Updates for the Rifle Squad?

Vmax, one of our loyal readers, shot us a link to this Military.com article discussing possible future weapons for the infantry rifle squad.

After a decade of war, Army infantry officials want to make infantry squads more deadly by arming them with a new generation of weapons ranging from ultra-light machine guns to compact sniper rifles.

Testing and fielding newer, more lethal assault weapons is just part of a larger effort to address shortcomings in the current squad formation identified in a recent Capabilities-Based Assessment performed by the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.

I’m sure there is plenty of scope for improvement of the small arms of the squad. In fact, the Army has already made vast changes to the small arms of infantry units since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The M4 has gone from being widely adopted to being the universal personal rifle of the infantry and indeed, just about everyone in the Army. Small arms optics were unheard of a decade ago, but now every rifleman and automatic weapon gunner has a combat optic on his weapon. The basic design of such weapons as the M240B machine gun, and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, having proven sound, have been improved primarily to “add lightness” with new versions with titanium receivers and other efforts to minimize the soldier’s load. The development of a Squad Dedicated Marksman role, and the rifle to fulfill it, is also a direct result of the current wars.

But while talking about small arms is all well and good, I’m curious as to what the article mentions, but doesn’t address.

The CBA was completed last year and found 22 “capability gaps” that hinder the nine-man infantry squad’s ability to be decisive in small-unit actions, infantry officials told Military.com. That doesn’t mean today’s troops have major problems, just that they have room to improve, the Army says.

As the article notes, the Army hasn’t released the details of the 22 areas that leave room for improvement. Our occasional contributor here, Esli, has noted that during recent visits to the Maneuver Center of Excellence1 at Ft. Benning, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on the squad as the critical unit of decision. It is at the squad level that the fight initiates, and quite often is decided.

A little refresher course for our non-infantry friends- the basic Army rifle squad2 is a 9 man unit.

1x Squad Leader– typically a Staff Sergeant (SSG)
Fire Team A Fire Team B
Team Leader (SGT) M4 Carbine Team Leader (SGT) M4 Carbine
Auto Rifleman (SPC) M249 SAW Auto Rifleman (SPC) M249 SAW
Grenadier (SPC) M230/M4 GL Grenadier (SPC) M230/M4 GL
Rifleman (PFC) M4 Carbine Designated Marksman (PFC) M14EBR/M16/M110 DMR

And therein lies a dirty little secret.  In this, the most high tech, best army in the world, our rifle squad isn’t all that much better than that of any other army.  The great strength of our Army (and our military as a whole) is its ability to leverage supporting fires and other services and technology far better than anyone else in the world. But if you take one squad of our infantry, and a squad of someone else’s infantry, say… the Taliban, and pit them against one another with no access to outside support, the technological edge of our force is greatly diminished. Very roughly, small arms are small arms. Neither the M4 carbine, nor the AK47 are so technologically superior as to determine the outcome of a fight.

Well, you say, our troops are smarter, better trained, and more physically fit. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, they are. And that gives them a terrific edge. But our troops are also hampered by the constraints of Rules of Engagement that limit their freedom to exploit their training, smarts, and fitness. Further, our goal isn’t to field a squad that can eke out a victory over a roughly matched opponent. It is to field a squad that can consistently overmatch any opponent. And those improvements aren’t free. For instance, while our squads have unsurpassed night vision capability, and modern body armor that saves many lives, those both add considerable weight to the soldier’s load, reducing his mobility on the march, and agility in the fight. It’s hard to jump up and quickly flank an opponent when you’re toting over a hundred pounds of stuff.

Finally, in our country, if a US rifle squad gets into a straight up fight with an enemy squad and completely wipes it out, and yet suffers a serious casualty or death, that’s not a victory. It is, for domestic consumption, a loss.

One of my long standing complaints about the current Army rifle squad is its small size.  I just explained to you that the squad is 9 men. But Army units are only rarely at full strength. People are absent for any number of reasons- folks on leave, recovering from wounds or injuries (lots of grunts suffer sports type injuries, and need time on the DL),  discharged early for whatever reason, needed to fill critical slots at other locations, what have you. So it is not at all uncommon for a squad to only be able to field 5 or 6 men at any one time.  And even if by some minor miracle the squad can go outside the wire at full strength, 9 men isn’t a lot. If I had my druthers, the squad would expand to 11 men, with the addition of an extra rifleman in each fire team.

