Although up to one in three members of the SA National Defence Force belong to the South African Infantry Corps (SAIC), not much is known outside the military about this organisation.
The South African Infantry Corps - Introducing change
May 5, 2003 (Draft)
Although up to one in three members of the SA National Defence Force belong to the South African Infantry Corps (SAIC), not much is known outside the military about this organisation. This is worrying in light of the ongoing popular debate regarding the role of the armed forces in support of the police as well as the increasing numbers of troops deployed on peacekeeping duties. The purpose of this article is therefore to introduce laypeople to the Infantry with the purpose of familiarising them with its current organisation, equipment and mandate. The author will then take the liberty to do a peer comparison, challenge some approaches and make some suggestions for change. This article was prepared without the solicitation or official cooperation of the SAIC, the Army or the SANDF.
The task of the infantry is traditionally to hold ground or kill the enemy. US Army Field Manual (FM) FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (available in full on the Internet through the Dennis Reimer Digital Library at http://www.adtdl.army.mil) puts it thus: “The mission of the Infantry is to close with the enemy by means of fire and manoeuvre to defeat or capture him, or to repel his assault by fire, close combat, and counterattack.” The mission of the Army is to “fight and win the nation’s wars” or to support its foreign policy through deterrence, supporting allies or participation in peace support operations. Of all the Corps in the Army, the Infantry is the most capable of supporting this wide-ranging mandate — if proficient at their primary task. US Army FM3, Operations, puts it so: “Doctrine holds warfighting as the Army’s primary focus and recognises that the ability of Army Forces to dominate land warfare also provides the ability to dominate any situation in military operations other than war (MOOTW).”
By way of introduction it maybe best to explain how infantry sections, platoons, companies and battalions relate to each other. Three sections, each about 10-strong and commanded by a section leader, usually ranked corporal, form a platoon. Three platoons, each commanded by a commissioned officer, usually a lieutenant, and normally assisted by a platoon sergeant make up a rifle company. Three rifle companies, normally commanded by a captain or major and a support company, equipped with mortars, machine guns and anti-tank weapons, make up a battalion. A battalion commander, usually a lieutenant colonel in addition has at his disposal a small staff. Military jargon also describe battalions as “units,” companies as “sub-units” and platoons as “sub-sub units.” The battalion is also the level where one first routinely encounters soldiers from other Corps and members from other Services. One level up from the battalion is the brigade, a formation normally made up of units and sub-units drawn from a number of Corps.
Types of Infantry
The Infantry, as a Corps, consists of a number of branches, namely “mechanised,” “motorised,” “parachute,” “light” and “specialised.” The essential difference lies in the method they are carried to and transported on the battlefield. The SA mechanised infantry are carried in Ratel MkIII infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), the motorised infantry are transported in Mamba and Casspir armoured personnel carriers (APC) or carried in busses or on trucks, the parachute infantry are dropped from aircraft and then walk to the fight, the light infantry specialise in counter-insurgency and are also carried in APCs while the specialised infantry are mounted on horses, motorcycles or are trained as dog handlers. The parachute infantry came into being to exploit the potential of aircraft and the mechanised troops to accompany tanks on the battlefield. Both branches came into being in the 1930s and came of age during World War Two (1939-1945). The bulk of the infantry, the motorised branch, only became permanently vehicle-borne later.
The theoretical difference between an IFV and an APC lies in the latter only carrying infantry to the edge of the battlefield where they debus and fight on foot while the IFV supposedly accompanies the mechanised infantry on the battlefield. The IFV, for this purpose, usually sports a turreted automatic (20mm-35mm) cannon while APCs can be fitted with (pintle-mounted) machine guns for self-defence. However, the proliferation of light anti-armour weapons and light anti-aircraft cannon have essentially rendered light IFVs “souped-up” APCs, equally unsafe on the modern battlefield. Convergence in vehicle design has also contributed to a situation where the same vehicle, with a pintle-mounted machine gun is described as an APC while the addition of a turreted cannon converts it into an IFV. Some countries have in recent years converted tank chassis into heavy IFV in order to give their mechanised infantry something more survivable.
