The importance of the infantry section on the modern battlefield can hardly be exaggerated. Its place has certainly been recognised in rhetoric but not necessarily in reality. Almost every conflict in the last sixty years has been called a “corporal’s war”, sometimes a “subaltern’s war”, to indicate the level at which most of the fighting take place.
Former United States Marine Corps commandant General Charles Krulak popularised the idea of the “Three Block War” and the “Strategic Corporal”. While both concepts have been criticised, section leaders (squad leaders in the US) in recent unconventional conflicts have indeed conducted full scale military action, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid within the space of a few contiguous city blocks – although not necessarily three. It has been explained that the thrust of the concept is that modern militaries must be trained to operate in all three conditions simultaneously, and that to do so, leadership training at the lowest levels needs to be high.
Efforts have been made to improve the equipment and “situational awareness” of individual soldiers, as programmes such as the US Land Warrior and French FELIN, among many others, attest. But is more leadership training and “soldiers systems” enough?
Sergeant Major James Hardy, command sergeant major at the US Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence (the combined Infantry and Armour/Cavalry schools) at Fort Benning, Georgia, told the October 2011 Association of the US Army Annual Meeting and Exposition the section has not changed over time, “but what is expected of the squad today has changed significantly” (Rob McIlvaine, Squads need “overmatch” capability, defenceWeb, October 17, 2011).
Smaller and smaller?
The late military thinker Paddy Griffith, in his The Ultimate Weaponry (Blitz Editions, London, 1991, p151) writes the “infantry is likely to become more specialised and fight in smaller groups, albeit packing more firepower than ever… A task which would once have required a platoon of 30-40 men may now be carried out by a … section of eight to 12 men, each divided into two or three ‘fireteams’ that will similarly be capable of doing the job that previously needed the whole [section]. An example of such a development in today’s British Army is the 10-man Warrior-mounted infantry section, which boasts 10 fully automatic weapons, compared with the three machine guns held in 1945 by a British platoon (or two in a 1914 infantry battalion) and six in a 1945 German platoon.”
Major General Robert B. Brown, in 2011 commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, in his address to the Association of the US Army that year noted the dismounted squad is the “foundation of the decisive force”. But he warned “the squad is the only level where there is no appreciable overmatch capability to the current threat.” The overmatch capability will not be achieved only through improvements in technology, Brown said, but also through training and leader development. The goal is to improve lethality, survivability, power energy, and mobility. “We really started looking at the tactical small unit, based on what’s happened over the last 10 years, and we said, where is the fight too fair? Where do we not have overwhelming ability to overmatch our enemies,” said Brown according to the Army News Service (Rob McIlvaine, Squad needs ‘overmatch’ capability, Army News Service, http://www.army.mil/article/67175/, October 12, 2011, accessed April 18, 2012).
The enemy, he said, is looking at where they have the fairest fight and their best opportunity and it’s at the squad level, Brown said. It’s the lowest level that causes the biggest challenges, he said. “General Martin Dempsey (then Army chief of staff) saw the force about six or seven months ago and said, let’s start at the very pointiest end of the spear, let’s look at where the need is the greatest, so let’s turn the system on its end and look bottom up,” he said.
It is also difficult to keep squads fully manned, Brown continued. Injuries – combat and non combat – illness and other effects accumulate over time. Because of the importance of the squad’s effectiveness to overall mission success and the thin margin for loss, careful consideration must be given to the human dimension. Oddly, he leaves out the most obvious cure: the increasing the size of the section.
Mechanisation: help or hindrance?
While the size of the section has never been cast in concrete, industrialisation and mechanisation have seen a diversion of dismounted soldiers. Up to three of these are now vehicle crew. Furthermore, the infantry have become prisoners of their vehicle fleets: ten is generally the maximum number that can be carried by most infantry combat vehicles (ICV) or armoured personnel carriers (APC).
The small starting size of the section should raise serious concern about the efficacy of this critical battlefield element, especially its ability to absorb casualties and stay in the fight. Compare the mechanised section with a non-mechanised equivalent: Seven section dismounts multiplies to 21 platoon dismounts, 63 company dismounts and just 189 battalion riflemen. For a dismounted section of ten it is 30 platoon dismounts, 90 company dismounts and 270 battalion riflemen. This represents a massive drop in “bayonets”, which is not offset by the notional firepower of the assigned APC or ICV. The APC, in theory, should carry the infantry to the edge of the battle area, where they debus and fight forward on foot. The APCs then retire to a laager and perhaps provide covering fire. How long they will survive to do this is debatable, considering the light armour of standard APC (proof against ball rounds from assault rifles and machine guns).
