The basic building block of combat power is the infantry, and in the infantry, the basic building block is the rifle platoon. The platoon is the smallest element led by an officer, and is usually the smallest element which may be assigned a mission separate from its parent unit. It is also the smallest unit for which a Field Manual is published. Field manuals are the operator’s manual for how to organize, train, lead, and fight a particular unit. The field manual describes the organization and most common missions that a unit may be assigned. For for the rifle platoon, the Field Manual is FM 7-8. For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be discussing “Infantry platoon” as opposed to Mechanized Infantry mounted on Bradley Fighting Vehicles or a Stryker Infantry platoon mounted on Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicles. The “Infantry platoon” generally describes platoons assigned to light infantry units, airborne, air assault, and Ranger units. While there are some very minor variations in the organization of these units, the fundamental organization and employment is close enough that you should be able to understand what how an infantry platoon is organized and employed.
For today, we’ll limit our discussion to the organization of the platoon. Later, we’ll explore how that platoon is employed, in the attack, defense, stability and support operations, and then we’ll look at the leadership challenges that face a young lieutenant leading his first platoon.
One of the little oddities of Army life is that an infantry platoon isn’t called an infantry platoon. It’s called a Rifle Platoon. This distinguishes it from other platoons in the infantry company and battalion.
The Rifle Platoon, like most combat units, is a triangular organization. That is, the headquarters for the platoon leads three subordinate rifle squads.
The platoon is lead by a Lieutenant, known as the Platoon Leader (PL). Lieutenants straight from training at the Infantry School’s Officer Basic Course are expected to step directly into this leadership role. As his assistant, he has a senior infantry NCO, usually a Sergeant First Class (SFC/E-7), serving as the Platoon Sergeant (PSG). The rest of the platoon headquarters consists of one or two Radiotelephone Operators (RTO), one for the PL, and usually one for the PSG. Normally, all these people are armed with the M16 or M4.
The main strength of the platoon resides in its three Rifle Squads. These three squads are identical. Each squad is lead by a Squad Leader (SL), normally a Staff Sergeant (SSG). Each squad is also broken down into two fire teams. Each fire team is lead by a Team Leader (TL), normally a Sergeant (SGT/ E-5). Squad leaders and team leaders are armed with the M16 or M4.
Each of these fire teams has the TL, a Squad Automatic Rifleman or SAW Gunner equipped with the M249. There is a Grenadier, armed with the M203 Grenade Launcher mounted on his M16 or M4. And finally, there is a Rifleman, armed with either the M16 or the M4.
The last element of the rifle platoon is its heavy weapons, usually organized into a 4th squad known as the Weapons Squad. There is a SSG squad leader, and two medium machine gun teams. The medium machine gun team has a gunner, armed with the M240, an assistant gunner armed with either the M16 or M4. Most Weapons Squads also have two anti-armor teams, each with a Gunner, armed with the M16/M4 and the Javelin anti-tank missile, and an assistant gunner, armed with the M16/M4 and carrying a spare missile.
Thus, the basic Rifle platoon has an authorized strength from about 35 to 42 people. For the young soldier, the platoon is his family, his home. He lives with them, eats with them, trains with them, and usually socializes with them to a fair extent. You might think of his squad as his immediate family, and the rest of the platoon as the close cousins. Many soldiers will spend an entire enlistment assigned to one platoon the whole time. While it is usual to stay in one platoon, it is not unusual to be assigned to a number of duties within that platoon as time goes on. My first enlistment was spent in one platoon, but during a nineteen month period, I served as a rifleman, anti-armor specialist, automatic rifleman, assistant machine gunner, machine gunner, grenadier, and RTO.
A little about leadership and training at the platoon level. The PL is responsible for everything his platoon does or fails to do. He is responsible to ensure both that the soldiers assigned know their individual tasks and duties, such as how to maintain their weapons, and their collective tasks and duties, such as how to perform “the Rifle Platoon in the Attack.” The smart young Lieutenant will use his Sergeants to the greatest extent possible. The team leaders and squad leaders generally train the solders on individual tasks, under the supervision of the PSG. And squad level tasks, such as movement formations are taught by the NCOs as well. And as the young PL is there to learn as well as to lead, he’ll gladly turn to his PSG for guidance and learn from his experience. No platoon leader should be giving orders to privates. That’s why he has NCOs assigned to him. Normally, the PL issues orders either directly to the squad leaders, or to them via the Platoon Sergeant. The Squad Leaders in turn use their Team Leaders to execute those orders.
The three squad structure of the platoon is designed to give the platoon flexibility in engagement. In the attack (which we’ll cover in greater detail in another post), the platoon leader may choose to lead with one squad, holding two squads in reserve to reinforce or exploit success. Alternatively, he may choose to lead with two squads, and only hold one in reserve. We’ll cover that decision making process in a later post as well.
Finally, a bit about organization in the real world. The above organization is the approved “book solution.” But it is very rare that a platoon will ever actually be at full strength. People are almost always detached for schools or reassignment, out sick or injured, or loaned out to a parent unit for some duty. And often, the Army just doesn’t have enough people to assign enough troops to fill every unit.
When a platoon is short-handed, it is critical that the key leadership positions and weapons be manned. The weapons squad is almost always fully manned. What usually happens is that the Rifle Squads end up short changed. In that case, usually the Rifleman position is left unmanned, with the Automatic Rifleman and Grenadier positions manned first. In some very extreme cases, the platoon may operate with only two rifle squads. At one time, I served in a light infantry platoon that was so short on personnel that after manning the weapons squad, we only had enough soldiers left to have one rifle squad, but with three fire teams. Everyone in this squad was armed with either the grenade launcher or the M249 SAW. This is hardly the way things were supposed to be, but you have to make do with what you have.
Finally, when actually deployed to the field, the platoon is always augmented with attachments from its parent and supporting units. Each platoon has a medic attached from the battalion’s medical platoon. He normally moves with the Platoon Sergeant. There is also an Artillery Forward Observer team attached from the supporting artillery unit. The Forward Observer also brings with him his own RTO to communicate with the artillery and mortars. The FO team is glued to the platoon leaders hip. The help him plan for and call fire from supporting weapons.