October 1, 2010  

Small unit dominance

The strategic importance of tactical reform

Slightly more than 40 years ago my unit was butchered by elements from the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment at a mountaintop firebase overlooking the A Shau Valley. Nineteen of my 55 soldiers were killed or wounded severely enough to warrant evacuation. The loss was mainly my fault. I wasn’t new at the job. This was my fourth command so I thought I knew what I was doing. A much smarter and better trained and equipped enemy taught me that I did not.

The event made me promise that I would never go to war again No. 2 in a two-sided contest. It also burned into the depths of my soul several questions that have lingered and festered ever since. I asked why the most technologically advanced country on the planet was unable to make better weapons and equipment than the enemy. I asked why my soldiers were so poorly prepared physically, intellectually and emotionally for this fight. I asked why my experience as a combat leader could be gained only by spilling their blood.


We are better now. Today, we have the best-trained soldiers and Marines in the world. Since 9/11, the ground services have made enormous strides in pushing the latest gear to soldiers in the field using the Rapid Fielding Initiative. We know that investments made recently to better equip soldiers are saving lives. In World War II and Vietnam, an individual infantryman cost about $1,900 to equip. The “ratio” of killed to wounded in small-unit action in both those wars was about 1 to 3.4. Investments in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased to $17,000 per infantryman. The killed-to-wounded ratio is now about 1 to 9, and the casualty rate has decreased from 3 percent to less than a third of 1 percent within close-combat small units.

Investments have been sufficient to make small units better. But occasional incidents in places such as Fallujah and Sadr City in Iraq and Forward Operating Base Keating and Wanat in Afghanistan make it evident that the American military hasn’t come as far as it should in its ability to dominate in the tactical fight. Failure to dominate at the tactical level to the degree we are capable is all the more incongruous because success in today’s “hybrid” wars is achieved by the patient and often dangerous application of force by thousands of mostly Army and Marine squads, platoons and teams. These small units patrol and operate principally from isolated outposts and forward operating bases, along primitive roads and trails, and among the people within villages and towns.

This incongruity is amplified with the realization that our tactical failures are nothing new. In World War II, infantry was the third most deadly job behind submarine and bomber crews. In a half century of wars fought after World War II (a period often termed “the American Era of War”), submarine and bomber crew combat deaths have dropped to virtually nil. Yet as a proportion of total combat deaths, infantry has increased from 71 percent in World War II to 81 percent in wars fought since. Thus four out of five combat deaths have been suffered by a force that makes up less than 4 percent of uniformed manpower within the Defense Department. Half of those deaths occurred while simply trying to find the enemy and almost all occurred within less than a mile of contact. In Afghanistan, 89 percent of all deaths occur in small units and more than 90 percent occur within 400 meters of a road.

The final incongruity comes with the realization that soldiers and Marines — those most likely to die — are, when compared with their colleagues from other services, often the very ones still least well-equipped and trained for their very dangerous calling. Since World War II, our air and sea forces have dominated in their respective domains; ground forces have not. Put aside the humanitarian aspect for a moment and consider the national strategic consequences of this cosmic incongruity. Our enemies from Lin Piao to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden all recognize that our vulnerable strategic center of gravity is dead Americans. Thus it comes as no surprise that the common thread among all of our enemies over the past half-century has been the imperative to kill Americans not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. So why don’t we do better at lessening our strategic vulnerabilities by doing a better job of preserving the lives of those most likely to die? The answers are many and complex.


While politicians and policymakers recognize the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, they tend to turn a blind eye toward the harsh realities of close combat. Familiar Beltway concerns such as winning against big-ticket adversaries, fighting in space, defending cyberspace, controlling the global commons and the challenges of a “whole of government” approach to strategy inevitably trump the more bloody and uncomfortable aspects of “intimate killing” at the small-unit level. The lingering dissonance between the Beltway and the tactical battle has been pervasive for decades and spans every political party and administration from Truman’s to Obama’s.

Too often those who don’t know war accept the industrial age view that soldiering is inherently more dangerous than other forms of combat. Likewise, policymakers tend to slight the tactical dimension by assuming that the American people will not allow another unpopular ground war. The assumption misses the point that in today’s wars the enemy chooses the time, place, duration, intensity and the dimension in which future conflicts are to be fought.

Americans seek to solve battlefield problems with technology. Technology is a vital ingredient in achieving success at the tactical level. But dominance on the tactical battlefield is achieved more by leveraging the human, social, cultural, behavioral and cognitive sciences as well as the physical sciences. The weapons acquisition community is still optimized to develop technologically sophisticated big-ticket systems using a process that often takes decades. The innovation cycle is much shorter at the tactical level, where our enemies intend to win and, all too often, are able to adapt to changes on the tactical battlefield faster than our centrally controlled acquisition system can respond.

Defense Department scientific communities have never made small combat units a priority for research and development at the national level. There has never been an attempt to achieve a “leap-ahead” advantage on the ground such as we achieved with stealth or precision in the air. Part of this neglect is due to the fact that small combat units do not employ capital-intensive material. For the most part, their effectiveness is amplified using small-scale devices, systems and weapons that are “hung” on soldiers and their leaders. This “Christmas tree” effect too often results in a one-off, incremental approach to developing leap-ahead technologies for equipping small units.

