On War #317: Keeping Our Infantry Alive

William S. Lind
29 September 2009

The headline of the September 23 Washington Post read, “Less Peril for Civilians, but More for Troops.” The theme of the article was that restrictions General Stanley McChrystal has imposed on the use of supporting arms in Afghanistan, with the objective of reducing Afghan civilian casualties, have increased American casualties. The Post reported that since General McChrystal issued his directive on July 2, the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces dropped to 19, from 151 for the same period last year. At the same time, U.S. troop deaths rose from 42 to 96. Not surprisingly, Congress is interested: the Post quotes Senator Susan Collins of Maine as saying, “I am troubled if we are putting our troops at greater risk in order to go to such extremes to avoid Afghan casualties.”

Congress is unlikely to understand what General McChrystal knows very well, namely that firepower-intensive American tactics, especially heavy use of artillery and airstrikes, will lose us the war. For state armed forces, Fourth Generation wars are easy to win tactically and lose strategically. That is, in fact, their normal course.

But what about the question the Post and Congress have raised: are the new restrictions on fire support causing more American casualties in Afghanistan? In a word, yes. But that does not have to be the case.

The problem is that virtually all American infantry are trained in Second Generation tactics. The Second Generation reduces all tactics to one tactic: bump into the enemy and call for fire. The French, who invented the Second Generation, summarize it as, “Firepower conquers, the infantry occupies.” The supporting firepower, originally artillery, now most often airstrikes, must be massive. If it is not – as is now the case in Afghanistan, under General McChrystal’s directive – the infantry is in trouble. Everything it has been taught depends on fire support it no longer has. Inevitably, its casualties will rise, and it will often lose engagements.

Fortunately, the answer to this problem has been known for a long time – several centuries, in fact. It is true light infantry or Jaeger tactics. True light infantry has a broad and varied tactical repertoire. It depends only on its own (modest) firepower. Jaeger tactics were an influence on the development of Third Generation tactics, but Jaeger tactics remain a more sophisticated version of those (infiltration) tactics. They are ideally suited to Fourth Generation wars, especially in mountain country like Afghanistan’s.

If we are to reduce American casualties in the Afghan war while sustaining General McChrystal’s absolutely necessary restrictions on supporting arms, we need a crash program to teach U. S. Army and Marine Corps infantry Jaeger tactics. The Marine Corps, which as usual is somewhat ahead of the game, has began such a program, called “Combat Hunter” (Jaeger is the German word for hunter).

This is not a case where we need to invent anything. The literature on true light infantry tactics is extensive. Works on 18th century light infantry remain instructive; I would recommend Johan Ewald’s diary of the American Revolution (Ewald was a Hessian Jaeger company commander) and J.F.C. Fuller’s British Light Infantry in the 18th Century. More recent works of value include the light infantry field manuals published by the K.u.K. Marine Corps (available here on d.n.i. and on the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School website); Dr. Steven Canby’s superb Modern Light Infantry and New Technology (1983 – done under DOD contract); and John Poole’s books. Some of our NATO allies also have Jaeger units from which we could learn.

About twenty years ago, a commander of the Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, General Burba, attempted to shift the school to teaching light infantry instead of Second Generation tactics. He formed a Light Infantry Task Force, which I visited and which was doing excellent work. The effort died when General Burba left, but some of the officers who participated in it should still be available. The Army could and should find them and their work and put them in charge of an emergency training program.

The Advanced Warfighting Seminar at EWS, which I lead, is continuing to work on this suddenly critical issue. One product in progress is a simple how-to manual showing a company commander how to convert his company to light infantry. Platoon, company and battalion commanders, as well as schools, are welcome to contact the seminar through Major Greg Thiele USMC at gregory.thiele@usmc.mil.

Retraining American infantry in true light infantry tactics is not something that can wait. It is the only escape from the dilemma of loosing troops and engagements for lack of supporting fires or losing the Afghan war by calling those fires in. The usual DOD years-long, hyper-expensive “program” with its cast of thousands (of contractors) is unacceptable. Commanders of platoons, companies, battalions and schools have a moral obligation to do this now, bottom-up, without waiting for approval from Gosplan. Not a moment must be lost.

Note: There will be no On War column for the next two weeks, as I will be in Greater Sweden (Sweden plus the Balticum), first with Mr. Chapman’s Skargardsflottan, then revisiting Operation Albion.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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