Peaceful protests outside of Vilnius, Lithuania, covered widely by the Russian media, abruptly turn violent, with Russian-speaking civilians inexplicably killed in a sudden explosion. A Russian airborne battalion parachutes just east of the chaos, on the Belorussian side of the border, prompting the 82nd Airborne to rapidly deploy its brigade designated as the core of the US military’s Global Response Force into action. When one of the Russian airborne battalions—fully mechanized with BDM-4 infantry fighting vehicles, BTR armored personnel carriers, and reinforcing tanks—encounters a lone US airborne battalion, with only eight Humvee-mounted anti-tank missiles, the Russian forces find it to be easy prey.
By design, light infantry forces sacrifice certain capabilities in order to maximize flexibility and mobility. But when the capabilities sacrificed leave American light infantry forces particularly vulnerable to a potential adversary, change is required. Army light infantry brigades currently have a critical anti-armor gap. However, by combining solutions across the DOTMLPF spectrum—doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities—the Army can maximize the anti-armor lethality, standoff, and capability within the light infantry brigade.
After over fifteen years of combat against largely dismounted insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army recently made a doctrinal pivot toward fighting mechanized, nation-state competitors who could pose a major tactical challenge for US Army forces. Field Manual 3-0, the Army’s capstone operations manual, published in October 2017, states that “large-scale ground combat against a peer threat represents the most significant readiness requirement.” However, the most recent doctrinal publication that should, ostensibly, be most specific about anti-armor employment, Field Manual 3-21.12, The Infantry Weapons Company, is based on US Army combat experience prior to its 2008 publication and makes no mention of this type of combat. Its focus is largely on supporting dismounted infantry, not aggressively attacking and defending against mechanized enemy formations. The publication contains two hundred pages, with few references to tanks or armored vehicle (a more recent publication has since superseded the manual, but condenses the discussion of the infantry weapons company down to a forty-one-page appendix). It does not discuss engineer planning factors for digging in Humvees into mutually supporting defensive battle positions.
The Army must make a concerted effort to revamp its anti-armor doctrine to match FM 3-0’s focus on large-scale combat operations against peer enemy formations. A nomenclature shift, from “infantry weapons company” to “anti-armor company,” would also more clearly emphasize the anti-armor capabilities that will be vital on the future battlefield. New doctrine’s content should focus on defeating armored threats first and foremost, with infantry support as an important but secondary mission. By deliberately updating anti-armor doctrine to match FM 3-0, the Army will lay the foundation for tremendously increased capability.
If the Army is serious about focusing on defeating mechanized peer threats, then it must give equally serious consideration to mechanizing and mounting the entire active-duty component. Infantry brigade combat teams (IBCTs) would undergo a total motorized makeover, while armored and Stryker BCTs would remain unchanged. While this would be a tremendous organizational undertaking, it would only match our Russian counterparts, who have mechanized their entire Army, fielding no true dismounted elements. IBCTs, while able to rapidly deploy to a combat theater, have no inherent offensive capability against mechanized forces, and a highly insufficient capability to successfully defend against an enemy mechanized assault.
Critics of mechanizing all IBCTs would likely suggest that this would leave the military short of dismounted infantry. However, should the US military need more dismounted infantry than can be fielded by the eighteen National Guard IBCTs and the entire Marine Corps, then it is likely engaged either in theater-wide counterinsurgency operations or multiple urban operations, both of which are doctrinally and historically strategic misuses of US forces.
Funding for this all-mounted active-duty infantry force can come from a reduction of infantry BCTs to produce the required number of mechanized infantry, capable of rapid anti-armor offensive operations against mechanized peer enemy forces. The newly created motorized infantry BCT would include an anti-armor assault battalion, comprised of two anti-armor companies and two truck-mounted infantry companies. This combined-arms team would be capable of defeating peer-enemy mechanized forces, seizing key terrain throughout a designated area of operations, and defending against large-scale, mechanized counterattacks.
As Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood wrote, “Success in war can be achieved only by all branches and arms of the service mutually helping and supporting one another in the common effort to attain the desired end.” This notion is reinforced by American military history and points to the importance of utilizing combined-arms teams to achieve victory on the battlefield. An infantry battalions should train almost exclusively as a combined-arms team, incorporating anti-armor and dismounted infantry—similar to how their armored counterparts combine infantry and tanks to rapidly seize key terrain, destroy enemy forces, and exploit the initiative. Commanders routinely hesitate to employ formations for which they have limited training exposure during combat training center (CTC) rotations. This is likely due to a tendency of dismounted infantry companies, mounted weapons companies, and most other combat-arms and combat-support units to train almost exclusively as a single arm until haphazardly thrown together, typically at the last minute, for a CTC rotation. Battalion and brigade commanders who expect to win in decisive action against a peer mechanized force must train combined-arms maneuver from the beginning of a training cycle. Heavy weapons / anti-armor platoons must regularly train and develop professional relationships with their supported infantry companies. Engineers must train with these forces to provide mobility, countermobility, and protection, while small unmanned aircraft system operators provide intelligence to commanders and platoon leaders. Dismounted infantry cannot be expected to understand the extensive capabilities, resourcing needs, or limitations of anti-armor formations without working beside them in every step of the training path. Combined arms must be the leader-enforced standard, not the exception during a CTC rotation.
Anti-armor platforms within the infantry BCT require two significant upgrades in order to provide the overmatch required to defeat highly mechanized peer adversaries. First, these platforms need a turret-mounted cannon system to rapidly destroy targets out to more than 2,500 meters, in addition to anti-tank guided missiles as an alternate weapon. Secondly, they require full amphibious capability in order to negotiate all water obstacles without relying on limited engineer assets.