Parachute infantry are considered elite for a number of reasons. For one, they need to be physically fitter and stronger than regular infantry — not because they parachute out of aircraft but because jumping is simply the start, not the end of their role. Once on the ground, they are expected to gather at specified “rally points” on the “drop zone” (DZ) and then march from there to the battlefield. To allow for safe assembly, this is usually some distance from the objective. Since the DZ and the objective is frequently behind enemy lines and since it may be some time before a relief force arrives with supplies, they have to carry additional food, water and ammunition with them — both during the march and the subsequent fight.
The light infantry includes the territorial reserve “commando” units that are to be phased out by 2009. The SANDF’s gradual withdrawal from supporting the SA Police Service (SAPS) in crime-fighting, mostly done by the light infantry, raises questions about the continuation of the light infantry as a whole. The time may be right to reallocate battalions tasked with this function or to disband them. As an aside, the term “light infantry” has in recent years been misapplied by the SA Army. Traditionally and internationally, the light infantry were considered an elite and enjoyed special standing — similar to that now enjoyed by the parachute infantry. In combat they were used as skirmishers ahead of the main force or were employed as flank guards or for independent operations. This required a higher level of physical fitness as well as mental independence and own initiative than found in the rest of the infantry. In many countries light infantry units still march at a faster pace than ordinary “line infantry” on parade — or even run!
At present there is only one battalion assigned a specialised infantry role, generally in support of the police or to combat insurgency. If there is still a requirement for such a unit, this might be better discharged as part of the military police.
The organisation, equipment scales and battle-handling of the various infantry are generally the same, except for limitations imposed by the means of motive power (feet versus APC versus IFV). One other difference was that the support company of the light infantry battalion did not have the usual mix of weapons but instead used specialised infantry.
The SAIC presently musters the following:
Mechanised Battalions: 2 5
Motorised Battalions: 3 8
Parachute Battalions: 1 2
Light Infantry Battalions: 10 10
Specialised Infantry Battalions: 1 0
Commando Units: 0 183
Total: 17 208 (225)
No reliance should be placed on these figures, however. The regular units are nearly all over-strength on paper but under-strength in reality because of health and age profiles. Nearly all Reserve Units, except some Commandos, exist on paper only because of a decade of under-funding.
Who decides how many of which should exist? This should be an Army decision informed by the mandate given to the armed forces by Parliament through the periodic adoption of Defence Reviews — again highlighting the need to hold these at regular intervals. If a suggestion to form a number of brigades, as mooted in last month’s edition, is adopted, the SA Army would have a requirement for six regular motorised battalions, three mechanised and one airborne. A similar number of Reserve battalions would be needed to support them. If it was not for a lack of air transport and the cost of acquiring and maintaining parachutes, more airborne units would have been a sure recommendation.
Seperate from the SAIC, but sometimes deemed part of the Infantry is the Special Forces (SF). At present the SF Brigade musters two SF battalions and a logistics unit. The SF battalion is organised along lines similar to the motorised infantry. The focus of the SF is principally strategic long-range ground reconnaissance. A secondary role is “special operations” such as raids, hostage rescues and sabotage missions. It is believed, however, that the “sharp end” is woefully under strength — with fewer than 50 SF troops, called “operators,” being available. On the other hand, the support structure is known to be lavish and over-large.
Considering the SF’s low end-strength, and the need for elite troops to support government policy at short notice, it may be time to consider establishing a “Ranger” capability within the Infantry as an augment. Drawing on the US experience, this unit would carry out direct action missions such as raids, and personnel as well as equipment recovery operations.
At present the SF and Airborne are also saddled with responsibility for the Infantry’s amphibious capability. Amphibious warfare is a specialist function, generally carried out by Marines in other armed forces. However, once ashore they fight like all other infantry. Their specialisation therefore lies in their mode of transport — in embarking/disembarking and loading/unloading ships as well as co-operating with the Navy, similar to the parachute infantry. Landings along river-, lake- and seashores will become increasingly common and the Airborne, who specialise in arriving by air, will become increasingly stretched in this role. Like parachute infantry, the bulk of the motorised infantry’s weapons are manportable, making them ideal to pick up the amphibious mantle. Airborne forces can best support such landings by securing nearby objectives and access routes.
A major consideration regarding the infantry section is its size. This varies internationally but is generally somewhere between eight and twelve. Factors determining the section’s size include past practice, the characteristics of the mode of transport and the concern that a section too small could be rendered ineffective after suffering only a few casualties.
