  Further, loading up the Army with tens of thousands of inductees that feel that they are paying a price that the elites of the country don’t have to would build resentment. Tell me how that would help raise esprit de corps and contribute to combat readiness. Nobody ever said life in the Army was fair, but usually troops realize they’re getting screwed by the fickle finger of fate, not their friends and neighbors.

There is no practical way to implement a draft that would improve the combat readiness of the Army.  I remain extremely proud of my service in the US Army. I strongly believe that most people that enlist will benefit from it. And I can recall more than once as a recruiter meeting young men and women that I wished I could compel to serve. I thought they would be an asset to the Army, and  I thought that such service would benefit them as well. But there is no way devise a conscription that would be free from abuse and still help the Army recruit, train, equip, field and sustain a force second to none.


Filed under ARMY TRAINING, Politics

What is the Army doing in Iraq these days?

Security Force Assistance:
XBradTC here.  With the end of active combat operations in Iraq by US forces, the news has mostly shifted to the war in Afghanistan. But there are still about 50,000 US troops deployed in Iraq. These troops consist of both a large support echelon to provide logistical support to US forces and to our Iraqi allies, but also several brigades that have been mission tailored to  help train and advise the Iraqi National Army. This is a mission that was normally tasked to the Special Forces community prior to 9/11. Given the huge scale of building a new national army, however, there is no way  Special Forces alone could achieve the mission. Further, the SF community is already stretched thin meeting its commitments in Afghanistan and in all the other places in the world where the US helps train and mentor our allies and friendly nations. So the Army solution is to task a brigade to perform the Security Force Assistance mission, augmenting that brigade with advisors and other assets tailored to fit the new mission.
This is a mission wholly outside the scope of my experience, so I’ve asked a friend of mine, MAJ(P) Esli T. Pitts, an Armor officer of the US Army, to share his insights. Esli has served three tours in Iraq,  one during the initial invasion of Iraq, one during the Petraeus Surge, and served six months in an advise and assist brigade on his third tour. He’s uniquely qualified to comment on this mission.

