By U.S. Marines (Official Marine Corps Photo # 371490) Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When the line wheeled and charged across the clearing, the bullets whining past them, wheeled and charged almost with drill field precision, an ache as profound as the ache of orgasm passed through me. And perhaps that is why some officers make careers of the infantry, why they endure the petty regulations, the discomforts and degradations, the dull years of peacetime duty in dreary posts: just to experience a single moment when a group of soldiers under your command and extreme stress of combat do exactly what you want them to do, as if they are an extension of yourself.
Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War
The Great & the Good!
Since the infantry rifle squad is the basic building block for platoons, companies, and eventually battalions, it is important to determine its optimum squad organisation. Since the end of World War II, with the demise of the German Wehrmacht the US Army led the analysis in order to achieve the optimal capability for the infantry rifle squad to conduct fire and manoeuvre. The US Army’s 1946 Infantry Conference provided the first modern definition of the infantry rifle squad. That conference perhaps produced the best post-operational validation of tactics, techniques and procedures. Its findings resonate to this day. At Fort Benning the great and the good of the tactical combat sphere were gathered together to discuss the lessons learned and deliver a view to the future. What was probably the most qualified and experienced group of infantry officers that the US Army ever assembled came together. Most of those men had survived extensive combat in northwest Europe or the Pacific, and were awaiting discharge and return to normal civilian life. Although they discussed many issues, one of their more important conclusions was the ideal organisation for the future rifle squad (or section).[iii]
The US Army was late in coming to a formal doctrine for its rifle platoons. Prior to the US Army’s entry into the Great War, infantry companies would organise for battle just as they would for parade, by lining up all its privates and corporals in two ranks according to height. Corporals were squad leaders and squads were eight-man units. The first real change to the organisation of the US Army’s infantry units was the result of Colonel Chauncey Baker’s fact-finding mission in May 1917. What became known as the Baker Board spent six weeks touring France and England to collect as much information as possible on the optimal combat organisation for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The AEF’s commander, General John J. Pershing, decided to retain the 250-man rifle companies recommended by the Baker Board. The AEF rifle company of six officers and 250 soldiers would be larger than a British rifle company of six officers and 221 men. The AEF rifle platoon’s internal organisation was intended more to facilitate training than for tactical use. For battle, the lieutenant was expected to organise his platoon into as many as seven squads of six to eight men each, and then to group those squads into two ‘half platoons’. The next changes to the infantry organisation occurred in 1921, when uniformly organised sections and squads supplanted the old AEF ‘do-it-yourself’ squads. The result was a new multi-purpose rifle squad, composed of a corporal and seven privates, equipped with its own Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and its own rifle grenadier (with a grenade launcher attached to his rifle). The senior private in the squad was trained to take over if the corporal became a casualty. By the time the US Army entered WWII, the rifle squad comprised of one squad leader, one assistant squad leader, one Browning Automatic Rifleman, and 9 privates (a twelve-man squad).[iv] The conferees of 1946 concluded that the twelve-man squad was too large for a single squad leader to command. In turn, the squad’s BAR was completely inadequate as the squad’s fire-support platform. However effective the collective firepower of the M1 Garand rifle, this did not compensate for the BAR’s shortcomings. The overwhelming call from the conferees was the need for an effective light machine gun along the lines of the German MG-34 or MG-42.
The squad also needed to be smaller. Nine men would be the best size.[v] The squad would be easier to control but still large enough to take several casualties while remaining effective. Interestingly the conferees rejected the Marine Corps idea of subdividing squads into fire teams. The conferees concluded that although a fire-team squad might be useful when at full strength, in combat it would remain to brittle. The four man fire-team could not stand casualties and remain effective. After a few losses, the squad would either reorganise into fewer fire-teams or else stop using its fire-team organisational structure. Either way this to-fro with squad organisation in combat would needlessly complicate an already confusing situation, adding to the friction of war. In addition, the squad LMG (the BAR) in its current configuration would negate its usefulness even further in such a small grouping.
Although they discussed the thirteen-man squad used by the Marines in the Pacific, this was dismissed firstly because it was seen as essentially a Marine fad for the Pacific and unsustainable with the manpower available in a peacetime army. The best feature of the USMC squad was the employment of three BARs, each under its own fire-team commander. Thus to some extent compensating for the BARs’ failings. Of course when and if the BAR was replaced this advantage would become negated. The 1946 Infantry Conference identified four essential factors which would prove timeless. First, in terms of command and control a commander could physically influence in combat up to nine men (even then assisted by a 2ic). Second, in combat due to attrition an infantry unit was never operated at full strength. Third, despite peacetime expectations, the nature of infantry combat precludes the effective use of subordinate teams. Fourth, to effectively fire and manoeuvre, the infantry needs to be based around a LMG, rifles alone are inadequate.