The South African infantry section, except for the mechanised section, which musters eight, is numbered at ten. The section is organised into a three-strong “light machine gun” (LMG) group armed with two R4 assault rifles and a FN MAG58 general purpose machine gun (GPMG) and a six-strong rifle group armed with R4’s. (The mechanised rifle group numbers four.) The section leader normally moves with the rifle group. This organisation, inherited from the British, have been in use since at least 1940. The LMG group is generally used as a base of fire and the rifle group as a manoeuvre element.
Section organisation has since moved on in the UK and in the US, among other countries. Some of the changes have been the result of the firepower revolution (the proliferation of automatic weapons) and some are the result in changes in mobility means. The shrinking of the SA mechanised section, for example, is the result of the Ratel IFV only having limited space, inclusive of the driver, gunner and the allocated anti-aircraft machine gunner.
The US equivalent to the SA motorised infantry section is organised around nine men and two GPMG. Instead of having a LMG and a rifle group, it has two “fire-teams.” Each four-man fire-team is made up of a team leader, a LMG gunner, an ammunition carrier and a grenadier armed with an assault rifle fitted with a grenade launcher (the R4 can be modified in this way). As the fire teams are identical, either can be used as a fire support base or manoeuvre element. The section leader is not part of either fire team.
The British infantry section is organised in a similar fashion. The eight-strong section is organised into two fire teams, one led by the section leader and one led by the section second-in-command. All, except the LMG gunners, carry the SA-80 assault rifle. The LMG gunners carry the Light Support Weapon variant of the SA-80.
The SA argument for retaining the 1940s organisation is that although there have been changes in firepower and mobility, the fundamental principles have not.
Another argument is that the exact organisation of the rifle section is not of any great importance as the section is usually “task organised” in terms of its mission, or in plainer English, is reorganised before every operation to suit the requirements of the task at hand. The section either operates as part of the platoon or independently. In the latter role it generally carries out patrols. These can be dispatched with numerous objectives in mind, such as setting an ambush or “showing the flag” during a peacekeeping mission, and can employ a number of formations, such as “wedge” or “extended line” during movement — each of which suggests a different “task organisation.” Interestingly enough, US, British and South African manuals generally suggest the same patrol missions and movement formations for their sections — despite the national differences in section organisation. As part of the platoon, the section’s operational organisation is also hostage to the mission and plans of higher headquarters. Yet, there are a number of arguments that build a case for change.
But first, what could the rifle section look like? The proposal mooted here is for a 12-strong section modelled on the US pattern. It is suggested it consists of two four-strong “fire teams,” each constructed around a lance corporal team leader, a light machine gunner, an assistant light machine gunner and a grenadier. The team leader and assistant would be armed with 5,56mm R4 assault rifles, the LMG gunner with a 5,56mm LMG and the grenadier with a R4 fitted with a 40mm grenade launcher or solely with the 6-shot 40mm multiple grenade launcher. The corporal section leader would carry an R4, as would the two section scouts. It is preferable that the scouts receive some form of specialised training within the battalion. However, this should not doom them to permanent duty at the head of a patrol. They can be rotated into the fire teams for rest. While two teams should be a permanent feature of all sections, their membership should not be pegged to some namelist. The 12th man, who would travel with the section leader, would be a specially-trained “designated marksman” armed with an accuratised 7,62mm R1. The marksman, a new addition to the infantry section, will provide his colleagues with aimed, highly-accurate cover fire and, in so doing, will suppress machine gun and anti-tank fire while also targeting for direct fire enemy leaders, radio operators and other designated high-priority targets. As a marksman he will also be able to fulfil a counter-sniper role. While a new addition here, it must be mentioned that the Russian infantry section has had a designated marksman, armed with a SVD Dragunov sniper rifle, for many years.
