Feature: Platoon manoeuvres (corrected)

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War is a social science, as is organising for it. However, it is often said the defining characteristic of the social sciences is that they are not sciences. This leaves vast space for personal opinion and debate, hopefully backed by facts or at least a cogent argument. Among these is whether the platoon should have an integral support or “weapons” section or whether support weapons should be concentrated at company level and delegated down as required.
 
The matter has no doubt often been studied, though few of these studies seem t have made it into the public domain. Captain Jonathan House in Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, August 1984, http://www.cgsc.edu/carl/resources/csi/house/house.asp, accessed May 1, 2011, p41) writes the 2nd US Infantry Division conducted extensive tests from 1936 through 1939 to review such matters as the amount of firepower and frontage that should be allocated per man and per unit, the proportion of artillery and transportation that should support the infantry, and the echelon (platoon, company, battalion, or regiment) at which different infantry weapons should be pooled.
The resulting organisation was remarkably close to that proposed by US World War One (WW1) commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing in 1920. In essence, the machine gun and other specialised heavy weapons were integrated into the infantry rifle organisation at every level. To avoid an excessive span of control, each commander had a headquarters, three subordinate rifle units, plus a weapons unit – three rifle platoons and a heavy weapon platoon in each company, with three such companies plus a heavy weapons company in each battalion. In practice, commanders might shift companies from one battalion to another, or even move entire battalions between regiments, but doctrinally all units operated with three subordinate manoeuvre units.
“Each echelon also had a combination of flat-trajectory and high-angle weapons. Although the infantry received greater firepower in terms of automatic weapons and mortars, this firepower was echeloned so that it did not impede the mobility of the parent infantry unit. Thus, for example, the infantry platoon had nothing heavier than the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), while the company had nothing heavier than the 60-mm mortar (House, quoting Ernest Fisher, Jr., Weapons and Equipment Evolution and its Influence Upon Organisation and Tactics – in the American Army From 1775-1963, Washington DC, 1963, pp61-67, 77). 
House (p58) explains McNair wanted each unit “to have only the minimum essential forces that it needed to conduct offensive operations in fluid, manoeuvre warfare against relatively limited resistance.”  [i]. The design proved only partially successful. When “combined with a continued faith in the individual rifleman, meant that an American army platoon had less firepower than its European counterparts – the BAR had a much lower rate of fire than most light machine guns found in European squads. This deficiency was only partially corrected by the rapid-fire ability of the M1 rifle. Since American tactics were based on the premise of establishing a base of fire and then manoeuvring a light force in conjunction with that base, this organisation left US infantry at a disadvantage.”
It is not clear if the study addressed logistics and reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) at the platoon level. 
A quick-ish history
Captain Michael O’Leary writes that the organisation of infantry small units in the first decade of the 21st Century largely reflects a structure adopted in the first decades of the 20th as the military minds of the time sought to surmount the challenges of industrial warfare as encountered in the trenches of World War One (WWI, 1914-1918) (“The Canadian Infantry Section Attack Part One: Attrition Training in a Manoeuvre Army“, undated, http://regimentalrogue.tripod.com/papers/sect_atk.htm, accessed February 1, 2012). A hundred-and-ten years ago when the British Army mobilised for the South African War (1899-1902), military organisation generally and infantry organisation specifically hardly resembled the current model. The infantry team, section and platoon, as we know it today, did not exist; and, the company, as well as the battalion, were different creatures also.
“When the Second (Special Service) Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment formed the first Canadian contingent to South Africa, the battalion organization followed the British example, as had the Militia for many years,” says O’Leary. The battalion’s companies consisted of 125 men commanded by a captain, with two or three lieutenants, and included four sergeants, four corporals and two lance corporals. The officers were “more understudies to the OC [officer commanding] than platoon commanders,” he wrote in an article entitled “The 21st Century Infantry Company” (http://regimentalrogue.com/papers/21st.htm, undated, accessed December 20, 2011).   
O’Leary continues in his Infantry Section primer that the “company was the basic tactical unit; it drilled as one entity and was seldom split.” When this was required, a “half company” would be task-organised under command of one of the lieutenants and detached from the company. The NCOs [noncommissioned officers] had administrative and training responsibilities, but did not exercise independent tactical command over groups of men.” In the second article he elaborated NCOs “provided technical expertise in musketry, drill and daily living for the soldiery; they were the professionals while the officer corps still dabbled in chivalric ideals of command through example rather than knowledge (Captain Michael O’Leary, The Canadian Infantry Section Attack Part Two: Initiative is always an option, undated, http://regimentalrogue.com/papers/sect_atk_part2.htm, accessed April 27, 2011).  
“The rifle and bayonet remained the mainstay and only true infantry weapon of the time. Battalions might have a few machine-guns or infantry howitzers, but these were seen as anomalous to purists. Tactically, the company was handled much the same as it had been in Wellington[ii]‘s era. Hundred-man companies grouped in battalions; deployed in close order to repel cavalry, or open order to minimise the effects of artillery. Lines of infantry trading volleys, until one or the other was weakened enough to be defeated by the bayonet.”
