Best Defense

Tom wants to talk about future structure? Ok, how about networked infantry units?

What does the future of war look like? It looks fast. Today information travels literally at the speed of light, and technology has democratized that ability.

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By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted (Marine co-chair)

What does the future of war look like? It looks fast. Today information travels literally at the speed of light, and technology has democratized that ability. The winners of future wars will be the ones who can react most quickly and decisively based on the flow of information. Our infantry forces need to be structured as networks that can move and react as quickly as information does.

To determine how infantry units currently organize themselves, look past what they express in doctrine, and instead look at what they incentivize. Tactical infantry doctrine describes structures that are flexible, networked, and decentralized, allowing subordinates to operate with degrees of independence, as long as they accomplish the tactical task and commander’s intent, or purpose. But actual conduct of infantry operations, in training and combat, still incentivizes a hierarchy system, the legacy of a time when information traveled very differently. The values expressed by doctrine are correct, but the structure of the infantry is still very much hierarchical.

What is incentivized and prioritized in infantry training? Not time. Soldiers or Marines might spend hours building terrain models, preparing orders, conducting dry run walkthroughs of a training event before ever getting a single round of ammunition. Not winning. Most training evolutions have predetermined winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. Not creativity, or independence. Most ranges have predetermined firing points and carefully drawn phase lines. In such a system, we incentivize a “make no mistakes” mentality. We incentivize that the safest, and slowest option, is the best option. We incentivize waiting on orders rather than seizing key moments of opportunity, or pushing on to maintain momentum.

What would a networked infantry unit look like? I believe I have seen it. An old unit of mine would conduct training in mock towns quite frequently. Opposing forces (OPFOR) usually opted for a strong point and suicide strategy. They would hole up and fight ferociously until they inevitably were overwhelmed. Against 3:1 odds, and being expected to lose, this seemed a viable option, and the most realistic look to show the squad actually doing the training. However; I remember vividly one OPFOR team, perhaps selfishly, giving a very different look. Instead of strong pointing, they waited in a building with easy entrance, exit and egress. When the good guys began their assault, lookouts quickly relayed information to the reserve, who would sprint in groups of 4, 6 or 8, to pick a quick lopsided gunfight. Instead of being outnumbered 2:1, OPFOR used quick communication and decisive maneuver to create 2 on 1s and 3 on 1s in their favor. Very few, if any commands were given by the squad leader during the engagement. He had simply briefed what he valued: speed, decisive engagement, and quick extraction, then acted as an information conduit, passing along what was needed, keeping the nets clear of what wasn’t needed, pushing an additional gun or two to a unit that was getting bogged down, or pulling back on a team that had pushed too far, and might be exposed from an angle they couldn’t see.

What results do the current system produce? The first time my platoon took fire in Afghanistan, a sixteen man squad was ambushed while walking on a road by two, two-man machine gun teams, working from behind a ten foot high sand berm, six hundred meters away, across an open field. The QRF squad leader waited on orders from the pinned down unit on how to deploy. The word came to reinforce the pinned down unit, rather than making a flanking maneuver on the machine gun teams. After expending their ammunition, and before the QRF arrived, the four enemy egressed south, and escaped. It was a complex real life situation. A Marine was wounded. It is nearly impossible to judge these kinds of combat decisions. But it is possible to assess the results. The results were that four, poorly trained, ill equipped young men shot at a force four times their size comprised of supposedly the best trained, most expensively equipped professional infantrymen in the world, and lived to tell about it.

The difference between networked systems and hierarchical systems has nothing to do with intelligence, or even specific tactics. The difference is in structure. Relying on brilliance is a poor bet at the tactical level. It simply isn’t available in sufficient quantity. But changes in structure and incentives are not only feasible, they are necessary. If we fail to adapt, those four men who ambushed my squad will continue to shoot at us, relatively secure in the knowledge they will likely be able to escape.

Peter Lucier is a former Marine infantry rifleman (2008-2013) who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He is currently a student at St. Louis University. 

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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