Why would one want a section organised this way? Four reasons. One, it is more balanced. The present 3+7 approach appears, by comparison, clumsy. Second, the LMG is the base of fire in all sections bar the mechanised. By definition two LMG are better than one: twice the volume of fire. Further, having two identical fire teams, each with an LMG, means either can act as support base for the other during “fire and manoeuvre” movement. Thirdly, this organisation provides the section with three trained junior leaders, instead of the current one or two. This improves the ability of the section to cope once casualties are inflicted by building in redundancy in the leader group, the same way that a larger 12-strong section has greater redundancy and lasting power than a 10 or eight-strong section. After action reports have often reported that section attacks and missions have failed for no other reason than that the section concerned was to weak to do so, and lacked the firepower needed to establish fire superiority over the enemy, after suffering one or two casualties. Lastly, the four section members not in a fire team provide the teams with a reserve. In addition to filling vacancies in the fire teams, they can form a third team in the section on an as-required basis.
Is the existing approach as versatile? The US Marine Corps (USMC), who have long realised the combat value of fire superiority and redundancy in small units, organise their 13-strong sections into three fire teams. Although they have been severely pressed in recent years to prune personnel, the USMC have steadfastly refused to reduce the size of the infantry section and have rather eliminated headquarter organisations at regimental and brigade level to make the necessary savings.
Before moving to the platoon, the vexed question of the mechanised section arises. A 12-strong section will not fit in the current IFV. The next generation vehicle might offer a solution. Expected to be electric-drive, it will lack the mechanical drive-train as well as many other components of current vehicles, freeing up more internal space. This can be used to accommodate a full 12-strong section in addition to the assigned driver and gunner. In the meantime, a scaled-down section based on two three-strong fire-teams, a section leader and marksman can be considered.
The Platoon and the Company
The current South African infantry platoon consists of three sections and a headquarters, as already described. This is more-or-less the international pattern. One variable is whether the platoon should include a “weapons section” or not. Another is whether the “firepower revolution” allows for the deletion of a rifle section. British mechanised (APC-borne) and light platoons include a support section consisting of two three-strong GPMG teams and a three-man 51mm mortar team. The IFV-borne armoured infantry lacks this fourth section.
The US uses a number of platoon organisations, some with and some without a support section. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle-equipped mechanised infantry platoon has no weapons section. The light infantry has two two-man machine gun teams in the platoon headquarters, which otherwise consists of a platoon leader, platoon sergeant and a radio operator. The airborne and air assault platoon has a weapons section with two two-man machine gun and two two-man anti-armour teams. The Ranger platoon includes a machine gun section consisting of three three-man teams. The USMC platoon, although larger than its US Army counterpart because of its larger sections, has no support section.
This raises questions whether the South African infantry platoon requires a weapons section and whether it should consist of three or two rifle sections. In addition to three rifle platoons and a headquarters section, the infantry company includes a mortar section consisting of three three-strong 60mm mortar teams. A subsidiary question is whether the weapons section should not be expanded to include machine guns or other support weapons.
The task organisation question raised in the discussion of the section is also relevant here — as is the observation that the threat to be faced has a large influence on small-unit organisation and equipment. Up to the 1990s the parachute and airmobile elements of several European armed forces incorporated anti-tank missile systems down to platoon and section level. All very impressive. But their role was to act as airborne anti-tank reserves to block Soviet invaders in the event of a breakthrough — hence the devolution of such impressive firepower.
In the end it may not matter much whether support weapons are organically part of the platoon or company. If part of the platoon, they are always available to the platoon and can be grouped at company level, if required. If part of the company, they can be detached to the platoon as required or be grouped at company level in terms of the company commander’s plan. But military organisation is often about “tidiness.” What does a platoon commander do with support weapons and personnel when not required? He could organise them into a reserve… it is always militarily sound to have an uncommitted reserve. But while he might not need them, another platoon might require additional support and might regret their unavailability. Prudence may then require the concentration of these weapons on the company level.
US company organisation also shows considerable variation. A standard infantry company includes a mortar platoon with a headquarters and three mortar sections, each armed with one 81mm mortar. An airborne company includes a mortar section with two 60mm mortars. A light infantry and air assault company has an anti-armour section with six anti-tank missile launchers and a mortar section with two 60mm mortars. The Ranger company also contains a weapons platoon with a headquarters and a mortar section with two 60mm mortars and an anti-armour section with three Javelin anti-tank guided missile launchers and three 90mm recoilless rifles. The mechanised infantry company includes two 60mm mortars in its headquarters. The USMC company, by contrast, is well supplied with support weapons, primarily because they often go into combat without much other support. Their companies include a strong support platoon, based around a headquarters, a 22-strong machine gun section with six 7,62mm GPMG, a 10-strong mortar section with three 60mm mortars and a 13-strong “assault” section equipped with six shoulder-launched rocket launchers. The assault section provides the Marine company with an anti-armour and general, direct, fire-support capability for “bunker-busting” and breaching walls.
