Light, Medium, and Heavy Ground Units - Pros, Cons, and Controversies

Discussion in 'Professional Discussions' started by Norfolk, Aug 15, 2007.

  1. Norfolk
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    Norfolk Junior Member
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    Medium Formations - The Standard Infantry Division

    The fundamental Army tactical formation, the Infantry Division, has been nelgected in Western Armies for some time now, and the PLA has shed, and continues to shed, many more of them. The Russians did away with them entirely back in the 1950's (committed as they were to a concept of mobile offensive warfare). The US Army has replaced its traditional standard Infantry Division composed of 3 Infantry Brigades (with organic wheeled transportation), a brigade of towed Medium (155mm) Artillery, a battalion each of MBTs, Field Engineers, Cavalry/Reconnaissance, and Anti-Aircraft Artillery, along with sufficient APCs to mechanize one of its infantry battalions, with the Infantry Division (Light). The Infantry Division (Light) has 3 Light Infantry Brigades (little or no organic wheeled trasportation and little in the way of medium or heavy ATGMs), a brigade of towed Light (105mm)Artillery, no tanks or APCs, and a battalion each of Field Engineers, Cavalry/Reconnaissance, and Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery.

    The rational for converting the medium standard infantry divisions into light infantry divisions was to improve their deployability. But the resulting organization and equipment of the light infantry divisions has left them unable to deal with any but the lightest enemy opposition without substantial reinforcement and "heavying-up" with units attached form Army Corps-level. This observation was made by Michael W. Miller in "The Light Infantry Division: Essential Component of National Defense or Cold War Relic?":

    http://handle.dtic/mil/100.2/ADA370320

    Since the URL doesn't appear to be working, Google to DTIC, and enter the title in the DTIC search-box.

    The light Infantry Divisions were originally designed for rapid-deployment to the Near East oilfields in the event of a crisis or war there. None were used for such in either the First Gulf War in 1991, or for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Somalia, the rifle company from the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), which pulled off the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" rescue of the Rangers and Delta Force in Mogadishu, had to be mounted in Malaysian Army APCs and reinforced with a platoon of Pakistani Army MBTs in order to fight their way in and out. Even in the 1989-1990 invasion of Panama, in which the 7th Infantry Division (Light) was deployed, tanks, vehicles, and helicopters from the brigades of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) also present had to be attached to the 7th Division's units in order to carry out its own missions.

    The Light Infantry Divisions possess no organic tanks (not even light) or APCs, little wheeled transportation to move troops or supplies around where needed most, and only light artillery. The 105mm shell has long been considered to be good for suppression, but lacking killing power, especially against enemy armour. The 155mm shell possesses good killing power, allowing dug-in standard infantry divisions, along with their greater numbers of medium- and heavy-ATGMs and modest numbers of MBTs and APCs to fend off enemy Armour, at least for a while, or at least inflicting heavy losses on said.

    As is, the archetypal Light Infantry Formation, the Airborne Division, specially organized and equipped for rapid-deployment anytime, anywhere, should be capable of handling the Light Division role. The 82nd Airborne Division, not the Light Infantry Divisions, was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to buy time in the event of an Iraqi invasion, and it was somewhat better-armed and equipped than the Light Infantry Divisions that were specifically created fior this very same mission. Whatever the doubts about the Airborne's ability to fend off Heavy Formations (like Armoured Divisions), it was clear the Light Infantry Divisions were not up to the job they were created for. Miller makes this clear in his monograph, noting that the Army Corps-level attachments that Light Infantry Divisions were permitted to have in order to carry out their tasks effectively transformed them back into a traditional Medium Formation, namely, the standard Infantry Division.

    Instead, Miller argues for the return of the standard Infantry Division, a Medium Formation that is fully capable of offensive operations with its own organic forces in any except a high-intensity, mechanized war while capable of effective defensive operations in any kind of warfare, and yet is far easier to deploy quickly than a Heavy Formation such as an Armoured or Mechanized Infantry Division. He envisages the standard Infantry Division in high-intensity mechanized warfare as holding ground while the Armoured Divisions are thereupon released to engage in decisive offensive or mobile defensive operations. The standard Infantry Division normally can fully engage in offensive and defensive operations in low- to medium-intensity warfare.

    Incidently, the US Marine Divisions are organized and equipped as standard Infantry Divisions (albeit with additional specialized training and equipment for amphibious operations). In Desert Shield, the 82nd Airborne was soon joined by the 1st Marine Division, and later the 2nd Marine Division, greatly strengthening the defence agsinst any hypothetical Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia in the summer and fall of 1990 prior to the arrival of the US Army's Armoured and Mechanized Infantry Divisions in strength.

