Infantry: Money Well Spent


April 1, 2018: One of the many changes the new American Secretary of Defense (a retired marine general with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan) did after he began his new job in early 2017 was to give the Department of Defense a much needed reality check. The new Secretary of Defense is the first combat infantryman and combat commander to run the Department of Defense. As such he has a unique perspective on the difficulties ground combat troops face and the importance of providing more support (equipment, training and so on) to the small number of troops (four percent of Department of Defense personnel) who suffer 90 percent of the casualties and without which there can be no battlefield success. Everyone else in the military basically provides support for the four percent.

Military analysts and historians know that without effective infantry you cannot win a war. In addition better trained, equipped and led infantry suffer fewer casualties and get the job done a lot faster. Yet even in the West the infantry tend to be at the end of the line when it comes to resources. That attitude has changed and now the Department of Defense will devote more resources to providing the key combat forces (the infantry) with better gear. Currently only about two percent of modernization spending goes to the infantry. That will change and the new Department of Defense leader has more than his own combat experience to back him up. There is the success of SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and, to the surprise of everyone after 1991, the regular infantry units. All of these troops demonstrated that they could do remarkable things if they were better trained, led and equipped. The marines and some army units (airborne, Special Forces) have long been recognized as more capable combat troops. But after the army went all-volunteer in the 1970s it eventually led to unusually high quality peacetime army combat units. This trend accelerated after 2003 when these troops saw a lot more combat. The new Department of Defense boss wants to recognize all this and ensure that high selection and training standards remain. This lesson was learned after 2003 but was being discarded, as such things often are, after all the heavy fighting stops. That trend has been halted and now the Department of Defense is establishing a Close Combat Lethality Task Force to document all these developments and make them a permanent part of Department of Defense doctrine. This means paying attention to what the infantry needs and making sure they get it before shooting starts. This was the motto back in the 1980s; “fight the first battle and win.” But it wasn’t until 1991 that the regular (non-elite) infantry units got a chance that they achieved that goal.

One thing the new Department of Defense policy hopes to address is the need for a permanent solution to the unit cohesion and combat leadership problem. Since the 1990s the army has been working to enhance unit cohesion. For example, in 2004 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 that combat edge back. Same with a tank or artillery crew.

The Close Combat Lethality Task Force will also concentrate on the problems with developing and keeping combat officers and NCOs. While the army, marines and SOCOM have a lot of troops with combat experience one of the often made, and never really dealt with problems was the inability to keep leaders for ground combat units. Part of the problem was senior commanders ignoring the problem but because of the Internet the troops were able to continually discuss this among themselves, especially on portions of the Internet restricted to military personnel. This “chatter” is now going to be addressed, or at least the new task force will give it the attention it deserves.

A more recent development was speeding up the process of identifying and procuring weapons and equipment the combat troops need. After 2001 this led to RFI (the Rapid Fielding Initiative). Created in 2002 by the U.S. Army as a mechanism for quickly getting what the troops needed this proved a lot more successful and popular than expected.The Internet makes this possible, for the troops grew up with cell phones and the Internet and know how to quickly connect with each other and sort out what they all had experienced and determine what was needed to operate more effectively. Out of this came the Rapid Equipping Force program (REF) which monitored troop needs and quickly found and shipped out needed weapons and equipment and the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) which gave unit commanders (division and below) cash and authority to buy non-standard items the troops needed fast. With most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over there was budget pressure to eliminate both of these programs. The troops and their commanders agreed that would be a big mistake.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the military, especially the army, was quick to take advice from the troops actually doing the fighting. That was recognized even before Iraq and contributed to the acceptance of RFI, which recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. Since 2002 the army approved the purchase of over 500 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. In 2011 the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This is due to the marines having a tradition of doing more with less (since they have much less money to spend per person than the army).

Not everyone was a fan of RFI. Traditional (government and contractor) weapons and equipment developers did not like RFI. Procurement bureaucrats like to take their time, even when there's a war going on. This is mainly to cover everyone's ass and try to placate all the big shots and constituencies demanding certain features. In wartime, this process is sped up somewhat but it is always slower than it has to be.

