After a decade of heavy combat (2003-2013) American commanders and military historians are still analyzing the lessons of the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and many smaller combat zones. Current American allies (most of the world) and potential opponents like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are seeking to obtain insights that they can use.
The United States has faced these “what happened and how” situations several times in the last century. While better methods for post-war analysis have been developed, it is still an inexact science and the number of technical and tactical changes for each war have increased. While changes in major weapons systems, like warships, armored vehicles and aircraft have been more visible, the most meaningful changes, especially for the ground troops who do most of the fighting and dying, have been especially dramatic. That is very important because ultimate victory means having your troops occupying enemy cities, military bases and production facilities.
It’s been over a century since World War I (1914-18) broke out and ushered in the first of many exceptionally dramatic shifts in the way wars are fought. This early 20th century style included machine-guns, accurate long-range artillery, air support, new “dispersed” infantry tactics, armored vehicles, aircraft, chemical weapons, and, for the first time, more people killed in combat than by disease and other non-combat causes. At the same time combat casualties grew enormously, largely because so many additional, and very lethal, weapons became available. Then, in the early 21st century the number of casualties dramatically declined because of new technology and tactics.
Over the last two decades there has been another transformation in ground combat. Call it the age of heavy infantry or just “21st century style”. Heavy not just in weight carried into combat but in the enormous growth in the number of tools the infantry has at their disposal. Troops are frequently carrying 50 kg (110 pounds) or more. That means they cannot move as fast as less well-equipped opponents, and when they try to, they tire faster and get frustrated, and often injured by the enemy or by the sheer physical stress of hustling with all that weight on them. Long term, troops are developing the kind of physical stress injuries athletes are prone to (eventually) when they overdo it.
This is all because working conditions for the infantry have changed considerably from the century old style that ushered in the 1900s. The biggest change is the equipment that must be carried. Until the 1980s, you could strip down for actual fighting to your helmet, weapon (assault rifle and knife), ammo (hanging from webbing on your chest, along with grenades), canteen, first aid kit (on your belt), and your combat uniform. Total load was 13-14 kg (about 30 pounds). You could move freely and quickly, and soldiers found that speed and agility was a lifesaver in combat. But now the minimum load carried is twice as much and, worse yet, more restrictive. Typical of the weight inflation are items like the IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit). While packaged more ergonomically than earlier versions, the new IFAK, like those issued for the first decade of the 21st century, are heavier (.94 kg or over two pounds) and contain stuff that used to be carried only by medics. The medics now carry a lot of gear that only doctors used to have. All this saves lives but, according to the troops, it does so at a high cost. Currently, the lightest load carried, the "fighting load" for situations where the troops were sneaking up on the enemy and might be involved in hand-to-hand combat, is 28.6 kg (63 pounds). The "approach march load," for when infantry is moving up to a position where they would shed some weight to achieve their "fighting load," is 46 kg (102 pounds). The heaviest load, 60 kg (132 pounds), is the emergency approach march load, where troops had to move through terrain too difficult for vehicles. As in the past, the troops often ignored the rules and regulations and dumped gear so they could move or keep moving. This situation explains the continuing effort to develop effective and reliable robotic “mules” to accompany infantry with some of that load.
The extra gear has led to combat troops carrying more weight and having their movement increasingly restricted. The troops have complained about this because speed and maneuverability are a matter of life and death, as well as the difference between victory and defeat in tactical actions. While combat death rates are a third of what they were in Vietnam and World War II, the more heavily burdened troops are much less able to go after the enemy. Then again, with the larger number of guided missiles and bombs available the troops don't have to chase down their foe in order to kill them as frequently.
Since 2003 the weight situation has caused some dramatic changes in training. In Iraq troops found they were not in the best condition to run around with all that weight. Plus the vest constricted movement and that took time to adjust to. Commanders complained about troops not being properly trained and that led to a series of changes in basic and unit training. The big change in basic was to condition troops to handle the heavier weights they would be carrying for extended periods of time. This was particularly critical for non-combat troops, like those operating convoys outside of camps. Inside the camps you usually didn't have to wear armor and combat gear. New exercises were developed. Infantry troops got several months of additional training after basic and had plenty of opportunity to adjust to moving around wearing 30 kg or more of gear.
