25 February 2011

Are Tactical Failings Really Technical Ones?

MG(R) Scales has some hard questions in a new article about small unit dominance (from Armed Forces Journal asking whether or not the gizmos at the soldier level are really the right ones.

We are better now. Today, we have the best-trained soldiers and Marines in the world. Since 9/11, the ground services have made enormous strides in pushing the latest gear to soldiers in the field using the Rapid Fielding Initiative. We know that investments made recently to better equip soldiers are saving lives. In World War II and Vietnam, an individual infantryman cost about $1,900 to equip. The “ratio” of killed to wounded in small-unit action in both those wars was about 1 to 3.4. Investments in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased to $17,000 per infantryman. The killed-to-wounded ratio is now about 1 to 9, and the casualty rate has decreased from 3 percent to less than a third of 1 percent within close-combat small units.

Investments have been sufficient to make small units better. But occasional incidents in places such as Fallujah and Sadr City in Iraq and Forward Operating Base Keating and Wanat in Afghanistan make it evident that the American military hasn’t come as far as it should in its ability to dominate in the tactical fight. Failure to dominate at the tactical level to the degree we are capable is all the more incongruous because success in today’s “hybrid” wars is achieved by the patient and often dangerous application of force by thousands of mostly Army and Marine squads, platoons and teams. These small units patrol and operate principally from isolated outposts and forward operating bases, along primitive roads and trails, and among the people within villages and towns.

This incongruity is amplified with the realization that our tactical failures are nothing new. In World War II, infantry was the third most deadly job behind submarine and bomber crews. In a half century of wars fought after World War II (a period often termed “the American Era of War”), submarine and bomber crew combat deaths have dropped to virtually nil. Yet as a proportion of total combat deaths, infantry has increased from 71 percent in World War II to 81 percent in wars fought since. Thus four out of five combat deaths have been suffered by a force that makes up less than 4 percent of uniformed manpower within the Defense Department. Half of those deaths occurred while simply trying to find the enemy and almost all occurred within less than a mile of contact. In Afghanistan, 89 percent of all deaths occur in small units and more than 90 percent occur within 400 meters of a road.

The final incongruity comes with the realization that soldiers and Marines — those most likely to die — are, when compared with their colleagues from other services, often the very ones still least well-equipped and trained for their very dangerous calling. Since World War II, our air and sea forces have dominated in their respective domains; ground forces have not. Put aside the humanitarian aspect for a moment and consider the national strategic consequences of this cosmic incongruity. Our enemies from Lin Piao to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden all recognize that our vulnerable strategic center of gravity is dead Americans. Thus it comes as no surprise that the common thread among all of our enemies over the past half-century has been the imperative to kill Americans not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. So why don’t we do better at lessening our strategic vulnerabilities by doing a better job of preserving the lives of those most likely to die? The answers are many and complex.

By: Brant


Guardian said...

One other very salient quote:

"In July, I watched the Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” play out on the screen and compared it to my experience decades ago: same type of unit (airborne light infantry), same lousy rifle (M16/M4), same helicopter (CH-47), same machine gun (M2), same young men trying to deal with the fear of violent death. Seared in my brain is the image of a young soldier at Fire Base Restrepo hacking away at hard clay and granite trying frantically to dig a fighting position. The U.S. is spending more than $300 billion on a new fighter plane. We haven’t lost a fighter pilot to enemy action since 1972. Why after nine years of war can’t we give a close-combat soldier a better way to dig a hole? For that matter, why do soldiers exiting fire bases not have some means of looking over the next hill? Why doesn’t every soldier have his own means to talk to his comrades by radio? Why can’t soldiers on a remote fire base detect an approaching enemy using sensors? Why can’t soldiers rely on robots to carry heavy loads and accomplish particularly dangerous tasks? I could go on, but you get the point."

-- Guardian

Guardian said...

MG(R) Scales focuses a lot on training and simulation, but I have a few thoughts on equipment.

Everybody points to the "battery problem" as one of the key bottlenecks, but that doesn't make sense to me. My (now-obsolete) iPhone 3GS serves me all day, every day with phone calls and a LOT of email, Facebook, and Web surfing. Surely we could put a battery at least this good into a tactical navigation/communications device for the individual trooper.

We could use ad-hoc wireless mesh networks for connectivity at the tactical level. Vehicles (HMMWV, MRAP, BFV, etc.) have more electrical power available and could handle the longer-distance links (squad/platoon/company to battalion and above), adaptively switching from LOS to SATCOM. It could also provide blue force tracking/LandWarNet type functionality.

A few other simple improvements:

1) Equip every soldier's rifle with the Magpul UBR or VLTOR E-MOD A5 stock. Among other nice features, both of these stocks have plenty of room for batteries.

2) Also equip every soldier's rifle the Magpul MIAD modular grip or similar. The grip has a storage compartment for a spare bolt (which is what I use mine for), batteries, or other items. It also has replacable grip panels to fit different hands, although that is less important IMHO.

3) Implement "hot rails" that provide 5V DC power through a modernized MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rail. If you want to be really clear, put the battery pack that powers the hot rails in the stock from point (1).

4) Standardize on the 6.5 Grendel cartridge or something similar. The bottom line is that 6.5 Grendel hits like a 7.62 but has the nice, flat trajectory of 5.56 and a reasonable level of recoil. I would be using this round myself, but until .mil or LE adopts it and the economies of scale kick in, it's too expensive and hard-to-find.

5) Put serious effort into developing and fielding a heads-up display for infantry/SOF that provides situational awareness displays, navigational overlays, and sensor fusion (image intensifying, thermal, etc.).

6) Field a modular body armor system, like BAE and some other companies are developing. This specifically gives assaulters the option for greater mobility at the cost of lower protection. The groin protector, shoulder protector, side plates, neck collar, etc. might be over-kill. Yes, it would suck to get your "junk" shot off, but it would suck more to get shot in the first place because all the weight slowed you down.

7) Develop and field a true 1-4x (or 1-6x or 1-8x) day/night optic across the board. Integrate XM25-style laser ranging and aiming capabilities into it. Link that into your nav/comms system so you can, for example, designate targets for your colleagues, call for fire, etc.

8) Fighter aircraft have this concept of HOTAS controls: "hands-on throttle and stick." The infantryman needs something similar. Almost all of them has a Surefire and other tactical light and an AN/PEQ-15 and other (IR or visible) laser aimer. There also needs to be a control mechanism for the Land Warrior, Nett Warrior, or other "networked system" (see points 5, 7, and elsewhere). Do some human factors research and come up with something that works. My bright idea is a Magpul AFG2 with a four-way-plus-push "thumbstick" on the rail next to it, similar to but more elaborate than the awesome Surefire XT07 remote dual-switch for the X300/X400, that links with the HUD (from point 5 above).

On the bright side, initial reports from Afghanistan on the new XM25 counter-defilade weapon indicate that it is delivering a leap-ahead capability to the infantry squad. Let's get to fielding it!

Or just hire the guys who designed Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 to figure it out :). They seem to have some good ideas!

Brant said...

OK now that you've dumped your thoughts into the comments, you mission this weekend is to re-post that as a coherent thread for the main blog!