On Brigades and Regiments

There’s some confusion out there about the difference between brigades and regiments. That’s pretty understandable, as it can get pretty confusing. Time for a brief history lesson.

The traditional building block of armies has been the regiment. Back in the Middle Ages, one of the downsides of being in the landed gentry was that when the king went to war, you were expected to raise your own regiment, on your own dime at that. And lead it in battle. After a while, some kings decided it would be pretty  handy to have a couple regiments around full time. Each regiment was raised and trained separate from the rest of the army, only brought together in time of war.

When the colonists got fed up with King George the Third, one of the first acts of the Continental Congress was to authorize the raising of nine companies of infantry, in effect, a regiment. George Washington was named Colonel in Chief of these troops. During the Revolutionary War, many more regiments would be raised, but after independence was won, the Continental Army was disbanded. Soon, however, the United States raised a handful of infantry regiments, of which only the 3rd Infantry has served continuously since. These regiments were organizations authorized by Congress and would maintain their identity and were allocated heraldic items such as Regimental Colors and any battle honors they received would forever fly from these colors. If a Regiment was downsized, it was said to have its colors cased, simply awaiting reactivation. Regiments were referred to by their number and function, for instance the 14th  Infantry or the 8th Artillery or the 2nd Cavalry.

The size and composition of regiments has varied greatly over the years. They could have just a couple hundred men or several thousand. They could have 2 companies or 10, and the could have battalions or not. But they have been there as the basic formation of armies as long as there have been armies. Around the time of our Civil War, regiments stabilized at about 1000 men (when at full strength, casualties could quickly reduce this to small fraction). There were divisions, corps and armies during the Civil war, but they were ad hoc organizations; only the regiments were permanent.

For decades, the brigade consisted of two or more regiments, but was a unit smaller than a division. As the US entered WWI, the Army formed permanently organized divisions for the first time. Previously, divisions had just been cobbled together for an operation or campaign.  Each division consisted of two brigades, and each brigade had two infantry regiments. By this time regiments had swelled in size to about 3500 troops, with three battalions of about 1000 troops each and a headquarters.

Shortly before WWII, the Army reorganized its divisions (it does so about every 20 years). Brigades went away and the division was “triangularized” with three infantry regiments of about 3000 men. With the division artillery and supporting troops, this gave a divisional strength of 14,000 men. This organization worked very well, and was in line with accepted military thought regarding the “span of control” which says that a commander can really on manage 3-5 subordinate elements. Anything more than that, and things start to slip through the cracks. This organization lasted through WWII and the Korean War.

After the Korean War, with the specter of a tactical nuclear war, the army was concerned that divisions and regiments would be tempting targets for tactical nukes on the battlefield. Management fads are not limited to the age of Dilbert. Some geniuses in the Department of the Army came up with the Pentomic Division. Instead of the tried and true three regiments, the division would have five “Battlegroups”, each with five rifle companies and a weapons company. With the stroke of a pen, hundreds of years of regimental history was changed. While the battlegroup maintained the heritage of the old regiments, they were awkward and unwieldly. While five subordinate elements was within the theory of span of control, in practice, battlegroups had attachements that caused the commanders to lose control. What they gave was complication without sophistication. After a decade or so of flailing away at this dubious attempt at reorganization, the Army started to realize that most of its fights would be on a conventional battlefield, and so the next big reorg was “back to the future” under an organizational model called “ROAD” or Reorganization Army Division.

ROAD was an attempt to return to the strengths of the Triangular division while gaining some more flexibility to address rapidly changing circumstances on the battlefield. And it was for the most part, a very successful design. The division itself was triangular in that it had three main subordinate units. But this time, instead of regiments, the subordinate units were brigades.

Where as a regiment was a permant organization that always had its own three battalions, a brigade, while permanent, was just a headquarters. It only had those battalions that the division allocated to it. For instance, if a brigade had a mission that only needed two battalions, the division would give it two. If it had a mission that needed four battalions, the division would give them those battalions. While in practice, each of the three brigades tended to have three battalions (and habitually, they tried to keep the same battalions) there was an inherent flexibility that regiments didn’t have. Part of this was because the division owned all the supporting assets like artillery and aviation and engineers, and would “slice” them to the brigades and battalions as needed.