O’Leary writes that between 1914 and 1918, the organisation of the infantry company changed greatly. “The nature of war in the trenches of Europe demanded a more decentralised form of tactical control to achieve success. The company, by the end of the war, had developed an organisation based on platoons and sections of infantry with a diverse weapon mix of rifles, machine-guns, bombs and sundry close quarter implements.” The word “platoon” is derived from the 17th Century French “peloton“, meaning a small detachment of soldiers. The word derived from “pelote” meaning a small ball (from Latin ‘pillula’, meaning ‘little ball’. The English derivative of the word is “pellet”.)
Following WW1, the platoon and section organisation was entrenched. The 1928 Canadian Section Leading manual described the infantry platoon of consisting of four sections with a commander and six men each. The platoon contained two rifle sections and two Lewis-gun [light machine gun] sections, thus balancing the fire support and manoeuvre elements of the platoon. “It is notable that the Lewis-gun section included a two-man gun team and four riflemen to provide protection to and carry ammunition for the machine gun,” O’Leary wrote. “This is the organisation that four years of brutal trench warfare forged of the raw material of the 19th Century’s line company.”
For O’Leary the infantry platoon was a primary fighting unit through World War Two (WW2) and Korea. Gradual changes were made to section and platoon organisations and equipment as weapons, manning and equipment evolved, he continued. By 1944, the Canadian platoon consisted of a headquarters, a platoon mortar detachment, and three sections, each of which consisted of a rifle group and a Bren (light machine) gun (LMG) group. The rifle section strength was one sergeant and nine men, while the platoon total strength was one officer, four NCOs and 24 other ranks, 29 in total.
Selected platoon organisations
 
Let us now take a closer look at some existing platoon organisations:
South Africa: The South African infantry platoon typically consists of three sections and a headquarters. The sections have been discussed elsewhere, bringing us to the platoon headquarters. Here one finds the platoon commander, a lieutenant, a platoon sergeant, orderly and radio operator. Motorised units will include at least one driver. Mechanised platoons also have a platoon noncommissioned officer (NCO), a gunner and two mortar crew. It is of interest that the heavy (mechanised) platoon doctrinally includes a 60mm mortar and two crew, while in the light infantry (motorised, airborne and specialised) three weapons are grouped at company level and detached to the platoon as required or ordered by the company commander.    
Britain: The British armoured infantry platoon (equivalent to the South African mechanised infantry) is broadly similar, consisting of three sections and a headquarters. The latter musters a platoon leader, platoon sergeant, radio operator and a two-person 51mm mortar team. There is no weapons section. The Mechanised (SA: motorised) and light infantry battalions do muster a support section containing the mortar team and two FN MAG58 GPMG under command of a corporal and controlled by the platoon leader. (Charles Heyman, The British Army, a pocket guide, 2000-2001, Leo Cooper, 2000, p64.)
United States: The US light infantry rifle platoon boasts three rifle sections and a platoon headquarters with two machine gun teams. Each machine gun team is built around a M240 FN MAG 7.62x51mm general purpose machine gun and consists of two men—a machine gunner and an assistant machine gunner, according to their Field Manual (FM) 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, April 1992, pA-1). The infantry, air assault, and airborne rifle platoons consist of a platoon headquarters, three rifle sections, and a weapons section. “There are two machine gun teams and two antiarmour teams in the weapons squad. Each machine gun team and antiarmour team consists of two men—a gunner and an assistant gunner.” The ranger rifle platoon consists of a platoon headquarters, three rifle squads, and a machine gun squad. There are three machine gun crews in the machine gun squad. Each machine gun crew consists of three men—a machine gunner, an assistant machine gunner, and an ammunition bearer. The mechanised platoon consists of a mounted and dismounted elements, the latter being three nine-strong sections. The mounted element consists of four Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFV) grouped into two sections (A and B) with two vehicles each. One section is led by the platoon leader and the other by the platoon sergeant. BFV1 is commanded by the platoon leader, when mounted and musters a driver, gunner and assistant gunner, the latter assisting when the platoon leader dismounts (the gunner stepping in as Bradley commander). BFV2 is commanded by the platoon master gunner, who serves as the platoon leader’s technical expert on gunnery and turret weapon systems. “During combat or field exercises, he advises the platoon leader and platoon sergeant about BFV weapons effects, capabilities, and safety. He also advises him about fire control measures and preparation. He is the lead technical trainer for the mounted element, under the routine supervision of the platoon sergeant. He helps the platoon leader set up the gunnery task for training,” FM3-21.71, Mechanized Infantry Platoon and Squad (Bradley) records. BFV 3 carries a Bradley commander, driver and gunner and BFV4 the platoon sergeant, gunner and driver. Noteworthy is that there is no assistant gunner for when the sergeant dismounts.     