With the advent of “Operation New Dawn” in Iraq, you may be aware that the mission has changed to one of Security Force Assistance, as opposed to the previous model of Full Spectrum Operations (FSO).  But what has really changed? What exactly is Security Force Assistance (SFA)?
As background, prior to September 1st, 2010 (Operation New Dawn), the army was conducting FSO in Iraq. This meant, on any given day, that units might be conducting offensive, defensive, or stability operations in a Counterinsurgency (COIN) environment.   This operational concept is based on Gen Krulak’s “three block war” model from the 1990s, and was formalized in the army’s 2008 update to FM 3-0 (Operations). 
As a result of the 2008 security agreement between the United States and the government of Iraq, we agreed to drastically scale back US-led combat operations, and  allow Iraqi Security Forces to take the lead.  Security Force Assistance is the natural evolution of that agreement. 
The Army’s FM 3-07.1 (Security Force Assistance) codified this capability within the army, and the recently released Change 1 to FM 3-0 (Operations) has standardized SFA as a primary stability task.  FM 3-07.1 defines SFA as “The unified action to generate, employ and sustain local, host-nation, or regional security forces in support of legitimate authority.”  Practically speaking, what does that mean?  The most obvious part of the answer to this question is that, in New Dawn, the Army does not conduct Full Spectrum Operations anymore, but only the stability mission (in the form of SFA), having dropped the offensive and defensive missions.  (This does not preclude providing security for ourselves.)
I served with one of the early brigades assigned the SFA mission and we wrestled with how to form them and train them.  These brigade combat teams were initially designated as Advise and Assist Brigades.  Having been called an AAB for just long enough to get used to it, the army later changed the designation to Brigade Combat Team-Augmented for Security Force Assistance, or BCT-A for short.  No sooner than we got used to this than we deployed to Iraq and our higher headquarters, and every other brigade insisted on using the original, and probably more appropriate, AAB, which resulted in yet another change for us.  (This changes a lot of letterheads, PowerPoint slides and signature blocks, evaluation and award narratives!)  For now, the army has, at least unofficially, standardized the naming convention by designating AABs as those operating in Iraq, while BCT-As are operating in Afghanistan. 
In conference with representatives of both the Department of State and National Security Advisor, we were told that the Advise and Assist mission should feel “like wearing a pair of pants that don’t fit.” That is, it should feel uncomfortable and unnatural to a bunch of war-fighters.  We were warned that we would be paving the way for future US/Iraqi relations at the strategic or national level, and should not “win the fight at the checkpoint” but destroy the future national relationship, with the all-important question of “what happens after the final troop withdrawals currently scheduled for no later than December of 2012?”  By this, I mean that we could not let tensions or animosity (or an impression that US forces did not abide by the security agreement) arising from friction between USF and ISF at the unit level sour impressions at the level of the generals and political leadership.  For example, while US forces might be authorized to travel through a particular check point, it doesn’t mean that we prevail every time some misguided Jundee (Iraqi soldier) tries to stop it.
So what does an AAB/BCT-A do?  What does it look like on the ground?  Well, first off, the BCT itself probably does not actually own ground in the traditional sense.  We consider our battlespace to be the ISF units, and our key terrain is the Iraqi leadership.  There are a variety of ways to skin the advisory cat, but all are built around a core of Stability Transition Teams (STT)s that are currently replacing MTTs, SPTTs, BTTs, and every other Training Team that has appeared in Iraq.  Speaking only of my experiences, these STTs are assigned to the organic American line battalions in the BCT for support, and the battalions themselves are in a supporting role to their STTs.  Each STT consists of a pair of field grade officers (MAJ, LTC, COL) that serve as the primary advisors to Iraqi unit leaders.  They may be from a variety of branches, not necessarily Infantry or Armor.  They are augmented by additional Soldiers, NCOs and Officers from the supporting battalions that  serve to provide functional specialties such as fire support, communications, logistics or other traditional support.  Additionally, each STT has a complete line platoon with which they are habitually aligned for escort and security requirements.  The STTs are responsible for facilitating US-supplied enablers to Iraqi operations, such as MEDEVAC, QRF, military working dogs, and other support.  In addition to the relationship between STTs and Iraqi unit leadership, there is a partnered relationship between ISF and USF units (meaning the US Brigade Combat Team’s organic platoons, companies, and battalions)which provide USF support to ISF combat operations if necessary.  Other brigades have chosen to keep their STTs at the brigade level and task them out on an as-needed basis.  Every brigade has been unique.
Over and above the STTs, the BCT staff itself is able to provide additional training support to the ISF units as requested. This training consists of skills that lie largely in the BCT staff, such as specialized intelligence, communications, engineering and communications capabilities.  Additional specialties include the ability to consolidate training teams to support large scale throughput of Iraqi MOSs such as mortar training or training for the Iraqi’s new M1A1 tank fleet.  Because of our variety of skills, we were responsive to the needs of our partnered units and could tailor specific training plans to meet their needs.
What is the way ahead for SFA?  Well, primarily it is a concept that is designed to be employed in a pre-conflict environment, and synchronized with the army’s force generation cycle.  For example, the army could take a BCT undergoing reset after redeployment from OIF/OEF and designate them to be a BCT-A, with the intent to subsequently deploy them to an identified friendly nation that has a need for assistance in training its own military forces.  The US BCT could receive its augmented pool of field grade officers and undergo cultural, language and regionally specific training before deploying to provide training and operational support to a host nation. This BCT could be task-organized to provide the right assistance to the host nation.
Traditionally, what I am describing, is called Foreign Internal Defense, and conducted by Special Forces.  SF, however, is fully committed to other missions at this time, and for the foreseeable future.  That said, though the bugs are not all worked out (primarily a VERY limited availability of field grade officers), SFA is an idea whose time has come.

