Traditionally, there have been three combat arms in any army. The infantry, the artillery, and the cavalry.
The infantry’s role has been to close with the enemy and destroy him by close combat. Artillery has always used firepower to suppress, neutralize and destroy the enemy, and cavalry has always used mobility and shock to destroy the enemy.
These roles have been recognizable from the first organized armies through today. The weapons and accouterments have changed greatly, but the three branches are just as fundamental as they always have been. Today’s infantry, whether mounted on Bradleys or Strykers, or on foot, is still all about getting close and shooting the enemy, rooting him out of his defenses man by man. Artillery of course, has come a long way from the days of the trebouchet or catapult. Still, if there is a target that needs to be destroyed, call for fire. And what better example of modern mobility and shock than the sight of an M-1 Abrams rolling up where you least expect him?
What has changed in the last few decades is the concept of combined arms. In the past, each branch did pretty much its own thing. Each branch had officers that were specialists in that branch, but knew little or nothing of the others. In fact, that’s why senior officers were called Generals- because they weren’t specialists. But there was little coordination between the actions of any two branches in an engagement, let alone between all three.
Let’s fast forward from antiquity to the period just before World War Two. The US Army was well aware that war in Europe was more likely than not. They were also aware that if war came, they would be starting with a tiny army with poor and obsolescent equipment. The popular notion that the US had manufactured its way to victory in WWI was a myth. The Army knew just how badly equipped it had been in that war. Most Americans had been armed with Enfield rifles, not the American Springfield design. Nor could the Army count on size alone. The Army was also well aware that it might have to fight on two fronts, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Even if the Army only had to fight in Europe, they might very well find themselves outnumbered by the German army and its allies. To succeed, the Army would have to find a smarter way of doing business.
The Army in the Depression Era had a minuscule budget. There wasn’t enough money to man units up to the strength Congress had mandated. Little or no new equipment could be purchased. But what little money the Army could scrape together was put into its schools. The Army has long had a school system to teach soldiers and serve as the keepers of the tribal knowledge. But the schools were often anachronistic. That all changed in the interwar years. They became not only places to teach soldiers the skills of their professions, they became think tanks to address the problems the Army was likely to face in the next war.
Even as late as World War I, artillery was fighting its own war. Everyone can recall an image of the doughboys going over the top of a trench and charging into murderous machine gun fire. What most folks forget was that much of WWI was actually an artillery duel, with big guns pounding away for weeks. When an artillery battery received a mission (usually by messenger), the battery commander would perform the trigonometric calculations to aim his battery at the target, then observe the fall of the shot. He would adjust the aim point until he was on target and then fire the mission. If the weather was bad, or during hours of darkness, he had little chance of seeing where his rounds fell and could not adjust. Nor could he react quickly to targets of opportunity. And there was no way for the infantry to know just when a barrage would be lifted. In many ways, it was the big gun version of “spray and pray.”
The infantry had its own problems. The basic infantry division in WWI was a “square” division with 4 regiments. The regiments themselves were little more than masses of men, organized almost on the same lines as a regiment of the Civil War some 60 years before. New weapons such as the machine gun had been introduced, but little thought had gone into how an infantry unit should be organized. The square division was large and ponderous. It was difficult for a commander to control once he got it into position. What was the optimum size unit that would balance the mass needed with the requirements of mobility and flexibility of control? Where should the supporting weapons like machine guns and mortars be? At the regiment? Under the control of the battalion? Or should they be pushed all the way down to the company level. Even simple questions like how a squad should be organized were open.
The cavalry was even worse off. The horse had obviously ceased to be a viable weapon of war. If machine gun and artillery fire was deadly to men, it was catastrophic to horses. While the tank had been invented and fielded in WWI, it moved at slow pace that infantrymen could match. It was seen more as a moving pillbox than a replacement for the speed and mobility of the horse. Without mobility, would future wars be condemned to a walking pace? That prospect scared the Army. The whole idea was to avoid a static trench warfare fight like WWI.
Enter the school system. The capstone school, the Command and General Staff School, acted like a think tank while at the same time grooming fairly junior officers to think big. Officers who hadn’t even commanded a battalion yet were training to lead divisions, corps and entire armies. The studied what a campaign in Europe would look like. And they assumed that they would need to kick in the door with an assault landing. It soon became clear that the old ways of doing business wouldn’t suffice.
The Artillery center and school was a leader in devising the new approach to fighting. It recognized that the US would probably never have a significant lead in numbers or size or range of artillery weapons. What they devised instead was an entirely new system of fighting artillery.
No longer would a battery commander calculate the settings to fire his guns. Instead, at the battalion headquarters, a Fire Direction Center was established. The FDC would do the calculations and transmit the information to the batteries. The gunners would just have to dial in the numbers sent to them. The FDC got its target information from a series of forward observers embedded with the infantry’s leading units. These observers would tell the artillery where the targets were and then would adjust fires onto the targets. Normally, the battalion would concentrate all its guns on one target at a time, rapidly shifting its fires to subsequent targets.
The infantry was a big fan of this advancement in artillery. No fools they, it soon became clear that more effective artillery would mean fewer infantry casualties. They also quickly learned that with the observers right next to infantry commanders, they could nominate targets quickly and control the artillery fires to best suite their needs.
Soon the infantry/artillery team was born. Each infantry regiment in a division would have a battalion of artillery in direct support. The regimental commander had a weapon with which to suppress enemy machine gun fire, giving his troops the ability to maneuver again. The artillery had a way of quickly finding targets and controlling their fires. This was the birth of Combined Arms. It raised the effectiveness of the infantry and the artillery, not as the sum of their parts, but by an order of magnitude.
In future installments, we’ll address the growth of cavalry into armor and its integration into combined arms teams and the current state of the art with Task Forces and HBCTs.