We’ve often written enthusiastically about technological advancements such as battlefield apps for smart phones. And while we still support innovative approaches to improving the rifleman’s ability to communicate and operate on a networked battlefield, we also recognize that using a smart phone in the middle of a firefight isn’t eminently practical.

Basically, we’d really like to see what the MCoE sees as “room for improvement” in their assessment. And while we’d love to see further advances to improve the lethality and survivability of the squad, we’re also concerned that the “good idea fairy” might unduly burden the squad with equipment and training that is not central to the mission of closing with and destroying the enemy by fire and assault.

1. Why the recent fetish for business sounding names? MCoE? Why can’t they just call it the Infantry and Armor Center and School? Or at least the Maneuver Center and School?

2. This organization applies to Infantry, Airborne Infantry, Air Assault Infantry, and Ranger Infantry. Stryker and Bradley Infantry squads have slightly different organizations.

17 thoughts on “Updates for the Rifle Squad?”

  1. There are only three basic combat skills, no?

    Shoot, move, and communicate.

    As you point out, in paraphrase, “it’s not the rifle, it’s how you use it”, so I’ll bet a majority of the 22 gaps include non-weapon enablers key to the rifle squad mission:

    – Battlefield S/A (where is blue and red)
    – Assured access to support (CASEVAV, FIRES)
    – Closer communications with peer units and higher (tighter response loop for both SQD and higher)

    At least some of my suspected gaps in the MCoE report likely tie into getting better communication systems in the hands of the soldier. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not an FCS-type, “every soldier a sensor” geek, but having the ability for the S/L to have more awareness of the battlespace than what his Mk 1 Mod 0 eyeballs have access to would be a huge gain.

    With the Army likely making JTRS HMS their future radio of choice for BN and below, and the USMC and Navy Expeditionary/SPECWAR forces moving out with other vendor implementations of the same waveforms, a networked ground combat force isn’t too far off. It’s not a cure-all, but it does offer us a way to further enhance the “…ability to be decisive in small-unit actions…”

    (I’ll echo your CoE gripe, the Navy is doing that crap too, if your crap wasn’t excellent to begin with, labeling it so doesn’t make it so. I blame the creeping fungus of business management practices in the military.)

  2. If I had my druthers, the squad would expand to 11 men, with the addition of an extra rifleman in each fire team.

    What do you think about going to a triangular squad, with three fire teams, a la the USMC? Advantages? Disadvantages?

    1. My thoughts exactly. The Marine Corps fields squads of 13 – 3x fire teams with 4 men apiece, and one squad leader. Better support (2 squads lay base of fire while one conducts flanking maneuver) and naturally, more firepower.

    2. I don’t have any real experience with the Marine rifle squad organization. On the one hand, you get somewhat more firepower with an extra automatic weapon (either SAW or IAR) and an extra grenadier. On the other hand, controlling two fire teams is hard enough. Yes, normally you’d see a base of fire and a maneuver element with two teams colocated, but can see areas where it would challenge the squad leader’s span of control.

      Of course, if the Marines are happy with it, I’m not about to complain.

  3. With the up comming cuts to the Army, the 9-man squad will just have to do. Given how networked out military is, they can punch above their weight, something many insurgets lack and most pundits forget. Yes I know the ROE can suck but that comes from on high.

  4. Actaully Brad, you’ll know this answer far better than I would. Historically, wasn’t the US infantry squad larger until the advent of mechanized infantry? You couldn’t shove a “full squad” into an APC (later IFV), so the solution was to cut the size of the Mech Inf squad. But then the decision was made to standardize the size of all US Infantry formations, which led to the current 9 man standard. At least, that’s how I recall the sequence. Is that correct?

    1. Actually, the M113 could was designed to carry an 11 man rifle squad. Of course, it would be terribly cramped in there. But you could theoretically fit them all in there. Five on a side on the bench seats, and the squad leader had a seat on the back of the TC seat stand.

      But you’re correct that there’s no way to support that size squad in a Bradley.

      As to the non-mech infantry being downsized to 9 men, I’ve been laboring under the impression that part of the justification was to lower the total numbers of troops in infantry units (and thus end strength for the service) and yet still maintain the same number of battalions. I could be wrong.

    2. Actually, if I remember my history correctly, the 9-man squad came about with the advent of the “light infantry” concept in the 1980s. Before that, I believe that the standard “vanilla” infantry rifle squad was as xbradtc described it: 11 men, with a squad leader and two 5-man fire teams.