XbradTC again- The use of regular Army Brigade Combat Teams in the SFA mission is a doctrinal shift away from the Cold War days. In my day, we spent a lot of time making sure US units could work well alongside allied nations. But the key there was alongside. The thought of regular US units being tasked to train or advise other national armies was utterly unheard of. In addition to the talents of the STTs and brigade staff, this new mission is going to require  junior soldiers and NCOs to embrace ever larger skill sets, and place them in a position where they can either greatly cement relations, or potentially do them  great harm. It is a testament to the modern US soldier that they can take on such a mission and succeed.


Filed under Afghanistan, army, ARMY TRAINING, iraq

Squad and Platoon Combat Drill

If you’ve ever played sports, you’ve run drills in practice. Not surprisingly, the Army uses drills as well. It is impossible for a platoon to prepare for every situation on the battlefield. But a platoon can prepare for the most likely events. One common instance is contact with the enemy while the platoon is moving from one point to another.

We discussed movement formations earlier. The most common formation for a platoon is for the fire teams to be in wedge formation, while the squads and the platoon as a whole is in column.

plt wedge

Not surprisingly, the lead squad is usually the squad that makes the initial contact with the enemy. Often, making contact means “the lead squad is taking small arms fire.” When this happens, the squad combat drill (and the platoon combat drill, concurrently) instantly and without orders begins.

First and foremost is the most natural reaction. The lead fireteam takes cover and starts to return fire. The team leader for this lead team is doing several things at once. He’s making sure his team has taken cover, he’s attempting to locate the enemy and discern their strength, and he’s directing the fire of his team onto the enemy. He’s making sure his automatic rifleman is suppressing any enemy machine guns and his grenadier is either engaging the most threatening targets, or firing smoke to provide concealment as needed. And oh, yeah, he’s getting ready to report to his squad leader.

The squad leader, in the meantime is moving up to the lead team to locate the enemy and determine if the lead team can suppress them. By “suppression” we mean, can they put enough fire on them to keep them from accurately targeting our guys. You don’t necessarily have to hit the bad guys to suppress them. Enough fire to keep their heads down will do the job. Of course, as my first company commander was fond of saying, one round to the head is effective suppression.  If the lead team can suppress the enemy, he can immediately use his second team to move to the enemy flank and assault them to kill or capture them.

Here’s the beautiful thing about tactics- this flanking maneuver, where one element serves as a base of fire to suppress the enemy and another moves to a flank to assault works at every level. Whether it is called a flank attack, a holding attack, or fire and maneuver, it is essentially the only tactic you need to know, from squad level to division level.

If the lead team cannot suppress the enemy, the second team of the lead squad is brought up to add its firepower to the base of fire. While this is happening, the platoon leader and the machine gun team travelling with him moves into position. The platoon leader makes his estimate of the situation, emplaces the machine gun team and has it engage to suppress the enemy, and makes a determination as to whether the lead squad has suppressed the enemy, and if so, can one or both of the following squads make a flank attack. Alternatively, he can bring a second squad (and the other machine gun team) up to add suppressive fires, while sending the third squad to attack from the flank. Normally, the platoon leader will accompany the flanking assault, but he may decide to remain with the base of fire. It is a judgment call.

Right about this time, our platoon leader is a very busy young man. In addition to moving up to take control of the engagement, emplacing the machine gun team, and determining how and where to make his flank attack (or even if he can- he may need to use the entire platoon as a base of fire, and let another of the company’s platoons maneuver to make a flank attack), he’s also on the radio to the company commander telling him where he’s made contact, and what type of contact he’s facing. He’s also busy getting the ball rolling on getting fire support into the fight. This might be in the form of mortar fire from the company’s two 60mm mortars, or it might be artillery support or even getting supporting Apache gunships overhead. He has his Forward Observer with him to help, but it is still a lot for a young man a year or two out of college to handle.

While our young platoon leader is doing this, his platoon sergeant, the most experienced soldier in the platoon, is busy bringing up the second machine gun team, getting the feel for what the situation is, preparing to either take charge of the base of fire, or lead the assault on the enemy flank.

