Infantry: January 24, 2005

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One of the long time beneficiaries of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns will be the infantry. In addition to all the invaluable combat experience, the infantry is getting attention to its equipment needs in a way rarely seen before, even in wartime. For the past sixty years, defense spending went into big ticket items, even for the ground forces. More expensive tanks and artillery got most of the cash, and things like better packs or weapons for the grunts took second place. The current infantry-intense wars have changed all that, and the army is under pressure to cut back on big ticket items, and put lots more money into what the infantry needs. The new Crusader self-propelled artillery system, and the Comanche helicopters have already been cut, and other high priced systems are threatened as well. Now the pressure is on to cut the billions budgeted for developing the next generation of armored vehicles (FCS, or Future Combat System.) The navy and air force are also being forced to make cuts, so the army, mainly the infantry, can have whatever they need or, increasingly, whatever they want.

Putting more money into the infantry seems like a good investment. The current generation of infantry are the best trained and most effective in American history. They get the job done quickly, while taking historically low casualties. All of this is not an unmitigated disaster for the other services, for one of the things the infantry want is better communications and sensors. The other services must be re-equipped so everyone can talk to each other. The infantry are getting individual radios, micro-UAVs (so a company commander can have his own little air force), better night vision equipment and small, rugged computers to run all the stuff. A generation of kids who grew up on PCs, cell phones and video games are now in the infantry, and they expect all these gadgets, and know how to use them. But to make all this battlefield Internet work, the other services need communications upgrades as well. So to provide the infantry with the network-centric tools they want, you have to equip everyone else in the army with the new radios and satellite communications. Same for the air force and navy. Everyone benefits, but they only get new stuff that makes it easier for the infantry to do their jobs.

Its about time. The infantry has been left in the dust for several centuries, as most money went into mobile forces (cavalry then, tanks now), artillery and, in the last century, the biggest money pit of all, air power. Ironically, precision weapons have made much of this shift towards emphasis on infantry possible. With things like inexpensive guided missiles and smart bombs, the infantry can quickly call in enormous amounts of fire power to eliminate enemy forces a hundred or so meters in front of them. Speed and accuracy changes everything. So does technology. New lightweight and strong materials make it possible to provide very effective body armor. The U.S. Army is also testing a new assault rifle, a multi-billion dollar project that has been put off for years because of the expense. But now its the infantry that are the only ones who can do the fighting in low-intensity wars, so you put your money where it will do the most good. 

Some credit has to go to the elite infantry of SOCOM (Special Forces, Rangers and Delta Force commandoes). They showed what could be done with an expense account. SOCOM has long had a pot of money they could use on any weapons or equipment they thought might be useful. Out of this came a lot of new stuff that would have never made it through the torturous army procurement process. But if something new works in combat, its combat tested and the bureaucrats cant keep it away from the troops. All combat units now have mad money for whatever the commander wants to try out, and no one wants to reverse the practice. 

The army knows it has good infantry, its paying larger and larger reenlistment bonuses to experienced NCOs in uniform. Often the bonuses are larger than fighter pilots got in the past when such pilots were scarce. Billions are going into combat simulators for the infantry, again more money than the fighter pilots ever got for their simulators. Two decades of being selective about who they let into the infantry, and spending more money on equipment and training, has paid off. Of course if you ask a marine, hell allow as how the GIs have gotten better, and some might even make it as marines. The marines have always stressed excellence in training, but, like riflemen everywhere, did it on a short budget. For too many generations, the infantry were seen as unlucky saps who got a bad break when they were handed a rifle and orders to the front. But infantry fighting is a complex business. Studies done during World War I and II showed that. But this realization that putting your best people into the infantry never translated into spending more money on them. Except for the development of elite infantry like commandos, it wasnt until recently that it was discovered that all infantry could be elite if you spent enough time and money training and equipping them. Its about time.

 


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