Currently, IBCT maneuver battalions rely solely on the eight Humvee-mounted TOW missile launchers within their weapons companies to engage all armored threats beyond the 500-meter range of its organic man-portable recoilless rifles. While TOW missiles are effective at destroying all known armored threats, they are slower to operate compared to a turret-mounted cannon system, they cannot engage on the move, and they are technically complex, requiring specialized maintenance. The Army should experiment with a small- to medium-sized anti-armor platform that can mount 25–40mm autocannons, coupled with a TOW missile launcher as an alternate weapon. This would allow anti-armor elements to quickly engage sudden targets of opportunity while on the move, maximizing their offensive capability. When necessary, the platform could also halt to engage enemy tanks at ranges nearing 4,000 meters. The retired M19 dual 40-mm self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon, which proved extraordinarily lethal against massed Chinese infantry in the Korean War, could be one of many inspirations for a new anti-armor system, capable of destroying armor, dismounts, and nearby aircraft.
In addition to coupling a cannon and TOW system, this new vehicle must be fully amphibious and able to cross all rivers without any external assistance. Currently, no US Army maneuver platform is amphibious, and while this capability may not have been necessary during counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be an absolute must against the adversaries envisioned in FM 3-0. In a highly contested multi-domain battlefield, where combatants will compete to exploit temporary windows of advantage, US infantry battalions and their anti-armor assets cannot wait on a limited supply of highly vulnerable engineers to bridge every water obstacle before resuming the offensive. Critics of creating an amphibious anti-armor vehicle will likely point to the necessary reductions in armor as an unacceptable risk to the crew; however, enhanced emphasis on cover and concealment, coupled with the mobility to master local terrain, including water crossings, will do much more to protect anti-armor crews than any additional layer of armor. The Army can achieve maximum anti-armor lethality by incorporating a cannon system in addition to its TOW missile, and a fully amphibious capability.
Leadership and Education
Leadership at the company and platoon echelon should reflect a marked level of mastery in combined-arms maneuver. The current infantry weapons company provides the infantry battalion commander much greater combat power than any of the battalion’s rifle companies, and with the materiel upgrades above, this relative combat power ratio will increase dramatically, further necessitating an enhanced leadership capability within the anti-armor company. This requires an acute, careful talent management effort by the battalion commander, who must be very deliberate in selecting anti-armor platoon leaders and company commander. From the author’s observation, infantry weapons company leadership positions are treated at best as an ordinary manning requirement, and at worst as places for infantry lieutenants who the battalion commander doesn’t trust to lead rifle platoons. This is a mistake, as rifle platoons bring only a fraction of the combat power of an infantry weapons platoon. The best, most seasoned leaders must be in charge of the most powerful and capable of formations.
Current education of new infantry lieutenants minimizes exposure to the capabilities or employment of infantry weapons platoons. Infantry lieutenants must receive a formal, structured, and practical training regimen in anti-armor capabilities comparable to their armor-branched counterparts. All officers and noncommissioned officers selected for service in an infantry weapons company should be sent to a robust, expanded heavy weapons leader’s course. This course, currently located solely at Fort Benning, provides the premier education in using heavy weapons—but only to a select few students each cycle. The course should be expanded to every Army post that hosts an IBCT, and capable of providing the same quality instruction to every officer and noncommissioned officer serving within the infantry weapons company.
Infantry military occupational specialties (MOS) should revert back to specialization during one-station unit training. All soldiers designated for service in the current infantry weapons company should receive specific training as anti-armor crewmen, earning the once-coveted “11H” MOS designation. These soldiers should be trained, cultured, and indoctrinated in the use of anti-armor and heavy weapons support. Soldiers should progress from private to company first sergeant within the Army’s infantry weapons companies. Moving noncommissioned officers who have spent their entire careers in rifle platoons to infantry weapons platoons reduces their capacity as subject matter experts, which the officer corps relies on for their in-depth experience in a wide range of matters technical, tactical, and administrative. The “learning gap” of any soldier or leader transitioning from a rifle company to an infantry weapons company is time that could have been used mastering doctrine and unit tactics, techniques, and procedures—instead of learning the basics of a weapons company and its capabilities. The Army should bring back the 11H designation, and the related training, in order to maximize the lethality of the soldiers within the formation.
Army posts with IBCTs must expand their training facilities to accommodate for the wide area required for mounted maneuver in offensive and defensive operations. From the author’s observation, Army posts with IBCTs tend to have a limited quantity of ranges that can accommodate .50-caliber ammunition, and fewer still that allow for extensive mounted maneuver. Army installations must look to expand training facilities on the periphery or consolidate certain small-caliber ranges in order to allow the most lethal companies within the light infantry battalion the opportunity to maximize their training and readiness. Additionally, IBCT posts should expand their virtual-simulations facilities to allow for constant rotation by the infantry weapons companies when they are not conducting training in a field environment. Commanders must budget limited available time to ensure all crewmembers conduct virtual gunnery before expending live ammunition.
Maximizing the lethality of anti-armor within the IBCT cannot be solved by any single upgrade to weapon systems. Rather, solutions across the DOTMLPF spectrum must be synchronized toward the desired end state of highly competent, well-trained, and superbly led anti-armor infantry forces, capable of defeating any peer enemy force in a contested multi-domain battlefield.
Image credit: Capt. Justin Wright, US Army