We got a question from one of our regular readers about the evolution of the Army’s combat organization from WWII to the Cold War.
What is your opinion of the “troopless” headquarters of the CC (Combat Commands)? Was it a good solution for modern warfare? Seems to have worked, but I have always wondered why post war doctrine moved away to the “battle group” concept.
Some have drawn the evolutionary link between the combat commands and the battle groups, but there are just as many differences as similarities in my opinion.
As we noted in the original post on the WWII Armored Division, the three Combat Commands of the division were headquarters that didn’t have permanently assigned troop units. Rather, when the division tasked a CC with a mission, they also assigned the appropriate troops for that mission.
This was in stark contrast to the regular infantry division, where each subordinate regiment under the division had a fixed organization of three rifle battalions and a weapons company.
When Caswain refers to the “Battle Group” organization, I believe he’s referring to the “Pentomic Division” organization adopted in the 1950s. The Pentomic division attempted to disperse the division over a wider area, making it a less attractive target for tactical nuclear weapons. It did this by abandoning the traditional triangular organization for a division with five “Battlegroups” of five companies each. It was a disaster. That many subordinate units was just too much for any leader to effectively control. Within a decade, the Army ditched the scheme and went back to a triangular organization under ROAD (Reorganization Objective Army Division). Under the Battlegroup concept, each Battlegroup had permanently assigned subordinate units. The Battlegroup was awkward in that it was somewhere between a battalion and a brigade/regiment echelon.
Under ROAD, the basic building block of the division became the brigade instead of the regiment of the WWII infantry division. The difference here was that much like a WWII armored division, it had no permanently assigned troop units. The division as a whole was organized triangularly, with three brigades and nine ground maneuver battalions. And while it was common to see each brigade with the same three battalions, the division could transfer battalions from one brigade to another as the situation dictated. A brigade could find itself controlling up to five infantry battalions (if the battle was big enough to warrant six battalions, normally another brigade headquarters would be brought in, and the battle was big enough that division headquarters itself would manage the operation). All the supporting arms such as artillery and the logistical functions were held at the division level.
So the real question becomes, which is better, the fixed regimental design, or the flexible brigade design. The flexible brigade’s first test was the war in Vietnam. It was very common for fairly large scale battles to take place, especially in the early years and in the final years of the war. With the mobility provided by helicopters, it was comparatively easy to move large troop units long distances and have them join a battle already in progress. The flexibility of the brigade design worked very well in this situation. Normally, a division would be able to shuffle battalions inside the division, but if needed, battalions from other divisions could be loaned to a brigade for a fight. One of the key enablers of this was standardization.
Prior to WWII, it was very rare for troop units larger than a regiment to assemble for training. This led to each regiment having its own “flavor” and generally each had its own approach to processes like planning operations and mundane things like issuing ammunition and providing maintenance for equipment. The Army realized when it began to mobilize for WWII that the only way to build a large army would be to do so on an assembly line process. Virtually every unit in the Army, no matter if it would fight in the Pacific, the Mediterranean or in Western Europe, was organized and trained the same as every other unit. And they shared not only a common doctrine, or way of fighting, but for the most part, the Standard Operating Procedures, which covered the day to day ways of just running the units, were very similar. This carried over after the war and has generally been in place since then. This makes it very simple to “plug and play” a unit into another organization, as they don’t have to spend a lot of time getting used to the same playbook.
Ironically, in the era of transformation since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War on Terror, we’ve seen the emphasis change from the flex brigade back to a standing organization. We’ve seen the empasis on the “unit of action” shift from the division to the brigade level. And many of these brigades have a fixed organization. For example, a Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) has a fixed organization, with a balance of infantry, artillery, Mobile Gun Systems and supporting arms and services tailored to provide a well rounded, logistically self sustaining capability. Sure, you can loan a unit out, or beef an SBCT up with another unit for a short operation, but the brigade is only designed to support itself, not act as the mothership for large numbers of extra units.
To answer Caswains question, I was a big fan of the flexible, “troopless” headquarters, but understand, the difference was more notional than real. Virtually all brigade headquarters used the same units habitually, and even back in the fixed regiment days, there was a good deal of “task organizing” going on.