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Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer

Okay, time for a deep dive into the tactical. The point of departure is this paper by Army Maj. Thomas Ehrhart, Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer (.pdf), written last year at the Command and General Staff College, that says fighting in Afghanistan has exposed the fact that American infantry are poorly equipped and trained for long range firefights.

In Afghanistan, the infantryman’s “weapons, doctrine, and marksmanship training do not provide a precise, lethal fire capability to 500 meters and are therefore inappropriate,” Ehrhart says. Unlike on the streets of Iraq, where firefights were few and were typically fought under 300 meters, insurgents in Afghanistan skillfully use the wide open rural and mountainous terrain to stretch the battlefield. The following excerpt sums it up pretty well:

“Comments from returning non-commissioned officers and officers reveal that about fifty percent of engagements occur past 300 meters. The enemy tactics are to engage United States forces from high ground with medium and heavy weapons, often including mortars, knowing that we are restricted by our equipment limitations and the inability of our overburdened soldiers to maneuver at elevations exceeding 6000 feet. Current equipment, training, and doctrine are optimized for engagements under 300 meters and on level terrain.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this paper, the author gets into the relative merits and disadvantages of the 5.56mm round, reliability of the M4, the rifleman’s standard ACOG site, basic training, adding more marksmen to the squad and even the shortcomings of the standard issue magazines (Magpul gets a real big shout out for their PMAG M4 mag replacement). He concludes that only with significant changes to training, doctrine and weapons will infantry be able to engage targets out to 500 meters.
“In the table of organization for a light infantry company only the six –M240B 7.62-mm machineguns, two- 60-mm mortars and nine designated marksman armed with either 7.62-mm M14 rifles or accurized 5.56-mm M16A4’s rifles are able to effectively engage the enemy. These weapons systems represent 19 percent of the company’s firepower. This means that 81 percent of the company has little effect on the fight. This is unacceptable.”
I’m going to get into a number of these points throughout the week, but first off, I want to get into Ehrhart’s description of meeting engagements in Afghanistan and the standard U.S. tactical response. “The enemy travels light and employs supporting weapons from standoff, to include mortars and medium machineguns. Faced with these conditions, the modern [U.S.] infantry attempts to fix the enemy with direct fire and use supporting assets to kill the enemy,” he writes.

Supporting assets is either artillery, if in range, or more commonly air strikes. My question, can U.S. troops be provided enough organic lethality that they can overmatch the enemy with both direct and indirect fires without having to wait for air strikes? Prompt air support might not always be available and the infantry must have the weapons to overmatch the Taliban.

The Soviets in Afghanistan ran into the same tactical challenge. Read accounts of Soviet infantry firefights in Afghanistan in the 1980s and you’ll see they invariably hauled their AGS-17 30mm grenade launcher with them on most every dismounted operation, particularly in the mountains. It was cherished for its high rate of fire and nearly 1,700 meter range.

I know this gets into another important point the paper raises, which is an overly encumbered infantryman trying to run down Taliban light fighters. Yet, at around 50 pounds with tripod and ammo, the whole package was relatively light and mobile; it could be broken down into manageable parts. Soviet infantry valued the AGS-17 so much they built a special harness that attached to the assistant gunner’s back so that if they ran into a firefight he would drop down on his stomach and the gunner would mount the grenade thrower to his back and begin firing. The AGS-17 became the weapon around which the squad or fire team was organized, much like the light machine gun in U.S. and western armies.

U.S. infantry do not have a comparable weapon. The Mk. 19 40mm launcher weighs 73 pounds (the AGS-17 gun weighs 37 pounds), and that’s just the gun, add another 20 pounds for the tripod and then ammunition and you see why it’s typically mounted on vehicles. The weapon also has a bad reputation for rattling itself apart during sustained use.

The Soviets learned pretty quickly in Afghanistan that high rates of fire were vital. Lessons from Afghanistan led them to mount auto-cannon on their BMP infantry fighting vehicles, BTR wheeled vehicles and they rushed lots of ZSU 23-4 quad anti-aircraft guns to theater. The Soviets had lots of towed, rapid fire anti-aircraft guns organic to their infantry units and these were liberally placed about combat outposts in Afghanistan.

Another U.S. shortcoming in the small arms fight is the lack of a GPS guided mortar round. Only now is the Army developing a GPS round for its 60mm and 81mm mortars, and they have yet to reach the battlefield. With a 60mm mortar and GPS guided rounds, American infantry would be ale to accurately target Taliban fighters on the next ridgeline, and even behind it.

The American military, and particularly the Army, has been “platform focused,” doctrine and weapons development has focused on crews fighting a mounted weapons system, be it a tank, Bradley or what have you (the Army plans to spend $7 billion over the next few years to develop a new armored fighting vehicle to add to its massive fleet of armored fighting vehicles). The future of irregular conflict will predominantly be small-unit infantry fights, a fact the acquisition community has not grasped. It’s about time they did and begin fielding lightweight, highly accurate and lethal weapons that are easily carried by the infantry.

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