The Rifle Squad

A couple years ago, a friend of the blog mentioned that one of the prime initiatives at the Maneuver Center of Excellence was an effort to increase the lethality of the Rifle Squad.

The Rifle Squad is the lowest tactical formation capable of fire and maneuver. It is the building block upon which Infantry companies, battalions and higher formations are built.

While there are different varieties of Infantry today in the Army, such as Mechanized, Airborne, Air Assault, Light and Ranger, the Rifle Squad is identical in all of them.

Today’s rifle squad consists of nine soldiers.

Squad Leader SSG M4 Carbine
A Team Leader SGT M4 Carbine
Auto Rifleman SPC M249
Grenadier SPC M4/M320
Rifleman PFC M4
B Team Leader SGT M4
Auto Rifleman SPC M249
Grenadier SPC M4/M320
Rifleman PFC M4

http://noblecotactical.com/uploads/3/2/1/0/3210155/1725476.jpg?554

This has been the standard organization of US Army Rifle Squads since the Army of Excellence reforms of 1983. That’s 31 years without any significant reorganizations, just about as long a stretch as any in the history of the Army.

The Rifle Squad balances balances several factors in its organization. First is span of control. In spite of all the miracles of communications technology today, in the close fight, voice commands and hand and arm signals still prevail as the most common, most effective means of control. The division of the squad into two teams means the Squad Leader only has to concentrate on controlling two elements. The team leaders have three subordinates to control, but much of that is simply by “follow the leader.” Secondly, the weapons of the squad, and the identical team organization, means that both teams have significant organic firepower, and either team is capable of forming a base of fire upon an enemy, or maneuvering against the enemy. That’s the basis of all tactics- one element forms the base of fire while the other maneuvers to attack the enemy by his flank or rear.

A historical review of the rifle squad shows that a 9 man squad is pretty much the smallest size in which a squad can maintain this autonomous ability to simultaneously conduct both fire and maneuver. At any smaller size, the loss of two, or even one member as a casualty renders the squad ineffective. What is interesting is that, in spite of the changes in weapons and technology across the 20th Century, this holds constant all the way to here in the 21st Century.

The concept of the Rifle Squad being a formation capable of independent fire and maneuver came about after World War I. The World War I Infantry Platoon had sections, organized by specialty, rather than squads. Riflemen, grenadiers, automatic rifle, and rifle grenade sections would be task organized as needed to fulfill a mission. Further, the platoon was generally expected to perform either fire or maneuver, as a single entity.

The Infantry in the US was the subject of a great deal of intellectual thought and efforts at experimentation between the wars at all levels, including down to the squad level.

The primary aim of all this study was to increase the lethality of the infantry, decrease the size of the formations, and increase the maneuverability of the formation. Maneuverability was more than mere mobility, in that control of the formations was a key aspect of maneuver, as opposed to mere movement.

This was part of the experimentation that lead to the triangular division. From platoon through division, the patter was set. Three maneuver elements with a supporting fire element. The platoon would have three squads and a weapons squad. The company three rifle platoons and a weapons platoon, etc., through the division with three regiments and the division artillery.

Things broke down a little at the rifle squad level. The Rifle Squad of World War II was a 12 man organization.

Squad Leader Sergeant M1 Rifle
Asst. Squad Leader Corporal M1 Rifle
Auto Rifleman PFC M1918 BAR
Asst. Auto Rflm. PVT M1 Rifle*
Ammo Bearer PVT M1 Rifle*
Scout PFC M1 Rifle
Scout PVT M1 Rifle
Rifleman PFC M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle

*Also carried extra 20rd BAR magazines

The Automatic Rifle team, with the BAR, assistant gunner and ammo bearer could obviously form a base of fire. The riflemen would thus serve as a maneuver element. The scouts (who apparently were rarely used as such) could either supplement the riflemen or the BAR team. The squad leader would normally lead the maneuver element, while his Corporal assistant controlled the BAR team.