In a well trained platoon, these actions have been practiced dozens of times, and are as familiar and automatic as an NFL team  running a screen pass on second down. This is bread and butter stuff. You simply MUST be able to do these fundamental actions, and you simply MUST have practiced them enough that they are second nature. There is no time to sit back and think what your reactions should be. Once you have a bit of a grip on the situation, THEN you can take a moment to figure out your next steps. But your platoon must have the basics down. I’ve probably walked through the drill a thousand times. Most of the time, it’s just that, a walk-through. After that, increasingly realistic practice builds on the basics. And once you’ve mastered the simple drills such as this, you and your platoon can move on to more complex endeavors (such as doing it at night!).

In the video above, you can see the beginning of the combat drill. The troops are laying suppressive fires on the enemy, and getting fire support rolling. They’re a bit far out to attempt to immediately flank the enemy (and there’s a depressing lack of covered and concealed routes to move for that attack). But they clearly have rehearsed for this moment many a time.


Filed under Afghanistan, army, ARMY TRAINING

Body Dump

You may have heard of the Warrior Transition Units at various installations. Originally these were conceived as holding units for soldiers with career ending wounds where they could receive treatment, therapy and counseling while preparing for medical retirement. But the best laid plans of mice and men

While often presented to America as special wards for the wounded, only 11 percent of the soldiers in the medical units have Purple Hearts or fell ill in a war zone, according to the Pentagon files. They’re outnumbered by the estimated 16 percent of the patient population that never deployed to combat and never will, but this tally varies by base.

A February 2010 report estimated that one-third of the 450 soldiers assigned to the Warrior Transition barracks at Washington state’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord had never seen combat. They were “high risk soldiers who are not ready to deploy and may display high risk tendencies” such as drug addiction, suicide and criminal conduct, the report said.

I can’t really say I’m surprised. Anyone who has lead a large team or organization (or been a school teacher) knows the 90/10 rule. You spend 90% of your time dealing with 10% of your people. They suck up time and resources. They give commanders grey hair. They are not a value added proposition for the team. Not unsurprisingly, after going through basic training and advanced individual training, a certain percentage of enlistees find the bloom off the patriotic rose and start thinking the Army isn’t exactly what they might have hoped it would be. And they quickly learn to game the system. And their commanders, frustrated enough trying to either recover from a deployment, or train up for the next one, are more than happy to wash their hands of them.  The Army being the huge bureaucracy that it is, it can’t just fire the malcontents. But if a commander has an opportunity to dump the problem in someone else’s lap, that’s mighty tempting.

I’d love to preach here about how scurrilous it is that the troops for whom the Warrior Transition Units were formed are being crowded out. But I have to admit, I understand why some commanders do what they feel they have to. First, if a soldier claims to be suicidal in an attempt to avoid deployment, the commander has little choice to take them at their word. Secondly, in balancing the need to care for the majority of their unit, or worry about shortchanging some other soldiers they don’t see on a daily basis, they’re naturally going to be biased toward their own soldiers.

Maintaining the end strength of the Army in time of a two front war is a real challenge. The Army is reluctant to administratively discharge those soldiers that fail to meet standards or adapt to military life. But it is precisely because of this reluctance that WTUs are being used as body dumps. Maybe it is time to rethink some policy here…

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Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING

The Rifle Platoon Part 2- Movement

Now that you have an idea of how a rifle platoon is organized, let’s talk about how it moves on the battlefield. Well, that’s easy. It moves by foot (this may be a very, very short post…).

The problem is, the easy things aren’t always so simple. For the platoon leader to control his platoon, he can’t just have a gaggle of folks running around pell mell around him. In order to control the platoon, provide it with the best ability to react to an ambush or other attack, and help it execute its mission, there are a variety of prescribed formations for the platoon on the march. These formations extend down to the smallest element, the fire team.

