Infantry: A Decade That Changed Everything


September 16, 2011: American combat troops, especially the infantry, have gone through enormous changes in the last decade. It’s not just the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which gave the troops invaluable combat experience. There’s also the rapid appearance of so much new technology. That includes so many guided (often by GPS) weapons that can permit even a few American infantry to become enormously lethal on the battlefield. While this has not made U.S. troops invincible, it has made them much deadlier. Actual and potential foes have had to adapt, and were usually defeated anyway if they took on U.S. troops. The new tech has also made American troops harder to kill. This was not just the bullet proof protective vests (which have been around since the 1990s), but better battlefield medical care, better communications, more and better night vision devices, robots, sensors, more UAVs and computers everywhere. In short, there has been more change for the infantry in the past decade than any other in history.

The combination of combat and technology led to many changes in training and how troops go about fighting. As a result, the army has been revamping its training and operating manuals to reflect what was learned (or, often, relearned). The army has dozens of manuals, pamphlets and other documents detailing how the troops should be trained, and how they should fight. All these are being brought up to date with what has been learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of what is being lost is speculative stuff added in the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, and the army foresaw a future in which technology would change everything. Tech did bring many changes, but not always as anticipated. Combat and a live (not imaginary) enemy impose a reality that often cannot be predicted.

For example, six years ago, the army completed a revision of its counterinsurgency (COIN) manual, for the first time in twenty years. The army has a long history of success fighting guerillas. Even Vietnam, which conventional wisdom counts as a defeat, wasn't. The conventional wisdom, as is often the case, was wrong. By the time the last U.S. combat units pulled out of South Vietnam in 1972, the local guerilla movement, the Viet Cong, was destroyed. North Vietnam came south three years later with a conventional invasion, sending tank and infantry divisions charging across the border and conquering their neighbor the old fashioned way. Even before Vietnam, the U.S. has won most of its wars against irregular forces.

The main problem with COIN is that the American armed forces take it for granted. U.S. troops have been defeating guerilla movements for centuries. Through all that time, COIN has been the most frequent form of warfare American troops has been involved with. But COIN has always been viewed as a minor, secondary, military role. It never got any respect. Even the U.S. Marine Corps, after half a century of COIN operations, were glad to put that behind them in the late 1930s. All that remained of that experience was a classic book, "The Small Wars Manual," written by some marine officers on the eve of World War II. That book, which is still in print, contained timeless wisdom and techniques on how to deal with COIN operations, and "small wars" in general. Much of the work the army has done in the last six years, to revise their manuals, could have been done just by consulting the Small Wars Manual. In some cases, that's exactly what was done.

The basic truth is that COIN tactics and techniques have not changed for thousands of years. What has also not changed is the professional soldiers disdain for COIN operations. This sort of thing has never been considered "real soldiering." But the U.S. Army and Marines have finally come to accept that COIN is a major job, something that U.S. troops have always been good at, and something that you have to pay attention to. So when you see more news stories about the COIN manual, keep in mind the history of that kind of warfare, and how long, and successfully, Americans have been doing it.

All this was recognized three years ago, when the army released a new edition of its “how to fight” manual (Field Manual, or FM, used to be 100-5, now 3-0). The 2008 edition puts nation building (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) on an equal level with conventional warfare. That was a major change. For nearly a century, FM 100-5 was revised every 5-10 years to reflect changes in technology, experience and perceived threats. Until the Cold War ended in 1991, 100-5 reflected an emphasis on traditional war. This was prompted by the need to deal with the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union to defend Western Europe. But in the 1990s, the hundreds of Soviet combat divisions disappeared. The 1993 edition put more emphasis on peacekeeping, counter-insurgency and nation building. That has grown steadily over the last few editions. A trend, so to speak, that has reduced the emphasis on conventional warfare to parity with “operations other than war”.

FM 3-0 provided guidelines for commanders and planners. The new manual implies a need for more infantry, military police, civil affairs, engineer and intelligence units. This reflected the experience of the last seven years. What the new FM 3-0 does is make it possible to establish many temporary changes as permanent modifications to army organization, tactics, training and equipment.