This trend towards heavy infantry began when more "essential" equipment was added in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The biggest, and heaviest, problem was with the body armor. Although the new armor offered better protection, it was heavier and bulkier, thus inducing fatigue and hindering mobility. This often led to battlefield situations where a less tired, and more agile, infantryman could have avoided injury. Military and political leaders usually do not appreciate this angle. But the troops do, as it is a matter of life and death for them and they feel the weight all the time. Efforts to solve key weight problems, like the protective vest via developing lighter gear has been slow. A breakthrough is awaited but experience has shown that the timing of such breakthroughs is difficult to accurately predict.
For the combat troops the most dramatic change in the last two decades has been the much-reduced casualty rate. It’s now a third of what it was during World War II and Vietnam. The trend towards fewer non-combat casualties also continues. Currently 21 percent of combat zone deaths are from non-combat causes, while in World War II that was 25 percent. Not only are far fewer “heavy infantry” being killed or wounded in combat but fewer and fewer of those who are wounded die. It’s a continuing trend. Currently under 7 percent of the wounded die, compared to 11 percent in 2009. There are several reasons for more troops surviving battle wounds (and injuries from accidents). An obvious cause is body armor. Improvements over the past decade, in terms of design and bullet resistance, account for about 20 percent of the decline in casualties.
Another major factor is medical care, which has gotten much better and faster. Not only are procedures more effective but badly wounded soldiers get to the operating table more quickly. Medics now have capabilities that, during Vietnam, only surgeons possessed. Movement of casualties to an operating room is much faster now, partly because of better transportation, but also because of more efficient methods and operating rooms that are placed closer to the battlefield.
The enemy has been forced to respond and that has meant using weapons that cause fewer deaths. Explosions (like roadside bombs) are less likely to cause fatal wounds but are much easier for an enemy to employ. For example, currently twelve percent of bullet wounds are fatal, compared to seven percent for bombs, and 3-4 percent for RPGs (and grenades in general). The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan preferred to use roadside bombs because U.S. troops are much superior in a gun battle. All this contributed to the changing of the ratio of wounded-to-killed, that was 6-to-1 in Vietnam, to 10-1 now.
In Vietnam bullets caused 38 percent of the deaths. In Iraq it was only 19 percent and 27 percent in Afghanistan. The Iraqis are notoriously bad shots, even though the urban battle space in Iraq was very similar to Vietnam. There is more of a tradition of marksmanship in Afghanistan, despite (or probably because of) the frequently longer distances involved. The superior body armor has made life much harder for enemy marksmen, as chest shots are now frequently useless and fatal head shots are very difficult.
In Vietnam 15.7 percent of U.S. combat deaths were caused by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), while in Iraq and Afghanistan it peaked at about 60 percent and then declined. Casualties were avoided, or made less severe, with the development of special armored vehicles (MRAPs) that reduced the impact of the explosives. The roadside bomb is a much less effective weapon, a loser's weapon, because it kills more civilians than enemy troops and played a major role in turning the locals against the Iraqi terrorists and Afghan Taliban.
Aircraft related deaths (from crashes) were 14.6 percent of the combat fatalities in Vietnam, while it was only a few percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current helicopters were built with Vietnam experience in mind, are more resistant to damage and safer to crash land in. Ground vehicle related deaths were two percent in Vietnam but more than double that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the ground vehicle deaths were non-combat related. That's because from World War II to the present, the U.S. armed forces put huge numbers of trucks and other vehicles on roads that were often poorly maintained or shot up, at all hours, in all weather, and with drivers fighting fatigue. There being a war on, the vehicles often proceeded at unsafe speeds.
What made the experience so different today versus past wars? It was a combination of things. The most important difference is that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting smarter. While the Vietnam era troops were representative of the general population, the post-Vietnam era army is all-volunteer and highly selective. The troops are smarter, healthier, and better educated than the general population. During the last three decades, new attitudes have developed throughout the army, which always employed most of the draftees. The army, so to speak, has become more like the marines, which was always all-volunteer and more innovative as a result. This ability to quickly analyze and adapt gets recognized by military historians, and other armies, but not by the media. It also saves lives in combat.
This innovation has led to better training, tactics, and leadership. Smarter troops require smarter and more capable leaders, from the sergeants leading fire teams (five men) to the generals running the whole show. Smarter troops result in tactics constantly adapting to changes on the battlefield. The better tactics, and smarter fighting, has been the biggest reason for the lower death rate.
Better weapons and equipment have made U.S. troops less vulnerable to attack. GPS guided weapons have made the enemy much more vulnerable. There are now GPS guided bombs, shells, and rockets. This enables troops to hit a target with the first shot and be closer to the explosion so they could move right in and take care of armed enemy survivors. Another benefit is much fewer civilian casualties. In both Iraq and Vietnam, the enemy frequently used civilians as human shields, and the better trained American troops were able to cope with this in Iraq and Afghanistan where civilian casualties, compared to earlier wars, were much lower.
