About light infantry tactics and the tactical challenges in Afghanistan

Sven Ortmann
30 September 2009

William S. Lind has proposed a re-training of U.S. infantry with what he calls “true light infantry or Jaeger tactics” to solve tactical challenges in Afghanistan. He especially referenced General McChrystal’s restrictions that recently limited the Western ground forces’ ability to address tactical challenges with fire support.

A simple step from “Second generation” to “Third generation” tactics may be easy to communicate, but it’s too simple and doesn’t promise to solve the problems in Afghanistan and similar conflicts nearly as much as Mr. Lind implied.

First of all, classic European light infantry or Jäger were little more than glorified infantry who knew how to shoot with rifles (instead of muskets) and who had high enough morale to not desert. The latter enabled their use in smaller formations, in closed terrain and on independent missions.

The regular Western infantry was transformed into Jäger-like infantry during the mid-19th century. The Minié ball had turned muskets into rifles and the nationalism of the Napoleonic age had turned infantry into much more reliable troops who did not need to be kept away from forests and permanently guarded by light cavalry in order to minimize desertions. The early light infantry tactics are therefore no ideal we should aspire to – we were already there.

The high casualties and lack of strategic progress during the First World War exposed the fact that orthodox infantry tactics were obsolete. New tactics were developed in Germany and Italy by dedicated assault troops (Stoßtruppen and Arditi). Stoßtruppen asked for heavy fire support (artillery, mortars and infantry guns) quite often because it was often useful. The Arditi were quite similar to the more famous Stoßtruppen, but with a stronger emphasis on esprit de corps and less emphasis on manoeuvre à posteriori (recon pull).

Both Stoßtruppen and Arditi units were dissolved after the war and their tactics and tools were almost all absorbed into regular Western infantry units. One might disagree with this assessment if one compares only some substandard modern infantry outfits with successful Stoßtruppen units, but a comparison between First World War line units, Stoßtruppen and modern infantry clearly shows that we already took that step forward.

Mr. Lind depicts U.S. ground forces as troops who “bump into the enemy and call for fire”. That’s true in many occasions, and it’s also often a correct or even unavoidable course of action because that’s after all still the most reliable method of finding the enemy. Even the expensive modern sensor technology has proven its unreliability in that job.

It’s also often right to “call for fire” because the terrain rarely provides enough cover and concealment for tactical small unit movements in contact. Dismounted troops in contact get easily fixed and it’s quite difficult to avoid contact if the terrain is mostly open with only small areas of closed terrain.

Tactical movements in contact with the enemy, however, are the domain of tracked armoured vehicles, not of light infantry. Light infantry needs to prevent its observation by the enemy for successful tactical movements. Night, fog, smoke, cover, concealment, deception and temporary suppression are the enablers for movement in contact. These enablers are often simply not at hand – especially not so if you lack good fire support (smoke, suppression).

The adoption of maneuver-enthusiastic “light infantry tactics” is no modern and comprehensive response to tactical problems at the small unit level. That honour goes to the exploitation of combined arms effects at the small unit level:

  • Military intelligence and negotiation tasks and competence were moved down to company and even platoon levels to meet the challenges of Afghanistan.
  • Support fires (grenade weapons, scoped rifles and machine guns) are available at company, platoon and even squad level now.
  • Electronic warfare tools have also found their way into platoons, a reform that was almost unthinkable during the Cold War.

Some of this may not be understood as traditional “combined arms”, but that term fits best to the growing heterogeneity of relatively small units. Many Western infantry and scout platoons approach the diversity of functions and capabilities of a First World War division. This is a necessary development because small units have become the maneuver unit of choice in a conflict of low troop strengths in a huge area of operations.

A relatively monolithic light infantry platoon may have “a broad and varied tactical repertoire” as Mr. Lind points out, but its versatility is no match for a modern heterogenous reinforced infantry platoon. Monolithic, maneuver-happy light infantry would lack the tools and therefore the answers for the challenges we face.

For all these reasons, light infantry characteristics can only be a part of the answer for modern tactical challenges.

[CR:  Sven Ortmann comments frequently on these pages.  For further information on the development of German tactics during WWI, including how they made the necessary cultural changes, I recommend Bruce Gudmundsson’s Stormtroop Tactics, which is conveniently available through our Amazon Bookstore.]

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Filed in Uncategorized | 12 responses so far

12 Responses to “About light infantry tactics and the tactical challenges in Afghanistan”

  1. Paraluson 30 Sep 2009 at 10:56 am 1

    It’ an interesting response to Lind, yet I don’t see anything that pertains to limiting civilian casualties or COIN.

