Infantry: Starship Barracks

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October 20, 2009: The latest U.S. Army plan for achieving unit cohesion, and increasing combat effectiveness, involves housing units in compounds that contain living quarters, mess halls (dining facilities), classrooms and latrines (toilets). These are called "starship barracks" based on the fact that they are self-contained facilities where the troops will spend much of their time living and working. Of course, when units go out in the field (moving as a unit into simulated battlefield training), they stay together, for living and doing what they are training to do.

This is but the latest of many steps the army has taken in the last two decades to enhance unit cohesion. For example, five years ago, the army made a major effort to break the decades old habit of favoring individual careers at the expense of unit effectiveness. Although it's been known for centuries that units of combat troops who train together, and stay together for many years, are superior to those that don't, this reality has largely been ignored since the 1950s. For over half a century, the emphasis has been on the educational and career needs of the individual soldier. It's the combat units that are most in need of this unit cohesion, and the combat officers and troops have been complaining for years about the inability to keep infantry squads, tank crews and unit leaders together long enough for the outfit to become a really effective unit. Combat troops have to work together like a sports team, until everyone knows what everyone else in the team is capable of and how they will react in various situations.

The biggest contributor to disruption has been the army school system. It's a good thing that all these professional schools are available, as they have made a difference in the quality of the leadership, and the capabilities of the leaders. But the schools take NCOs and officers out of their units for weeks or months at a time, disrupting training and cohesion. 

Another major problem is the legacy of the "individual replacement" system. For over half a century, combat losses have been replaced on an individual basis. Same thing in peacetime. When a soldier leaves, usually at the end of his enlistment, a single replacement is brought in. This means that units lose over five percent of their troops each month. Where this hurts is at the lowest level. An infantry fire team, of four or five troops, is only as effective as it is coordinated. Take one guy out and replace him with a new soldier, and it takes weeks, or months, for that team to get it's combat edge back. Same with a tank or artillery crew.

 


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