The basic formation of the fire team is the “wedge.”

fire team wedge

The wedge provides the best balance of control, ease of movement, security and dispersion. The wedge gives the formation good ability to fire to the front, and even to the sides.  When a team moves out, it automatically assumes the wedge. Normally, in open terrain, the soldiers have about 10 meters between them. This dispersion makes them a less attractive target, but leaves them close enough to see and hear orders from the team leader. The wedge if flexible as well. In dense vegetation, the members automatically close up the formation, and in open terrain they spread out again. As needed, the wedge can collapse into a column, or if directed, can move into a line abreast formation.  Line abreast gives the most firepower to the front, while column gives the least. But moving in a column is normally the fastest and easiest to control. Each variation on the formation is a tradeoff between ease of control, speed of movement, and ability to fire in certain directions. The team leader has to make a judgment based on the likelihood of contact with the enemy, terrain, and the time available for movement.

Similarly, the squad can generally moves with teams in the wedge, but can either place those teams in column, or line abreast.

squad wedge

Here we see a squad in column formation, while the fire teams of the squad are both in wedge formation. Note that the lead team is using the grenadier and rifleman to navigate with a compass and a pace count.

When the platoon as a whole moves, we generally see a similar formation throughout the platoon, with the teams in a wedge, and the squads in column. The weapons squad, home to the platoon’s two medium machine guns, is treated a little differently. Since the machine gun teams are the heart of the platoon’s firepower, they are kept under control of the platoon leader. But you don’t want all your machine guns bunched up, either. So generally, you’ll see one gun team travelling with the platoon leader, and one moving with the platoon sergeant.  Here’s a typical movement formation for a rifle platoon.

plt wedge

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve moved as part of a platoon in this formation.

Notice that each fire team is “mirrored” to the other team in the squad. That is, if the Automatic Rifleman is on the right side in the lead team, the second team has its AR on the left. This gives the formation balanced firepower. Also note, with the platoon leader directly behind the lead squad (the one most likely to make contact first) he’s in a position to rapidly move up and asses the situation. When he does move up, he’s also bringing with him a machine gun team, and his forward observer. This lets him immediately start placing heavy fires on the contact, and get the ball rolling on calling  in artillery or mortars. We’ll cover more of that in a later installment on battle drills.

The platoon leader has several option on which formation to choose. For instance, he may have each team in the wedge, and the three squads also in a wedge formation, that is, one squad forward, and one behind. Or he may choose to move with two squads forward, and one behind.  In fairly dense terrain, he may choose to have each team and squad move in a column formation, but with all three squads line abreast of one another. He can choose any variation of the formations, based on his judgment and his assessment of the situation.

We’ve talked about the various formations for movement, now let’s talk about the techniques of movement.

Based on how likely contact with the enemy is, and how important speed of movement is, there are three main techniques for movement of the rifle platoon:

  1. Travelling
  2. Travelling overwatch
  3. Bounding overwatch

Travelling means the entire unit is moving simultaneously, with a small gap between the squads. This is the fastest and easiest to control. Generally, you’ll see the teams in wedge formation, the squads in column, and the platoon as a whole in column. Travelling is used when speed is important, and contact with the enemy is least likely.

Travelling overwatch is similar to travelling, but the distance between squads is increased so that if the lead squad comes under fire, the trailing squads won’t be pinned down by the same fire. This gives the platoon increased flexibility to respond to contact while only minimally slowing the unit down.

Bounding overwatch is used when contact with the enemy is likely or imminent. In bounding overwatch, one or two of the squads take up hasty positions and prepare to fire on likely or suspected enemy positions while the remaining elements move forward. Once the squad on the move has reached a defensible position, it takes up a defensive posture, and covers the trailing units while they move forward. This technique is the slowest and the hardest to control, but gives the platoon the best security and ability to react to contact. 

Generally, the closer the platoon gets to its objective, the more “secure” the formation and movement technique. For instance, a platoon might set out in a column formation using travelling, but as it approaches its objective, switch to a platoon wedge using bounding overwatch. The technique used is based on the platoon leaders judgment of the situation.