The British Army, on the other hand, follows an austere company design. None of their companies, except of the reserve component includes support weapons. Territorial Army (TA) companies seem to have a slice of battalion support weapons, while TA battalions apparently lack a support company.
In the South African case, it is suggested that the current mortar section be expanded to a full support platoon in the parachute and motorised infantry. This platoon could consist of a headquarters, a mortar section, machine guns, and a “rocket” section. In the case of the mechanised infantry, the machine gun section could be deleted. It should be investigated whether these sections should have the traditional three weapons each or four, five or six. Where the weapons and logistic support are available there is no reason why it should not be towards the latter. Again, the need for equipping sub-units and platoons with the right mix and number of weapons to allow them to achieve fire superiority over an enemy cannot be exaggerated. Peace-time economy is expensive in war.
How many rifle sections should there be in a platoon? Two sections have been suggested for the mechanised infantry and three for the other branches. This makes little sense. At small-unit level every person counts. Three sections give flexibility, greater firepower and a reserve. The argument has been made than new platoon commanders cannot tactically handle three sections. Perhaps. But this is a problem that is better overcome through training and experience than robbing experienced leaders of a third of their command.
A final issue is whether mechanised section, platoon and company commanders should dismount during the close fight or fight from their vehicles. Non-mechanised commanders do not face this choice and place themselves where they can best influence the fight and the success of their assigned mission. For mechanised commanders, this place, in theory, should be with their vehicles. Firstly, they are under armour and enjoy increased survivability. Secondly, ground clearance should give them a better view of the battlefield. Thirdly, the vehicle’s communications (radio) is far more powerful than that which can be man-packed. Lastly, the cannon and machine-gun armed vehicle is the single most powerful weapon in the infantry section, platoon and company. It almost seems logical that the commander should stay in personal command of these in order to assure mission success.
But there are a number of reasons why prudent commanders step out. Firstly, morale and morals may dictate that the commander share the dangers of the battlefield with the majority of his command. Secondly, prudent commanders often prefer to be with the major part of their command and important as the vehicle’s firepower may be, its crew is but a fraction of the present infantry section, platoon or company. Thirdly, and most importantly, ICV’s although armoured, are by no means invincible. They are a large and obvious target and are relatively easy to immobilise or destroy. As a consequence, whenever anti-armour weapons, artillery or anti-aircraft cannon are known to be around (and they invariably are) the vehicles are withdrawn behind cover to provide support fire from there. It is hardly doctrinally or practically feasible for the commander to command from there.
The battalion and battalion group
The military recently indicated that it wanted the capacity to deploy between four and six battalions by 2004. South Africa has just deployed a battalion-equivalent to Burundi and will any day now send another to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for peacekeeping duties. These plans and deployments make it clear that battalion-based deployments are the largest the SA National Defence Force currently envisage. It is a large organisation, seldom smaller than 500 and often over a 1000 members strong — particularly when operating independently.
The SA infantry battalion consists of a headquarters, three rifle companies, a support company and attached elements. The support company can include the following platoons: administrative, anti-armour, assault pioneer, machine-gun, mortar, reconnaissance. The headquarters is supported by a headquarters platoon that includes a regimental police section, as well as snipers, observation post personnel and a security element. Attached elements from other Corps or Services include a signals troop (platoon), a light workshop troop (LWT), a medical platoon (from the SA Military Health Service) and a Chaplain.
The motorised anti-armour platoon used to consist of a mix of ATGM and antiquated — but highly effective — recoilless guns. The airborne used a heavy shoulder-launched rocket instead of the heavy recoilless gun and the mechanised infantry the Ratel 90 fire support vehicle armed with a low-pressure 90mm gun. At present the platoon lacks an ATGM. The ZT2 Milan was withdrawn from service about a decade ago and not replaced. These should at some stage be replaced. The mix of missiles and recoilless guns can be considered correct for reasons of economy, redundancy and versatility.
