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.