It’s been over a century since World War 1 broke out in 1914 and four years of intense fighting ushered in yet another dramatic shift in the way war are fought. This 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.
Over the last three decades there has been another transformation in ground combat. Call it the age of heavy infantry or 21st century style. Heavy not just in weight carried into combat but in the enormous growth in the number of tools the infantry have 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/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.
A typical weight inflation example is the new IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit). While packaged more ergonomically than earlier versions, the new IFAK, like those issued and used for nearly a decade, are heavier at.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 were 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 ignore the rules and regulations and dump gear so they can move or keep moving.
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 is 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 2, 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.
Over the last two decades 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 bullet-proof armor 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, especially those operating convoys, outside of camps. While in 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 training 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 theoretically 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.
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 2 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 2 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 8 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.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy was forced to respond to all this and that meant using weapons that caused 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 12.9 percent of bullet wounds are fatal, compared to 7.3 percent for bombs, and 3.5 percent for RPG rockets and grenades in general. The enemy in 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 battlespace 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 were now frequently useless and fatal head shots very difficult.
In Vietnam 15.7 percent of U.S. combat deaths were caused by IEDs or 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 called Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected or MRAP trucks that reduced the impact of the explosives. The roadside bomb became a much less effective weapon, a loser's weapon, because it now killed 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 and are more resistant to damage and safer to crash land in. Ground vehicle-related deaths were 2 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 since World War 2, 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 and later were fighting smarter. While the Vietnam era troops were representative of the general population, the post-Vietnam era army was all-volunteer and highly selective. The troops were smarter, healthier, and better educated than the general population. During the last four decades, new attitudes have developed throughout the army, which always got most of the conscripts. The army, so to speak, has become more like the marines, which were 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 means smarter and more capable leaders, from the sergeants leading fire teams of five men to the generals running the whole show. Smarter troops lead to 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 a huge difference. 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 and able to move right in and take care of armed enemy survivors. Another benefit is much fewer civilian casualties. In Vietnam and all subsequent wars, the enemy frequently used civilians as human shields, and the better trained American troops were able to cope with this and demonstrated that in Iraq and Afghanistan twenty years ago.
And then there was night vision gear. This first appeared during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, but over four decades later the equipment 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. Another innovation was individual short range radios for each soldier. The special operations troops got these first and demonstrated that they were very useful. Troops no longer had to yell out warning commands or changes to plans. This led to small digital video cameras that were usually on the front of the helmet and could stream activity all the way back to nearby military headquarters or senior military and political leaders back home. This made possible micromanagement of troops in distant battlefields. This was a problem for a while until everyone realized that micromanagement doesn’t help and often turns seemingly successful operations into costly disasters. Micromanagement is still a possibility but experienced commanders and politicians realize it doesn’t work, although the ability to observe is useful.
Then there was the Internet, which enabled the troops to get in touch with each other. This had a huge impact. Not just for those recently joining the infantry, but also for the NCOs as in Non-Commissioned Officers, or sergeants as well as officers. Each community had different problems and solutions. With the Internet they could easily discuss the problems and quickly share the 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, so there have been three 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 it possible to do things with information, especially about the enemy, that were 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.
UAV or Unmanned Aerial vehicles, and electronic trackers in combat vehicles 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 pilot in the air has been replaced by robots. UAVs, especially the handheld ones every infantry company 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 their troops and the enemy. This has made a huge difference, creating some fundamental changes in the way 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, is indulgent. It is anything but. Getting a good night's sleep can be a lifesaver for combat soldiers and AC makes that possible. Showers, Internet links to home, and good food do wonders for morale, especially for soldiers 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 amenities are there, and eventually 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 were not as effective as the Vietnamese were. The Afghan Taliban were more effective than the Iraqis but not by much. All this was partly due to cultural factors, partly because in Vietnam the North Vietnamese were sending trained soldiers south. The North Vietnamese also had commandos called 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 those 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 had a more fearsome reputation, but in practice they are no match for professional infantry. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, the Afghan gunmen have been beaten many times in the past. They are blessed, after a fashion, to live in a place that is not worth conquering. That means whoever defeats them, soon leaves.
Finally, there is the data advantage. The military, especially the army, since 1960s Vietnam War combat has collected massive amounts of information on how each soldier died. This included detailed records of army and marine casualties. The army, in particular, collected and analyzed this data, and then passed on to the troops new tactics and techniques derived from this analysis. The army restricts access to the data, as that can provide the enemy with useful information on how effective they are. Some basic data is made public, but the details were locked up for a decade or more. Studying this data is a full-time job for many people in the military, and 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 1 soldier would recognize his World War 2 and Vietnam counterparts, but the 21st century version would appear quite different, and the current soldiers are indeed a very different kind of fighter.