In testimonials written by three junior committee members, each having a great deal of platoon and company-level experience in the European theatre of operations (ETO), the issue of squad leader capabilities surfaced as a justification why the squad should perform one task or the other. All three officers, a major and two captains, stated that the majority of the World War II squad leaders lacked the training and tactical capability to execute fire and manoeuvre at the squad level (especially as replacements began filling these positions). The recommended rifle squad still maintained the capability to conduct fire and movement, or marching/assault fire only. Thus, the capability of fire and manoeuvre continued to elude the infantry rifle squad. The “minority report” attached to conferees findings agreed that the squad organisation should be changed, but disagreed with the majority as to the optimum organisation. The dissenting opinion focused on formalising the issue of fire and manoeuvre below platoon level. Unlike the recommended nine-man infantry rifle squad envisioned by the majority of the committee, the minority recommended a seven-man rifle squad. This recommended seven-man squad would consist of a squad leader, an assistant squad leader, and five riflemen (no mention of automatic riflemen). This squad would be capable of only establishing a base of fire or assaulting using fire and movement, but a section headquarters would control two squads, giving the capability of fire and manoeuvre. By a very narrow margin (fifteen to twelve), Committee B recommended the nine-man rifle squad organisation. This nine-man infantry rifle squad was the organisation that the US Army took to battle in Korea.[vi]
This Kind of War: the ROAD from Pentomic to Vietnam
The US Army entered the Korea War still armed with the BAR, due to the constraints of a peacetime budget, but it did adopt the nine-man squad. During the Korea War the nine-man squad proved as effective and resilient as the conferees had said it would thus validating the conference’s findings. The BAR continued to be the Achilles heel of the squad and proved no better when the squad received an extra BAR into its organisation later into the war. During the Korean War the distinguished historian SLA Marshall,[vii] got involved. He advocated going to the fire-team organisation in line with the marines.[viii] Marshall, aware that the army could not man a thirteen-man squad, decided on championing the elven-man squad, two five-man teams, each with its own BAR. Marshall’s influence at the time was at its height and his argument won through. The army adopted the eleven man squad based on two fire-teams in the late 1950’s as part of the new ‘Pentomic Division’. The ‘Old Army’ regiments made way for new look ‘battlegroups’ each composed of five rifle companies. This battalionless, five sided system, designed for the nuclear battlefield, was the first such major reorganisation at this level since Valley Forge. Always more a public relations exercise than a revolution in military affairs, within five years the Pentomic concept proved completely unworkable (and universally disliked) and the US Army would furtively reorganise once again,[ix] -returning to the regiment-battalion system.
Marshall seems to have no evidence to support his fire-team theory, in fact his own report supported the validity of the 1946 Infantry Conference’s squad organisation and tactical employment. Marshall noted that the squad leader in Korea seemed much more effective than had the squad leaders in WWII. Apparently it never occurred to Marshall that the reason the NCOs seemed more effective in the Korean War than they had appeared during WWII might have been due to the organisational and tactical changes the US Army made in the infantry squad since WWII. Based on his own praise of the squad’s performance, one is hard pressed to see why the US Army needed to change its squad organisation. In short, nothing in Marshall’s report disproved the observations the 1946 Infantry Conference made about the infantry squad’s size, organisation or tactics.[x]
Another factor that influenced the US Army away from the nine-man squad was Major General JC Fry’s doctrinal input via his Assault Battle Drill.[xi] Fry’s ‘battle drill’ employed an infantry squad organised with two fire-teams. This was based on his experience in Korea. In Fry’s drill, one fire-team acted as a base of fire, the other manoeuvred not unlike the British Army ‘battle drill’ adopted post the Falklands War. The 1946 Infantry Conference nearly unanimously came out against battle drill. In their opinion it stereotyped tactics. As a result, the conferees recommend the US Army no0074 adopt the concept.[xii] As one can see, the battle drill concept complemented Marshall’s recommendations to organise the squad into two fire-teams.[xiii] Together, Marshall and Fry seem to have influenced the US Army’s eventual adoption of the eleven man fire team based squad.[xiv]
Despite the adoption of both battle drill and fire-team organisation, nothing post Korean War conclusively proved the validity of such organisation. As the US Army moved from ‘Pentomic Division’ to a new concept, ROAD, (Reorganization Objectives Army Division), ROAD reorganisation redressed the imbalance, inherent in the Pentomic concept, between an army division’s nuclear and conventional capabilities. Under the ROAD concept the battlegroup was disbanded and the battalion re-introduced. There was no doubt that ROAD was a far more workable organisation than the Pentomic structure.[xv]
At squad level the US Army continued to examine the ‘best’ squad organisation. First of these was the United States Army Infantry School (USAIS) in 1953. This was followed in 1956 by A Study of the Infantry Rifle Squad, (ARIRS). Then in 1961 the US Army once again evaluated its infantry squads and platoon with the Optimum Composition of the Rifle Squad and Platoon (OCRSP) test. None of these reports did anything to disprove the 1946 Infantry Conference observations and conclusions regarding the squad’s essential organisation. However like all bureaucracies when faced with a report it did not like, it simply ignored its findings and continued with the eleven-man squad based around two fire-teams.
