Rangers Lead the Way!

We’ll come back later and explore more of the history of the Rangers, Airborne units and the rest of the Army’s Special Operations community. But for now, I just want to share this video of the Rangers in the War on Terror. The 160th SOAR also makes an appearance here.


Veterans Day


So today is Veterans Day. Today, dear freinds, is not a day for mourning, but rather a day to remember the service of American veterans of all wars. Come Memorial Day we shall mourn our dead. Today, let us celebrate life instead.

Veterans Day is a relatively new observance. The holiday started out as Armistice Day, first observed in 1926 to comemorate the end of WWI. It wasn’t until 1954 that the observance was extended to veterans of all wars.  For  a brief time, 1971-1975, Veterans Day was observed on the closest Monday to November 11th, but thankfully, that foolishness went by the wayside and we now observe this day on the proper calendar date.

I don’t have any big plans for the holiday. I’ll celebrate the way I usually do, with quiet thanks for the opportunity to have served this great nation. Interestingly, while I was serving, I never did get Veterans Day off.

As you go about your day, either at work or liesure, take a moment to thank any veterans you know.

The Reagan Era and 18 Divisions

So Barack Obama has been elected. One of his campaign promises is to raise the strength of the Army by 65,000. That should be good for a couple of divisions. Right now, there are only 10 in the active Army. Back in the Reagan Era, there were 18. All things being equal, we’d say that the Army was just about cut in half. But all things aren’t equal.

When Reagan was elected, on of the major planks of his platform was a promise to rebuild a military that found itself in sad shape after Vietnam and the somewhat unkind ministrations of Carter. And for the most part he did what he set out to do. But it wasn’t just a matter of saying so making it so. You can’t just throw money at a problem and assume it goes away. For one thing, there is a limit to just how much money is available. And one of the biggest expenses in an army is personnel costs. So Congress was hesitant to drastically raise the ceiling on manpower for the Army. So, if you can’t add all the new people you want, how do you raise more divisions? You cheat a little.

Now, Reagan didn’t do this all by himself; he had a lot of help from the Army and the Department of Defense in coming up with this. But here are the three big steps they took.

1. Cut the fat- there were a lot of soldiers doing jobs that anyone could do. Things like running the gym on post. There’s no reason a civilian couldn’t be hired to do that. They also took an awfully hard look at the manning tables in existing organizations and trimmed a lot of slots to free up some bodies.

2. The light divisions-in addition to a manpower shortage, there was the problem of mobility. The Army had divisions that they couldn’t get into the fight because there was no way to move them from the US to wherever the fight was. The light division was the answer. By stripping a regular infantry division of every vehicle they could, they devised a division that could be transported by air. With fewer vehicles, the division didn’t need as many people either, since there were fewer drivers and fewer mechanics. Instead of having 14-15,000 people, a light division had about 10,000 soldiers. Now, once the division got to the fight, most of the troops would have to walk, but that wasn’t considered a terrible drawback for a division that was mostly intended to fight counter-insurgency operations.

3. The round-out brigades- the big way the Army found to save manpower was to do without. We’ve talked numerous times about the triangular structure of Army units. Under the “round-out” brigade concept, each active Army heavy division stationed stateside would only have 2 ground brigades. The third brigade would come from the National Guard. The thinking was that if a situation came up that required a stateside division to be shipped overseas, there would be plenty of time to call up the assigned National Guard brigade and ship them out as well. When Desert Storm came and the concept was put to the test, it failed miserably. I don’t mean to knock on the National Guard guys, but there was no way for them to reach the same standards of training as the active duty folks in such a limited amount of time. The Army ended up stripping a brigade from an active division that wasn’t being deployed and using it to round out the regular Army division.

While these steps were necessary to build an 18 division Army, it was a short lived creation. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, under pressure to deliver a “peace dividend” the first Bush administration shrank the Army to twelve divisions. Under President Clinton, the Army shrank again to its present 10 division size.

The flight attendants are nothing to cheer about…

The C-17 is the Air Force’s main intercontinental transport. It is a big airplane. It isn’t the largest in the world, not by a long stretch, but it is huge. Back in my day, when troops flew in a military transport, it was usually a C-130, and it wasn’t very comfortable.

