24 April GovExec.com - Infantry Transformed by New Tools, Training by Sydney Freedberg Jr.

...War is driving change across the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and nowhere more so than in the oldest military specialty of all, the often-neglected foot soldiers of the infantry.

While air forces evolved from biplanes to stealth bombers, and navies from gun turrets to cruise missiles, the "poor bloody infantry" stayed mostly the same from the First World War to the Persian Gulf War: helmets, grenades, rifles, a few light machine guns, and leather boots. The decades added awkward flak vests that could sometimes stop shrapnel, but not bullets...

Soldier as System

A revolution is under way in the American infantry. After 9/11, "the box opened up," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Howell, a Benning instructor. In the 1990s, the Army's mantra was," 'The book says -- the book says,' " he recalled. "Now it's, 'What's your experience in Iraq?' "

Survey teams went to Baghdad shortly after the city fell in 2003 to get feedback from troops on their equipment. "I'm still amazed at all the changes that have been made -- body armor, knee pads, helmet chin straps, even these boots," Howell said, "because a soldier said, 'This would be better,' and somebody listened. Now the Army is actually listening."

The institutional Army still struggles, however, to treat foot soldiers with the same focused seriousness that it treats tanks. "It's difficult because it requires us to make changes in how we fund items," said Col. Robert Radcliffe, director of Combat Developments at Fort Benning's Infantry Center.

A tank is designed, tested, and fielded as a package: "It's got a weapon, it's got communications, it's got armor. But we've never treated a soldier as a system," Radcliffe said. "We've got a rifle that's got its own funding line and a radio that's got its own funding line. As we develop equipment, we give it to the soldier, never paying much attention to how these pieces of equipment interact." ...

Why Infantry, Anyway?

Out of 1.4 million military personnel on active duty, according to retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who was an Army War College commandant, "at last count, there were 65,000 infantrymen in the Army and the Marine Corps, combined. They wouldn't fill [Washington's] FedEx stadium! With the exception of Kosovo" -- a campaign waged entirely by air strikes -- "in every war this nation has fought, we have run out of infantry. What we've had was airpower and artillery that was able, to some degree, to make up for the deficiencies of the infantry with firepower. So what have our enemies done lately? They've found ways to avoid firepower."

The insurgency began in Iraq when the ragtag guerrillas of the Saddam Fedayeen survived a U.S. onslaught that destroyed Saddam Hussein's best-armored tanks. Bombarding the cities where the Fedayeen holed up would have caused horrific civilian casualties -- without necessarily defeating the Fedayeen, as history shows. Unrestricted firepower flattened countless buildings in World War II, such as the hilltop monastery of Monte Cassino, but the defending infantry didn't just survive, the soldiers turned the rubble into fortresses -- from which only other infantry units could dig them out. Nor are today's smart weapons the whole answer: Saddam evaded missile strikes only to be hauled out of his spider hole by a foot soldier.

M1 tanks and M2 armored transports built for the plains of Cold War Europe have proven to be effective city fighters, spearheading assaults into Baghdad and Falluja. But someone still has to walk alongside to keep insurgents from sneaking up in the juggernauts' blind spots. And no tank or spy plane can search the inside of a house.

So in Iraq, technically trained troops such as artillerymen and engineers often park their heavy equipment and pull double duty as infantrymen. And with no demarcated front line in Iraq, mechanics and supply clerks and other rear-area troops end up defending their base areas and convoys...

The Armor Dilemma

In early 2003, the Army and Marines began fielding thousands of sets of "small-arms protective inserts," a bulletproof ceramic plate that slips into the standard flak jacket. "The first time I had the SAPI plates was when they were issued in Kuwait" just before the invasion of Iraq, recalled Marine Corps Maj. Patrick Cashman. "We knew that pocket was in the vest for something: Maps? Toilet paper?"

For the first time in 400 years, since the perfection of the musket, the technology of protecting the infantryman had caught up, almost, to the technology of killing him...

Precision-Guided Humans

When he went through basic training just 10 years ago, recalled Staff Sgt. Howell, the drill sergeants' mantra was, "Put your head down and walk!" Now an Iraq veteran and drill sergeant himself, Howell said, "the No. 1 thing I stress for these soldiers is, you have to look around. You have to know what's normal. That way you can know what's abnormal. So if you come down the road one day and there's no kids playing where there used to be kids, you get that feeling in your stomach and tell someone, before the attack."

Today, "Know the normal" is the infantryman's mantra. "He needs to look for the absence of the normal, as opposed to the presence of the abnormal," said Maj. Clark, the Marine officer, unconsciously echoing the Army sergeant. "Children on the street -- trash on the street -- the slightest change. He is himself an intelligence-gathering device." Instructors at Benning now often leave soda cans, sandbags, or other objects out of place in the barracks to test how quickly the recruits notice...

"We Know Who We Kill"

Well-trained troops can "out-see" the enemy by day as well. Soldiers and marines still carry an updated version of the M-16 rifle introduced in Vietnam -- but the military has actually suspended work on a replacement weapon, the XM-8, to devote funds to what it considers the real revolution: adding gun sights to existing rifles.

After a cease-fire cut short that first assault on Falluja in April 2004, Maj. Farnum recalled, "one of the first things that the insurgents requested was that the Marine Corps pull out all the snipers from Falluja. They thought we had snipers everywhere. But it was regular marines, trained in combat marksmanship, with the advanced combat optics."

"That's not a new technology," said Maj. Cashman of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. "We didn't invent the telescopic sight." But after a trial fielding of a thousand ACOGs -- Advanced Combat Optic Gunsights -- to Iraq in 2004, he said, "word got back: These were war-winners, and we've given [them] to every single Marine infantryman."

Unlike the Marine Corps, the Army restricts the telescopic sights to one designated marksman in each squad. Regular soldiers -- including an ever-larger majority of recruits at Fort Benning -- instead get a "close combat optic," a sighting device that has no magnification but is suitable for short-range street fights...

Information Warriors

For decades, if military doctrine mentioned civilians at all, it treated them as just one more obstacle on the battlefield. Infantry in Iraq have learned to watch the mood of local civilians -- or their absence -- as the best clue of an impending ambush. And commanders have learned to make better use of both civilian informants and their own foot patrols' firsthand observations.

As a young officer in Fort Benning's infantry captain's course in 2000, recalled Maj. Desmond Bailey, who is now back as an instructor, "I don't think we ever discussed civilian considerations."

In the 1990s, said Lt. Col. Steven Russell, who commanded Bailey in Iraq and now heads the captain's school, civilians were mentioned in Army training only in the context of a peacekeeping mission that would follow a conflict.

When training for actual combat, Bailey said, "we just wished the civilians away." But as a commander in Iraq, Capt. Thomas said, "That was the steepest learning curve: Not having the ability to wish the civilians away and focus on a uniformed enemy. You may spend part of the day on patrol, getting in a direct-fire engagement, but four hours later, you're meeting with a local sheik."...
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