FM 3-21.9 (The SBCT Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, December 2002, p1-11), the most recent of the US manuals, shows the Stryker platoon as dividing into a Bradley-style mounted and dismounted elements. Three of the four vehicles have a crew consisting of a driver and gunner. The fourth vehicle carries the platoon sergeant who commands the mounted element when the platoon dismounts, if not otherwise directed. The dismounted platoon headquarters consists of the platoon leader, a platoon forward observer, a radio operator and platoon medic. “The seven-man weapons squad consists of a squad leader and two three-man machine gun teams. The weapons squad provides the primary base of fire for the manoeuvre of the platoon’s rifle squads with highly accurate short- and long-range, direct, and small-arms fires against enemy personnel and equipment. The two machine gun teams consist of the gunner, assistant gunner, and ammunition bearer. Each team is equipped with the M240B 7.62-mm medium machine gun that has an effective range of over 800 meters.”
 
The US Marine infantry platoon is simple by comparison, consistent of a platoon headquarters and three rifle sections only. There is no weapons section. MCWP3-11.2, Marine Rile Squad (Headquarters, Department of the Navy, Washington DC, December 1991, p5) shows a platoon leader, platoon sergeant, platoon guide – with administrative and logistics duties – and one or more platoon messengers.
Russian Federation: The Russian airborne platoon consists of a headquarters (one officer only, no other ranks), three rifle sections and a weapons section. Under their system one squad leader is also the assistant platoon leader. The weapons section is built around a section leader and three 7.62x54Rmm PKM/PM machine guns (machine gunner, assistant machine gunner) and two RPG-16D/PM rocket propelled grenade launchers, the US Army’s FM 100-60 Armour- and Mechanised-based Opposing Force Organisation Guide notes (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, July 1997, p5-78). Section equipment also includes – interestingly – a low power VHF manpack radio, one set of night-vision goggles and a night-vision sight for each of the three machine guns. There’s also a night-vision sight for the section leader and one GP-25/30 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher.
The motorised infantry platoon is similar to the above, except that the platoon headquarters include an assistant platoon leader and the weapons section has only one RPG-7/16, the US Army’s FM100-63 Infantry-based Opposing Force Organisation Guide adds. (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, April 1996, p3-14). The mechanised infantry platoon has an headquarters and three sections. There is no weapons section. The headquarters musters a platoon leader, assistant platoon leader, a sniper and a rifleman/medic. “With a standard eight-man squad, each IFV has two or three empty seats. The platoon leader and sniper normally ride in the first squad vehicle, the assistant platoon leader in the second, and the rifleman/medic in the third. The sniper has an assault rifle for normal combat. However, he also has a [SVD] sniper rifle in the IFV for those instances when he acts as a sniper.”
Germany: The German infantry platoon (Zug) “is organised along the same lines n all types of infantry companies. It includes a command element called platoon headquarters (Zugtrupp), and three infantry sections. This structure ensures both its sustainability and its lethality. Such an organisation allows the platoon to be employed independently if required.” (Major Wolfgang Strobler, The German Army’s Infantry Forces, CPM Forum, CPM Communication Presse Marketing GmBH, Sankt Augustin, 2007, p10.) This also applies to the panzergrenadiere, assigned four vehicles per platoon, either the PSM Projekt System Management (a joint venture of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall Landsysteme) Puma or the Marder, which carries three crew and seven dismounts. Strobler adds the platoon is linked to the Army Command and Information System by way of its command and weapons system, which allow it to exchange information both vertically and horizontally and to achieve a considerably higher combat effectiveness.”  
The Wikipedia notes three Züge make up a company (Kompanie), with the first platoon reportedly usually commanded by a company-grade officer (Kompanieoffizier), usually a first (Oberleutnant) or second lieutenant (Leutnant), who is also the company’s second-in-command. The second and third Zug are led by experienced NCOs, usually master sergeants (Hauptfeldwebel). In the first platoon a master sergeant is assistant to the platoon leader, with this role filled by a sergeant (Feldwebel) in the second and third platoons. The task of the platoon HQ is to provide support for the platoon leader and to act as a reserve force by for example adding two additional snipers or an anti-tank weapon crew. (Wikipedia, Platoon, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platoon#German_organization, accessed May 5, 2012.) Fallschirmjäger (airborne infantry) platoons (Fallschirmjägerzuge) have special operations responsibilities, and have command positions one rank higher compared to their corresponding position in a standard infantry platoon, the Wikipedia continues, the Wikipedia continues. A captain (Hauptmann) is the platoon leader, apparently assisted by a first lieutenant (Oberleutnant) and each squad has a second lieutenant (Leutnant) or a master sergeant (Hauptfeldwebel). in charge, often supported by a long-service sergeant (Feldwebel) or skilled senior corporal (Unteroffizier).
