Written by Adrian Hill
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This article was first published in Briefings for Brexit. We republish it with their kind permission.
The Infantry Company
Larger platoons allow greater dispersal at company level on the battlefield. Not only does that demand highly improved communications but much greater leadership qualities among the junior leaders and young officers. Training of all ranks must cover such mundane skills as map reading and calculating mortar and artillery ranges the old-fashioned way, otherwise losing the wifi and gps from enemy cyber attack could stop our modern warriors in their tracks. That said, given that our mechanised infantry are going to become more and more vulnerable during modern IT warfare – Russian drones and artillery wiped out a Ukrainian armoured regiment – we should concentrate on combined arms teams of airmobile tanks, infantry and artillery. Dispersal followed by rapid concentration followed by smart dispersal demands that our infantry company operates like a mini-battalion.
Over the last few years there has been steady migration of infantry support weapons. Some have gone forward, others further back. As debated, the LMG seems firmly established as a squad or section weapon, while at platoon level the mortar has been almost abandoned for shorter range and arguably less effective grenade launchers. Direct fire weapons intended against tanks but just as effective against bunkers and strong points have also usurped the mortar. Gone are the days when young officer cadets used make platoon attacks with covering fire from two-inch ( 60mm ) mortars. Nowadays guided missiles can be found on the shoulders of a rifle squad while the mortars are held at company or battalion level. I remember during a week with the 82nd Airborne Division back in the early eighties being astonished by the Dragon guided ant-tank missile as a squad weapon. Even the modern Javelin missile is still quite a heavy and awkward load for a rifleman who has to keep up with his fellows over rough country.
Weapons for disabling tanks and destroying strong points are better placed with the platoon as a weapons squad – unless the intention is to engage at long range – 2,000 to 4,000 metres – when they should be regarded as company or battalion weapons. Likewise, mortars that have a calibre of 81mm or more are regarded as battalion weapons, not company, given that their range is about 5,500 metres. This is better reach than the old 4.2 inch mortar used in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam by the Americans, British and Commonwealth troops. If you placed your mortars under the control of four company commanders anyone of them can attack targets three or four miles away. As their range increased so the rank needed to command them rose. The fire plan would need a lot of radio chatter. Today, to control mortars, you have to command a battalion or at least its support company. Heaven knows who would command Davy Crockett’s string today – the CGS? At this point I hope it’s become obvious why the Five Eyes partners should all use the same GPS system to support each other’s forces, starting with accurate position reporting and friendly fire.
Recruiting is costly. One CO of the Army recruit school told me that during a good year they screened over 70,000 applicants to find 14,000 suitable candidates for basic training as regular soldiers. I’m glad the Army can pick whom they want but sieving through the children of modern education in Britain is a demanding task. The quality of AVR recruits tends to be higher since most applicants are fairly well educated people with good jobs who want to satisfy a sense of adventure by doing something useful though completely different from their daily work. Many bring civilian skills and experience of considerable value to a modern army. The Swiss Army places IT specialists in its signals battalions and their command structure as a matter of common sense. Although it has not fought a war for 160 years the Swiss are clever people and take their army very seriously. Over recent years it has halved in size; but the Swiss Army still runs through a very few professionals organising 50 times their own number of conscript and part time officers, NCOs and soldiers. Our intelligence effort should employ AVR teams with the languages and analytical talents needed in the modern combat zone.
In times of high unemployment there is a tendency to recruit both regulars and reservists at the Job Centre but normally AVR recruiting holds up very well providing the government of the day is seen as supportive for the long haul. During the 1950s many former soldiers joined the TA and my hunch is that would happen today should we triple the volunteer reserves. Take one example. The Special Air Service was reformed after the war through raising a TA regiment based on the Artist’s Rifles in London. This regiment preserved the numbers 1 and 2 of the wartime SAS regiments as 21 SAS. During the Malayan Emergency enough volunteers from 21 SAS ( TA ) were willing to serve as a new regular unit called 22 SAS, the only time this has been done and the parent remains the AVR regiment. Later my old friend Colonel John Waddy raised 23 SAS ( TA ) – a new, third SAS regiment based around Birmingham.
Another example from those post war days was 44 Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Johnnie Frost of Arnhem fame. Throughout the brigade most officers and NCOs were veterans of Bruneval, North Africa, Sicily, D Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. One sapper in our Para Engineer Squadron was a former German paratrooper, a veteran of their airborne assault on Crete! He still wore his Luftwaffe Fallschirmjaeger belt. The brigade had pathfinders, four parachute battalions, a Para artillery regiment, a whole Para engineer regiment, signals squadron, logistics company and Para field ambulance. The sappers, 131 Parachute Engineer Regiment, had been part of 16 Airborne Division TA before its reduction to the single 44 Parachute Brigade TA. However, the regiment was so well established that it survived intact and at more than 1000 strong, many of us regular reservists, and became the largest unit drawing Para pay and annual bounty in the whole Army. In theory we supported the infantry but had the brigade been dropped in Denmark or Germany, the Parachute Regiment infantry might have found themselves supporting our sabotage forays. I think we all recognised that on the large canvass we were probably expendable!
All these units were recruited the length and breadth of the country – thus 10 Parachute Battalion represented London and the Home Counties, 12/13 Parachute Battalion were Yorkshire and Lancashire’s battalion while 15 Parachute Battalion were Scots and 17 Parachute Battalion were the Durham Light Infantry battalion. The gunners and sappers were recruited in the same way through batteries and squadrons with strong regional ties. Our headquarters was The Duke of York’s in Chelsea – nowadays sold by the government and turned into a largely deserted shopping mall. I would take it back through compulsory purchase.
Low Intensity Operations
Army planners have to forecast trouble spots while at the same time construct a new mix of fighting powers. Small intervention divisions should form a key part of this mix, particularly strong in engineer and reconstruction assets, intelligence, political, language and training assets. This strengthening should extend beyond division HQ and the reconnaissance regiment to the battalions where intelligence, political and language skills could be given a home in a new design reconnaissance company. When operations began in Helmand the arrival of 16 Air Assault Brigade could have been quickly followed by another brigade structured for modern ‘ low intensity warfare ‘ where insurgents and mercenaries nowadays often provide the hostiles. Such low intensity formations could also be designed to raise a much larger Afghan force – rather like the old Frontier Scouts, ultimately created for the local government – that fights alongside the expeditionary force so that gains of ground are consolidated and pacified.
To do this, however, requires that the Treasury ceases micro-management of the defence budget. Learn from those eighteenth century entrepreneurs and hand over more authority to commanders on the spot. For a start the commander on the spot should have enough funds to raise his own militia – scouts – possibly several thousand strong – and commission aid projects. Some of the latter should be taken away from civilians and handed back to the Royal Engineers by restoring the old work services branch. A rare few of us can still remember when two Sapper warrant officers would go off for a year and build a road in a highland part of Nepal or some other remote corner of the planet, managing the entire job, purchasing all the materials and hiring hundreds of local people.
[To be continued with the final Part V tomorrow]