Man has fought on foot since time immemorial. Since then, whatever else he has done, he has always fought on foot. That fact is perhaps taken for granted so much that we may fail to think about how the infantry should fight. We may also fail to really consider how the infantry should be organised to fight. This article looks at the recent history of dismounted combat, in the light of developments in small arms, and makes recommendations. Its most significant conclusion is that, of itself, dismounted combat is typically protracted and often indecisive.
The recent history of infantry combat is dominated by four linked technological developments in the 19th Century. They were:
- the bolt-action breech, by the German Johan von Dreyse in 1824. This allowed small arms to be loaded and fired more quickly, and used lying down.
- the conoidal bullet, by Captain John Norton of the British 34th Regiment in 1832. This allowed bullets to carry much further and more accurately, particularly when allied to rifled barrels.
- the metal cartridge, normally made of brass, by French gunsmiths in the 1830s and 40s. This greatly simplified logistics, further enhanced the rate of fire, and also made for much more consistency between shots.
- the box magazine, by James Paris Lee (of Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield fame) in 1879. This contributed to higher sustained rates of fire, and allowed the firer to fire repeatedly without disturbing his position during re-loading. That further enhanced accuracy and thus effective range.
Events in the later part of the 19th Century showed how effective those developments were. The Crimean, American Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars were all steps along a path of increasing small arms effectiveness. By 1900, small arms fire was greatly more lethal than in 1800. This was brought home dramatically in the first week of the South African War of 1899-1902. British infantry, already using reasonably well-dispersed formations, took considerable casualties from Boer soldiers using modern German Mauser bolt-action magazine-fed rifles.
The introduction of the machinegun automated the process still further. Gatling guns were available at or about the end of the American Civil War (1861-5). French Mitrailleuses were used, although not well, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871-2. Fortunately for the British, the Boers had no machineguns in South Africa. The effectiveness of the machinegun was demonstrated most convincingly in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. That was repeated on a vast scale in the opening battles of the First World War. Dismounted infantry simply could not advance in the face of machinegun fire.
The First World War is better known as an artillery war, but it should be remembered that suppressing enemy machinegun fire was an important function of the artillery barrage. Most of the field artillery in service was of about 75mm in calibre. Examples include the French ‘Soixante Quinze’, the German 77mm and the British 18 pounder.
In the Second World War (WW2) greater dispersion made it difficult for attackers to suppress defending mortars, machineguns and antitank guns. That dispersion was partly a response to the effectiveness of artillery in 1914-8. In North Africa in 1940-1 the British Army quickly found that all tanks needed to be able to fire high explosive (HE) of at least 75mm calibre.[i] (That explains the unconventional design of the American M3 Lee and Grant tanks, mounting a 75mm gun in the hull, and procured in considerable numbers by the British). Some German tanks already had 75mm guns. The Soviet T34, entering service at the time of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, had a 76mm gun.
By the end of the Second World War, many armies had developed successful minor unit tactics which coupled tanks firing HE (and occasionally flamethrowers) with dismounted infantry using small arms. In a sense, the history of the Arab-Israeli wars from 1948 to the present day is a series of snapshots which repeat almost the same picture. Other conflicts have rarely contradicted the pattern.
Troops generally responded to developments in small arms firepower in much the same way. Small arms fire is highly lethal, so troops take cover. The cover they choose is bullet-proof (naturally!) Ironically, this makes small-arms fire less effective, since when troops take cover they are extremely difficult to hit with small arms fire. In the extreme it is impossible to hit them because they are entirely hidden behind bullet-proof cover. To that extent, the more accurate the fire, the less effective it is. However, attackers have to move from cover to cover, which slows down the attack considerably. Additionally, the firers themselves choose bullet-proof cover to fire from, which makes them very hard to hit in turn.
By and large, dismounted troops cannot advance in the open. They have to disperse and use cover. Infantry schools make much of using manoeuvre coupled to the fire of section and platoon small arms. Conversely, higher-level tactics manuals implicitly or explicitly accept that infantry attacks generally need HE fire support; be it direct, indirect, or preferably both. Armies do not expect company- and battalion–level attacks to succeed without considerable fire support. Without that support, a small number of attackers can generally hold off a large number of attackers. Dismounted combat is, of itself, typically protracted and often indecisive.
There are exceptions. The biggest exception is the use of surprise; typically, but not exclusively at night. The Falklands Conflict of 1982 provides a good range of examples. The British fought six major engagements. All were battalion-sized battles. All started at night. Five batteries of 105mm artillery and naval gunfire, but no tanks, were in support. All of the attacks were eventually successful. Some were highly successful. But where British soldiers were caught out after dawn, relying largely on their own small arms and having lost the element of surprise, the fighting was slow and the casualties were high. Critically, the British had no integral projected HE weapons. In some cases they employed shoulder-fired antitank weapons, or 30mm cannon fire from reconnaissance vehicles, with some success. To repeat: dismounted combat is, of itself, typically protracted and often indecisive.