The ICV, doctrinally, is meant to carry infantry onto the objective (meaning into or through the enemy position). But the standard ICV is a thin-skinned APC fitted with a cannon, rather than a machine gun, and perhaps precision-guided missiles, something that turns the vehicle into a priority target for the enemy: bad news especially for the dismounts, who are effectively hostages to fortune in the troop compartment. Writing about the first-of-breed, the BMP-1 (Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty, meaning “fighting vehicle of infantry”), Griffith noted it “seemed to represent a formidable mixture of firepower, armour and mobility for the infantry, to give it plenty of punch even against armour; in practice, as the 1973 Yom Kippur (October) War showed, the BMP was alarmingly vulnerable…”
Writing in the US Armed Forces Journal in October 2010, retired Major General Robert Scales wrote: “We know that investments made recently to better equip soldiers are saving lives. In World War II and Vietnam, an individual infantryman cost about $1900 to equip. The “ratio” of killed to wounded in small-unit action in both those wars was about 1 to 3.4. Investments in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased [the cost] to $17 000 per infantryman. The killed-to-wounded ratio is now about 1 to 9, and the casualty rate has decreased from 3% to less than a third of one percent within close-combat small units (Small unit dominance – The strategic importance of tactical reform, Armed Forces Journal, October 2010, http://armedforcesjournal.com/2010/10/4757970/, accessed December 20, 2011).
“Failure to dominate at the tactical level to the degree we are capable is all the more incongruous because success in today’s ‘hybrid’ wars is achieved by the patient and often dangerous application of force by thousands of … squads, platoons and teams. These small units patrol and operate principally from isolated outposts and forward operating bases, along primitive roads and trails, and among the people within villages and towns. This incongruity is amplified with the realisation that our tactical failures are nothing new. In World War II, infantry was the third most deadly job behind submarine and bomber crews. In a half century of wars fought after World War II, submarine and bomber crew combat deaths have dropped to virtually nil. Yet as a proportion of total combat deaths, infantry has increased from 71% in World War II to 81% in wars fought since. Thus [in the US military] four out of five combat deaths have been suffered by a force that makes up less than 4% of uniformed manpower. Half of those deaths occurred while simply trying to find the enemy and almost all occurred within less than a mile of contact. In Afghanistan, 89% of all deaths occur in small units and more than 90 percent occur within 400 meters of a road.
“The final incongruity comes with the realisation that soldiers and Marines — those most likely to die — are, when compared with their colleagues from other services, often the very ones still least well-equipped and trained for their very dangerous calling,” Scales says. “Since World War II, our air and sea forces have dominated in their respective domains; ground forces have not. Put aside the humanitarian aspect for a moment and consider the national strategic consequences of this cosmic incongruity. Our enemies from Lin Biao to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden all recognise that our vulnerable strategic centre of gravity is dead Americans. Thus it comes as no surprise that the common thread among all of our enemies over the past half-century has been the imperative to kill Americans not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. So why don’t we do better at lessening our strategic vulnerabilities by doing a better job of preserving the lives of those most likely to die?
Commenting on the noted Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” [aka the Sebastian Junger Project, after the producer; National Geographic], Scales said it compared to his experience in Vietnam 40 years before: “same type of unit (airborne light infantry), same lousy rifle (M16/M4), same helicopter (CH-47), same machine gun (M2), same young men trying to deal with the fear of violent death. “Seared in my brain is the image of a young soldier at Fire Base Restrepo hacking away at hard clay and granite trying frantically to dig a fighting position. The US is spending more than $300 billion on a new fighter plane. We haven’t lost a fighter pilot to enemy action since 1972. Why after nine years of war can’t we give a close-combat soldier a better way to dig a hole?”