Throughout most of its history, the U.S. Army did what the new FM 3-0 describes. Only during major wars did the army gear up for conventional conflict. Thus the army has an institutional history of dealing with operations other than war. But there is still a cultural divide between the “conventional war” generals, and those who are more into peacekeeping and nation building. Part of this is cultural, as soldiering is traditionally seen, worldwide, as preparing for big battles, and fighting other soldiers. But the U.S. is unique in having a military tradition heavy on what the army spent years doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can see this in the creation of the Special Forces half a century ago, and the presence of so many civil affairs units. With the new FM 3-0, the army is going back to its roots.

The new FM 3-0 also gives army reformers an opportunity to continue with their efforts to introduce more technology. It was new tech that made the army so successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. GPS guided bombs, missiles and shells greatly reduced civilian casualties, and made it easier to maintain and build the loyalty of civilians. Computers and data mining software made it possible to sort out the bad guys from the innocents. The battlefield Internet and satellite communications enabled troops to react more quickly than their terrorist opponents. The proliferation of inexpensive and powerful night vision gear took away one of the enemies most powerful assets; the ability to operate under cover of darkness. Computer game technology enabled the army to quickly develop useful simulations for showing troops how to handle new situations. This meant everything from handling local civilians, to avoiding roadside bombs. New protective vests and tactics lowered casualties to less than half the rate suffered in Vietnam.

Most army troops currently spend the bulk of their training time getting ready for peacekeeping and nation building operations. This will no longer be seen as a temporary situation. When U.S. troops are out of Iraq and Afghanistan, some units will again train for conventional war, but the career officers and NCOs won’t forget what they learned from their other training, and combat experiences.

The army has already disbanded many of its artillery units. First, this was done because many of these guns were no longer needed to fight a Red Army that no longer existed. But this change also reflected the introduction of GPS guided shells and missiles, which meant less ammunition would be needed in the future, and that meant fewer artillery units to fire the shells and missiles. Iraq also saw many artillerymen retrained for infantry duties. That will probably remain. Tank units proved to be useful in fighting terrorists, but had to use different tactics. And tank crews also had to improve their infantry skills. Military police became more proficient at guarding convoys, handling more dangerous prisoners (terrorists) and dealing with civilians. Military intelligence units became more like police analysts, looking for the few bad guys among a large population of innocents.

The army has also adopted a custom long practiced by the marines: “every marine a rifleman.” With most (over 80 percent) of army troops doing jobs that should never take them into, or even near, combat, there was a tendency not to prepare these soldiers for combat. This was a big mistake, which was made clear in Iraq. There, with no front line, many more support troops got exposed to fighting. This also reminded the generals that 15 percent of the troops sent overseas were women, and they needed effective combat training as well. The army quickly followed the marines, both in providing more combat training for all combat troops, but by also providing women with more challenging basic training (as the marines had always done.)

The army also discovered in Afghanistan that, while you can win a war with a few hundred guys on the ground, aiding (with smart bombs) local allies, you can’t always maintain that victory. After the Taliban were defeated in late 2001, drug gangs helped bring them back to assist in keeping the lucrative heroin production and smuggling operations going. Cheap victories are often false bargains.

The army finally accepted their Special Forces troops. Long the neglected stepchildren, and not completely trusted (some of that attitude lingers), counter-terror operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by Special Forces troops convinced most army officers that these guys were odd, but very useful.

The new FM 3-0 appeared to make sense of a lot of new ideas, equipment, tactics and training methods. It’s not a revolutionary document, but an evolutionary one. And the evolution continues. With more emphasis on troops getting to know the locals, using police techniques to hunt down the bad guys, and adapting new technology (computers, UAVs and robots) to old needs. All this change came about during wartime and, unlike previous wars, the experience, and lessons, was captured for future use. That, in itself, was one of the most important innovations of the last decade.





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