What dismounted infantry lacks, in effect, is a defeat mechanism. Small arms fire is largely ineffective against troops in cover. Small-calibre HE weapons bursting in front of, to the side of, or behind the defender’s position may suppress him temporarily but rarely disable or kill. Airburst weapons do have some effect, but most airburst projectiles have a radial burst pattern. So, whilst troops directly below the burst will be affected, much of the effect is spread up or sideways away from the point of burst. For relatively small calibres, the effect is limited. High Explosive, Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds have been optimised for over 60 years to penetrate armour. Unsurprisingly, they are not optimised to defeat personnel behind cover.
Small projectiles which land inside the cover can be highly effective. This was discovered almost accidentally during WW1. Almost the only way to project HE using infantry weapons was to lob it, using a high trajectory. Therefore some projectiles actually fell inside the enemy’s trenches. The key weapons were light mortars and rifle-projected grenades. They didn’t have a long range and weren’t particularly accurate. They were, however, used in very large numbers. From 1917, British and Dominion armies employed a complete section of rifle grenadiers in every platoon. German attacks and counterattacks were met with volleys of rifle grenades. It only took one or two grenades per volley to land in a section of trench being used to mount a counterattack to deter the defenders. The Canadian Army used this tactic with particular effect on Vimy Ridge in April 1917, and the method was widely copied elsewhere.
Between the two world wars many armies procured very small mortars for use at platoon level. In the British case the Two Inch (‘2in’) (51mm) mortar was an explicit replacement for rifle grenades. It was part of a move from four sections to three in each platoon. The light mortar was substituted for the section of rifle grenadiers, saving manpower for redeployment elsewhere. Several WW2 writers attested to the usefulness of the 2in mortar in that role. However, the lesson appears to have been lost. By the time of the Falklands Conflict the HE bomb had been withdrawn from service, and its replacement had not been introduced. There was a number incidents in the Falklands Conflict in which 2in HE bombs would have solved what were, otherwise, very difficult tactical problems.
A defeat mechanism is not necessarily a weapon or weapons system. Surprise can be devastating, if properly exploited. At Mount Harriet in the Falklands Conflict a British commando battalion destroyed an Argentinean battalion, killing 18 and capturing 300 for the loss of 2 dead, largely due to the use of a silent night attack from the rear. But, in the absence of surprise, a defeat mechanism often does depend on weapons systems. In WW1 it was typically very close coordination between attacking infantry and a creeping artillery barrage. In WW2 it was typically a combination of an initial barrage and very close tank-infantry cooperation.
The infantry’s defeat mechanism is often thought to be the close assault; using bayonets, grenades and close-range small arms fire. That can be a significant aspect of infantry operations. It can be effective, but only when the attackers have got close enough. If the force-to-space density is low, the defenders can often withdraw before the attackers arrive. That is often the case in COIN. Where the force-to space density is high, the attackers often cannot get forward without fire support.
Much of what we observe in counterinsurgency (COIN) today is protracted and indecisive dismounted infantry combat. That tells us that little has changed. The attackers’ small arms are typically semi- or fully automatic; but so are the defenders’. Tanks are rare in COIN, as are attack helicopters and fighter ground attack aircraft. They are often not available when needed. There are considerable limitations on the use of artillery and even mortars; not least because the mortars are often 81mm or even 120mm calibre.
The first weapon which the German Army brought into service after WW1 was a very compact 75mm field gun, issued to infantry battalions. Its performance was modest, but it could reliably place 4.4kg HE shells through a target the size of a window at a kilometre’s range. The same gun was the main armament of the Panzer IV tank in 1939-41. The infantry version (the 7.5cm LeIG 18) was tiny, but quite heavy (about 400kg). It was also clearly effective: the Germans kept it in service with infantry battalions until the end of the war.
Today the Danish and Australian infantry employ the Swedish 84mm Carl Gustav weapon system, as do some US Special Forces. It will be familiar to many as a Cold-War crew-served, heavy, short-range antitank system firing HEAT. However, it is now a very capable, versatile dismounted weapon system. It has been coupled to with laser rangefinders, compact thermal and ballistic computing sights and a range of other ammunition natures. The weight of the gun has been reduced from about 16kg to about 7.8kg. Since it is a gun rather than a disposable launcher, the carried weight per round fired is quite reasonable: about 5.1kg per round compared with 6.7kg for the equivalent AT4 if four rounds are carried. That drops to 4.1kg per round if 8 are carried. (The AT4 is, effectively, the same munition repackaged in a disposable launcher.) The Carl Gustav has been used by Danish infantry in Afghanistan. Danish infantry battalions have one Carl Gustav per platoon and two per company. As one Danish company commander put it, when the Carl Gustavs start firing the engagement tends to finish quite quickly (and with the Taliban’s defeat).
