April 18, 2005

Quality in the Military Matters

StrategyPage has a good column on how important troop quality is in war.

The U.S. Department of Defense has concluded that infantry can no longer be considered “cannon fodder,” but highly trained specialists who should be the focus of all efforts to build an effective fighting force. This idea has been around for a long time, but has now become holy writ. This is all because of the U.S. Army experience in Iraq, where it became obvious to even the slow learners that quality matters. And the quality has to do with the troops, not the high tech equipment they use. That quality factor was first recognized in action during the 1991 Gulf War. American units tore right through Iraqi troops, exceeding American commanders most optimistic expectations. Through the 1990s, the U.S. Army studied what happened during the 1991 war, and why. It was concluded that the main reason for the success there was the quality of the troops. All were volunteers, and most were in the service for at least four years. But another factor emerged from this study, the importance of troops being together in the same unit for a long time. Most of the combat units in the 1991 war had several months together in Saudi Arabia, and that time was spent training. This time together caused a bonding that old soldiers had noted in Vietnam and earlier wars. The army resolved to try and make this “cohesion” at standard army practice. That seemed to be the secret of combat success; quality troops who work together for a long time.

The quality formula worked again in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003 and later). In Afghanistan, it was only a few hundred Special Forces troops, several dozen CIA field agents (many of them former military), and a few thousand regular infantry (who arrived late in the operation) that brought down the Taliban in a few months. The army always knew it had an elite force in the Special Forces, but even these elite operators outdid themselves in Afghanistan. The army now recognized that the key to victory was a small number of combat troops. In fact, out of half a million troops, only about fifty thousand were actual “shooters” (mostly infantry, but including tank and artillery crews, recon troops and engineers). There were only about 5,000 Special Forces operators. It was about ten percent of the army that ultimately got the job done in Iraq. The other troops were important. Even infantry companies had some support troops who, if not competent, reduced the effectiveness of the shooters. But it’s what the infantry have with them at the front that makes the difference.

Posted by Ted at April 18, 2005 9:12 PM