Moving as a member of a team, squad and platoon are basic, but critical skills for the infantryman. Even experienced platoons practice this skill regularly. It is the basic skill that leads to more complex drills and techniques. It is not at all uncommon to see a platoon at its home station beginning its training cycle by going out to an open field and walking through the basic formations and techniques. Much like a football team starts its training season with basic drills and formations, so does the platoon. Once the fundamentals are mastered, more complex techniques can be built upon them.


Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING

Muscatatuck Urban Training Center

The extensive US operations in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, have meant that US forces had to learn to do something they really didn’t want to- fight in urbanized terrain. Fighting in cities is hard, it takes a lot of manpower, it usually costs a lot of casualties, and a lot of civilians tend to get killed. So for many years, the services just kind of pretended that they wouldn’t have to do it. Oh, there were some half-hearted attempts to pretend there was a doctrine in place for it, and that the troops were trained for it. But really? No. Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT) got lip service at best.

One of the real challenges of realistic training for MOUT is that there just aren’t a lot of places to train. I mean, if you want to practice tank/mech infantry warfare, you just need a lot of open space. But to train to fight in a city, you need, well, a city! And building those facilities isn’t cheap.

At Ft. Carson, a base home to more than a division of troops, in the 1990s, the sum total of MOUT training facilities was 3 or 4 cinder block two story structures less than the size of a middle class house. Given that Ft. Carson’s troop units next fight would be in downtown Baghdad, it would seem the lack of realistic urban training was a great disservice to our troops.

With that critical shortage of training facilities staring them in the face, and with the urban nature of combat in Iraq becoming more and more apparent every day, the Army in the first few years of the Iraq War sought frantically to find places to train troops for the unique challenges of MOUT.

One innovative approach was to use surplus property. In Indiana, the states former “Development Center” (formerly the Indiana Farm Colony for Feeble Minded Youth) was closed, and it residents placed in community settings*. This surplus facility was then turned over to the Indiana National Guard, and became the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center. The large number and variety of buildings, while not perfect, were a vast improvement over having nothing at all to train with.

While the facility is now run by the Indiana National Guard, it is used by a wide variety of organizations. In addition to military units, police and other civil agencies use its facilities to train for law enforcement and disaster relief operations.

There are other efforts still underway to increase the number and scope of facilities for training troops to fight in urban settings. But this is surely one of the cheaper alternatives around.

*No, the challenged youth of Indiana were not evicted to make way for the callous killers of the military. The policy decision had previously been made to reintegrate the MSDC residents into community settings and close the facility. Only then was the decision made to turn it over to the IARNG.

And this post was made mostly because I really, really found myself enjoying saying “Muscatatuck” over and over again. Try it, you’ll see what I mean.


Filed under Afghanistan, army, ARMY TRAINING, iraq


It’s fairly slow here today. So I was cruising some of the usual sites looking for blog fodder, and came across this pic.


And what occurred to me was this- in the age of Hesco barriers, there are still a lot of places that have to be fortified with the old fashioned sandbag.

Let me tell you, filling and emplacing that many sandbags is an enormous pain in the ass. Few jobs in the Army are as dull or surprisingly backbreaking as filling and emplacing sandbags. Mind you, it’s all worth it. It just isn’t any fun to do it. So when I saw that mound of bags, my old aches and pains in my back and shoulders twitched just a bit.

When I was working at brigade headquarters, we deployed for training to Hoehenfels once. Among the other fun things we did, we put a sandbag wall around the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). How many sandbags? Oh, several thousand at least. Now, brigade headquarters are long on officers, and short on enlisted. So there were a relative handful of us that were filling and flinging these things.  My boss, LTC Oz, being sensitive to the morale of the troops, decreed that everyone that entered or exited the TOC would henceforth fill and emplace a sandbag- coming and going. It wasn’t much, but it was a nice gesture to let us underlings know that we were not forgotten.

Oddly, he didn’t have many problems getting the staff officers (and the brigade commander, COL Z) to comply. But the staff NCOs seemed to think they were magically exempt from this requirement. Well, the Sergeant Major, CSM McK, finally put an end to that foolishness.