France: In the French Army (Armee de Terre), the nomenclature changes slightly, with the platoon designated a “section” and a section a “combat group” (group de combat) in the traditional foot arms. The term “platoon” (peloton) is used by the former horse-mounted arms, notably armour. The Wikipedia adds French squads are divided into a 300-metre fire-team each armed with a FA MAS 5.56mm assault rifle and carrying an AT4 anti-tank rocket and a 600-metre fire-team with a FN 5.56mm Minimi light machine gun another FA MAS and a “personal grenade launcher.” (Wikipedia, Section (military unit, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_%28military_unit%29, accessed May 6, 2012). 
Italy: Although dated now, the Italian Alpini (Alpine mountain troops) platoon (plotone fucilieri) consisted of a “command group” of five that included a 7.62x51mm MG42-59 general purpose machine gun. The August 1993 edition of the French-based RAIDS magazine added that with the then-pending conversion to NATO 5.56x45mm weapons, the Alpini platoon would reduce in size from 33 to 30. (Jean-Pierre Husson & Alberto Scarpitta , The Cuneense Contingent – The AMF’s Alpini, RAIDS, Paris, August 1993, p32.) This would include a platoon commander, a deputy platoon commander and four drivers (for VM-90 light tactical vehicles). Italy was at the time, along with the rest of the world in a post-Cold War flux and a reading of RAIDS in this period shows Europe’s mobile units (paratroops, airmobile and the like) were developing a distinct bias to fighting armour to combat the threat of Soviet invasion. While this was gone by 1993, it loomed large in previous years and doctrine, let alone appropriate arms acquisition, takes time. Thus the battalion was organised into three combat companies and a services company, this including six Hughes BGM-71 TOW antiarmour missiles and a dozen 120mm heavy mortars. The company boasted three fucilieri platoons, an antitank platoon with six Euromissile (now MBDA) Milan missiles and a command “platoon”. The Alpini platoon would consist of one five-man section, armed with a FN Minimi and 60mm light commando mortar and three six-man groups (sections)(squadra ficilieri) with Beretta 70/90 5.56mm assault rifles, a Minimi and three Panzerfaust 3 antiarmour rocket launchers. This was amplified in the March 1995 RAIDS, that clarified under the new structure then contemplated the standard platoon will break down into four groups: one with five men armed with a light mortar and Minimi and three groups of six as well as the platoon commander, his deputy, the radio operator and four drivers. (Jean-Pierre Husson, Italian Rapid Deployment Force, RAIDS, Paris, March 1995, p12.)                        
The December 1993 edition of RAIDS show the organigram of the 9thBari” Infantry Regiment as having mechanised platoons of 30 men, armed with, inter alia, VCC-2 ICV and two Milan launchers. Further detail is not provided. (Jean-Pierre Husson & Alberto Scarpitta , ‘Arena Exchange 93’ AMF-L trains in Puglia, RAIDS, Paris, December 1993, p35.)
The Netherlands: The Dutch follow French organisational trends and in the Korps Mariniers (Marine Corps) the three combat sections (platoons) features a command group include a 60mm mortar and three eight-man groups (sections). These can divide into two four-man teams, each in September 1992 equipped with a FN MAG general purpose machine gun, inter alia. (Alberto Scarpitta, Dutch Mariniers, RAIDS, September 1992, Paris, p38.) 
Portugal: The February 1992 RAIDS shows the Portuguese draw the 11th Airborne Battalion’s combat sections (platoons) as consisting of a three man headquarters and three nine-man groups (sections in the SA sense). (Gilles Rivet, Portuguese Paras, RAIDS, February 1992, Paris, p24.) 
As can be seen, there has been some thinking about and a number of permutations of the platoon: with or without a weapons section, light mortars and machine guns. Sometimes a compromise is adopted, placing the weapons within the so-called platoon headquarters. Three rifle sections/squads/group (take your pick) seem standard. No-one researched seems to have adopted an erroneous scheme proposed by this author in an earlier writing, in December 1998, of reducing rifle sections to two – for mounted troops at least. The suggestion was made in “The Infantry Platoon – Does it require flexibility?”in the African Armed Forces Journal in December/January 1998. “As we’ve seen with the infantry section , the mechanised (heavy infantry) platoon has firepower way in excess of what is available to the light infantry. The mechanised platoon is also less likely to operate alone.” A stated advantage of the move, at the time was that it reduced the span of command of the novice platoon commander. Perhaps, but at the expense of depth, actual flexibility, the ability to absorb casualties, the principle of maintaining a reserve, etcetera.