    In both Desert Storm in 1991 and the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003, the Marine Divisions were instrumental in destroying Iraqi Formations and clearing cities such as Fallujah. Existing US Army Heavy Formations lacked sufficient infantry to do the latter, while Light Formations such as the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) lacked the MBTs and APCs to allow them to survive and clear fortified areas in cities. The Marines, having plentiful infantry as well as Medium Artillery and modest amounts of MBTS and APCs, have been used to clear some of the most dangerous areas in Iraq.

    The PLA retains standard Infantry Divisions, albeit with a full Tank Regiment (3 Battalions) instead of just one Tank Battalion, but as it seeks to modernise, it is shedding the majority of them. If the US experience is any indication, this may be a bad idea if the reductions go to far.
     
    #21 Norfolk, Oct 28, 2007
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2007
  2. zraver
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    zraver Junior Member
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    Re: Medium Formations - The Standard Infantry Division

    One must remember the the US Army is still the child of the Cold War. urban combat was to be avoided, this was the lesson learned by both sides in the ashes of the Reich. The brutal battles in places like Stalingrad, Berlin, Aachen and Metz showed that a determined defending force could maul larger formations for little tactical gain. As a result both sides developed a strategy that centered on affecting a decisive battlefield win through maneuver, fire and shock; the three things a tank excels at. That this was the right idea is born out in both of the Iraqi wars when the US Army heavy divisions slaughtered the Iraqi's not just through superior technology, but through superior operational thinking. In a schema that places a premium on the ability to rapidly cross the battlefield and drive the fight home to the enemy on terms unfavorable to him, infantry is less important.

    The insurgency is not a type of war main force units typically do well with. They are trained and equipped to fight other main force units and have an almost concrete fixation on conventional warfare that maximizes this training and equipage. The USMC's infantry surplus is less a result of foresight, than of a different mission. large amounts of infantry are difficult to transport across the battlefield unless you want to use overly large and easily targeted battle taxis (like the marines Amtracks) or trucks. But conversely are easier to transport across vast distances like oceans. Because an amphibious battle rarely requires depth but does require the ability to absorb casualties the USMC had to keep a large infantry force. That these vary traits (lack of operational depth and ability to absorb losses) also apply to an urban battle is an accident.

    The PLA must decide which or where it will place its emphasis. And this depends on its strategic priorities. One one hand there is Russia, all current good feelings aside Russia is not a historic friend of China. Meeting Russia in battle means matching Russia in tanks. On the other hand any invasion of Taiwan or insurgency campaign to suppress an internal rebellion will probably require infantry involved in urban combat.
     
  3. Mightypeon
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    Mightypeon Junior Member
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    I would like to add my viewpoint as an Artillery Jock.

    First, there are 3 ways of not getting killed on the battlefield.
    Either you hide well, or you are tough, or you shoot the other side before it shoots you.

    Historically, beeing able to hide well is propably the oldest strategem of mankind. I also doubt that "hiding" will ever go out of fashion in the battlefields of the future.
    In contrast, beeing "tough" is very relative to the current technological development.

    A T-34 was very tough in its time, on todays battlefield it would be a rolling grave.
    However, a Vietcong could hide today as well as he could hide in the Vietnam War.

    It is incredibly hard to predict what kind of road the "race" of better tank armour vs. better armour piercing weaponry will take, however I would say that the "hiding" side will still enjoy a safe advantadge over those who wish to find them.

    In the end, I think that the PLA would be ill advised to completely forgo its light infantry.
     
  4. zraver
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    zraver Junior Member
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    Hiding can be extremely overrated. Modern sensors like thermal, sound, radar and seismic units ground based, in the air etc can keep watch over large areas. In Iraq and Afghanistan thousands of insurgents have died without ever knowing they were watched. Modern technology means that the key to hiding is not grouping together. 5-10 military aged men will set off alarms in any observant watcher but might not bring attack, 20 in a group will. Modern technology thus denies in large part the ability to achieve mass where you need it in most situations.

    If you cannot concentrate your forces, then the options you as a military commander have are much more limited than if you can. Referring again to Iraq, the insurgents were able to achieve mass in the cites where the large urban population provided cover. However when coalition forces moved in to eject them, mass again became a problem since sensors could often detect even smallish groups and hammer them with impunity. It turned places like Fallujah into giant mine clearing operations instead of the Grozny style fight the insurgents wanted.

