Even more on organizations

We got a question from one of our regular readers about the evolution of the Army’s combat organization from WWII to the Cold War.

What is your opinion of the “troopless” headquarters of the CC (Combat Commands)? Was it a good solution for modern warfare? Seems to have worked, but I have always wondered why post war doctrine moved away to the “battle group” concept.

Some have drawn the evolutionary link between the combat commands and the battle groups, but there are just as many differences as similarities in my opinion.

As we noted in the original post on the WWII Armored Division, the three Combat Commands of the division were headquarters that didn’t have permanently assigned troop units. Rather, when the division tasked a CC with a mission, they also assigned the appropriate troops for that mission.

This was in stark contrast to the regular infantry division, where each subordinate regiment under the division had a fixed organization of three rifle battalions and a weapons company.

When Caswain refers to the “Battle Group” organization, I believe he’s referring to the “Pentomic Division” organization adopted in the 1950s. The Pentomic division attempted to disperse the division over a wider area, making it a less attractive target for tactical nuclear weapons. It did this by abandoning the traditional triangular organization for a division with five “Battlegroups” of five companies each. It was a disaster. That many subordinate units was just too much for any leader to effectively control. Within a decade, the Army ditched the scheme and went back to a triangular organization under ROAD (Reorganization Objective Army Division). Under the Battlegroup concept, each Battlegroup had permanently assigned subordinate units. The Battlegroup was awkward in that it was somewhere between a battalion and a brigade/regiment echelon.

Under ROAD, the basic building block of the division became the brigade instead of the regiment of the WWII infantry division. The difference here was that much like a WWII armored division, it had no permanently assigned troop units. The division as a whole was organized triangularly, with three brigades and nine ground maneuver battalions. And while it was common to see each brigade with the same three battalions, the division could transfer battalions from one brigade to another as the situation dictated. A brigade could find itself controlling up to five infantry battalions (if the battle was big enough to warrant six battalions, normally another brigade headquarters would be brought in, and the battle was big enough that division headquarters itself would manage the operation). All the supporting arms such as artillery and the logistical functions were held at the division level.

Insignia of the 3rd BDE 1st Armored Division

So the real question becomes, which is better, the fixed regimental design, or the flexible brigade design. The flexible brigade’s first test was the war in Vietnam. It was very common for fairly large scale battles to take place, especially in the early years and in the final years of the war. With the mobility provided by helicopters, it was comparatively easy to move large troop units long distances and have them join a battle already in progress. The flexibility of the brigade design worked very well in this situation. Normally, a division would be able to shuffle battalions inside the division, but if needed, battalions from other divisions could be loaned to a brigade for a fight. One of the key enablers of this was standardization.

Prior to WWII, it was very rare for troop units larger than a regiment to assemble for training. This led to each regiment having its own “flavor” and generally each had its own approach to processes like planning operations and mundane things like issuing ammunition and providing maintenance for equipment. The Army realized when it began to mobilize for WWII that the only way to build a large army would be to do so on an assembly line process. Virtually every unit in the Army, no matter if it would fight in the Pacific, the Mediterranean or in Western Europe, was organized and trained the same as every other unit. And they shared not only a common doctrine, or way of fighting, but for the most part, the Standard Operating Procedures, which covered the day to day ways of just running the units, were very similar. This carried over after the war and has generally been in place since then. This makes it very simple to “plug and play” a unit into another organization, as they don’t have to spend a lot of time getting used to the same playbook.

Ironically, in the era of transformation since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War on Terror, we’ve seen the emphasis change from the flex brigade back to a standing organization. We’ve seen the empasis on the “unit of action” shift from the division to the brigade level. And many of these brigades have a fixed organization. For example, a Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) has a fixed organization, with a balance of infantry, artillery, Mobile Gun Systems and supporting arms and services tailored to provide a well rounded, logistically self sustaining capability. Sure, you can loan a unit out, or beef an SBCT up with another unit for a short operation, but the brigade is only designed to support itself, not act as the mothership for large numbers of extra units.

To answer Caswains question, I was a big fan of the flexible, “troopless” headquarters, but understand, the difference was more notional than real. Virtually all brigade headquarters used the same units habitually, and even back in the fixed regiment days, there was a good deal of “task organizing” going on.

15 thoughts on “Even more on organizations”

  1. I guess I’m old school enough to believe that the Regimental system (standardized) was the best. More esprit d’corps and continuity all round, yet still flexible enough for most ops. What’s driving/drove the move to Brigades was the view that large land battles beyond Corps size would/will never be fought, so, lacking the manpower inherent in a larger Army, the
    multi-Brigade org. was thought the way to go.