Restrepo was a platoon base, but one can ask if its inmates had the correct mix of sensors as well as direct and indirect weapons to engage and destroy the enemy. One can further ask whether that was tied to a suitably flexible organisation. Captain Michael O’Leary in “The Canadian Infantry Section Attack Part One: Attrition Training in a Manoeuvre Army” notes that when discussing current structures two principal points arise – organisation, and tactics (undated, http://regimentalrogue.tripod.com/papers/sect_atk.htm, accessed February 1, 2011). “There is no simple solution to either, any argument to defend a specific structure or tactical approach necessarily requires a detailed preamble establishing roles of infantry forces, organisations, available weapons, tactical situations, [budgets], etc. Often, another nation’s infantry organisation will be offered as a potential solution. While this at first seems a possible course, it may be fraught with hazards if only because the compromises that were made to develop it have not been published along with their tactical structure. Similarly, comparative effects of individual training, discipline, effectiveness and combination of weapons should be analysed to establish the potential effectiveness and applicability of another army’s solution.”
Flexibility is key
The Canadian captain also warns against a “growing tendency to consider the section an inviolate organisation, tasked as a single entity only and with an incorruptible internal structure.” He adds that dependent “on the section’s tasks and any direction received from the platoon commander, the section commander should retain the capability and freedom to rearrange not only the section’s formation, but also its organisation to best meet the anticipated threat. The fundamental requirement to achieve this degree of flexibility is that all section members must be trained and experienced in each configuration, thus enabling the section to shift organisations as easily as they do field formations.” This is equally true of the platoon and company that routinely reorganise when tasked with conducting an ambush, raid or assault; abandoning standard organisation for a task-organised structure that may, in the case of an ambush consist of a main ambush force, “stopper” groups and security detachments. The same type of attachments, detachments and cross-attachments are, of course, routinely done at the battalion level and above, as directed by higher command, terrain, mission and the like.
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). 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 Wellingtoni’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.”
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 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. “By 1954, the section organisation was defined as being divided into two groups; the Bren group under the section second-in-command, and the rifle group. The two elements of success for WW2 section were the individual soldiers’ battle craft and the section commanders’ decision-making and command ability under fire. The freedom of the section commander to combine battle craft, musketry, surprise and use of ground to defeat his enemy while minimising his own section casualties were vital and expected” (The Canadian Infantry Section Attack Part One).
The South African Infantry Corps (SAIC), which like its Canadian counterpart, at this time took its lead from the British Army, followed the same organisational development path, and indeed, the standard section and platoon is still organised as above today (a minor deviation being the organisational concentration of the 60mm light mortar at the company level, although they are generally detached to the platoons). Section, platoon, company and battalion organisation has elsewhere also largely remained the same, with the exception of the introduction of two equal-sized, equally armed “fire teams” in place of the LMG and rifle groups in the section and greater discrimination between mounted and dismounted infantry. Mechanised infantry sections, carried aboard armoured fighting vehicles, in particular, tend to be smaller than dismounted squads. The converse is also true: the dismounted United States Marine Corps infantry section musters three fire teams, giving it considerable combat power, resilience and depth over most of its peers.
Section organisation in more detail: existing structures
South Africa: Let us now take a closer look at existing section organisations: The South African section typically consists of a seven-person rifle group and a three-strong light machine gun (LMG) group. The section leader, usually a corporal, doubles as the commander of the rifle group, all armed with the R4 5.56x45mm assault rifle. He also carries the section’s sole radio. The LMG group is commanded by a lance corporal, the only other trained leader in the section. It is built around a LMG, usually the bulky, heavy and clumsy 7.62x51mm FN MAG 58, although now also the Denel SS77, available in both 7.62mm and 5.56mm calibre. The section typically manoeuvres as a single entity (one radio means everyone generally has to stay within the leader’s eyesight and earshot) with the LMG group providing a base of fire during fire-and-manoeuvre.
Noteworthy is that the mechanised rifle group (including the section leader) musters just five, two soldiers being taken away to serve as ICV driver and gunner. A further complication involves the section leader. In the mechanised section, should he/she dismount to take charge of rifle group and section as a whole, or should he/she stay in the vehicle? There are several arguments in favour of the latter. For a start, vehicle commanders fulfill several vital tasks – including guiding the driver and acquiring as well as prioritising targets for the gunner. They also need to keep an eye on threats to the vehicle. If the section leaders dismount, who replaces them and what training do they have? And how viable is the rifle group that now musters four (versus seven), including the section leader?