And I think some of my fellow sandbag fillers took just a little too much glee in pointing out the entry requirement to the division commander when he stopped by for a visit. Good sport that he was, the General complied, sorta. His aide, a sharply dressed First Lieutenant got to toss TWO bags on the pile.

Close enough for me.


Filed under Afghanistan, army, ARMY TRAINING

Coffee, Part Duex

So it came to pass that not only was I living the relatively cushy life of mech infantry trooper, I was actually assigned to Brigade Headquarters as the driver for the brigade’s XO. I was about as far to the rear as you could get and still expect to get dust on your boots when you went to the field (but none of that icky mud, thankyouverymuch!).

And I still loved coffee. And not only that, I had a very nice Chevy Blazer that I only occasionally had to share with my boss, the wonderful LTC Oz. Now, LTC Oz was a good man-smart, tough, personable and likeable, and a born teacher and motivator. But he almost died a horrible death one day. Because he took my coffee.

One of the brighter things I did when I was assigned to brigade was to run to the Post Exchange to buy a thermos. And not just any thermos. I bought the biggest, baddest, toughest stainless steel Stanley thermos I could find. This thing was the M-1 tanks of thermoses (thermii? thermos’?) And as a part of my personal checklist before going out the gate of the motor pool, I would fill the thermos with boiling water for a half hour or so to pre-heat it, then empty it, and fill it with scalding hot coffee. And then I would crank down the lid as tight as I could, and store the thermos wrapped in warm cloth in my center console. That thermos would keep the coffee fresh and hot. While everyone else in headquarters was drinking the tepid crap left over from dinner, I could pop that thing open after two days in the field and have a nice, hot fresh cup of coffee. If I was careful, it would keep coffee hot for up to 3 days.

Now, LTC Oz, as I’ve mentioned, was a good man. And my real job, more so than just driving the truck, was to take care of him, and relieve him of distractions that kept him from focusing on his duties to the brigade.  I wasn’t his servant, or his batman (I don’t care who you are, I’m not shining your boots, or cleaning your weapon), but I did attend to housekeeping chores for him, such as putting up and taking down his tent, making sure he got meals (if he didn’t have time to run through the chow  line, I’d eat, then go through again and grab him a plate), and making sure he had all the little things like maps, mapboards, pens, and radio frequency/call sign cheat-sheets.  I’d make sure the truck was set up just the way he liked it for when  we’d roll out on inspection tours every morning. And since he was a good man, and a good officer, I enjoyed performing my duties to the best of my ability.

But I made a small error one day. I left my thermos on top of the center console of the truck.  LTC Oz, seeing a nice big thermos, managed to convince himself I was in a generous, sharing mood. So while I was freezing my tuchus off taking down his tent and packing up his baggage, I thought he was off doing all the high-speed officer stuff he did (you know, making Captains on the brigade staff miserable and talking on the radio or phone). Instead, that son of a bitch gun was sitting in the truck drinking the rest of my coffee.

I’d been anticipating a nice hot cup of coffee all morning. I was madder than a wet hen when I got back and found a nice warm officer and a cold empty thermos.

I may have said some intemperate things. What’s the statute of limitations for UCMJ infractions?



Coffee and cookstoves

I’ll be among the first to admit that mechanized infantry troops have it pretty easy. Relatively speaking, of course. I mean, it’s a tougher life than being a tanker or a band electronic repair technician. But life in mech infantry usually has some of the touches of civilization. Given that mechanized units have to refuel at least once, and often twice a day, bringing a hot meal to them isn’t too much trouble on top of bringing them a few tons of fuel. And with those hot meals comes something far, far more precious than food or diesel.


I love coffee. I mean, I’m not a coffee snob. I’m more a “quantity” over “quality” guy. I’ve been drinking coffee for 35 years. I’m legally not responsible if I kill someone in the morning before I’ve had my coffee.  So having a goodly supply brought up from the battalion trains twice a day was nice. And even in between meals, in  a mechanized unit, there is space available to store things like a propane stove to brew up a cup or two. Heck, in a  pinch, you can heat water on the heater vent around the base of the turret ring in a Bradley.