It also ignored the acute vulnerability of vehicles on the modern battlefield, especially where insurgents use simple-to-make directional mines (bombs?) and rocket propelled grenades at short range. A demonstration of the former at the 2011 SA Army Infantry Symposium was instructive. A standard 7kg Russian antitank mine was placed on its side a few metres from a Casspir mine protected vehicle hulk. Attached to the mine – with tape – was a flat copper plate. When this was detonated, the Platter plate formed a number of slugs that shredded the close side and bottom of Casspir and continued their way through the other side. Afterwards it was also observed the force of the blast had moved the wheel-less hulk at least a metre away. Would any inmate of the vehicle have survived? Debatable! What about long-term effects such as brain-trauma? (For a more detailed discussion on the vulnerability of vehicles, see Leon Engelbrecht, The 21st Century infantry section: what road to take?, defenceWeb, April 19, 2012 (http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=25055:the-21st-century-infantry-section-what-road-to-take&catid=32:military-art-a-science&Itemid=112)) 
From another angle: is there any particular justification for a “triangular” three section platoon? Should it always be maintained? Why not a “square” of four rifle sections? What if one or more sections suffered casualties – should it be rebuilt in the field by moving personnel from elsewhere in the platoon or company (risking cohesion at all the affected levels) or does one scale back to two sections, if only temporarily?
More than mortars and machine guns?
Recent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories have raised further questions – the need for accurate direct fire (snipers), a more robust logistics ability than the divided attentions of platoon leader and sergeant as well as reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA), whether unmanned aerial or ground vehicles or other sensors.
Much success have been reported with light and small (micro) unmanned aerial vehicles that can be deployed, controlled and recovered by one person, giving that fabled ability to see that what’s on the other side of the next hill or street. The same is said for unmanned ground vehicles and various other optronic devices, such as a rubber ball with a transmitting camera fitted that can be thrown into houses or rooms to show some of what is there. Footage from bomb-prone Afghanistan further 
suggests the need for platoon-sized patrols (seemingly the standard size) to include an inherent engineering/explosive ordnance disposal capability, a medical orderly specialised and equipped in trauma wounds and an electronic warfare (EW) ability – both to jam signals meant to detonate bombs and to intercept mobile phone or radio calls between insurgents tracking own forces in order to set up bomb or “standard” (kinetic/direct-fire weapon) ambushes.  
As is usual, every argument in favour of these devices can be offset by concerns over their size, weight, logistic impact, batteries, maintenance, cost, crewing and effectiveness. These are legitimate concerns, but so is the question of the cost of a wounded, maimed or dead soldier.          
This polemic aside, the issue is whether there additional capabilities should be inherent to the platoon, or attached. The former speaks for itself: inherent assets are available (if serviceable). Many naysayers would argue these are specialised assets only required in specific conflicts like Afghanistan “and are unlikely to recur again”. Without digressing into a discussion on the nature of war in the 21st Century, it seems to this author that the western Middle East, South Asia and North-East Asia apart, conventional warfare of the type conducted by mass industrial/industrialised armies in the period 1815-1973 are unlikely; in part because the post-Cold War (1990), banking (2008) and post Euro-crises (2011-12) disarmaments have left Europe without the capability – expeditionary or otherwise. In most of the rest of the world, the capability has never existed. This strongly suggests the mass industrial frontal wars of the popular imagination (World War One, the Six-Day War of 1967, etcetera) were an aberration when seen against the totality of human misfortune with war. To be sure, small high intensity conflicts with armoured and air forces remain likely, probably with open flanks as was the case in the time of Alexander the Great (336-323BC) Napoleon (effectively 1799 to 1815) and Frederick the Great (reign 1740-1789) when small professional armies clashed and created the Europe and militaries we know today. Maintaining those capabilities will be important, but at what level is the rub. For the rest, it will be counterinsurgency (hopefully of the “war among the people” type focussed on building government legitimacy), specialised operations (airborne, airmobile, amphibious, raids, etcetera using specialised infantry) and special operations (tasks requiring Special Forces).
Assuming for the sake of this argument this is the future, what about the Afghan additions? The limited anecdotal evidence to hand suggest British platoons (presumably) in high-risk areas are issued a hand-held mine detector to find bombs, with the device given to the point man of the point section. When a device is found a (Royal Logistics Corps) Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO, bomb disposer) is summoned. In one episode of the BBC’s “Our War” series a disposal team mustered some 50: a large perimeter protection element, the counter-bomb team and the (Royal Signals Corps) EW operative – who had to accompany the ATO to very close to the device. The bomb in question turned out to be quite primitive, but still took eight hours to dispose of – amply illustrating the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of bombs in the insurgent arsenal. The necessary conclusion is that bombs – suicide, remote command detonated and unmanned – will become more, not less, common as a weapon-of-choice. The Internet proliferates with websites showing how to make these and their triggers from a variety of materials. Insurgents and malcontents with access to these have become a real threat. It may be remembered that bombing spread (via the Internet?) from Iraq to Afghanistan and more recently to Somalia and now Nigeria.  
There was no evidence of RSTA, EW or high-skill medics at the British platoon level. Sniper weapons were observed but whether the users were trained snipers are unclear. In the 2010 documentary film “Restrepo” (Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington, National Geographic) showed a US paratroop platoon posted to a remote-ish observation post as a guard to the company flank and to dominate the terrain. In evidence was at least one 81mm mortar, 12.7mm sniper weapons, at least one 40mm automatic grenade launcher and a Raytheon Long-Range Advance Scout Surveillance System (LRAS3), useful for frequently-needed airstrikes. Again, it was not clear who crewed devices. In May 2012 a US soldier with the 1st Armoured Division was pictured by news agency Reuters carrying a manpack Individual Gunshot Detector “Boomerang”-type acoustic device.  One must also watch the proliferation of personal radios. Technically possible and common in the Special Warfare community for extra awareness, team cohesiveness and C2, this may also be the future for the ordinary infantry – if affordable.           
