How to build a better infantry squad
I have some suggestions for how to improve the base unit of an infantry company: the thirteen-man rifle squad.
By Aaron Ferencik
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
I have some suggestions for how to improve the base unit of an infantry company: the thirteen-man rifle squad. These suggestions are informed by my experiences in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as a Marine infantry squad leader and by observing other grunts who were far better leaders than I was.
These days, “the military is the institution that plans, prepares for, and undertakes wars, and wars are whatever the military does,” as Rosa Brooks so aptly puts it in her book. Peter Lucier says that grunts are “highly trained technocrats.” Thus, in order to be successful — whatever success means — grunts need to do more, in fewer numbers, with less support. They need to be flexible, adaptable, and creative. The Marine Corps and Army can accomplish this by rewarding initiative and cross-training critical skills. Here are some suggestions:
1. As a commander, you can delegate almost anything to a good squad leader. Do so when possible. Half of the squad leaders in my battalion lived on their own patrol bases. That means that dozens of lance corporals, corporals, and sergeants ran autonomous operations daily. With on average ten Marines and a half-dozen Afghan Army soldiers, they handled several square miles of villages, farmland, and bazaars. Locals looked to these extraordinary twenty-one-year-olds to solve all of their problems. Squad leaders determined their own patrol schedules, met with elders, and trained security forces. They were given autonomy and, more often than not, thrived in it. Future squad leaders can do the same. By delegating some responsibilities to competent subordinates, officers can focus on more important tasks, like working out shirtless or watching Gilmore Girls in the Command Operations Center.
2. Make sure they know, specifically, what they are doing — and why. Sure, grunts lift weights, get bad tribal tattoos, and get ridiculous haircuts. But we aren’t stupid. Tell your men and women what’s going on. What is the center of gravity? Why does it matter? Do they know the relevant and observable metrics for success? Can they spot progress? What is the squad expected to do about security, development, governance, rule of law, and essential services in their area of operations? As Kilcullen writes, “everyone on the headquarters knows what the district’s basic problems are, but it is nobody’s day job to fix any given problem.” Actually, it is the squad’s day job: Tell them how to help. The end result should be clear, concrete, achievable tasks that are within the squad’s capabilities, not vague directives with no clear end state.
3. Patrol leaders are human intelligence collectors. Why aren’t we training them for it? “Every individual within the unit is an intelligence collector,” says the Marine Corps’s Small Unit Leaders’ Guide to Counterinsurgency. I couldn’t agree more. We collected intelligence every day through impromptu or planned shuras, informal meetings, and routine patrolling. Outside of asking, “Hey buddy, how did this bomb get here?” though, my knowledge of how to get actionable intelligence out of Afghans was pretty limited. Here’s an idea: have the Defense Intelligence Agency (or, if on a budget, the battalion S-2) design a two to three week “fundamentals of combat intelligence collection” course for squad and fireteam leaders. Then, let them shirk out of a field exercise so they can attend it. Squad leaders should learn intelligence collection techniques and integrate them the same way they integrate Weapons Platoon or Host Nation forces attachments. Otherwise, we’ll all just walk from village to village yelling “Taliban chayrta day?” (“Where are the Taliban?”) at every bewildered-looking Pashtun we see.
4. Train them to train indigenous forces better. I was partnered with Afghan army forces. They were, on average, terrible. We taught them everything we could, but were we making the mistake of training them to look and fight like us, instead of emphasizing and bolstering their strengths? Did their training fit the overall strategy? My fellow Belleau Woodsmen and I could have used a step-by-step primer on what to train first and how best to do it. Better yet: a pocket-manual curriculum with metrics for performance and pass/fail events. Let’s do away with Embedded Training Teams: Make every infantry squad a de facto ETT. Train lance corporals and privates to instruct. The infantry partners with and trains indigenous forces all over the world, so this suggestion doesn’t apply just to counterinsurgency.
5. Language schools are great — if the soldier wants to learn. I spent something like a month in a Pashto language course with about 20 other Marines. Most of them didn’t want to be there and had little aptitude for the language; several had volunteered in order to get out of Mountain Warfare Training at Bridgeport (I don’t blame them). Several others had been “voluntold.” This seems silly to me: A quick check of records could tell you whether or not, for example, a Marine has taken the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, what his ASVAB scores are, or if he studied languages in college. Take those who have the most potential and desire to learn and stick them in language courses for more than a couple of weeks. Give them college credits for it (I received none.) and accredited certificates. Alternatively, you could just issue Android phones with Google Translate and a data plan.
6. Let us grow beards. We always had to shave. This detracts from combat effectiveness and is totally bogus. No more shaving.
Aaron Ferencik is a co-holder of the Marine Corps chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted. He served four years in the Marine Corps infantry and as part of that outfit, vacationed in Afghanistan twice. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado, co-host of the Burn Pit podcast, and a freelance writer.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense