Thoughts on Combined Arms

I’ve been giving some thought recently to the history of combined arms, that is, the integration of infantry with other arms, such as armor and artillery.  When the different arms work together well, the effects are synergistic; that is, the sum is greater than the parts.

From antiquity, the three main arms were infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Up until very recently, these three arms were effectively three different armies that happened to fight on the same battlefield. Integrating their operations was the task of generals, not colonels.

But in the 20th century, we’ve seen a trend of combining arms at lower and lower echelons. For instance, in World War II, aside from Armored Divisions (allocated roughly at a ratio of one for every five infantry divisions), the large numbers of separate tank and tank destroyers were, according to doctrine, held at either the theater or field army level. But as a practical matter, each infantry division habitually had one battalion of tanks and one of tank destroyers allocated full time. Further, while both these formations were intended to be committed en masse either to attack the enemy, or counter his armored thrusts, in practice, both these battalions saw their companies and platoons distributed throughout the division, typically a company per infantry regiment, and further divided with a platoon in support of each infantry battalion.  While this extra firepower was of course welcomed by the infantry, the ad hoc nature of the organization lead to problems. While doctrine is supposedly uniform across the entire army, the fact of the matter is that units that train together learn to fight together better. Just as in business, personal relationships matter. If you were in a tank platoon, and showed up to support an infantry battalion in the attack mere hours before battle, learning the way things are done in that unit would be a very steep learning curve. At a minimum, arms attached in support of infantry units should have habitual relationships. The on-the-fly non-doctrinal use of tanks and tank destroyers made establishing these relationships hard to achieve.

So why hasn’t the integration of armor and infantry (and to a lesser extent, artillery) at ever lower levels been achieved more rapidly? Was mere parochialism and turf wars hindering the organization of our Army along the most effective lines? Not quite.

Historically, there have been very strong arguments against lower levels of integration. First, as the US Army was just beginning to establish its Armor Force, and develop the doctrine that governed its use, it had the lesson of the fall of France to the Germans foremost in mind. The French had more (and often better) tanks on hand, but had mostly dispersed them in support of infantry units. The Germans, however, had massed their tanks in Panzer divisions, and used them as spearheads to punch holes in the French lines, and then exploit those penetrations by wreaking havoc behind the lines. With their lines of communications severed, French units collapsed, and France, heretofore considered the greatest army on the continent, became a punch line for jokes about surrender. As far as our Army was concerned, the lesson was clear- armor must be used as a fist, not a series of fingers poking in various places.*

Secondly, the specific training, maintenance and logistical requirements of tanks and other arms argued for consolidation in at least battalion sized units. For instance, tanks require mechanics with specialized training to work on their turret systems and fire control. And there just aren’t enough turret mechanics around to provide support if tanks are spread throughout every formation. Similarly, tank gunnery training is a very involved process. This training is cyclic, and a gunnery training cycle takes about three months total. An infantry commander, busy with his own training requirements, and constrained by finite time and resources, wasn’t considered capable of providing the level of supervision needed to properly train tank gunnery simultaneously with his regular infantry training. Similarly, armor unit commanders were felt ill equipped to deal with training infantry skills to any units which might be assigned to them.

And there was, in fact, a fair amount of parochialism involved. There are very, very few Infantrymen willing to admit in public that the other arms and services exist for anything other than occasional sources of support. Further, the Infantry branch itself is somewhat schizophrenic. Since the Cold War Era, there have been two primary “schools” of infantry, the Lightfighters, and the Mechwarriors. The Lightfighters, those infantry who follow a career path through the airborne, air assault, and dismounted light infantry units, have long considered themselves the true keepers of the faith, and the only real warriors. The Mechwarriors, those Infantry that served with M113 and later Bradley equipped infantry battalions knew that only they had the survivability, firepower, and mobility to fight on a mechanized battlefield. Both sides often clashed for control of the intellectual home of the Infantry, The Infantry Center and School at Fort Benning, GA.

The infantry focus on the Vietnam war meant the Lightfighter side of the argument held sway for many years. But the Armor officers in Germany, faced with the challenge of stopping any invasion by the massive forces of the Warsaw Pact, knew that armor and mechanized infantry had to work closely together to have any chance of success.  The post-Vietnam shift of emphasis to Europe meant this school of thought soon began to dominate the intellectual side of the Army.  While the Lightfighters might not embrace the concept of combined arms, the Mechwarriors and folks in the Armor branch have, from their earliest days, held it to be the key to success.

Still, infantry and armor were not integrated below the battalion level. That is, in a heavy brigade, there might be a mechanized infantry battalion, and two armor battalions.  Each battalion would conduct its own individual and small unit training. But it was expected these units would integrate more closely during war. Accordingly, when units went to the field for training in units larger than company size, they typically “task organized”.  That is, the tank and infantry battalions would swap companies, and even platoons, to field teams that consisted of mixtures of armor and infantry down to the company level. Theoretically, this task organization was just that, for a specific task. But in order to foster close cooperation, most units had a standard task organization, and were loathe to change it without compelling reason. For instance, my entire time in Ft. Carson, we always task organized with the same armor battalion, and always received the same tank company (and my platoon was always attached to that company).

Here in the 21st Century, the Army’s shift from a divisional structure to today’s Brigade Combat Team organization had increased the trend on integration of combined arms.  First, each BCT now has its own organic artillery battalion, where before artillery was held at the division level, and then tasked to support the brigades.  A large part of the decision to make this shift was inevitable. The battlespace a brigade is expected to occupy today is much larger than even just a couple decades ago. But tube artillery range hasn’t increased that much. Tube artillery no longer had the range to quickly shift from support of one brigade or another. Rather than stripping the heart of fire support from a brigade, it made sense to give it that artillery battalion as its own permanent asset. The BCT concept also makes organic to the brigade many other assets that had formerly been held at division level.  Cavalry troops as a reconnaissance asset, military intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities, maintenance and logistics troops have all been integrated at a lower level than previously.

Finally, in a handful of the Heavy Brigade Combat Teams, the last step has been taken.  Combined Arms Battalions have integrated infantry and armor companies into a single battalion as a permanent organization.  There is still some argument as to whether this step was really necessary, or if the challenges will justify the benefits.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the thoughts regarding the current schools of thought on combined arms in the Army.


*That analogy is pretty much stolen from GEN Fred Franks, VII Corps commander during Desert Storm, the main armored striking force that was used to smash the Iraqi Republican Guard.

18 thoughts on “Thoughts on Combined Arms”

  1. “Up until very recently, these three arms were effectively three different armies that happened to fight on the same battlefield. Integrating their operations was the task of generals, not colonels. ”

    But there was a reason for this. If I may use that well worn example of Gettysburg, consider the defense of Cemetery Hill on July 3, 1863. Four Federal infantry corps defended that key piece of terrain – backed up by artillery and cavalry. As you say the combined arms coordination was done at by generals and not colonels. The battlefield was rather crowded in those days. Had to be, since command and control was exercised by shouts and bugles.

    If Gettysburg was fought on July 3, 1944, there would be a battalion on the hill. That battalion, no doubt, would receive reinforcements from a separate tank battalion – maybe a platoon of Shermans – and a massive dose of artillery support. Coordinating all this would be the battalion staff – via a rather robust system of radio and telephone networks.

    And if we put the date as July 3, 1991, put a mech-infantry company on the hill. I dare say if we move that up to 2020 the force would be a platoon.

    The communications systems, as they improved, allowed coordination at a lower and lower level… not to mention allowing the commander to spread the troops out a bit more!

    1. That’s true. But as much as the improved span of control via communications has thinned out the battlefield, so has the reach of both direct and indirect fires.

      Oddly, combat today is much safer than it once was, in spite of the vastly increased lethality of weapons.

    2. If I were an Arty Commander now, with an outpost on Little Round Top or Cemetery Hill, I would make it extremely hot for you. If you add CAS, I doubt the OP would survive.

      Combat has been safer for us, but we haven’t been in anything even close to Korea, much less a near peer power in a very long time.

  2. Your mention of gunnery training as an element that calls or specialization is on target. One of the few areas that still bedevils a combined arms battalion is that of gunnery. The BN is responsible for planning generally simultaneous gunnery densities for tanks, brads, dismounts, mortars, scout wheeled gunnery, and the Bradley Fire Support Team vehicles, plus throw in the support company’s truck gunnery. The only aid to this was the addition of both tank and a bradley master gunners at the BN. There are huge limits on the ability of leadership to be technically proficient, as well as getting around to see it all. Plus it is harder for units to support each other through the train up and actual gunnery.

  3. “There are very, very few Infantrymen willing to admit in public that the other arms and services exist for anything other than occasional sources of support.”

    One of my oldest best friends was an 11mike. He said “I haven’t been in an effing bradley since training.”

    As an on topic thing about combined arms, wasn’t it you Brad who said. “Why the EFF! does anything with an A belong to the Airforce? Those belong to the Army and Marines.”

    1. 1. I’m a big fan of combined arms. Joint and unified? Meh…

      2. If I said that, it was a long time ago. I’m actually pretty supportive of Joint/Unified operations when they’re done properly and not just buzzwords and empire building exercises. Quartermaster is of the opinion that the Air Force should be stripped of its TACAIR. I’ve ruminated on it, but only as an intellectual exercise. Having a single integrated airpower manager isn’t a bad thing, in an of itself. And at the operator level, I don’t have any problems with the Air Force. It’s only when you get to about the 3 star/4 star level that they go completely sideways.

  4. “Worst job in the Army is dismount during gunnery season!”

    An excellent point. Which is why when I was a commander I had a separate gunnery training cycle supported by the vehicle crews. The M2s stayed in the motor pool, the XOs M113 was used for comms and every driver, gunner and some TCs ran the ammo points and did all of the support work. Battalion commander liked the idea and institued across the entire battalion.

    I always crossed attached to a tank battalion when I was a rifle company commander and ended up giving up a platoon and getting a tank platoon back. This left me with 2 platoons of dismounts…about 15 men each on average. I often times formed them into a 4th platoon under the XO on the key dismounted avenue of approach leaving small flank OP elements with the mounted sections.

  5. Armored Cavalry Regiments and Division Cavalry Squadrons have been using this concept for years. It’s only in the last 5 years that these potent and effective organizations were disbanded and morphed into something else. There were two platoons of Cavalry Scouts, two platoons of Tankers, and a Mortar Section. There record in combat stands for itself. The big Army has destroyed these units and taken the teeth from the Cavalry. 2 & 3 SCR are good units, but a Cavalry Regiment in name only. In reality, they are the same as every other Striker BDE. I don’t think this transformation had anything to do with intergrating units, although i’m sure it briefed well on power point. The Army had the problem of making like units in order to facilitate rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. One BDE did not match another and this created logisitcal nightmares along with other troubles. The Army is going to learn a hard lesson on getting rid of the the true ACRs and de-fanging it’s Recon organizations. Light fighter always argue, but a Cavalry unit does more then just Recon. You must be able to fight for Recon.

    1. I was in a Cav squadron many years ago, and we had the essentially the same equipment as an Armored Battalion. That may have changed since the early 80s.

    2. I keep meaning to do an in depth piece on the ACRs as a corps level asset, as the screen, and the reserve, but never get around to it. Suffice it to say, those organizations DID occur to me while writing this post, but I just ran out of steam address that issue.

    3. True, you have to fight for recon, but ACRs and DIV CAV, with air, scouts artillery and tanks do not represent combined arms in the same manner that armor, infantry and artillery do. ACRs and DIV CAV did reconnaissance or security, not maneuver for the sake of controlling ground. Different role, different requirement; but, yes, it does require the integration of multiple capabilities and a similar complexity, which was made easier by putting them all under one HQ, as with a modular BCT. With regards to all BCTs being alike, there are enough differences between IBCTs, SBCTs and HBCTs to say that it is not the case, even if they very roughly have the same amount of people. Counting up the number of riflemen in any one of these organizations is a good place to start, as is comparing the number of rifle battalions.