Since price will always be a parameter, current trends will continue: such specialist equipment will be acquired in sufficient numbers for deployments and pre-deployment training. This is often said not to be good enough… What seems prudent is to equip such platoons, at the very least with metal and explosive detectors – the technology is now mature, simple and comparatively cheap. Explosive detectors would be a step up from mine detectors that seek to detect the small amount of metal in improvised bomb detonators or in the cables leading to them. A simple composite device that can be operated by the infantry cannot be long in coming – if not already there. A caution though: the US National Defense Industrial Association’s magazine, National Defense reported on October 20, 2010, that dogs still beat technology. In an article captioned “Technology Falls Short in the War Against IEDs” (http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=221, accessed May 22, 2012), the periodical said “in the war against improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, no weapon is as effective as well-trained soldiers and their bomb-sniffing dogs.” Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO), added: “Dogs are the best detectors.” When dogs are teamed with small dismounted teams of US and Afghan troops, they are capable of detecting 80 percent of IEDs, he said. “That combo presents the best detection system we currently have.”
Since it was created in 2006, JIEDDO has eagerly sought out every possible technological tool it could find in government, industry and academia to locate and remotely detonate IEDs, which have caused the majority of … casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, National Defense said. So far it has spent nearly US$17 billion on new technologies and training programmes. “Since 2004 both in Iraq and Afghanistan the detection rate has hung stubbornly at around 50 percent,” he said. “We find 50 percent of the IEDs used against us, and 50 percent detonate.” Of those that do ignite, about 35 percent do not result in … casualties either because troops travel in heavily armoured vehicles or sometimes because the IEDs are duds.
The SA Army is at present recreating its specialist infantry capability that includes horses, motorcycles – and dogs. 
Weapons section: Yes or No
At this juncture, it may be useful to discuss the need or not for a weapons section for the infantry platoon. It may well be a matter of personal preference of the director of infantry or chief of the army of the nation concerned, a matter of convenience or inertia. There are several arguments for a weapons section: Firstly, it adds a further trained section leader to the platoon. As discussed in The 21st Century infantry section: what road to take? (full reference above), the redundancy this brings is useful in battle. Furthermore, the creation of such a section also reduces the platoon leaders’ span-of-command. Lastly, there is a certain elegance in grouping all the platoon weapons and attachments here and allowing the commander to focus on his main task: leading the whole platoon in battle. At least one argument against a weapons section – and additions – is the transport difficulties they may create. Admitted or not, the size of a section or platoon is often determined not by requirement but by the number of seats available.   
As alluded to, a particularly necessary addition to the modern platoon is (at least) a dedicated and properly equipped sniper (sharpshooter may be a better term to disambiguate) team. Several questions arise: What should be there level of training? What will they bring to the platoon fight? Should they be teamed as shooter and observer commander? How should they be armed? How many should there be? This is not a closed list…
Training is often, alas, a function of time and expertise available as well as command preference, rather than a process generated by requirement. Top-of-class snipers of the type found in the US Marine Corps special operations community and the British Royal Marines require and receive substantial training. In addition to offensive and defensive sniper tasks, they often also have a specialised reconnaissance/surveillance function. Training is infamously hard with an emphasis on accurate long-range shooting and observation under arduous physical and mental conditions. Operations are often behind enemy lines. Such skills would be welcome at platoon level, but would clearly be excessive.   
To answer the second question before continuing with the first, what do the two platoon sharpshooters do? Frankly, at the platoon level they ought be “super” designated marksmen (DMR) with more accurate, heavier calibre and longer range rifles. Thus their prime function is to “eliminate high-payoff enemy personnel targets (such as enemy automatic rifle teams, antitank teams, and snipers) with precision fires.” (The SBCT Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, FM 3-21.9, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, December 2002, p1-11) One can add to this optics, antennae, vehicle vision blocks and enemy gunshot detectors. Whereas the DMR has a modified version of the standard rifle, the sharpshooter would have a heavier semi-automatic 7.62x51mm NATO weapon.  
US Army field manual FM 23-10 Sniper Training (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, August 1994) notes that such personnel “play an important role in the SBCT infantry battalion. They give the commander accurate, discriminatory, long-range small-arms fire.
