Infantry: Learning to Play Well With Others


May 10, 2012: The U.S. Army, noting the increased integration of Special Forces and regular infantry units in combat, has changed the way it trains and organizes infantry troops. This is to ensure that infantry and their commanders can more readily make the most of working with Special Forces. U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has long used its three elite ranger battalions to work closely with commando units (usually Delta Force or SEALs). But most often the rangers operate on their own carrying out particularly difficult missions and often work with non-SOCOM infantry. All this is somewhat the opposite of what Special Forces were invented for.

Special Forces were originally conceived as a force that would work behind enemy lines, organizing resistance to enemy occupiers. That was based on World War II experience and during decades of Cold War (1947-91) tensions the Special Forces prepared for that. During Vietnam (1961-72) the Special Forces often operated off by themselves in remote areas but there were many opportunities to operate with American infantry units. In Afghanistan and Iraq this became more frequent.

The army has noted that its regular infantry have become more capable in the last decade. This is partly due to the abundant combat experience acquired. But it's also due to changes in training, especially basic training. The army, as is customary in wartime, has heavily modified its basic training. As part of that trend, four years ago, it was increased from nine to ten weeks. After tracking the performance of the 10 week trainees the army found that the additional week was well worth it.

The additional basic training week is, in theory, to instill basic combat skills early on. These skills are expanded using an additional week or so of additional combat training for some combat support troops before they hit the combat zone. The additional training is also meant to improve the discipline and general military effectiveness of new troops. During the 1990s, basic training was watered down quite a bit and that resulted in new recruits coming into their first units still acting a lot like civilians. The army has been trying to rectify that ever since.

The extra time was not just being used to enable trainees to learn their basic military skills better. Commanders and NCOs in combat zones have been complaining that many newly recruited combat support troops reach them not-quite-ready for combat. The problem, it turned out, was lessons being learned but not pounded home so they would still be there when the new soldier reached the combat zone.

This led to a lot of other changes. There was far more emphasis placed on firing weapons and doing the kinds of things you actually do in combat. For example, the army cut back on the long distance running and instead got the troops used to sprinting short distances carrying all the weight (over 25 kg/55 pounds) of weapons and combat gear. Troops were also shown the best way to pull, or carry, a wounded buddy out of harm's way. Actually doing this a few times makes the trainee aware that they can do it and how hard it is. Sure beats going through that for the first time while you are under fire.

There is increased emphasis on hand-to-hand combat but based on what troops actually encounter in combat. To this end the army has developed a special form of close combat it calls "combatives." The army has even made it into a competitive sport.

There is also renewed emphasis on making sure that, during Basic Training, the civilian recruits get that necessary mental adjustment needed to deal with the stress of combat. Basic tends to get watered down in peacetime, mainly for political reasons. Too many (or just any) injuries during training can get the media and politicians demand that the problem go away. During the 1990s, there was a major flap over the problems female trainees had keeping up with males. It wasn't fair. It was made "fair" but that began to change after September 11, 2001. By now everyone is getting pretty strenuous Basic, but that will change once peacetime returns.

There is also a growing trend for new recruits (and young people in general) not being in good physical shape (fat and weak). An extra week in basic helped out there as well. But many combat veterans still believe that the combat support troops, especially those running convoys or otherwise outside the wire (working outside base camps), just have not had sufficient training in combat basics.

Once soldiers graduate from basic they go on to specialized training (AIT, or Advanced Individual Training). This can last from a few weeks to a year, depending on their military job. If they are going to Iraq or Afghanistan they usually get some combat training before they leave the United States or before they arrive in bandit country.

For infantry basic and AIT are combined with trainees staying in the same unit, with the same NCOs, for 14 weeks. This training is tougher than the ten weeks of basic everyone else gets. When not in combat infantry are constantly training, and the army has developed new infantry training courses meant to teach new skills. This, combined with lots of combat experience, has greatly increased the combat abilities of the infantry, making them more capable of working closely with Special Forces troops. The improved combat training for support troops has also helped the Special Forces, who are less inclined to consider support troops they find themselves with (during, say, an ambush) a big liability.



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