Marines: May 26, 2004

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The U.S. Marines are leading the way in the next major evolution of infantry combat organization and fighting methods. The marines are beginning to train their infantry squads to operate more independently. This is possible because of all the new communications gear that is now available. Battlefield Internet and all that. 

But theres more to it than that. The use of the infantry squad (8-12 troops, depending on the nation it's from) as a combat unit is relatively new. Late in World War I (1914-18) the Germans began using the infantry squad like this, rather than just an administrative part of the infantry platoon. The Germans trained the junior NCOs in charge of squads (corporals or junior sergeants) to lead their squads independently. This had not been done before. The platoon (3-4 squads) had been the smallest independent unit for most of the war. And even that was a recent innovation. Over the past few centuries, smaller and smaller military units were being created, and allowed to operate independently. Doing this was more a matter of leadership than communications. Portable radios did not arrive until World War II (1939-45). So until then, you had to invest in finding and training young men to operate independently and make the right decisions most of the time. The portable radios allowed less skillful junior leaders to be supervised by more experienced commanders. The radios also enabled the smaller units to more effectively coordinate their operations.

The marine innovation, which is in the works in the army and most other high tech armed forces, depends on a combination of well trained troops and squad leaders, plus the battlefield communications network that enables the squad leader to call in an air strike, as well as sending and receiving information in real time. Actually, this sort of thing has been done by commandoes since World War II. What has changed, in addition to more powerful and reliable communications, is the increasing level of professionalism among the most junior troops. The marines have always been a force of volunteers, even when they used a few draftees during World War II and Vietnam, but the training has become more effective. The British marines, who were trained and used as commandoes during World War II, retained their commando habits. But now the communications gear available to a squad leader allows him to link up with a bomber overhead and quickly arrange for a smart bomb to be dropped near the squad. Moving that responsibility from the company commander (where it still is in most armies) to a squad leader, will speed things up quite a lot. 

And thats the point of the change. When the Germans made squads separate combat units, they did it to speed up operations on the battlefield. And it worked. But it only worked because the Germans made the efforts to find and train effective squad leaders. Since then, armies that have tried to operate like the Germans, but without the well trained squad leaders, have had nothing but trouble, and disaster in combat.

The marines expect their system to work by keeping the squads under the supervision of their platoon leaders most of the time, but with the understanding that, when the situation requires it, the squad leader can cut loose and, for example, go direct to the bomber circling over head and order some smart bombs to hit a fleeting, or very threatening, target. 

The marines consider this new organization essential for them to survive in the fast moving combat operations they will be called on to carry out in the future. As in the past, speed equals survival. The more speed, the better your chances of winning and living.

 


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