C-130 interior
C-130 interior

Now, when C-17’s aren’t hauling outsized cargo like vehicles and emormous pallets of supplies,  they are outfitted with reasonable accomodations for troops.


Probably the most important mission the C-17 flies is medevac for our soldiers. Once a wounded soldier has been stabilized in a field hospital in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are quickly flown to Germany for definitive treatment. When C-17s fly this mission, they are almost flying hospitals, complete with medical staff.


And the C-17 has another trick up its sleeve. You don’t have to go to the airport to catch your flight. Your flight comes to you.


Need a reason to vote?

Here’s just a reminder that elections have consequences. Joe Biden tells us that should Obama be elected, he will be tested by events soon after inaguration. I don’t think that’s a gaffe, but rather a statement of fact. And it applies to just about every President. The real question is, how will they react. Twenty-nine years ago today, sovreign US soil was invaded and we failed to defend it. We still suffer the consequences to this day.

A quick note on upper echelons

We’ve talked about the hierarchy of the Army in the field, mostly discussing the tactical units at division and below. I’m re-reading Gen. Omar Bradley’s “A Soldier’s Story” about his campaigns in WWII, and I’ve just reached the point where he’s taken command of the First US Army. This seems an appropriate time to talk about the higher echelons of Army organization.

Whenever two or more divisions take the field, their operations are coordinated by a higher headquarters. Normally, this is a Corps (pronounced “Coors”) headquarters. In Vietnam, since the Vietnamese already had Corps headquarters for their army, the US Army named their equivalents “Field Forces” to avoid confusion. In Iraq, due to the semi-permanent nature of the headquarters, rather than having one of the numbered corps in place, they have created various “Multi-National Corps” headquarters. These are the functional equivalent of a regular tactical corps.

Where there are two or more corps deployed, the next echelon of command is a field army. In today’s Army, generally each theater of operations has its own numbered field army to command all Army units, often even when there is only one corps deployed. Field armies are permant standing organizations.

Should we find ourselves in such a large fight that two armies are deployed together, the next level of command would be an Army Group. For instance, in WWII, soon after the invasion of Normandy, the US First Army and the Third Army were in France. The 12th Army Group was activated to command them (with Bradley as the commanding general). Eventually the 9th Army would join the 12th Army Group. The campaign in Western Europe was so large that the Allies in Western Eurpope activated the 12th Army Group (US), 6th Army Group (US) and 21st Army Group (British). This didn’t count the 15th Army Group in Italy. Army Group headquarters are only formed when needed and are not a standing part of the Army’s peacetime organization.

No US war since WWII has been large enough to warrant the activation of an Army Group, but the ability to form a headquarters is still there. But the entire US Army isn’t large enough to warrant an Army Goup headquarters.

Omar N. Bradley, General, USA, 1949, Later General of the Army
Omar N. Bradley, General, USA, 1949, Later General of the Army


Back in early ’91, we were sitting in the desert of Saudi Arabia, waiting for the order to attack north into Iraq to force their departure from Kuwait. One of the greatest fears was that the Iraqis would use their chemical weapons to “slime” us.  Nerve agent is colorless and odorless, so we used a special detector kit called the M43A1 to “sniff” for chemical agents. If it detected them, it emitted a loud alarm. We kept the detector running 24 hours a day.

At night, most of us were sleeping in our tents, with just a few guards up and about to keep an eye on things. One night, Sgt. H. had the guard. He took a few minutes to relieve himself in the latrine. While he was in there attending to his functions, the chemical alarm started to sound its blood-curling “Whoop!Whoop!Whoop!”

Sgt. H., being a good soldier,  immediately donned his gas mask, pulled up his trousers, and sprinted  to our tent to spread the alarm.

As he dashed inside the tent, yelling “GAS!GAS!GAS!”, he forgot the tent pole holding the whole thing up. He ran into it so hard he knocked himself out cold, and knocked his mask clean off.

I’m afraid our reaction wasn’t all that charitable to his welfare. Each of us reached up, grabbed our masks, donned them, and cocooned ourselves in our sleeping bags, watching in horror as Sgt. H. twitched and spasmed from the nerve gas. But miracle of miracles, Sgt. H. soon stood up.