And then there is the fact that the troops are willing to accept a partial solution. Engineers often point out that they can deliver much more quickly if they are allowed to use the old "70 percent solution" rule. This bit of engineering wisdom is based on the fact that some capabilities of a weapon or other item are not essential but take an inordinate amount of effort and expense to create. Thus a "good enough" item can be produced very quickly, if you are willing to sacrifice 30 percent of the capabilities you thought you needed (but probably don't). Despite official opposition, the 70 percent solution has become all the rage since 2003 because the troops have found that this is frequently good enough and a real lifesaver in combat. Since RFI this often meant adopting civilian gear (radios, hunting accessories, electronics, clothing, tents) that was not “militarized” (made much more expensive and not arriving for a long time.)

The age of change began with the troops who, thanks to the Internet and a flood of new civilian technology, got into the habit of just buying new stuff with their own money and using it in combat. If the army had developed a lot of this gear it would have had more features, probably been more rugged, and taken a lot longer to arrive, if it ever did at all. But for the troops, the off-the-shelf gear filled important needs, even if it was a 70 percent solution.

Troops have been finding and buying non-standard gear for decades but it had been growing more frequent since the 1990s. The army became tolerant of it, largely because this unofficial civilian gear (sleeping bags, boots, rifle cleaning kits, etc.) often was better and even officers used the stuff. As the number of these items increased tremendously after 2003, and more officers came back from commanding combat units with personal experience with this sort of thing, a growing number of senior commanders began demanding that the army procurement bureaucracy get rid of the traditional 10-15 years it takes to find, develop, and approve new technology for the troops. The troops have long understood this but now four star generals agreed and often did so from personal experience. The generals did create the REF in 2001, which was successful as long as it paid constant attention to what the troops were thinking and doing.

In hindsight you could see RFI coming. There were three existing trends pushing it. First, there was a lot more new technology coming on the market that troops could use. Some of it came from the companies that created equipment for the hiking and camping market (boots, rucksacks, all manner of outdoor clothing). Other items came from hunting and police suppliers (new gun sights and other accessories). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear, plus new kinds of flashlights and, eventually, smart phones.

The second trend was that the troops were all on the Internet and, like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, Facebook pages, and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet each soldier's discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army-wide, and world-wide, within hours. Among other benefits this was a morale boost as well.

Finally, there was SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which had long possessed its own REF/ RFI-like powers and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (the first night vision gear and satellite phones). The useful new tech was often very expensive. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating, via the Internet, how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOM's freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better.

When American troops went into Afghanistan in October, 2001, it was several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators that did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces guys, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money, while the Special Forces was getting it paid for by the government. This was especially embarrassing if the new equipment from a civilian supplier was obviously superior to the stuff the government was handing out. With this kind of incentive the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success.

Some generals consider the official procurement bureaucracy beyond help. It is encumbered with generations of laws and rules, which are supposed to curb fraud, enhance efficiency, or whatever and has mainly contributed to the many delays that make everything take far longer than it should. You can't mess with the laws, at least not too often and especially not in peacetime, without getting brought up short by Congress, defense industry lobbyists, and the courts. For the politicians the defense budget is a principal tool for getting re-elected. That procurement money means jobs for American voters and the politicians representing those voters know it. Congress will not relinquish too much control over this pot of gold.

Over a decade of war has changed a lot of things in the U.S. military but none more troublesome, to the military bureaucracy, than the new attitude of "we want it now." Senior commanders took on the military procurement bureaucracy in order to get new technology to the troops sooner. It's not a new fight but having so many generals involved in trying to speed things up, now that is new. And often the generals were asking for some very expensive stuff. But these officers had done their homework and it was hard to say no to officers who are under fire every day. In peacetime development programs go on far longer and cost much more than they do in wartime. These projects seek to achieve as much as possible with a new weapon or item of equipment. But the troops know that a no-frills (less than 100 percent approach) gets the job done a lot faster and cheaper. This “70 percent solution” became a legitimate tool on the battlefield. But now the procurement bureaucracy wants to go back to the bad old (but safer) days of taking your time and covering your ass. This not only applies to hardware but also to shortcomings in leadership and training. The new Secretary of Defense is going to war with that. This is a battle where the bureaucrats usually have the edge, especially in time of peace (or relative peace.) But never before has the Secretary of Defense been someone with such a personal experience about what doesn’t work and why it has to change.


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