We still view the preparation of small units for combat as an industrial age process of mass production, even though we live in an era of boutique approaches to the training, selection, bonding and acculturation of very specialized fighting forces. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on instrumented training devices and simulators for aerial systems, yet too often small-unit leaders still must gain proficiency the old-fashioned way — in combat by shedding the blood of their soldiers.

Small-unit leaders are required to make life-and-death decisions in the heat of battle, a level of responsibility formerly reserved for officers several times their grade and experience. Yet our training and educational establishments have not been able to provide junior leaders with the intuitive, “in extremis” decision-making skills they need to prepare them for such responsibility. Our intelligence, surveillance and communications communities too often try to solve tactical problems using strategic systems and approaches. This cultural proclivity serves to inform and connect generals to their subordinates rather than provide soldiers and their leaders with the ability to maintain intimate “touch” with one another in the heat of battle and to provide them with information critical to their survival.

Senior leaders frequently excuse inadequacies at the small-unit level by proclaiming that they “give the field what it asks for.” But soldiers engaged in the day-to-day business of fighting are not always the best bellwether for determining what they need. Leaving future requirements to individual services and field commanders often results in a game of catch-up that follows rather than leads the initiatives of the enemy.


Experience in today’s wars has taught the lesson that the actions of small combat units have national strategic consequences. Therefore we must focus attention on how we fight at the tactical level of war as a national, not a service-specific, task. To that end, we should begin by asking the defense secretary to recognize and proclaim publicly that dominance on the tactical battlefield is an objective of importance to the nation — and to pledge the human and fiscal resources necessary to make our military as dominant on the ground as it is today in the air, in space and on the sea. The Defense Department leadership must develop the means to add a tactical perspective to strategic policymaking such that the needs of small units are exposed and addressed by DoD budgeting and policy-making staffs.

We must challenge the research-and-development communities to focus on the task of small-unit dominance by creating a national effort to that end. Such a program would seek to meld the physical and human sciences into a holistic effort. The administration should consider creating a single DoD-level small-unit senior executive steering group charged with the development of a multiservice program of small-unit training, doctrine and materiel development. This body would be led by representatives from the Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command as well as representatives from combatant commands and DoD research-and-development laboratories. A national effort to achieve small-unit dominance should be expanded well beyond the Defense Department to embrace a nationwide small-unit “community of practice” that brings together the best and brightest from academia, industry, the civilian law enforcement sector as well as public and private research-and-development institutions.

During the Vietnam War, the air services learned painfully the value of simulations as a means for “steepening the learning curve” in exercises like Top Gun and Red Flag. Yet after nine years of war, no effective simulation is available to perform the same life-saving function for small units. As a first priority, the Pentagon should immediately create a national-level small combat unit simulation and gaming effort managed by the ground services but funded by a separate (and fenced) line within the Defense Department. To assure that such an effort would survive internecine budgetary battles, legislation should be enacted that would set aside a percentage of all DoD simulations funding (say 20 percent) for small units and small-unit leader simulations.

Creating very high performing small units is as much a human challenge as a technological challenge. Thus this effort would seek to prepare small units for combat in a manner analogous to the way professional sports teams are recruited, selected, trained, acculturated, bonded and remunerated. Likewise, the medical and mental health communities must be challenged to develop a strategic scheme for selecting and inoculating small-unit individuals and leaders from the stresses of close combat.

Today, the services measure and report readiness by divisions and brigades. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that such measurements are too coarse. The services must be compelled to develop a single objective standard for assessing and measuring the performance of small units and small-unit leaders with the objective of verifying that no small unit is sent into combat unprepared.

In July, I watched the Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” play out on the screen and compared it to my experience decades ago: same type of unit (airborne light infantry), same lousy rifle (M16/M4), same helicopter (CH-47), same machine gun (M2), same young men trying to deal with the fear of violent death. Seared in my brain is the image of a young soldier at Fire Base Restrepo hacking away at hard clay and granite trying frantically to dig a fighting position. The U.S. is spending more than $300 billion on a new fighter plane. We haven’t lost a fighter pilot to enemy action since 1972. Why after nine years of war can’t we give a close-combat soldier a better way to dig a hole? For that matter, why do soldiers exiting fire bases not have some means of looking over the next hill? Why doesn’t every soldier have his own means to talk to his comrades by radio? Why can’t soldiers on a remote fire base detect an approaching enemy using sensors? Why can’t soldiers rely on robots to carry heavy loads and accomplish particularly dangerous tasks? I could go on, but you get the point.

These challenges can be met only by demanding that our national-level policy and planning staffs look at war from the ground up rather than the top down. What’s missing is not a lack of empathy or concern but the crushing imperative for our leaders to bridge the enormous cultural gap that has existed for two generations between the political and government elite and the soldiers they send to do the dirty task of intimate killing. Closing this cultural gap will take time to be sure. But if we are involved, as the Quadrennial Defense Review says, in a long period of persistent conflict, then we have an obligation to start now to change the culture. The Army and Marine leadership have done just about all they can within the narrow confines of their budgeting and weapons-buying authorities. It’s time for the country to pay attention and act. Our close-combat soldiers and leaders deserve nothing less. AFJ

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES (RET.) is president of Colgen, a consulting firm. He served more than 30 years in the Army, commanding two units in Vietnam.