      Any “Old Army” dudes want to correct me, feel free.

      1. I’m gonna have to do some research, but I think you’re on the right track. I think the switch went from 11man squad (SL, Assist SL, two men in a BAR team, 7 riflemen) under the old traingular/Pentomic division, and under ROAD went to the 9 man, two team squad.

    3. Just to clarify a bit further, the whole idea of “light infantry” was rapid-deployability, so everything was to be reduced to the smallest size possible. So the total end-strength of a light infantry division was approximately 10,000 personnel, or roughly half of that of an armored or mechanized division.

      If I recall correctly, in the light infantry division I served in (the 25th), in the event of an emergency deployment, we were supposed to be able to deploy the first battalion task force (the Division Ready Force 1, or DRF1) in 18 hours, the DRF2 within 29 hours, and the entire division within one week.

      Try that with an armored division.

      1. Yeah, very, very thin units. Three rifle companies in a Bn, no CSC, no vehicles in the rifle cos., the entire division was very lightly equipped. Not a single tracked vehicle in the entire division.

        I was in the division 86-87- A-1/27IN. Where/when were you there?

  5. Normally, I overlook when people misspell my name, but in this case, I will have to make an exception, as you have known me for almost thirty years….
    I can’t remember all of the discussion I heard at Benning, but I would make a couple comments. First, regardless of the size of the squad, it is very rare in the current environment to go out in squad size anymore. Many units just forbid it from a force protection standpoint. We sent out “SKTs” (Small Kill Teams) in ambush operations on rare occasions, though. You are correct in your comments on the relative disadvantage in mobility based on weight of gear. As one commenter said, most of the enhancements to the squad are in terms of enablers and education, and getting back to squad leaders with some seniority and experience in the army, as opposed to “issue more gear” fixes. For example, give the SL and a couple of soldiers the 21 day Advanced Situational Awareness course, so they can better analyze the enemy and gather more useful intelligence to operate from, and then attach a HUMINT Collection Team which can better use the SL’s increased understanding to target the right people, etc. Lastly, the analysis done to determine shortcomings at the squad level also identified shortcomings at all echelons; however, the priority is to fix squads as that echelon had the greatest disparity with opponents.

    1. My apologies on the misspelling. My defense is that:
      1. I wrote this piece late at night, and
      Z) spellcheck always tells me I misspelled it anyway, so I didn’t think to look a little closer. I guess that’s some of that attention to detail my bosses were always trying to beat into my thick skull.

      As for independent squad operations, I was really arguing in a hypothetical. It is only under the most rare circumstances that squads have ever operated independently. In my time, while squads often moved separately, they were almost always within range of immediate mutual support, and always with a shared platoon or company objective.

      And I’m pleased to hear some confirmation that the effort isn’t solely “more gear” but rather analyzing what can be done in terms of training and doctrine to improve matters. As units get a little more dwell time at home station, hopefully they will have time to send folks to courses, and as you say, gain a little more time in grade for their positions. All that, AND have time to fully participate in the force generation cycle (that is, the training cycle for the unit preparing it to be deployable).

    2. Dwell time? Tell that to my next rotation, which has now advanced by ten months, according to the latest pre-decisional products.

      1. You at least had dwell time, via your last tour. Think how many Combat Arms NCOs will spend a decade or more where EVERY assignment is in a line platoon.

  6. I am observing that, not on the basis of my personal requirements, but the professional challenge and obligation of getting a large unit ready for a rotation to a country it has never been to, to fight an enemy it has never fought, in terrain it has never trained in, for a mission that it has not done, where the families have already been told based on previously published patch charts that they would have X dwell time, which is now X-10 months, while also contending with the discipline problems, physical readiness issues, inability to train on our heavy-force training requirements (i.e. this unit will likely go another 2.5 years before it shoots tanks or brads again), ad infinitum. By no means am I not thinking about all of the associated soldiers, NCOs, and family members, which in the aggregate is somewhere on the order of I will estimate 2020 people. Oh, and many of the people who will go on that deployment are not even here yet making it impossible to even begin to train the team until late July, and the ones that are here are still trying to catch up on the family time they missed from the last rotation. I will never forget that combat arms NCO, or even the CS and CSS NCOs that bear the brunt of it.

  7. Im having a teeny problem. I cant get my reader to pickup your feed, Im using yahoo reader by the way.

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