When the US Army continued to use the fire-team organisation in combat in Vietnam, combat results corroborated the 1946 Infantry Conference and all the subsequent tests. The basic question would seem to beg: Why did the US Army support a squad organisation that was obviously perishable, probably unnecessary, and certainly unproven in combat? Despite these issues, the US Army retained the fire-team based squad and squad fire and manoeuvre tactics. The US Army’s leadership continued to disregard – perhaps unknowingly – the 1946 Infantry Conference’s observations and conclusions regarding the infantry squad’s organisation and tactical employment.[xvi]
Concurrent to Vietnam specifically from 1966-1972 the US Army conducted The Infantry Rifle Unit Study (IRUS). IRUS examine every aspect of small unit infantry tactics and doctrine. Perhaps the most striking fact the IRUS team sought to determine once and for all, was what the Basic Infantry Element (BIE) was. It appeared from tests and combat that most men could easily control five others. However, a single man could also control up to ten men under certain conditions.[xvii] IRUS noted that once a BIE fell below five men it tended to become combat ineffective. The IRUS test recommended the BIE contain six men (although an analysis of data reveals the nine man BIE actually performed better than the six man).[xviii] Like the 1946 Infantry Conference’s conclusions, the IRUS conclusions recognised that one man had difficulty controlling more than eight men.[xix Perhaps the most interesting observations of IRUS – some would say counter-intuitive- concerns the number of LMGs per BIE. The testers concluded that two LMGs per BIE would not be as effective in suppressing the target as only one LMG per BIE. This result was attributed to several facts. First, two LMGs were harder to control, and secondly two LMGs used twice as much ammunition. As can be seen, the IRUS arrived at essentially the same conclusions about the BIE as the 1946 Infantry Conference had about the infantry squad.
A window to the future
The US Army was unique in setting up such a forum after the Second World War. The Germans, of course, could not and most of the analysis has been done for them by many scholars since. The British, as always, filed the experience away and cracked on with the real day job of Imperial Policing. So it was left to the US Army to leave a legacy of post operational analysis at the squad (or section) level, and thank God they did. For army officers, as with any other profession, experience is the ‘active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill.’[xx] The men of 1946 were at the pinnacle of knowledge and experience. The 1946 Infantry Conference findings have been validated by three or more wars, and decades of exercising and testing. They seem pretty conclusive even to the most fretful observer. Historical analysis of the infantry basic unit since WWII would suggest that its primary shortcoming lies in its organisation rather than its size. Every combat evaluation since has confirmed the recommendations of the wise men of 1946. They seem to be wise men indeed; or, as in fact they were, the most combat-experienced group of infantry commanders ever assembled in one place.
So what can the modern officer draw from their analysis? There seem to be three timeless underlying doctrinal norms. Firstly the squad/section weaponry should be based around one LMG and one grenade launcher. Secondly, eliminate the fire-team structure. Organise the squad (or in the British case, section) around a squad leader (section commander) & 2ic. The 2ic could still command an ad-hoc fire-team if the tactical situation required. Finally, eliminating the fire-team would simplify the light infantryman’s tactical employment. The squad (or section) would either fire or manoeuvre, not both. Battle drill along with fire-teams should be seen for what they were designed for: a vehicle to train the squad, not a basis for offensive doctrine. This would simplify the low level commander’s tactical duties and training.[xxi] In summary, the US Army (and others) would do well to remember and apply its own lessons identified and relearn them with regards the organisation and tactics of the infantry.