The assault pioneer platoon is organised the same as a conventional infantry platoon, issued with some engineer equipment and given limited engineer training. Assault pioneers provide the battalion commander with his only integral means for enhancing the battalion’s mobility through clearing demolitions and mines, countering the opponent’s mobility by employing the same means, constructing limited fortifications and using specialist tools in attacking enemy bunker complexes. Engineering skills will always be at a premium in Africa’s austere conditions. Providing the infantry battalion a robust capability in this field will certainly ease the commander’s burden and will greatly assist in accomplishing the battalion’s mission. For this reason it is strongly urged that the assault pioneer platoon be expanded to at least four 12-strong sections, each with at least three four-man assault pioneer teams. It is also proposed that their skills and equipment be expanded beyond present limits.
The machine gun platoon divides into three groups and supposedly mustered six 12,7mm heavy machine guns (HMG) and six 40mm automatic grenade launcher (AGL) teams. This combination of HMG and AGL can only boost the firepower and punch of the non-mechanised battalions. (The mechanised battalions, of course, lack this platoon.)
The mortar platoon is issued with 12 81mm mortars — with four tubes assigned to three fire-groups. Staying with this article’s emphasis on fire superiority, it is suggested that the mortar platoon be equipped with a more powerful tube and ammunition, with specific reference to Denel Vektor’s long-range 81mm mortar which employs a bomb 40 percent more lethal than the current version and can reach to 7,600 metres — well beyond the current M3’s 4,856 metre range. Adopting the lighter long-range 60mm mortar (with a reach of 6,180m), also said to be better — with a margin — than the M3, will offer either the same amount of ammunition at lower weight or more ammunition for the same weight.
The reconnaissance platoon consists of a headquarters and three sections that divide into two reconnaissance teams each. The platoon conducts tactical reconnaissance in the battalion’s area of operations.
The administrative platoon contains the battalion’s non-combat support sections, such as transport, catering, personnel and the quartermaster’s section.
Company headquarters personnel in the field fill a number of battalion-level staff posts. The company commander is the battalion logistics officer and his deputy is the “rear-link captain.”
A word regarding the reconnaissance as well as headquarters protection platoons. It would be best to permanently staff these and ensure they are kept fully trained. The practice of only activating these “as required” ought to be discouraged. The speed with which the South African protection force was dispatched to Burundi in 2001 — about two weeks from the idea being mooted to the force departing — illustrates that when the required time comes the required time may be lacking.
Finally, it is suggested that an additional platoon, a sniper platoon, be added to the support company. It is proposed that this platoon follows the same triangular organisation of the majority of other support platoons and consist of three fire groups, each with three heavy and three light fire teams. The four-person heavy teams should be equipped with an appropriate heavy anti-material rifle for long-range sniping (around 2,000m) at high-value enemy personnel and material (such as radars, laser sights, etc.). The teams should consist of a commander, a gunner, an assistant gunner and an ammunition bearer. All should also bear self-defence weapons. The two-person light teams would be equipped with high-accuracy rifle-calibre sniper rifles. The detailed organisation and mandate of this platoon could be discussed in a future article, but should be evident from the discussion regarding the section marksman. Its creation would of course mean the deletion of this section from the headquarters platoon.
In closing, it must be mentioned that it is not the South African tradition to deploy “pure” infantry battalions. Sub-units and elements from other Corps such as the Armour, Artillery and Engineers are frequently attached. Elements from other Services, such as the Air Force can also be seconded. The result is a battalion group, an organisation larger than a battalion but smaller than a brigade.
— Department of the Army, FM3, Operations, Washington DC, 2001.
— Department of the Army, FM3.21.71, The Mechanised Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (Bradley), Washington DC, 2002.
— Department of the Army, FM7-7, The Mechanised Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (APC), Washington DC, 1985.
— Department of the Army, FM7-8, The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, Washington DC, 1992, amended 2001.
— Department of the Army, FM7-10, The Infantry Rifle Company, Washington DC, 1990, 2000.
— Charles Heyman, The British Army, a pocket guide, 2000-2001, Defence Publications, London, 2000.
— EA Thorn, A new ATGM for the SA Army, AAFJ, Johannesburg, September 2002.