    I do see an emphasis on a combined arms force that has the potential to bringing lot’s of firepower to bear upon the enemy which is exactly why it misses the point. The issue isn’t bringing more firepower to engage the enemy with, it is protect and prevent our supporting fires from becoming the enemies biggest recruiting tool.

    If our Taliban foes can be so mobile and dangerous with the limited weaponry (Rifles, MGs, RPGs, Mortars) they have access to, then why can’t we raise similar units with even better training and equipment?

    How is it that a foot-mobile guerrilla force is more mobile than the most modern militaries equipped with helicopters and MRAPs?

  2. Duncan C Kinderon 30 Sep 2009 at 2:48 pm 2

    Two questions regarding light infantry.

    1) Light infantry’s approach to defeating one’s appears to resemble bullfighting’s approach to defeating a bull. Could one use bullfighting as a metaphor for light infantry? If not, why not?

    2) Light infantry requires such assets as popular support, knowledge of the local language, and of the local terrain. Whenever we go abroad to such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., we begin without such assets. Of course, we are most richly endowed with these within the USA. For all the “We have to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” rhetoric, wouldn’t it make more sense for us instead to lure them over here, where we could envelop and destroy them? I realize that my question is impractical, but that begs the question of what, precisely, is impractical about it. For is this not the root of our problems – that our internal domestic situation is unsound – and that makes any foreign venture a diversion?

  3. loggie20on 30 Sep 2009 at 5:59 pm 3


    Cannot agree more.

    Body counts are no measure in these situations. Military action cannot do what civil society needs done.

    The US Army tried “stylized” light infantry in Vietnam using special forces, and Hmong tribes (one example) in Vietnam. In the primarily Vietnamese provinces the “advisors” soon discovered their tutelage to be corrupt and against their own general public interest.

    Did not work there.

    The Viet Cong trained the majority.

    The basis of all the current problems is to decide (so far not decide on values) what value system the US needs to pursue.

    For most of the past 60 years the only values pursued by the US military are war profits.

  4. Maxon 02 Oct 2009 at 10:47 am 4

    “Light infantry’s approach to defeating one’s appears to resemble bullfighting’s approach to defeating a bull. Could one use bullfighting as a metaphor for light infantry? If not, why not?”

    If I understand you correctly, light infrantry patrols would be employed
    to bait the opposition, in essience present themselves as a target of
    opportunity and vunverability to ambush, but actually backed up with
    airpower, artillary, armour, in other words superior firepower on tap.

  5. Oldpiloton 03 Oct 2009 at 10:47 am 5

    Thanks for the reference to the Arditi. I hadn’t heard of them, though I must say that in deciphering the Wiki article on the WW1 troops, they seemed to have an exaggerated interest in snazzy uniforms. Were they really effective? Blue skies! — Dan Ford

    [CR: Dan – I hadn’t either. Maybe Sven can give us some more details.]

  6. Sven Ortmannon 04 Oct 2009 at 4:26 am 6

    Arditi received real combat training against mock defensive positions, had a strong esprit de corps, different armament than normal infantry and were the Italian shock troops of WWI.

    They were raised from many different regiments and therefore used a compendium of Italian army uniform features. WWI shock troops had almost no chance of surviving the war, so I’d have granted them every kind of fancy uniform they wanted.

    This book from Osprey Publishing is worth its money and describes the Arditi on 64 pages: http://tinyurl.com/y8cxz54
    That’s much more accessible than the Italian writings on the subject.

    I mentioned Stormtroopers and Arditi because they were the innovators (Central powers and Entente).

    The Austrians used Sturmbataillone in 1917 (as far as I know modeled after the Stoßtruppen) and the Russians used tactical elements usually associated with Stoßtruppen/Bruchmüller offensives early in the 1916 Brussilov offensive. I’m not aware of similar shock troops in the British, French, Ottoman or American armies in WWI; the Brits and French used tanks instead.

    [CR: Thanks! Did Arditi veterans become involved in politics after the war? As I understand, the Stormtroops who did survive provided the muscle for a number of political parties in post-War Germany.]

  7. Duncan C Kinderon 05 Oct 2009 at 3:27 pm 7

    If I understand you correctly, light infrantry patrols would be employed
    to bait the opposition, in essence present themselves as a target of
    opportunity and vunverability to ambush, but actually backed up with
    airpower, artillary, armour, in other words superior firepower on tap.

    Actually, the entire Iraq mess with its Afghan sequel illustrates, on a grand scale, the bullfighting motif.