Second is the argument that the cannon-armed ICV is the primary weapon of the section, and that the section leader should remain with it to apply its firepower. Add to this, as a third imperative, good observation gained by the height of the commander’s position off the ground and the “situational awareness” the sensors and optics of the fire-control and command-and-control systems. The latter now often include “blue force tracking” to keep abreast of friendly troops and intelligence updates on enemy positions and dispositions displayed on LCD screens and updated by wireless datalink.
But choosing to stay mounted can be dangerous as discussed above: with its weapon and target acquisition equipment the ICV will attract priority artillery, anti-tank and other fire (along with any tanks or armoured cars present). If not destroyed or immobilised, the vehicle may well have to seek cover, separating leader and dismounted section at the very least temporarily. This is true of the thin-skinned ICVs commonly used around the world and may also be the case with heavier, tank-based ICVs. The Lebanon war of 2006 showed that not even the Israeli Namer (both a contraction of Nagmash [APC] Merkava” and Hebrew for “leopard”) was invulnerable. Based on the Merkava Mark IV, arguably the best protected MBT built to date, the wikipedia records Hezbollah missiles penetrated the armour of five Merkava Mark IV tanks, killing 10 crew. Weapons used included the Russian RPG-29 ‘Vampir’, AT-5 ‘Konkurs’, AT-13 ‘Metis-M’, and laser-guided AT-14 ‘Kornet’ missiles. Another Merkava IV tank crewman was killed when a tank ran over an improvised explosive device (IED). “This tank had additional V-shaped underside armour, limiting casualties to just one of the seven personnel (four crewmen and three infantrymen) onboard. In total, 50 Merkava tanks (predominantly Merkava IIs and IIIs) were damaged, eight of which remained serviceable on the battlefield. Two Merkava Mark IVs were damaged beyond repair, one by powerful IEDs, and another, it is believed, by Russian AT-14 ‘Kornet’ missilesii. All but two Merkava Mark IV tanks damaged during the war were [eventually] repaired and returned to the IDF. The Israeli military said that it was satisfied with the Merkava Mark IV’s performance, and attributed problems to insufficient training before the war”.iii
The BBC reported in August 2006 “all of these enhancements have not proved sufficiently effective against the most modern anti-tank systems operated by determined fighters on the ground. Part of the answer may be to adopt new kinds of armour and active protection systems, but these are unlikely to be panaceas.
There’s also the question of what the (South African) section leader will do with his enhanced awareness. How does he communicate with his dismounts? Did he hand his manpack radio to the section 2IC (the LMG group commander)? And if the radio is damaged? (Just a reminder that people with radio antennas sticking out of their webbing tend to attract fire.)
At this juncture it may be politic to explain the different kinds of infantry: The foot folk traditionally divide into two: light and heavy. The latter today is generally restricted to the mechanised (or armoured, in some militaries) infantry. In South Africa, the mechanised troops are defined as “heavy infantry deployed by means of an ICV, along with their equipment, reserves and support element. They can operate integrated or independently from their ICVs.” All other manifestations of infantry are considered “light”, including the motorised troops, airborne (parachute) and airmobile forces and specialised infantry.
Motorised infantry by definition deploys “on foot or mounted on soft skinned/mine protected vehicles, along with their equipment, reserves and support element.” The airborne infantry are “dropped or landed by means of parachutes, helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, along with their equipment, reserves and support element in order to deploy.” Specialist infantry are related to the motorised infantry but have a rear-area protection function and is assigned unconventional tasks. “Their support element is equipped with motorcycles, horses and dogs. This element as well as their equipment and reserves are transported with the aid of soft-skinned or mine-protected vehicles.”
The British infantry section divides into two unequal fire teams. In their armoured infantry, equivalent to the South African mechanise infantry, the section comprises two fire teams and a vehicle team. The latter is commanded by a lance corporal and includes a driver and gunner. The first fire team is four strong and includes the section leader, a machine gunner and to riflemen. The second team, like the LMG group, musters three: a lance corporal, a machine gunner and a rifleman (Griffith, p152). Each of the seven dismounts may also carry a disposable single-shot rocket launcher.