Lightfighters, that is, grunts in the light infantry units, don’t have that luxury. We were lucky to get one hot meal during a weeklong trip to the woods. And by “hot” meal, I mean the food had been cooked hours before and dozens of miles away, and was stone cold before it reached us. So, since Uncle Sam wasn’t going to take care of us as befitted such noble servants of the Republic, we had to make do on our own.

Weight and space are at a premium for the lightfighter. My co-author Roamy thinks NASA obsesses over weight. She’s never seen a light infantryman pack his rucksack. I knew grunts that cut the handle off their toothbrush to save weight. MREs were routinely stripped of excess packaging, and the parts no one liked tossed away, both to save weight, and be rid of bulky packaging. But one part of the MRE that was never discarded was the packet of instant coffee that came in every meal. And even when I was a Radio-Telephone Operator, humping the insanely heavy PRC-77 radio, I always managed to find enough space in my rucksack for a small bottle of Folger’s crystals.

The problem then, wasn’t so much finding coffee, per se, but heating the water to make a cup of coffee. When times were really rough- say, at night, when no fire or light of any kind was permitted- troopers would just rip open the small pack of MRE instant coffee and pour it between their cheek and gum, just like snuff. I’ve done it, it keeps you awake a little longer, and it tastes incredibly bad. But it is better than no coffee at all.

In countless trips to the woods as a lightfighter, not once did we enjoy a “campfire” so heating water that way was out.  There were a couple other options, though. I early on invested in a “Tommy Cooker” identical to what British troops have carried since before World War II. It’s a simple folding piece of aluminum that can be used with solid cooking fuels like hexamine, trioxane, or even sterno to heat water in a steel canteen cup. Give me 15 minutes to myself, and I could heat up just enough coffee to keep me alive and non-homicidal.  There are any number of variations  on folding metal stoves designed to heat a canteen cup of water. I’ve seen and tried most of them. And heck, if you don’t have a stove, no problem- as long as you have the fuel, you can always use the triangular handle of your entrenching tool as a stove.

The Army rarely gives soldiers stateside access to large amounts of C-4 plastic explosives (and when it does, it accounts for its use extraordinary vigilance) but if you can get your hands on a 1-1/4 pound block, you can slice that up and use chunks about the size of your thumb in place of sterno to heat up a cup of coffee. Note to civilians-don’t try this with dynamite, TNT, PETN, TNA, HDNA or any other explosives-your coffee will have more kick than you like!

I am almost certain that every single soldier in the US Army has at one time or another made “mocha” by mixing the MRE instant coffee with the really terrible cocoa mix that came in a few breakfast-menu MREs.  Two coffees, one cocoa mix, non-diary creamer, and two sugars. Of course, other folks may have used slightly different formulas, but I’m right, they’re wrong.


Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING

What is old is new again.

So I finally saw RESTREPO the other night. Great film, a must see. One little thing that caught my eye was that the troops were carrying M72 LAW rocket launchers.

M72 LAW at launch

We talked a bit about the M72 Light Antitank Weapon long, long ago, as well as its replacement, the M136 “AT4” rocket launcher.

If you’re facing an armor threat, or if you’re a mounted force, the AT4 is a vast improvement over the LAW. It’s faster, more accurate and has a much bigger warhead. The problem is, not all units are mounted. The AT4 is 40” long and weighs about 15 pounds. That’s not a big problem if you have a HUMVEE to carry a few of them. But when you’re humping up and down hills that make a mountain goat puke, it’s not so fun. By contrast, the M72 only weighs about 7 pounds, and more importantly, in the carry configuration, it’s only about as wide as a man’s shoulders. That means just about everybody can easily strap one to the top of their pack.  It’s better to have several less than perfect rocket launchers handy, than a great one left back at the base.


Filed under Afghanistan, armor, army, ARMY TRAINING, guns, history