The nerve gas attack? When the batteries on the detector started to die, the alarm sounded to let you know to change the batteries. Who knew?

Rules are written in blood…

Did I ever tell you about the time I killed 97 American soldiers?

I’m not going to write all the doctrinal manuals here for you. Just trust me when I say that there’s a lot of them. Doctrinal manuals spell out how the Army conducts its operations. And every rule in them is written in blood. These are the lessons learned in 233 years of American soldiers fighting. One of the rules talks about crossing into and out of friendly lines. As in, you should coordinate with people before you do it.

We were in the Pinion Canyon Maneuver Training Center in Southern Colorado. The company was set in the defense. In the morning, we expected a battalion to come crashing down on us, trying to break through our lines. We figured that before the onslaught of tanks and Bradleys came, the enemy would try to infiltrate some dismounted infantry into our position. They would be tasked to pinpoint our defense and possibly to attrit a few vehicles at the start of the battle. That meant we stayed up all night, scanning the area with the thermal sights on the Bradleys (our own dismounts had moved forward towards the enemy position in an attempt to locate the main effort of their attack and give us early warning. Once they spotted them, they could call in artillery missions on them).

So it comes to pass that while my driver is sleeping in his seat, and my gunner is in the back of the vehicle catching some much needed rest, I look through the thermal sights and see quite a large number of dismounted infantrymen approaching. They are about 2 kilometers away. They are in a column formation, which isn’t the best way to disperse a crowd of grunts, but it is the easiest way to navigate at night. No sense getting everyone lost! I didn’t count noses, but I could tell this was quite a crowd. I knew our company had only put about two dozen grunts forward, and this was  a lot more than that.

I called the CO on the radio and told him what we had. I mentioned that they didn’t seem to be taking any particular efforts to hide or conceal themselves.

The CO called back, “Kill ’em.” So I fired up the 25mm (hooked up to MILES gear, of course) and lit them up. You could see them jump around and reach for the keys to turn of the squealing of their MILES harnesses. I zapped every one of them. Easy as pie.

Pretty soon, the radio net started heating up. There were some very unhappy people out there. It turns out, we had been augmented by a National Guard light infantry company. They had gone forward to perform a raid on the enemy and to strip away his dismounts. The only problem was, they didn’t bother to tell anyone what they were up to. Nor did they tell us that they would be coming back through our lines. My CO had a pretty good idea it was them when I called him, but had me fire them up anyway. The lesson they learned was one the parents of any teenager has taught- be sure to let us know where you’re going and when you’ll be home!

Semi Random Desert Thoughts

I spent a fair amount of time in desert environments. Not like today’s soldiers, but enough. For a guy who spent 12 years in the service, I was fortunate to only have to go to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA one time. It was unpleasant. The conditions weren’t any worse than a lot of other places I’ve been. And the pace of operations was only slightly higher than usual. But the whole hassle of traveling from Ft. Carson, CO to NTC, drawing equipment, getting it ready for the field, and jumping through all the other hoops that a “high visibility” event involved were enough to take away most  of the fun factor of running around the desert for two weeks and shooting at things.

By a happy coincidence, my parents were in the area during the first couple days while we were still drawing our equipment. I managed to snag a couple hours off to spend some time with them. I am still grateful I had a chance to show my folks just a small slice of what life for a grunt in the wild was like. They got to see my home away from home, which was a pup-tent. I gave them a good tour of a Bradley, showed them all the rifles and weapons we carried and fed them an MRE. Most importantly, I went with them to the commissary and bought a dozen cartons of cigarettes. Back in the day, lots of grunts smoked. And after a few days in the field, cigarettes became more valuable than cash.

Drawing the equipment and going to the field wasn’t that bad. Just sign your name and you’re the proud owner of a Bradley. But your Bradley is one of the very first ones made. It is old and tired. It has tons of broken parts and is in sad shape. Whoever had it before you didn’t take much care of it. Think of it as a rental car, but instead of a businessman using it on a sales trip, a teenager had taken it to the races. Year after year.