United States: The US Army infantry section is similar to its UK peer: According to their Field Manual (FM) 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, April 1992, pA-4), the “most common rifle squad has nine soldiers. It fights as two fire teams. The squad has one squad leader [a sergeant], two fire team leaders, two automatic riflemen, two riflemen, and two grenadiers.” This allows for two identical fire teams, each with a team leader (generally a corporal), machine gunner (armed with a M249 – FN Mimini – .56x45mm LMG), grenadier (armed with a 40mm M203 assault rifle grenade launcher combination) and a rifleman. FM3-21.71, Mechanized Infantry Platoon and Squad (Bradley), notes the mechanised section includes two soldiers trained on the M240 FN MAG 58 GPMG as well as the Raytheon/Lockhed Martin FGM-148 Javelin precision-guided missile (PGM). One serves as gunner and the other as assistant gunner, as required (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, August 2002, p1-5). Interestingly, the M2 Bradley crew is not part of the squad. Standard Bradley organisation divides the platoon into a mounted and dismounted elements, the latter being the three nine-strong squads.
The Stryker platoon is organised in a similar fashion to the Bradley organisation. FM 3-21.9 (The SBCT Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, December 2002, p1-11) describes the section as follows: “Each of the three rifle squads consists of a rifle squad leader and eight soldiers. The rifle squad leader is the senior tactical leader of the squad and controls the squad’s movement and fires. He conducts squad training and maintains the squad’s ability to conduct tactical missions successfully. Each infantry squad is further organised into two 4-man fire teams consisting of a team leader, a grenadier, and an automatic rifleman. The fourth member within each fire team is either the squad’s antitank specialist or the squad’s designated marksman.” The manual notes the antiarmour specialist is normally equipped with an assault rifle within one of the fire teams of a rifle squad, but can step-out with a Javelin command launch unit (CLU) if required and engage armour, bunkers and the like.
“The designated marksman acts as a member of the squad under the direction of the squad leader or as designated by the platoon leader. Although normally functioning as a rifleman within one of the fire teams in a rifle squad, the designated marksman is armed with a modified M4, 5.56-mm rifle. He is employed at the direction of the squad leader or reorganised with the other squads’ designated marksmen into a platoon sniper section. He is trained to eliminate high-payoff enemy personnel targets (such as enemy automatic rifle teams, antitank teams, and snipers) with precision fires.”
The US Marine Corps section is the largest of the American squad organisation, with three – rather than two – identical fire teams. As is the case in the US Army, the section leaders are ranked sergeant, the team leaders corporal. The senior of these have the additional task of being assistant squad leader. According to MCWP3-11.2, Marine Rile Squad (Headquarters, Department of the Navy, Washington DC, December 1991, p1-2), the team leader is also grenadier. The machine gunner and his assistant are ranked lance corporal and the sole rifleman (a private) is also trained as scout.
Russian Federation: The Russian non-mechanised section consists of a section leader and eight troops. The US Army’s FM100-63 Infantry-based Opposing Force Organisation Guide (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, April 1996, p3-13) elaborates that the section includes five riflemen with assault rifles, two LMG (generally the 5.45x39mm RPK74) and a grenadier armed with the RPG-7V and a pistol. Two of the assault rifles are also fitted with BG-15 under-barrel grenade launchers (UBGL), creating a Russian equivalent to the M203. One section per platoon also has a 7.62x54mm SVD (Dragunov) sniper rifle and one section per platoon had a LPO/RPO flame-thrower. Each section is issued one low-power VHF radio, one set of night-vision goggles, one weapon night sight and two disposable RPG18/22 rocket grenades.
The Russian mechanised section musters eight soldiers. FM 100-60 Armour- and Mechanised-based Opposing Force Organisation Guide notes the dismounted squad assault element consists of six men, including the section leader (Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington DC, July 1997, p3-8). The manual adds IFV driver/mechanic and assistant squad leader/IFV gunner remain with the IFV to provide fire support. For this reason, they are armed with pistols. Oddly, the dismounted squad does not have a portable radio, the section vehicle being fitted with a medium power VHF set. The rest of the section comprises one or two machine gunners (RPK-74), a grenadier (RPG-7V, pistol), a “senior rifleman”, a rifleman/assistant grenadier and a rifleman. All typically carry AK74 assault rifles, two also carrying the GP-25/30 40mm UBGL. Each section is further issued one set of night-vision goggles, one weapon night sight and a RPO flamethrower. The RPO-A is not a World War style tank-and-nozzle design but is in fact a disposable, single-shot rocket with a thermobaric warhead. As far as can be ascertained, the Russian section deploys as a single grouping: there are no fire teams or the like. “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 sniper rifle in the IFV for those instances when he acts as a sniper.”