  6. I don’t think its matter of counting riflemen, it’s more the supporting assets. By making the BCT a set piece with all support assets makes it easier to of deploy as a BCT. easier to cut and paste units into and out of theater. Your right, an IBCT and a HBCT may not exactly match up, rifleman for rifleman, but BN to BN they do. The whole design was more for their ability to act independitly then as a combined arms team, we just dressed it up pretty. Feedback from guys I know in the CABs is that the transition is not as rosey as it’s made out to be. INF guys don’t get along with Tanker, and the reverse. Right now, things are fairly easy becasue of the Iraq (now over) and Afghanistan missions tend to not be mission specific. Everyone is rolling around in an MRAP. They task every unit to be land owners, regardless of the BN type. The future will be the test however. Once we get back to training for “full spectrum warfare” or what ever the new term is for Armored Warfare, things will become difficult again. As you stated in the article, there were reasons for the way things were. AS far as the Scout / Tanker mix in the old ACR / DIV Cav, it was a combined arms team. As Scouts, we used to say we were a jack of all trades but a mater of none. Tankers, if you’ve ever worked with them, are almost solely focused on their Tanks, as they should be. Scouts, however, would have to do their CFV training / gunnery and all the associated dismounted training that the INF would normally do, similar to the Mech INF. I believe that becasue Scouts / Tankers were in the same branch, this made the two MOSs work a bit better together. for example, a 19D becomes a 19Z when they make 1SG/MSG so it was an even split on wether your 1SG was a tanker or scout. Same with our officers, typically, a Tank PLT leader would first lead a tank platoon, then transition to a Scout platoon when they were promoted to 1LT. I think this is what led to ANCOC, no SLC, to be combined under the Manuver Warfare Branch. There are some fundemental differneces in opinion in how to do things when you get INF, Tankers, and Scouts in the same room. Here is a good example, Ranger School. No one is debating the merits of Ranger School. Light INF however venerate the school as the pinicle of success. The Armor community however, do not see the school as the end all, be all. INF Scout PLTs tend to all be Ranger Qualified and seem resentful that CAV Scouts do not have to be Ranger School grads. Mostly this stems from ignorance on their part on what a CAV Scouts mission is as opposed to a Light INF Scout, but if a Light Infantrymen has always served in Light / AB units, you cannot blame them. I guess the point i’m making, as I drift all over the place on this post, is that the transition is not as easy as it looks on paper. I think a lot of the difficulties is based on one branch vs. the other branch. INF believe they have the right answer, Armor believe they have another. What we as an Army run is the danger that in the efforts to combine, we lose sight of the strengths of both. In the future, will our desire to make more light units, leave us lacking in heavy. Will we pay the price of Soldiers lives when we make medium (stryker) units that cannot stand up to a more heavily armored foe. I read a book called Tank Aces a few years ago by Ralph Zumbro. In it, he describes the evolution of Armored warfare through a series of short stories of Amored Warfare from WWI. A trend we as a nation have done after each conflict is to strip our Armored forcess in favor of light units. In each conflict however, we suddenly find the need to have more Armor. I believe the Gulf War and Iraq were the first time that we had a prepared Armored force to deal with contingincies. Granted, most light units still ended up needing some sort of Armored force to support them as time went on. If not for the logisitcal and terrain limitations in Afghanistan, I’m positive their are a few light grunts out their that would have loved to have a tank or BFV in support of them. Combined Arms teams are great, and the Cavalry has been the leader in this for years. But until the INF branch and the Armor branch get over years old prejudices agaisnt one another, both will suffer.

    1. Great thoughts. I am under the opinion that the real fissure in combined arms is that of the light infantry-to-mounted maneuver as opposed to the mech-infantry to armor. Ultimately, despite branch parochialism, mech infantry and armor realize that they operate best when combined. Each has a place on the battlefield, even during the same mission. When we hit defiles and trenches, out come the infantry. Open terrain and long-range shots; bring up the tanks. Oh, woodlines and ATGMs? Slow the tempo and push out the dismounts. Symbiosis of effects, and the combined arms battalion (though not perfect), I would submit, improves on traditional task organization, which was transient even if habitual. Regardless, leaders and soldiers will continue to trash-talk the other side. Unlike mech infantry, career light infantrymen are very uncomfortable moving into the mech realm from the standpoints of time-distance, logistics, and “pack light, freeze at night” toughguy mentality. I watched new mech infantry officers struggle with this continually. The result is disdain for armor and mounted manuever. As they tend to rise to the top in infantryland, they artificially skew the branch viewpoint. Consider, one E9 board back in 2000 or 2001 that did not select even one 11M E8 for promotion (all 11Bs), or that to become a Bradley master gunner is almost the kiss of death, compared to a tank MG, which is a lock for promotion to SFC.
      Based on what I am currently seeing in the force, I am optimistic that we as an army are getting past some of the parochialism, and am glad. I still talk up my branch, though.

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