Infantry: Reality Check


June 15, 2009: Army basic training is getting a much-needed overhaul thanks to returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. For almost 100 years, basic training, for all of its improvements, has still relied primarily on repetitive drills and learning a standard set of basic skills, many of which haven't changed since World War II. Marksmanship, bayonet fighting, and small-unit tactics are still the basic building blocks of basic, but returning troops are trying to change that, saying it's not enough.  

One of the most important things these new instructors are doing is halting training for "convoy live fire", claiming it's impractical and doesn't really fit the situations facing soldiers in combat. Beyond that, many soldiers are complaining that the curriculum being taught in basic training is wrong. For example, the convoy live fire concept was developed after the confusing battle for An Nasiriyah in 2003, when soldiers traveling in vehicles were being ambushed by irregulars. Unfortunately, terrorist tactics have evolved, while some basic training techniques for protecting against an ambush have not. Exercises for reacting to ambushes usually consist of troops riding on an open truck  bed and hitting a target somewhere down the road while moving. The problem with this is that, as ambushes and IED tactics have become more sophisticated, nobody rides in open beds or on top of armored vehicles anymore. It's just not safe or smart. Still , the training has persisted. 

Small unit tactics are also getting desperately-needed improvements. Previously, troops training for maneuvers in squads and platoons got most of their instruction, about 12 hours or so, in classrooms, the assumption being that once those 12 hours are over, the soldiers have a thorough understanding of how to fight and work with their fellow soldiers. The instruction itself still assumes a conventional war and thus focuses on large-scale open area warfare. 

Returning troops realize this approach can get people killed and injured, so the program is being adjusted to consist primarily of field work. The new curriculum has troops receiving a brief run-through on tactics and then rapidly sent out into the field to apply maneuvers hands-on. Instructors plant mock IEDs along the roads which the troops have to avoid. After that usually comes a mock village with "combatants" and civilians intermixed. The soldiers are forced to apply their know-how under pressure, just like in actual combat. Once the exercise is over, performance reviews are conducted in the field. Assessments are made on what went right and what went wrong. Then the troops do it again until they get it right. The idea is to put the recruits under as much pressure as possible, see how they perform, and quickly fix the mistakes before the troops are actually under fire. 

The Army has realized even supply clerks and repair technicians are likely to be engaged by enemy fighters in an environment that has no front lines. In certain situations, logistics and support personnel are likely to be targeted even more than troops in the combat branches because they are frequently perceived as being less prepared to shoot back and therefore "soft" targets. 



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