The other problem was that you had to turn the vehicle back in. And suddenly, all the little things that were wrong with it when you drew it? They’re your problem now. They don’t want to have to fix them, so you have to. They (civilian contractors who could give a damn about you and your problems) don’t have to take it back, but you DO have to turn it in. You’re leaving. And so many hours go into fixing what was broken when you received it. The vehicles themselves weren’t always the worst parts. Often it was the associated equipment. For instance, cleaning the main and coax guns was something of a nightmare, as we were in a dustbowl. Kinda hard to clean a weapon when mother nature was blowing in sand and grit faster than we could scrub it out.

This isn’t me in the picture, but since I’m away from home and can’t scan one of my pics from my trip there, this will have to do. It shows:

Army and Marine forward observers at the National Training Center, Ft. Irwin, Calif., scan the valley for potential targets. Official photo by Casey Bain, JFIIT, USJFCOM

The Cold War Brigade

OK, we’ve gone through the WWII division organization. We talked about the disaster that was the Pentomic Division with its “Battlegroups” that sounded the death knell of the regiments in the US Army. We’re going to take a look at the brigade organization in the Cold War era.

Now, understand that we are talking about brigades that are a part of a division. There were also a lot of brigades that were separate units that belonged to echelons at corps or higher levels. Some were combat brigades and some were specialized support units such as MP or Military Intelligence Brigades. For now, let’s stick to the brigade as a fighting unit of a division.

During the Cold War, each division would typically have a structure of three ground maneuver brigades, a brigades worth of artillery, and up to a brigades worth of helicopters. Divisions were classified as either “heavy” or “light.” This told us if the units were mounted on tracked vehicles or not. Let’s start with a brigade in a light division.

Each light division would have 3 brigades and nine infantry battalions. The normal allocation would be for each brigade to have three infantry battalions. While battalions could be shifted from brigade to brigade as needed, units tried to keep the same battalions with the same brigade as much as possible. To boost the combat power of the brigade, there was usually an artillery battalion in “Direct Support.” This meant that while the brigade commander didn’t command the artillery battalion, he did have first call upon its fires. Again we see the combined arms of the infantry/artillery team in action. The division commander would allocate other assets to the brigade as needed to accomplish its mission, such as engineers from the divisions engineer battalion, ground surveillance radar teams from the MI battalion, and helicopters to move or supply the brigade. As you can see, it is a fairly simple structure.

When we look at a heavy division, things get a little more complicated. There were two types of heavy divisions, Armored and Infantry (Mech) divisions. Each division had 3 maneuver brigade headquarters, a brigades worth of artillery, an aviation brigade and 10 ground maneuver battalions. In a Mech Infantry division, there were 5 infantry battalions, mounted in either M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers or latter Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The division had 5 armor battalions with M-60 tanks or later, M-1 tanks. An Armored Division had the exact same structure but there were 6 tank battalions and only 4 infantry battalions.

The normal bridage structure had two brigades with three battalions and one with four. Often, this 10th battalion would be held in reserve by division to either exploit success or reinforce a breach in the lines. Each brigade would have a battalion of artillery in direct support, with the same relationship as in a light division.

Here’s where things get complicated- mech infantry needs armor support and armor needs infantry support. Battalions were kept “pure” through most of their training and garrison life, but when in the field, units would be “task organized” to form a “task force.” Let’s take a look at how this might work. For simplicitie’s sake, let us presume a heavy brigade with 2 tank battalions and one mech infantry battalion. When we’ve task organized, we’ll have two task forces and one “pure” tank battalion.

The tank battalion has 4 tank companies. The mech battalion has 4 infantry companies. The first thing we do is swap two companies from each battalion. That gives each battalion 2 tank and two mech companies.

We carry this out at the next echelon as well. A tank company will swap a platoon with an infantry company. After this swap, these composite companies with both tanks and infantry are called “Company Teams” or just “Teams.”  Now we have a balanced force that is truly combined arms.

Sorry that there’s no powerpoint slide. I’m away from my computer. This loaner doesn’t have any office software and I’m not trying to draw an org chart in MS Paint. If you have any questions, just pop into the comments. I’ll be happy to address them.