And then there was night vision gear. This first appeared during Vietnam, but over five decades later the stuff has gotten better, lighter, and cheaper. Every soldier has night vision now, as do most combat vehicles. There are also better radios, better uniforms, and even better field rations. It all made a difference.
Then there was the Internet, which enabled the troops to get in touch with each other. This had a huge impact. Not just for the grunts but also for NCOs and officers. Each community had different problems and solutions. With the Internet they could easily discuss problems and quickly share solutions. The troops did this by themselves, and it was up to the military to play catch up. Life-saving tips are passed around with unprecedented speed. This made a major difference in combat, where better tactics and techniques save lives.
Computers and video games had an impact as well. The draft ended about the same time that personal computers and video games began to show up. Now there have been four decades of troops who grew up with both. It was the troops who led the effort to computerize many military activities, and video games evolved into highly realistic training simulators. The automation eliminated a lot of drudge work, while the simulators got troops up to speed before they hit the combat zone. Computers also made possible doing things with information, especially about the enemy, that was not possible before. A lot of troops understand operations research and statistical analysis and they use it to good effect. Research has also shown that heavy use of video games trains the user to make decisions faster. That's a lifesaver in combat.
UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and Trackers took a lot of the fog out of war. For nearly a century the troops on the ground depended on someone in an airplane or helicopter to help them sort out who was where. In the last decade the guy in the air has been replaced by robots. UAVs, especially the hand-held ones every infantry company or platoon has, now give the ground commander his own recon aircraft. He controls it and it works only for him. Combat commanders now have a top-down view of his troops and the enemy. This has made a huge difference, creating some fundamental changes in the way sergeants, lieutenants, captains and colonels command their troops. For higher commanders, the GPS transponders, carried by most combat vehicles, provides a tracking system that shows a real-time picture, on a laptop screen, of where all your troops are. This takes a lot of uncertainty out of command.
Living conditions enabled troops in combat to be more alert and effective. Some civilians think air-conditioned sleeping quarters for combat troops, and lots of other goodies in base camps, are indulgent. It is anything but. Getting a good night's sleep can be a life-saver for combat soldiers and AC makes that possible in hot climates. Showers, Internet links to home, and good chow do wonders for morale, especially for guys getting shot at every day. Good morale means a more alert, and capable, soldier. The combat units often go weeks, or months, without these amenities, but the knowledge that these goodies are there, and soon to be enjoyed, takes some of the sting out of all the combat stress. The rate of combat fatigue in Iraq has been much lower than in Vietnam or any previous war.
The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan was not as effective as the Vietnamese were. The Taliban are more effective than the Iraqis but not by much. All this is partly due to cultural factors, partly because in Vietnam the North Vietnamese were sending trained soldiers south. The North Vietnamese also had commandos ("sappers"), who, while small in number, caused a lot of anxiety, and casualties, among U.S. troops. The irregular (Viet Cong) troops in South Vietnam were largely gone after 1968 as a result of the failed Tet Offensive, but even these fighters tended to be more deadly than the average Iraqi gunman or Afghan warrior. The Iraqi troops have had a dismal reputation for a long time but they can still be deadly. Just not as deadly as their Vietnamese counterparts. The lower fighting capability of the Iraqis saved a lot of American lives but got far more Iraqis, including civilians, killed. The Afghans have a more fearsome reputation, but in practice they are no match for professional infantry. And conventional wisdom to the contrary, they have been beaten many times in the past. They are blessed, after a fashion, to live in the place that is not worth conquering. So whoever defeats them soon leaves.
Finally, there is the data advantage. The military, especially the army, has since Vietnam collected massive amounts of information on how each soldier died, as well as detailed records of soldier and marine casualties. The army, in particular, collects and analyzes this data, and then passes on to the troops new tactics and techniques derived from this analysis. The army restricts access to the data as it can provide the enemy with useful information on how effective they are. Some basic data is made public but the details will be a locked up for decade or more. Studying this data is a full-time job for many people in the military, there is a constant stream of suggestions resulting from this analysis, and those suggestions often turn into yet another small decline in combat deaths.
The World War I soldier would recognize his World War II and Vietnam counterparts, but the 21st century version would appear quite different and that model is indeed a very different kind of fighter who is in for a lot more change.