[i] Part 1 was written by William Owen in 2003. See Army Doctrine & Training News No 19, Summer 2003, pp 28-30
[ii] Full transcript of the Conference can be found via the Combined Arms Research Department http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p4013coll8/id/454.
[iii] Sayen, J (2001) ‘Force Structure and Unit Design in Sprit Blood & Treasure’. Presidio, p 184, see also Sayen, J (2001) ‘US. Army and Marine Infantry Organization: Structure and Development.’
[iv] Sayen, John. ‘Battalion: An Organizational Study of the United States Infantry.’ Working paper, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 2001. This study provided succinct background and analysis of the evolving organization of the Infantry battalion, in ‘Where are the Infantry Sgts?’ Tennant, T (2009) handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA509378.
[v] The conferees envisioned the recommended nine-man infantry rifle squad conducting operations as part of a larger force. This squad would serve as a base of fire to over-watch the manoeuvre of another squad within the platoon, or the squad would manoeuvre while over-watched by another squad within the platoon. According to military analyst John English, in ‘On Infantry’, the concept of the fire team had its beginnings in World War II, in an attempt to give the rifle squad the capability to conduct fire and manoeuvre similar to the capability provided by the sections of World War I. English, J (1981) ‘On Infantry’, Praeger, New York p 134.
[vi] Karcher, T (1989) ‘Enhancing Combat Effectiveness, The Evolution of the US Army Infantry Rifle Squad since the end of World War II’, dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA407058.
[vii] Although many of Marshall’s findings regarding combat behaviour have come into question in recent years, one must understand that during the 1950s and early 1960s his recommendations carried great weight with the senior US Army Leadership.
[viii] A fire team is a sub-element of a rifle squad, designed to allow the squad to conduct limited fire and manoeuvre. Typically, two fire teams form a rifle squad.
[ix] Hackworth D, (1990) About Face, Simon & Schuster, pp 315-6.
[x] Melody, P (1990) ‘The infantry Rifle Squad’, School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, pp 13-15; and Marshall, ‘Commentary on Infantry Operations and Weapons Usage In Korea; Winter 1950-51’, pp 53-54, 72-76.
[xi] Assault Battle Drill still limited the effectiveness of squad-level fire and manoeuvre by designating a ‘fire team’ and a ‘manoeuvre team,’ allowing these teams only limited capability to perform the alternate task. Fry, JC, (1955) ‘Assault Battle Drill’, Harrisburg, The Military Service Publishing Company, p 54.
[xii] Fry’s Battle Drill was most popular as a means to train infantrymen more than a tactical technique, see Fry ‘Battle Drill’ Combat Forces Journal 1953, Apr, pp 18-22, May, pp 37-39. Enthusiasm for battle drill can be see most clearly in the Infantry Instructors Conference in 1956, where it was used more as a ‘action on contact’ drill; Infantry Instructors’ Conference Report, Fort Benning, 1956, pp 70-78, see also Melody op cit, pp 16-17.
[xiii] Also many within the US Army appear to have been fascinated with the US Marine Corps’ thirteen-man infantry rifle squad, organized with three fire teams, each consisting of four men.
[xiv] Melody op cit, p17
[xv] Hackworth D, (1990) ‘About Face’, Simon & Schuster, pp 429-430.
[xvi] Melody op cit, pp 29-31.
[xvii] Melody, op cit, p 32
[xviii] Infantry Rifle Unit Study (IRUS-75), Phase 1, pt 2, Annexes E, Fort Benning, once again there was a push to support the fire-team concept without any justification in the data.
[xix] IRUS-75, Phase 1, pt 2, Annexes C-D, Fort Benning.
[xx] www.dnipogo.org/fcs/pdf/lewis_annotated_brief_30_aug_01.pdf · Lewis, M (2001) The Army Transformation.
[xxi] This is validated by the British Army experience in WWII, most notably the observations of Major Lionel Wigram. A platoon would have 3 sections of 5-9 men in each 15-27 men, with 3 LMG’s & 3 grenade launchers. Wigram’s platoon was based on 22 men is divided up as follows: 1st group, all the riflemen under the platoon commander; 2nd group, 3 LMG groups (3 men to each gun) coomanded by the platoon sgt. 3rd group, two inch mortar team follows up in rear of group 1 (note: no fire-teams there either!). (‘Letter to Brigadier, 36 Bde, 16 Aug 43’).