April 18, 2005
The U.S. Department of Defense has concluded that infantry can no longer be considered cannon fodder, but highly trained specialists who should be the focus of all efforts to build an effective fighting force. This idea has been around for a long time, but has now become holy writ. This is all because of the U.S. Army experience in Iraq, where it became obvious to even the slow learners that quality matters. And the quality has to do with the troops, not the high tech equipment they use. That quality factor was first recognized in action during the 1991 Gulf War. American units tore right through Iraqi troops, exceeding American commanders most optimistic expectations. Through the 1990s, the U.S. Army studied what happened during the 1991 war, and why. It was concluded that the main reason for the success there was the quality of the troops. All were volunteers, and most were in the service for at least four years. But another factor emerged from this study, the importance of troops being together in the same unit for a long time. Most of the combat units in the 1991 war had several months together in Saudi Arabia, and that time was spent training. This time together caused a bonding that old soldiers had noted in Vietnam and earlier wars. The army resolved to try and make this cohesion at standard army practice. That seemed to be the secret of combat success; quality troops who work together for a long time.
The quality formula worked again in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003 and later). In Afghanistan, it was only a few hundred Special Forces troops, several dozen CIA field agents (many of them former military), and a few thousand regular infantry (who arrived late in the operation) that brought down the Taliban in a few months. The army always knew it had an elite force in the Special Forces, but even these elite operators outdid themselves in Afghanistan. The army now recognized that the key to victory was a small number of combat troops. In fact, out of half a million troops, only about fifty thousand were actual shooters (mostly infantry, but including tank and artillery crews, recon troops and engineers). There were only about 5,000 Special Forces operators. It was about ten percent of the army that ultimately got the job done in Iraq. The other troops were important. Even infantry companies had some support troops who, if not competent, reduced the effectiveness of the shooters. But its what the infantry have with them at the front that makes the difference.
The army now gives division commanders millions of dollars a year to buy whatever special equipment they, and their troops, feel will make them a more effective fighting force. The change in priorities caused the cancellation of two major army procurement projects, to provide more money for the infantry. The Crusader self-propelled 155mm gun was dropped, in favor of the air force GPS guided smart bomb (JDAM) and the new 155mm GPS guided artillery shell (Excalibur). In the past, the army had lots of fire power, but it wasnt very accurate. Infantry had to back off hundreds of meters before the bombers or guns could go out if. If you didnt back off, you risked friendly fire casualties. This is much less of a problem with GPS guided munitions. The Crusader was built to fire a lot of conventional shells with more accuracy. But conventional shells can, at best, land with 75 meters of the aim point. Excalibur can hit within 15 meters, on the first shot. Infantry can use that kind of accuracy to stay close to the enemy, and quickly rush them after a smart bomb, or shell, has landed.
The other major system cancelled was the Comanche helicopter. The developers were gold plating this puppy, sucking up money the infantry would rather spend on better body army, sleeping bags, night vision devices, computerized training simulators, radios, and lots of ammo for live fire training. The army would also like to have more air force C-17 transports (at $135 million each), so they can get themselves, and their gear, to a hot spot more quickly, and keep themselves supplied while they are fighting. The air force would rather spend money on F-22s ($250 million each).
The navy has the Marine Corps, but while these guys are great infantry, they have never been showered with a lot of money for the kind of gear the army is now getting. This is becoming embarrassing for the navy, which wants to buy new ships and submarines, not equipment that can make the marines more effective. But the air force is under the greatest pressure. With no air force on the planet that can challenge them in the air, and the ground troops doing most of the work in the war on terror, questions are being raised about how best to spend the $400 billion a year defense budget. The army and marine combat troops (mostly infantry) account for less than ten percent of military personnel, and are doing most of the fighting. The money is not going where it is most needed, and attempts at change are running up against vested interests that are very reluctant to give any of it up. Lots of imaginative spin is being spun to explain why, but Congress is getting a lot of heat from the voters who can see who is doing the fighting, and doing it well, and who is getting the most money, and not doing much at all.