The best use of sniper fire is against key targets that other available weapon systems may be unable to destroy due to their range, size, or location; visibility; security and stealth requirements; avoidance of collateral damage; intensity of conflict; or rules of engagement. … The effectiveness of a sniper is not measured simply by the number of casualties or destroyed targets; sniper effectiveness also includes the effect the presence of snipers has on enemy activities, morale, and decisions. The presence of snipers hinders the enemy’s movement, creates confusion and personal fear, disrupts enemy operations and preparations, and compels the enemy to divert forces to deal with the snipers.” (Repeated verbatim in US Army field manual FM 3-21.21 The Stryker Brigade Combat Team Infantry Battalion, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, July 2003, pC-1.)
Attention must next be given to command, control and communications. Careful thought will be required to ensure leaders are neither overburdened in weight nor distraction. Despite the successes of six decades of miniaturisation, electronics can still be bulky, clumsy and heavy. This is even more true of batteries. Continues communications with higher headquarters are often more hindrance than help. Higher commanders are not as disciplined as they should be and often forget the precepts of mission command (auftragtaktik) in the heat of the moment, asking for unnecessary updates and offering unneeded advice. (The US Marine Corps has a very, very readable manual on the subject: MCDP 6, Command & Control, HQ USMC, Dept of the Navy, Washington DC, 1996, available free online at various sources, including  http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/service_pubs/mcdp6.pdf.)
It is remarkable how far the technology-advanced have come. Very recently the state-of-the-art was the flag, whistle, shout, hand signals and messenger/runners. This remains the case in less advanced arenas, of course. It is advisable advanced militaries remain familiar with these as well. Electromagnetic pulse, a hard knock or a bullet can easily end the utility of a device.
That said, the advent of multipurpose devices (such as Apple’s iPad, as just one example) and better power technology may “change the game.” The former allows a single device to multitask: it can be a radio interface, a compass, a GPS portal, a map display, a planning tool, etcetera. It also creates a single point of failure: break the device and suffer the consequences. (A solution may be two devices, set to different tasks – this gives some redundancy, but at twice the cost.) Power technology is vital too. A major part of the SA Army’s clunky old “analogue” radio’s weight is the battery packs, containing conventional non-rechargeable clunkers. Rechargeable lithium batteries, developed for mobile phones, laptops and the like, are already making a difference: the TR2400’s lithium battery is said to last seven days “if properly used” (Briefing to C Army, Lt Gen VR Masondo, SA Army Intelligence School, Potchefstroom, May 29, 2012). More can be expected on this front. Then there are solar power and hydrogen fuel cells. The latter generates energy from converting hydrogen and oxygen to clean water. Great strides can be expected here.
In a previous article (The 21st Century infantry section: what road to take?, full reference above) it was suggested it “should now be possible in most militaries to equip at least section and team leaders with radios. In fact it is not impossible to equip every soldier with a short-range, low-power VHF set, perhaps including blue force tracking. Section leaders, at least, can carry a lightweight rugged tablet and camera, as proposed by most ‘soldier systems’ programmes, to send and receive information and orders. Perhaps the team leaders should also have the capability and the scouts something similar to transmit back images. While the scouts would seldom be more than 500m ahead of the section, their point-of-view can be completely different, especially in complex urban terrain.”        
Ditto the platoon leadership and specialist cadre. It does no-one any good if these individuals are out-of-reach and out-of-touch – yet under current conditions, outside the Special Forces community – they often are, especially in close terrain. The technology is there… now it is a matter of price, and above all, changing doctrine, tables of establishment and mindset.
EW is also of increasing importance. The traditional arts of direction finding, eavesdropping, codebreaking, jamming and counter-jamming fall to a level far above the infantry platoon leader. But the growing bomb threat may well have demonstrated a need for a platoon level device to help counter the scourge. The same must be said for metal and explosive detectors. If the threat is there, it would be a mean spirit who objected on grounds of cost. Whether this should be an integral component to the platoon, attached from an EW regiment of the Signal Corps or otherwise is a good question. It may well depend on the ease-of-operation. That said, even simple-to-use devices will fail the ill-trained – as experience with metal detectors in Afghanistan has shown.
What of a metal and explosive detector capability? Much the same arguments apply: is it a specialist task for a trained sapper from the Engineer Corps, or will an infantryman suffice; or perhaps a dog with a specialist handler? Regardless of choice, training is paramount – and not just pre-deployment –or heaven forbid, in-theatre. For this reason these vital positions must become entrenched in mindset, doctrine, tables of organisation, training documents and practice. If specialists or the equipment is not available, they/it can be simulated. Battle drills, for example, work because they are repeated until they become automatic. The same goes for specialists. The battlefield is not the place to experiment with their placement in, say, a wedge formation or in the advance up a narrow alley. It must be institutionalised, thoroughly, beforehand. 
This is not a trite point. Lacuna in training can result in a situation where assets are available to a platoon commander but are not used, or used effectively, because they forgot or did not think the assets were there to exploit. John Dovey writes elsewhere on this page (John Dovey, Opinion: SANDF Combat Readiness – Some grave concerns, defenceWeb, June 1, 2012,http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=25935:sandf-combat-readiness&catid=32:military-art-a-science&Itemid=112, accessed June 4, 2012) about tactical exercises where precisely that happened: mortars and and engineer section as well as aid from flanking platoons were per scenario available to the platoon commanders but were not used at all because “I discovered during the debrief that for a majority of the soldiers, and especially the leaders, involved in the exercise that this was the first time that, during training, they had been required to: …  or other indirect fire weapons and request assistance in breaching obstacles from engineers.
