The U.S. Army is again reorganizing its combat units. The last major reorganization was after 2003 when the independent combined arms brigade became the basic combat unit, replacing the combined arms division that had become the standard before and during World War II. The latest effort seeks to create combined arms battalions. China recently announced that it was making such combined arms battalions the standard combat organization for ground forces. Russia has already moved in this direction and the United States is experimenting with it.
There is a certain irony to all this because during World War II when tanks and other armored vehicles were first widely used, it was common for allied and German units to informally organize combined arms companies and battalions on the battlefield. Once out of combat these units reverted to their normal organization of separate tank, infantry, artillery, engineer and other specialized battalions or companies.
By the 1950s, when the German armies (NATO West German and Russian controlled East German) reappeared they followed the World War II organizational concepts, despite many of their senior commanders having had plenty of combat experience with combined brigades and battalions during World War II. The Germans developed the combined arms “battle group” concept during World War II. The U.S. adopted this approach, for its armored division, later in the war. Instead of having several tank regiments and one infantry regiment in an armored division the new American organization had three “Combat Commands” that contained a mix of tank and infantry battalions. Without the reality check an actual war provides, Western armies would never have taken this combined arms concept to its logical conclusion; combined arms battalions, companies and platoons. This was the battlefield reality and still is. The combined arms battalion recognizes this.
Unit organization is important because units train together most of the time. Experience shows that you train as you fight and fight as you train. When you get into combat it quickly becomes apparent that the combined arms concept is the battlefield reality all the way down to the company and platoon level. Adapting to that while under fire, instead of during peacetime training, means you take more casualties during your initial battles. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In 1991, when the reformed (since the 1970s as volunteers replaced conscripts) U.S. Army saw its first combined arms combat since 1970, it learned that better training, equipment and leadership was an enormous battlefield advantage. That 1991 ground war lasted a hundred hours and that was because American army units destroyed Russian style Iraqi units quickly and with few American casualties. This was accomplished without the World War II and Vietnam style combined arms battalions and companies because that was not needed. For example, one of the most famous battles in 1991 was “73 Easting” and it was won by an American armored cavalry regiment. These units are the closest to low-level combined arms combat units in the American military. The armored cav units specialize in reconnaissance and getting out in front to get a close look at what the main force behind it will encounter. At 73 Easting the armored cav regiment ran into and defeated the best tank divisions the Iraqis had before the American tank units could get there. The armored cav units have some tanks but they are mainly mechanized infantry using IFVs. These are lightly armored and armed Infantry Fighting Vehicles armed with 25mm autocannon and ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). The armored cav at 73 Easting was the combat organization now being proposed as standard because, then and now and as far back as World War II, that organization was what worked best in combat.
While the organizational implications were not recognized in 1991, a lot of junior army officers understood and remembered. After 2003 the 73 Eastern vets were part of the senior army leadership and that made it easier to carry out the post-2003 reorganization. These reforms and reorganization made the brigades, not the divisions, the primary combat unit. The new brigades had more support units permanently attached and can be more easily sent off to fight by themselves. The post-2003 reorganization increased support even more. In the past, providing more support involved quickly adding (temporarily) a lot of support units to the brigade. But the new organization made small support units part of the brigades and, more importantly, the brigades train using these support units and learn to work quickly and effectively with them. The divisions still exist but operate more like the corps has for the last two centuries; coordinating the actions of a few divisions and only having a few support units under its command.
Initially, the new post-2003 divisions had four of the new brigades but could control more (or less) in action. Later division went back to the old three brigades each. Initially, each of the new brigade combat teams (or BCTs) had 3,500-4,000 troops (depending on type). There are three types of BCTs: light (infantry, including paratroopers), heavy (mechanized, including tanks), and Stryker (mechanized using wheeled armored vehicles). This larger number of combat brigades is achieved by reorganizing the combat units of each division into four brigades, instead of the current three. There are several independent brigades as well.
New weapons and equipment (especially satellite-based communications and battlefield Internet software) enabled the army to get the same amount of combat power per brigade while using fewer combat troops. The actual number of infantrymen and tanks didn’t change, but the number of communications, maintenance, and intelligence support personnel did. For example, increased use of robots, sensors, and computerized vidcam surveillance systems made it possible to do the same amount of work in combat with fewer troops. A lot of these new ideas, and equipment, were tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of these items have worked well in combat.
China was the first to realize that these trends led to combined arms battalions and companies. These units train as mixed (tank, infantry, artillery, engineer) battalions and companies. When these units go into combat they will already be trained to fight using the organization that works best. In this case, the U.S. is playing catchup in adopting a form of battlefield organization they pioneered 80 years ago.