    Light infantry means by definition it lacks a lot of supporting heavy equipment. An equal number of heavy infantry vs light infantry all other things being the same means the light infantry dies. Where light infantry has its uses have already been detailed by me and others. marines, paratroopers, air mobile troops and commandos. Specialized roles designed to support the heavy fight. While it is true that light/medium infantry units excell at COIN ops, so can heavy units given more infantry, infact the heavy unit would probably be better. The tank as a tool in COIN has been proven again. Hard to kill, great pin point accuracy with heavy inexpensive fire power, psychological affect on both warring parties, loads of sensors and com gear etc.

    However I must confess a slight change of heart since 2007. In that time i have become somewhat of a fan of the Stryker Brigade concept. In WWII the Germans used security divisions equipped with more support than light infantry units but less than line heavy units to control the countryside. For the most part where these units were, the partisans were not. The Stryker Brigade serves the same purpose in a COIN setting in denying an area to the enemy. The Stryker is also highly robust to the types of weapons insurgents seem to be using- IED/RPG. If a Bradley runs over an IED its tracked and infantry has to fight their way out on foot or hunker down and wait for relief. A Stryker can often retain mobility even after losing multiple wheels. This has an impact on both sides, insurgencies need to be able to kill the enemy. The Stryker works against this goal. The Stryker is also fast and units such mounted can get places in a city very fast. Much faster than tracked units and with far less noise.

    All that being said, the Stryker is still not a unit fit for a real fight. A Stryker company with 2 Stryker MGS in support vs an IFV company is seriously outgunned in every thing but infantry so must open the fight at much closer ranges where shorter ranged infantry borne AT weapons can target the heavy unit effectively. This of course brings us full circle back to hiding- if even one Stryker is spotted from any of the aforementioned sensors- the smart enemy commander will assume where there is one there is a dozen.

    Russia is trying address this problem by sticking the turret of a BMP-2M onto the body of a BTR-80 to created the BTR-90. The mobility of the wheel, the firepower of the IFV. But this design sacrifices protection from things like RPG's that the Strykers heavier protection accounts for. Although you could probably add slat type armor fairly easily. But the BTR-90 is not a light or medium infantry asset at all, but a heavy force unit.
     
  5. rommel
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    I think that today's evolving environment of warfare still require the presence of the 3 kind of units, but differently.

    I considered that heavy unit's importance have diminished, while light and medium unit have gain a lot of fans amongst modern military planners.

    First, the economical and political situation of most country. Heavy unit is hard to maintain and resupply. If they are a deployed oversee or in a foreign region, they take a huge amount of resources (fuel, food, spare parts, etc) which are not so cost-effective. It's not economically viable for numbers of countries for a sustained war effort. Therefore, a lot of politicians wouldn't take the risk of keeping a huge force of heavy units because of the price to pay to keep them in fighting shape.

    Still, on the constantly changing modern battlefield, heavy unit still exist but in a different way. Before, we were talking about force concentration, like tank division where armor were concentrated in this unit, the main goal is to pack the more punch as possible for a division. Since this time, the possibility of a massive warfare have declined. Mainly due because the materialist and post-materialist values of modern societies isn't ready to face a total war situation were each country have to mobilize his entire industry and population toward the war effort. But also the emergence of air power, asymmetrical warfare and the new role of information ask for a highly versatile force, in which the old concept of heavy, medium and light division were considered too cumbersome and not enough flexible. The new trend is the task force/brigade concept where those have less man, but are more diversified and include heavy, medium and light units working together which are able to adapt to the battlefield more easily.
     
    #25 rommel, Nov 27, 2009
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2009
  6. rhino123
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    rhino123 Pencil Pusher
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    At present age, most wars and battles waged are mainly from a much more advance nation (US, UK, etc) against a much less adance nation (Iraq, Kosovo, etc). Therefore we are not seeing an all out war of the advance nations. It does not mean that the war waged before in World War I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War, will not occur again.

    However I fully support your idea that Heavy ground unit are slowly becoming obsolete due to the emergence of air force and other asymmetrical warfare. However if the two nations at war actually have equal air force and not one of them could actually win over the other to have a total air superiority, then heavy military units such as MBT and other heavy armour and artillery (howitzers, MLRS, etc) are still extremely valuable.

    Therefore without total air superiority, two armies will still fight it out using all three services (light, medium and heavy) ground units.
     
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