“Implicit in my briefing was that the platoons could assist each other if they wished, with the platoon commanders requesting assistance from each other if the confronted situations that they felt were beyond their ability to handle. Not one platoon commander made use of this, making the (incorrect) assumption that they had to carry out the exercise without assistance. During the debrief, they expressed surprise that they would be allowed to call for assistance from each other and stated categorically that in all the training that they had experienced to that point they had always been assessed and operated independently and forbidden contact with their peers,” Dovey added.
“Not one platoon commander called for assistance from the engineers, who were present and briefed in their own tasks, primarily to simulate clearing and marking lanes through mine fields.
“Not one platoon commander even considered the possibility of calling for support from indirect fire weapons. The briefing explicitly stated that there was a mortar platoon in their area of operations, with an observer placed on the high ground, so that if they called for fire the observer would have direct line of sight on any possible objective and place 81mm fire onto any of those objectives. When questioned about this at the ‘debrief’, the platoon commanders all stated that they had never been trained (or told) how to use the indirect fire in support of their battle plan.”
Gunshot detectors, whether manpack or vehicle mounted, are novel and ideally serve to identify the direction and source of incoming rifle fire, especially by lone enemy shots (often called “snipers”). It is a substantial improvement on flash spotting using the naked eye or binoculars. Systems can be based around acoustic, optical or other sensors. And consist of an array of microphones or sensors either co-located or geographically dispersed, a computer and some type of user-interface that displays gunfire alerts (Wikipedia, Gunfire Locator, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfire_locator, last update May 28, 2012, accessed June 3, 2012).
The manpack detector may be a part time occupation due to automation, but this cannot be said about the platoon mortar or machine guns. One reason for platoon machine guns could be the replacement of 7.62mm GPMG in the section with 5.56 weapons with less range (300-1500m versus 300-1000m) and stopping powder. Some see the platoon level as the appropriate place to gather the heavier weapons, the more so as their utility has been asserted in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. Others may argue the same for the company level. Another reason may be to create a sustained fire support capability for the platoon. Again, more may say it would be more effective and efficient to have this at the company level – as they have for the platoon mortar. As observed, these are held as a “battery” at company level in the South African light infantry, but are allocated per platoon in the heavy infantry. Other nations have their own solutions.
Medical orderlies, trained to at least paramedic levels, would be welcome at platoon level, this will not always be possible, if only for lack of availability. To maximise the use of personnel available, they may have to be assigned to deployed units only, preferably at a level of one a platoon. Also required is more attention to first aid, “buddy aid” and more advanced medical training for at least some soldiers in the platoon. This should focus on stopping bleeding and stabilising troops after gunshot and bomb-related wounds.  
Beware casting in concrete
Both O’Leary and Dovey point to an unhealthy phenomenon: the willingness of the human mind to ossify, to “cast in concrete” to, “carve in stone”, to consider platoon organisations – among others – as inviolate and even somewhat sacred. One can add that none of Dovey’s platoon commanders seemingly considered the use of the 60mm mortar or reorganising their platoons, perhaps stripping the heavy MAG58s from the sections to create a provisional machine gun section under the platoon sergeant that could act as a base of fire for an assault group from the high ground already held. Fire superiority is often a prerequisite to successful fire-and-movement. The assault group might have consisted of the three rifle groups of the infantry sections attacking two-up with the third in reserve and the platoon commander in the middle. Flexibility in thought, action and organisation is key in the platoon fight. Boldness too: not just in attacking the enemy, but more importantly in adjusting to the circumstances and not to just stick to the proforma.      
A personal preference
From the above it can be read the writer would construct a platoon with three rifle sections and a strong specialist section, including two sharpshooters and a counter-bomb capability. The requirement for machine guns at the platoon level is debatable, especially when deliberate aimed accurate long-range fire is available in the shape of sharpshooters. Machine gun fire may also have range but at best has an area effect rather than offering any great precision. The idea of grouping the mortars at company level also wins favour, allowing centralisation and decentralisation as required.
Conclusions
Flexibility in thought, action and organisation remains cardinal.
There is no right answer and, indeed platoon structures have changed substantially over time.
But, in the end, numbers (quantity) and the presence of dedicated specialists (quality) matter.


[i]      This sentence is from House but exactly the same wording is found in Lieutenant Colonel Douglas MacGregor, Breaking the Phalanx: A new design for landpower in the 21st Century, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, May 20, 1996, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA310904&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf, accessed May 1, 2011, p58.   
[ii]           Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852) was an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman, and one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century. His most remembered military victory was the defeat of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium, in June 1815.