The Army’s plan for the light division proposes the addition of an Infantry Squad Vehicle for every rifle squad in an infantry brigade. Incorporating squad vehicles could greatly increase infantry mobility, but also incur significant costs. Motorizing the infantry also would limit the tactical deployment of light infantry, further complicate movement control and do little to solve the Army’s greater transportation needs.
Transportation shortfalls have consistently represented the key constraint for large-scale combat operations, as detailed in the Army University Press’ 2018 collection The Long Haul: Historical Case Studies of Sustainment in Large-Scale Combat Operations. Couple that limitation with congestion caused by more squad vehicles on poor or otherwise clogged roads, and the Army’s transportation problem only becomes more untenable.
For these reasons, pooling transportation assets for the new divisions would serve the infantry’s mobility requirement more efficiently while simultaneously allowing for greater movement control and the maximization of transportation assets to move not only troops, but also equipment and supplies.
The presence of squad vehicles imposes tactical choices on leaders at echelon. First, a nine-person infantry squad with a vehicle loses two of those soldiers to driving and truck commander duties, reducing the squad’s maneuver elements. Commanders must maintain the vehicles, plan for recovery operations and field maintenance, and also secure the vehicles during combat. So, not only does each vehicle impose a manpower cost, but it also inhibits the tactical methods an infantry formation can employ in combat.
These impositions on how infantry units fight, then, include not only how many soldiers a unit can field, but also how the unit must employ them. The cost also limits where infantry units can deploy. Infantry units no longer will be able to move through severely restricted terrain without leaving their vehicles behind. All this begs the question: What scenario are these mobile infantry units designed for? It would help to look at historical mobility issues and infantry in large-scale combat.
The Army’s mobility problems in the Pacific Theater during World War II included a lack of shipping to move rolling stock, poor road networks and traffic jams caused by many units using the same limited and damaged highways. There were so few roads in New Guinea operations to move artillery, for example, that the 31st Infantry Division resorted to using landing craft to ferry their howitzers along shorelines to support infantry attacks in the dense jungles.
Later operations in the Pacific Theater proved equally woeful regarding roads. When X Corps landed on Mindanao in the Philippines, it used one road and a river to advance the first 40 miles with the 24th and 31st Infantry Divisions before assigning each division a single road to continue its own separate fight. The roads were so narrow and columns so long that once vehicles started their march, they could not pass each other. The divisions ended up having to mix small elements of artillery and engineers up front with the first line of infantry.
Of course, poor and clogged road networks were not unique to the Pacific.
The famous Red Ball Express supply run was not in the sustainment plan for the American breakout from Normandy, France. This trucking convoy simply reflected an innovative response to the near-culminating point of American combat forces, which were on the verge of running out of fuel. The hasty plan directed one-way supply routes going to and returning from the front.
Most essential to the Red Ball Express was the reprioritization of vehicles and men from three newly arrived infantry divisions and many engineer, heavy artillery and air defense units to transportation duties. In a future war, one can easily imagine the reprioritization of transportation assets to meet supply demands and the Infantry Squad Vehicle getting cut from road marches as commanders prioritize fuel, ammunition and mass troop movements along clogged routes.
In addition to ground transportation, commanders in both theaters of World War II had to prioritize what vehicles were brought from the U.S. to begin with. The 1st Cavalry Division was completely mobile before it left behind the majority of its vehicles and deployed to the Pacific Theater, where it served as an infantry division. Its vehicles would have proved costly both to the United States’ heavily burdened shipping capacity and during its tactical employment, when few and poor roads were available.
What both the Pacific and European theaters of World War II have in common with today’s planning is the requirement to ship equipment from the homeland to overseas theaters of operation. The increase of rolling stock in the infantry brigades will create more shipping demands that simply may not be met in times of war.
In addition to the transportation issues, light infantry units equipped with Infantry Squad Vehicles will not be able to do what they train to do. The infantry branch has a natural tendency to focus training and combat action on rifle companies fighting on foot. How the infantry fights as part of the maneuver force matters more than how it gets to the battle.
Light infantry formations are dramatically different from Stryker and Bradley vehicle formations, which employ their platforms as fire support assets. Those platforms provide mobility, along with protection and firepower.
By contrast, the Infantry Squad Vehicle offers only mobility, and comes with an increased cost to the infantryman’s survivability. The infantry, when maneuvering on foot, relies on stealth for protection, not armor. Infantry Squad Vehicles will take away that stealth, leaving the infantry easier to find and destroy.
As a result, infantry leaders will have to decide when to use Infantry Squad Vehicles and when to leave those vehicles behind at a rallying point. Of course, the latter requires splitting forces to provide security for those vehicles. Existing infantry brigade combat teams do not have vehicles to consider at all.
If the Army transitions to infantry formations with Infantry Squad Vehicles, doctrine will have to undergo substantial adjustments to account for both the vehicles themselves as well as for the soldiers lost for the fight who instead are at the rallying point securing the vehicles.
It’s still too early to tell what lessons the Army can learn from Russia’s war in Ukraine, but it is evident how effectively Ukrainian infantry, largely fighting on foot, have used antitank fire to defeat Russia’s road-bound mobile and mechanized forces. Russia’s army has many problems, but its inability to deploy light infantry away from their vehicles to attack through restricted terrain and the inability to sustain its mechanized forces seem chief among them.
Mobile and mechanized forces have their advantages—speed, armor protection and firepower. But an army solely made up of these forces carries inherent weaknesses, limitations imposed by those very vehicles that provide advantages in other situations. Just as paper beats rock, the Javelin-toting infantry beats a main battle tank, particularly in the restrictive terrain that characterizes the modern operating environment, whether in Ukrainian cities like Kyiv or in swamps of the Dnipro and Don River deltas.
For the U.S. Army, a better investment in mobility would be structuring the division with more immediately available pooled transportation. This could mean the addition of medium or heavy trucks pooled at division transportation companies, or even a modified Palletized Load System capable of carrying infantry.
This latter idea could consist of a flat rack with a roll cage and seats that could carry up to two squads of infantry. With each Palletized Load System able to move two flat racks, one load system could move an infantry platoon. A single Palletized Load System truck company with 60 trucks could simultaneously transport two brigades, with 27 infantry platoons each. Most important, this would give commanders and logisticians the ability to transport equipment and supplies when the vehicles are not needed to move the infantry.
Pooling transportation at division would give light infantry the mobility it needs while removing the limitations of vehicles in light infantry formations. It would keep the infantry foot-mobile and ready to deploy in time-tested dismounted combat formations. It would keep maintenance and recovery responsibilities within transportation organizations and allow for greater synchronization through movement control.
Simultaneously, adding these transportation assets to the light division allows maximization of transportation assets that would move troops, equipment and supplies.
Simply put, pooling transportation assets for the infantry would both increase light infantry mobility and also assist in solving the Army’s greater transportation efforts.
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Maj. Noah Emery-Morris is a military intelligence officer with the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, Kaiserslautern, Germany. Previously, he commanded the military intelligence company of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, South Korea. He also served as brigade intelligence officer for the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Maj. Ryan Hovatter is a Florida Army National Guard infantry officer assigned to the 21st Theater Sustainment Command. Previously, he was a student in the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Art of War Scholars Program and before that, he was a policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.