Germany: The German infantry section is always 10 soldiers strong. “The section is organised to ensure that fire and manoeuvre may be brought to bear at the same time in dismounted operations throughout the full spectrum of tasks,” Major Wolfgang Strobler wrote some years ago. “This is achieved by the alternating employment of two rifle teams. Our tactics, techniques and procedures and the need for mutual support demand that these teams be organised and equipped identically.” (Major Wolfgang Strobler, The German Army’s Infantry Forces, CPM Forum, CPM Communication Presse Marketing GmBH, Sankt Augustin, 2007, p10.) “The infantry section will undergo further refinement… The right mix of sensors, target acquisition assets, sights and weapons/weapon systems will guarantee versatile and mission-specific employment options.” The mechanised infantry, the panzergrenadiere, are assigned one section per vehicle. The PSM Projekt System Management (a joint venture of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall Landsysteme) Puma is the latest vehicle for this corps, and musters a crew of three with six dismounts. It predecessor, the Marder, carries three crew and seven dismounts. The requirement was for 12.
Section organisation in more detail: some thoughts
Taking into account the above examples and recalling General Scales’ cry for overmatch at section level as well as Captain O’Leary’s warning for infantry leaders not to fall into organisational ruts, what general improvements can one propose?
A starting point is that the section is not an independent organism, but is part of a platoon, company and battalion. That said, it is imperative to organise and equip the section in such a way as to allow for mission success. In connection with the first, one recalls Stalin’s reported comment that “quantity has a quality all its own.” The section must be of sufficient size to absorb casualties and form a reserve. Although the maintenance of a reserve is a common principle of war, it is almost routinely ignored at the section level because of the generally small size of that organisation. Yet, a reserve provides depth, offsets losses or reverses and allows for the exploitation of opportunity.
The section also needs more leaders, both for internal redundancy and to replace battle losses elsewhere in the platoon or company. This implies more training and practice: team leaders must be able to take command of sections – in extremis even platoons – and units must develop and practice drills to do so seamlessly under fire. Section leaders must at least be able to take control of a platoon. The platoon and section must also drill re-organisation after losses – forming new sections and teams from the remnant that remain.
When it comes to equipment and arms, the section leader must be provided an appropriate “tool kit”. As is the case with higher echelons of organisation, the section requires a mix of direct and indirect fire weapons. In this era of “war among the people” and restrictive rules-of-engagement, the ability to deliver lethal precision fire and less-than-lethal ordnance also comes at a premium. It also needs up-to-date, low cost and low weight communications and command-and-control equipment. 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.
This argues for a section with three fire teams – team leader, machine gunner, grenadier (also assistant team leader) and a rifleman. At section level, the leader will be teamed with a designated marksman, giving both a “buddy” that can “watch their back”. If at all possible, the section should also muster two trained scouts to provide an integral target acquisition, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. The scouts will also provide the section its bunker-busting and antiarmour capability, as and when required. It could be useful to deploy the scouts of the “depth” section, if the platoon is deployed “two sections up, one in reserve” with such a weapon in an overwatch position. This will ensure at least one weapon per platoon at the immediate ready, useful when the presence and survival of section vehicles cannot be guaranteed.
The US approach to vehicle allocation seems to have much to recommend, with APCs or ICV’s falling under the platoon as a “mounted element”, rather than burdening the section. It is recommended this approach be used. With regard to vehicles, two choices suggest themselves: re-equipping with a larger vehicle – MRAPs that can carry 16 troops exist; or allocating sections two of the existing vehicles. Both approaches have something to recommend. Larger vehicles keep the number to the familiar – one vehicle a section, four a platoon. But it does place “all eggs in one basket”. Using current vehicles saves costs – no need to re-equip – but doubles the number of section and platoon vehicles.
General Scales called for “overmatch” at the section level. While there is no “perfect” solution, it is avered the organisation and weapons fit suggested here will help achieve the required overmatch while giving the section leader depth and a toolkit of direct and indirect weapons, including the ability to direct precision fire.
> The author served in the South African Army from 1987 to 1992. He was conscripted to the infantry where he volunteered for junior leader training and was commissioned an officer. He served as a lieutenant and junior staff officer with 101 Battalion, a motorised counterinsurgency unit based in northern Namibia (Ondangwa) for 18 months and a further 18 months as a junior operations control officer at the then-Eastern Province Command.