This is not the place to compare specific weapons in detail. Several other alternatives could be considered. Some are bulky and cumbersome. Some are susceptible to cross wind. Some are heavy. Some are hugely expensive: the Command Launch Unit of a Javelin missile costs about $125,000. It is important to compare like with like: all things being equal, a 84mm round will carry an explosive charge more than twice as large as a 66mm round. That’s twice as much blast and fragmentation at the target end. There are advantages and disadvantages with all weapons. The key is to work out, very clearly, what the requirement is and then evaluate alternatives.
There can be little doubt that many infantrymen on operations today are overloaded. That is in part due to the weapons that they have been made to carry in addition to their assault rifles and LMGs or LSWs. Armies have issued them extra weapons with which to defeat the enemy. But most of those weapons are small arms or small-calibre HE weapons (such as underslung grenade launchers), which are unlikely to be sufficiently effective.
In simple terms, if a weapon is not issued to an infantry battalion, the battalion cannot rely on it being available when needed. In COIN such weapons may not be deployed in theatre, may be scarce, or may be subject to Rules of Engagement (ROE) which renders them largely unusable. In general war they may be (and often are) taken away for use on higher priority tasks. The argument is simple. Dismounted combat is, of itself, typically protracted and often indecisive. Infantry needs a defeat mechanism, and surprise alone cannot be relied upon. That means that infantry needs a weapons system which it owns and can use, within typical ROE, dismounted. A 120mm laser-guided mortar system, fired by someone else, simply would not meet the requirement.
‘To defeat’ typically means some combination of to find, to fix, to strike and to exploit. Dismounted infantry, unencumbered, should be extremely good at finding, fixing (with suppressive fire, indirect fire, or manoeuvre) and exploiting (in certain types of terrain). The key issue here is the lack of an infantry weapon with which to strike. The key would seem to be to remove the requirement for infantry sections, and perhaps platoons, to strike. To do that, battalions should be issued with a portable weapon system that can project HE of about 75mm calibre or greater, accurately, to battlefield ranges. Sections would find, fix and exploit. The striking would be done with direct-fire HE.
The necessary weapons system should be issued to battalions (essential); companies (highly desirable); and platoons (desirable). Issuing it to sections would merely add to the weight they already carry. But freeing sections from the need to defeat the enemy with their own weapons would help reduce the carried load. Furthermore, with a reduced role (finding, fixing and exploiting only) sections might be smaller, freeing up manpower for the crew-served weapons. A paper trial suggests that a current three-platoon, three-company battalion could easily provide enough manpower for either a four-platoon, three company structure or even a three-platoon, four company battalion.
If exchanges of small arms fire are typically indecisive, why do armies persist in organising and equipping platoons primarily for small arms fire? And then overload them with other equipment, in the hope that something decisive will occur? That is a vain hope indeed. If you overload an infantryman his effectiveness goes down. It would be far better, surely, to reconsider how the infantry should fight, and be organised to fight.
To conclude: since the late 19th Century dismounted infantry combat has, of itself, generally been protracted and often indecisive. Infantry battalions generally lack a defeat mechanism, other than surprise. When surprise is not achievable or has been lost, infantry combat tends to reduce to a protracted, attritional grind.
A highly mobile crew-served weapons system of about 75mm or greater, that can fire HE munitions accurately out to perhaps a kilometre, would appear to meet the requirement. The German LeIG 18 of WW2 was very good, although fairly heavy and needing a crew of four. The newer models of the Carl Gustav, lighter and with advanced sights, are probably even better. Several other weapon systems might also meet the requirement.
Other defeat mechanisms are possible. Smaller projected HE landing directly in the enemy’s position, such as rifle grenades or light mortar bombs, is one alternative. Surprise should always be the mechanism of choice. With such a mechanism, infantry can be highly effective.
Armies need do nothing. They can continue to overload their infantry soldiers, yet not provide them with an effective means of defeating enemy infantry. Alternatively, they can think through, simply and clearly, how they intend to defeat the enemy; and then develop organisations, and procure weapons, with which to do that.
The key is not the Carl Gustav, or any other particular weapon system. The key requirement is a defeat mechanism.
[i] British and American Tanks of World War Two’. Peter Chamberlain and Chris Ellis, London, Cassell 1969, revised 2000. P12,43 and 106-7.