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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