    I know I’m in the minority, but I still think the old way was better.

  2. PS, I’m STILL in wonderment over how you managed to get my EXACT likeness for my assig, Avatar!

  3. It is strange that the Army moves to Brigades as the Unit of Action when the DOD was raked over the coals for not sending enough troops to Iraq.

    CUrrently, DoD plans seem to be focused on Iraq and China (the Air Force and Navy more on China).

    The SBCT’s seem to me to be underpowered for those conflicts.

    Even with brigades as untis of action, why is it that most divisions deploy with all brigades and most divisional HQ’s wind up going?

    1. A lot of the emphasis on the move to brigades as the unit of action was because in the late 80’s and most of the 90’s, most of the Army’s deployments in contingency operations were brigade sized tasks. See the Balkans for example. It made sense in that view that a brigade should be a self contained unit with its own logistics, rather than having to build a “divisional slice” each and every time you sent a brigade somewhere.
      Then, along comes Iraq and A-stan, and the idea doesn’t look so rosy. Not bad, just not perfect. And of course, you still need to have a higher headquarters to coordinate the actions of the subordinate brigades.

  4. According to Wikipedia, a us brigade is between 1500 and 4000 people. Why such a big difference?
    If we wanted to say take out Iran’s Nuke plants. What would it take? Could we take like 4 brigades and march them in? With the support of the AF and Navy would that work?
    I realize that with the big O in charge that will be the last thing that would happen, but I am talking hypothetically.
    From what I saw in the past 2 wars against Iraq our brigade strength units were unstoppable.

    I know Iran is larger than Iraq, but did not they fight to a draw?
    Sorry I am not on topic Xbrad, wait, Am I thinking of Divisions? the 4th ID was supposed to come from Turkey and the 3rd ID was from Kuwait.
    Sorry I am a Idiot.

    Can I ask the same question only with Divisions?

    We only have 10 divisions in the army?
    and 4 in the corps?

  5. If I may be so bold…

    There are 10 active Army divisions but there are more forces than that in the maneuver force.

    Active Forces

    173rd Airborne Brigade
    2d Cavarly Regiment
    3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment

    National Guard

    Over 38 Brigade Combat teams in separate brigades and 8 divisions

    So there are plenty of forces for 3 corps HQ to command

  6. The problem seems to be that the Brigade UA makes it too tempting for commanders and civilian leaders to low ball the amount of forces needed.

    The Stryker was designed for the light peacekeeping duties the Clinton Era army saw as their future.

    Having each brigade being self-contained is nice, but the BCT is underpowered. Deploying 3 out of 4 brigades from a division, the division HQ and then throwing in other BCT’s is silly.

    Just deploy a division and round it out with reserve and units like the 3rd ACR.

    Another problem is that short range air defense has all but died in the BCT’s. If we go up against Iran or (God forbid) China, our forces are vulnerable. Very vulnerable

  7. Before I forget, patriot units are training to be more like maneuver brigades. We have to “jump” more often.

    During OIF, some commanders liked having Patriot with them on the road to Baghdad. So the idea stuck.

  8. Chock, my impression has always been that the SBCTs were a response to the fears of the fall of 1990. You had a brigade or two of the 82nd sitting in the sand with no real way of defeating Saddam’s armored forces, and no way to get out of the way if they did come. Make no mistake, if Saddam had tried to roll south before the buildup started, he would have kicked the crap out of the 82nd. It may have cost him a lot, but the losses to US forces would have been a political nightmare.

    What the Army wanted was a force that was light enough to get to the fight quickly, unlike mech/armor forces which had to take a slow boat.

    Couple that with the Army’s dissatisfaction with the results of using Humvees in Somalia, and they realized they needed something heavier than just light infantry.

    As to SHORAD, I’m not that worried about it. Between TACAIR/NAVAIR/Tomahawk strikes, we should be able to roll back most enemy airfields. Even then, tactical forces make a fairly lousy target set for enemy air. Even our air forces have a hard time hitting troop units. And we’ve spent billions upon billions of dollars to acquire that capability. The threat from enemy air will be against infrastructure targets such as ports and airfields. And you patriot guys have that covered.

    1. I wasn’t very impressed by either article. Notice also that it was a very specific Straits of Taiwan scenario, and would have no bearing on any foreseeable land conflict. The problems in the scenario were more time/space/distance/numbers of jets than the specific types of jets.

    2. Further, it posits and apples/apples comparison, and one of the great strengths of our warfighting has been that we use our entire spectrum of systems to defeat the opposition. Instead of relying on a defensive CAP, Tomahawk/manned bomber strikes on Chinese airfields would tend to be far more effective.

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