Now, the regiments were gone, but there was a ton of history and tradition attached to them. The Army would be fools to toss that away. But there were also a lot fewer units to carry on those traditions. The Army’s answer was CARS- The Combat Arms Regimental System. The regimental histories and honors would be maintained by whichever battalions were still on duty. For instance, the 1st Battalion of the 27th Infantry was serving with the 25th Infantry Division. It would maintain the honors and heritage of all the 27th Infantry Regiment’s battles. This way, a division could honor as many as 9 different regiments. Where the 25th Infantry Division previously had the 14th, 27th and 35th Infantry Regiments, it now had elements of the 5th, 9th, 14th, 23rd, 27th, and 35th Infantry Regiments, all while staying the same size.

If this gets confusing, with all the numbers (I was told there would be no math!) and such, don’t fret. The Army changes unit designations all the time. It’s just what they do.  But the basic structure of the division, with three manuever brigades, division artillery (which was a brigade in all but name) and supporting troops was remarkably stable, lasting through two more reorganizations, Div86 and AoE (Army of Excellence) before the shift to brigade based organizations, where brigades would be freely swapped between divisions. Stay tuned for the next part where we discuss  this shift from using the division as the primary tactical organization to the brigade.

15 thoughts on “On Brigades and Regiments”

  1. In ADA land, some units are going back to regiments. The first THAAD unit is listed as A Battery 4th ADA regiment. I guess they are set up as an independent unit.

  2. Chock, they are a regiment in so far as they carry forward the lineage and history. But it is unlikely the 4th ADA will ever deploy and fight as a single unit, which is the norm for a regiment.

    Some units that are traditionally brigade sized under Div86 and AoE are being renamed regiments, aviation in particular, but it is mere semantics.

  3. 3rd IN….answers a side question in a way. The history of some units is pretty long and pretty famous. In carrying along this history, do the units designated to carry it have some connection to the original unit? Who holds the colors that have been cased? And who gets to decide (and how is it decided) when they should be uncased and carried again? This regimental unit system appears to have come from the British history of our beginning, did our earlier regiments have the singular names British units still do?

    Actually, what I need to do is draw out a diagram so that I can see how this flows, and actually it looks like a flow to me, units moving in and out…Cliff Notes could come with diagrams…..

    Spend away! Some of this is actually beginning to make sense. Should I be worried?

  4. Maggie, in my copious spare time, I’m actually working on a powerpoint showing the various org charts.

    Our early regimental system was indeed modeled on that of the British (and pretty much every other European nation). Our regiments have never used singular names, though, only numbers. Most have a nickname though. The 27th has been known as the Wolfhounds from their service in Siberia in 1920. The 9th is Manchu from its days in China after the Boxer Rebellion. And don’t forget, the British started out with numbers, and the names came later- in fact, all the named regiments still have a number, but no one uses them.

  5. I remember, if I recall correctly.

    3 fireteams to a squad, 3 squads (with heave support from a fourth) equals a platoon.
    3 platoons (with a fourth heave weapons platoon) is a company.
    3 companies (once again specialized forces) equals a battallion
    3 battallions a division, though the specialized forces is much larger than just an equivalent company.

    3 battalions = a division.

    I think that is the basic TO in the MC.

  6. Pinto, you may want to rethink that. You’ve completely left out Marine Regiments. 3 battalions to a regiment, 3 regiments to a Marine Division.

    One of these days, when I get a working explanation of the Army done, I’ll get to you guys and show how a Marine Regiment becomes a brigade.

  7. Hello there, Happy April Fool’s Day!

    A little boy at a wedding looks at his mom and says, “Mommy, why does the girl wear white?”
    His mom replies, “The bride is in white because she’s happy and this is the happiest day of her life.”
    The boy thinks about this, and then says, “Well then, why is the boy wearing black?”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

    Ed- It’s spam, but it is a funny joke.

  8. You do a great job of blending the present and the historical in your explanations. You should write a book on the subject–if you haven’t.

Comments are closed.