    The bull ( in this case the United States ) is enraged by a giant poke ( 9/11 ). Thrashing about, it sees a target ( Iraq ), and plunges at it. The picadors ( the Iraqi insurgents ) clear out of the way and then begin to torment the bull with various pokes.

    Finally, the tormented beast tears out and – thrashing – attempts to strike back. This time in Afghanistan. Once again the picadors (the Taliban ), circling around, begin to poke.

    The matador has yet to arrive….

    Operations on a smaller scale would follow a similar format. All of which, on an abstract level, follows a pattern of activity similar to that described in the K.u.K. Marine Corps 4GW manuals (available here on d.n.i. ) that Lind cites.

  8. Maxon 06 Oct 2009 at 6:11 pm 8

    “The bull ( in this case the United States ) is enraged by a giant poke ( 9/11 ).”

    I vastly underestimated your nuance Duncan.
    Thrown off by the light infantry tactical reference.

    Pretty good analogy, overall.

    As for the matador, he might not even show up,
    since apparently isn’t needed.

    I’m suddenly reminded of the last line in Sydney Lumet’s
    hollywood coldwar classic “Fail Safe.”

    USAF General Black’s dieing words,

    ” the matador, the matador, me, me.”


  9. loggie20on 06 Oct 2009 at 7:43 pm 9

    The Military Industrial Congress Complex (MICC) has grabbed on to the counterinsurgency (COIN) thing as a way to waste 4% or so of the US gross domestic product.

    Mc Chrystal and Petraeus as well as the handbooks the Marines and Army are using are co-conspirators in building an excuse to spend like there was a real mission, to attack a threat. There is none and COIN failed in Vietnam and will fail despite bankrupting the US.

    Insurgencies erupt, slowly or quickly because the illegitimate government in place has no moral authority over the populace. This was the case in Eire in 1920, in the ChiCom sectors of China in the 30’s, in Vietnam in the 1960’s and in Iraq/Afghanistan in the ’00’s.

    The MICC wants to sell the idea that the militarism can overcome the insurgents any better than the Brits in Eire, Chiang in China or LBJ in Vietnam.

    Won’t happen this time any more than it occurred in past failures.

    COIN is no more than a militarist excuse to bankrupt the US.

    COIN is no better morally than Japanese militarism of the 30’s and 40’s. How can the progeny of the men and women who defeated fascist militarism buy in to it in this decade?

  10. Maxon 12 Oct 2009 at 9:16 am 10

    “COIN is no more than a militarist excuse to bankrupt the US.”

    Let me play devils advocate in order to explore a concept.

    I doubt it’s a deliberate act or goal.

    However, as we saw with the financial collapse (many will argue
    still in progress) that “they” simply can’t help themselves.

    In putting their own interests and ambitions first and formost,
    and with no consideration to the longer term prognosis.

    This however ignores the moral dimention.

    From the same perspective, the Nazi & Imperial Japanese
    leadership were not such a bad bunch of pepole,
    just mis-guided and caught up in the moment.

    So may read one paragraph among several in the epitath.


  11. Maxon 16 Oct 2009 at 8:39 am 11

    One thing I learned from the study of Boyd, and from correspondence
    witrh his asociates, always be ready to back up what you say,
    and make sure you’re right.

    “However, as we saw with the financial collapse (many will argue
    still in progress)”


    y IEVA M. AUGSTUMS, AP Business Writer Ieva M. Augstums, Ap Business Writer – 1 min ago

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bank of America Corp. said Friday it lost more than $2.2 billion in the third quarter as loan losses kept rising, providing further evidence that consumers are still struggling to pay their bills.

  12. graycapon 20 Oct 2009 at 7:08 am 12

    Yes, the arditi had a role in the italian politics after WW1. Something similar to the stosstruppen in Germany. The ex-arditi were part of fascist militias (Camicie Nere) that operated in Italy before the Mussolini ascension to power. They were the core troops of italian occupation of the city of Pola in Istria. After that Mussolini gained absolute power they evolved in the official fascist party militia (something between SA and SS in Germany).

    In so doing, and after some years of power assured “bella vita”, this militia evolved in a semi-ridicolous parade of wanna-be soldiers. A small regiment of fascist militia was incorporated in each italian infatry division when these division changed structure with the loss of a regular infantry regiment (from 3 to 2 rgt.). In combat the militia wasn’t used as shock troop like the waffen SS (poor training and poor equipment) and performed in a mixed mode.

    They ended with constitution of militians only divisions (infantry and 1 tank) when morale in Army units began to plummet.

    Hope this helps


    [CR: Many thanks!]