After World War II, the Army revisited the question of the best organization for a rifle squad. Manpower shortages led to the adoption of a 9 man squad, with the elimination of the scouts and two riflemen.

Squad Leader Sergeant M1 Rifle
Asst. Squad Leader Corporal M1 Rifle
Auto Rifleman PFC M1918 BAR
Asst. Auto Rflm. PVT M1 Rifle*
Ammo Bearer PVT M1 Rifle*
Rifleman PFC M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle
Rifleman PVT M1 Rifle

During the Korean War, when available, a second BAR replaced one of the Riflemen.

When the Army restructured under the Pentomic Division, the squad was again reorganized, into a 10 man squad, and for the first time, introduced two fire teams. The unbalanced teams were unpopular, and shortly thereafter, the squad was increased to 11 men.

Squad Leader SSG M14
A Team Leader SGT M14
Auto Rifleman SPC M14 AR
Rifleman PFC M14
Rifleman PFC M14
Rifleman PFC M14
B Team Leader SGT M14
Auto Rifleman SPC M14 AR
Rifleman PFC M14
Rifleman PFC M14
Rifleman PFC M14

Note: delays in introducing the M14 meant many units were still armed with the M1 Rifle and the M1918 BAR well into the early 1960s. Also, ranks shown are representative. Also, eventually one rifleman would be armed with the M79 Grenade Launcher and serve as a grenadier- but only one per squad.

Again, manpower costs soon enough caused the Army to trim one rifleman from the squad. And again, the shortcomings of the unbalanced squad in combat soon enough lead to the reintroduction of the 11 man squad in Vietnam.

About that same time as the Army (again) settled on the 11 man squad, it also argued that in a perfect world, the squad would actually be 13 men, but that the Army could never afford it. Bowing to the personnel costs, the Army recommended 11 man light infantry squads, but 9 man mechanized infantry squads.

A word about the mechanized infantry squad of those days. Mounted on the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier, with a crew of two, an 11 man squad only leaves 9 troops available for dismount.

That situation was exacerbated with the introduction of the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. It too had a 9 man squad associated with it, but three of those were vehicle crew, leaving only six dismounts. After 2o years, the Army fielded a new organization for Bradley platoons that showed 12 crewmen, and three dismount squads of 9 men each. The trouble there was, that totals 41 troops, while the Bradleys can only seat a total of 40 (counting crews). That doesn’t even account for the attachments a platoon habitually carries, such as aidmen and fire support specialists. Add in the additional attachments today such as interpreters and military working dog teams, and merely getting the platoon to the fight is problematic. Of course, units are constantly understrength, so there are generally one or two seats open.

One of the prime drivers to the move to the 9 man squad in 1983 was the Reagan buildup. The Army was authorized to increase its force structure, that is, the number of divisions it fielded, but was not authorized a substantial increase in its congressionally mandated end strength. If it wanted more units, it would have to trim body counts elsewhere. Among other things, it virtually eliminated cooks from the various field units. It trimmed the strength of its non-mechanized infantry divisions from around 16,0000 men to just over 10,000, most of which came from eliminated virtually all vehicles below the brigade level, but it also saved about 160 men by trimming from the 11 man squad to the 9 man squad. As M113 battalions converted to the M2 Bradley, they lost their anti-tank companies, and eventually lost their fourth rifle company.

Let’s diverge for a moment and address the Marine Corps Rifle Squad. Aside from a brief flirtation with the 9 man squad a few years ago, since World War II, the Marines have used a 13 man squad, with a squad leader and three fire teams.

Squad Leader SGT M16
A Team Leader CPL M16
Auto Rifleman LCPL M249
Grenadier PFC M16/M203
Rifleman PFC M16
B Team Leader CPL M16
Auto Rifleman LCPL M249
Grenadier PFC M16/M203
Rifleman PFC M16
C Team Leader CPL M16
Auto Rifleman LCPL M249
Grenadier PFC M16/M203
Rifleman PFC M16

There are some historical reasons, and doctrinal ones as well, why the Marines haven’t succumbed to shedding squad members from the squad as the Army has been forced to. Those are rather complicated and outside the scope of the discussion. The Marines are quite satisfied with their squad. Of note, when the Army posited that the ideal squad should be 13 men, it did not suggest adopting three teams, but rather two teams of 6 men, which would likely have been at the limits of the span of control for the team leaders.

Today’s rifle squad is a balanced organization, with considerable firepower, and maneuverability. What it lacks is manpower. The increased load of mission equipment that today’s infantry squad and platoon must carry into battle would be far less a burden were it to be shared over additional bodies.

In a perfect world, the light, airborne, air assault and Ranger infantry squads would be bumped up to 11 men. Limitations imposed by vehicles means mechanized and Stryker infantry will remain limited to 9 man squads.

But if I were to design my own army, you can bet I’d go with 13 man squads.

14 thoughts on “The Rifle Squad”

    1. Good question. One of the riflemen, given appropriate optics or weapon, becomes the DM. Historically, the other rifleman, in the other team, was an anti-armor specialist. Which was code for either carrying an M47 Dragon or a bunch of extra AT4s or LAWs.

  1. Good write-up, though I would emphasize more the impacts of manning. Currently, call yourself lucky to be manned at 90-95%. From that, subtract the additional 5-10% broken or otherwise non-deployable Soldiers. And in mechanized infantry land, note that you must fully man the tracks before filling squads, and suddenly your available strength in the dismounted squads is negligible at best. Well, off to work. Today we begin watching a mechanized infantry battle group from the UK. Fun. Unfortunately it will all be in simulations.

  2. Oh, and since you threw it out there, how about a post in which you design your own army. That’s a great intellectual challenge, which I will probably mull over while at work today when bored.

    1. To paraphrase our hero “But if I were to design my own army, you can bet I’d design the Marine Corps.” 😉

  3. Did anyone else have this? My unit never had a separate grenadier, they always had the team leaders carry the m203 even though every manual I can remember had a designated grenadier. Is it mech thing or what? Also a 12 or 13 man squad would be ideal in my opinion, one big fire team in the back of each brad, instead of mixing up teams in different vehicles and leaving a few of the guys to ride in the truck with headquarters like we had to do sometimes.

    1. In my younger days (late 80s), in an atypical infantry unit (The Old Guard), our Team Leaders carried M16/M203s, while all others (even our auto-riflemen) carried M14s.

  4. The Marines actually experimented with an ELEVEN man squad under T/O 1038C, not nine men. It was not a success, as it was not considered flexible enough to conduct fire and maneuver effectively. So the Marine Corps dropped the project after three years (1983-85) and returned to the 13-man rifle squad. Three fire teams of four Marines each, and one squad leader. That has been the construct, tinkering in the early 80s notwithstanding, since 1944. During WWII, the Corps played with 13-man squads and 12-man squads, but they contained only two elements. It was T/O Fox-1 that established the third fire team and rank structure we see today.

  5. So I can’t help but notice that the rifle squad appears to contain a lot fewer low ranks than mid-grade guys. (Well, relatively mid-grade.)

    How is that sustainable over the long term?

    1. It is not exactly sustainable at the appropriate ranks. Team members are generally on their first enlistment, while they may be anything from E1 to E5. The team leader (SGT) has been around long enough that he might be re-enlisting, or already has. The Squad Leader is on his 2nd or 3rd re-enlistment and the platoon sergeant is on 3rd or 4th. The younger guys get out and are replaced constantly, while the leaders continue to progress. Take an army platoon: (roughly) 1 Platoon Sergeant, 3 Squad Leaders, 6 team leaders, 18 team members. That’s ideal. Real world, you will find some E3s as TLs, and a lot of E4s, and then some are actually E5s like they are supposed to be. Lots of E5 squad leaders, too, with the balance being E6s.

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