Infantry: The Dangers of Distributed Operations

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March1, 2007: SOCOM (Special Operations Command), the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps are trying to come up with a working version of "distributed operations." What they are looking for is a way to let many small (from 10-30) groups of infantry operate out of sight (and thus mutual support of) each other. This is nothing new. It's actually an ancient practice, and the troops doing it have come to be called "light infantry." That term has also come to mean infantry who don't operate out of armored vehicles, but just ignore that one for now. Classic light infantry were used to harass the enemy, or just keep an eye on the opposing troops. Light infantry were just that, light, and not capable of standing up to the advance of regular infantry.

Ever since the 1920s, generals have tried to develop a modern version of classic light infantry, one that could use distant artillery, or warplanes overhead, to handle just about anything. By the 1960s, the concept finally found a way to work, in the form of elite recon or Special Forces troops. These small teams (usually less than dozen men) had radios and knew how to call in air or artillery strikes. These guys also knew how to stay out of sight, and evade contact with enemy troops. This last skill was essential, even more so than it always has been for light infantry.

While SOCOM has lots of troops who can do this sort of thing, the marines and the army do not, and they want to change that. The marines and the army do have long range recon units, who can handle this modern "light infantry" sort of thing, but the LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) troops are not supposed to be calling in firepower, but mainly collecting information. The problem with training more modern light infantry is just that, it requires lots of additional skills. That takes more time, and only a fraction of current infantry could absorb all those new skills. That's why there are so few Special Forces and LRRP troops.

Some generals believe you can get more light infantry via technology. There has already been some progress in this area. GPS solves a lot of the navigation problems that made otherwise capable troops, a failure at light infantry operations. There are also new devices for calling in air strikes and artillery fire. These items look like high-tech binoculars, and they are. In addition to being binoculars, these things have a laser range finder built in, and the ability to plug into the radio, and transmit digital data to distant artillery crews, or bombers overhead, and basically automate all the work of getting the shells or smart bombs on the target with a minimum of fuss. But that technology is not quite perfected yet. Soon, but not yet.

Another new technology seen as aiding the arrival of the new light infantry, is the easier to use and more flexible communications. The "battlefield Internet" is another way of putting it, and it's almost here. For the elite infantry units that can afford the most cutting edge gear, it is here. But for the new light infantry, the fire control and commo gadgets will have to be cheaper, and more foolproof.

What some of the troops, especially experienced NCOs, worry about, is overeager officers trying to put the new light infantry out there, in harms way, before the equipment is ready. This is less likely to happen with a war going on. The troops are always eager for more useful equipment, but are quick to spot something that's not ready for prime time.

 


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