In December of 2017, the Pentagon announced that over 2,000 troops were in Syria fighting against the Islamic State. The 2,000 figure marked the latest in a bit of creative calculus that started under the previous administration and carried into the current administration, and counted service members on temporary duty of six months or less who were not previously included.
The troops on the ground in Syria “include traditional combat forces like infantry, artillery and forward air controllers trained to call in airstrikes, as well as support personnel” as reported by the New York Times. Of course, amidst the—what could be mildly called—chaotic news cycle, the story didn’t receive much traction.
Unfortunately, these service members do not receive the attention that they deserve. It is easier to focus on high profile weapons systems that cost billions of dollars than it is to focus on the nitty gritty guns, boots, and armor of the infantry. This is, at its core, the critique levied by Maj. Gen. Robert Scales (USA ret.) in his latest and self-stated last book. Maj. Gen. Scales’ book is a worthwhile read, but one that loses its focus in later chapters.
Up front, the infantry is the core focus of Maj. Gen. Scales—its use and its often abuse. As Maj. Gen. Scales writes in Task & Purpose, 81%, four out of five deaths in war, since World War II have been infantry. Yet, when it comes to spending and attention, frontline combat units are at the bottom of the acquisitions spectrum. Body armor, personal radios, small arms and crew served weapon systems, and the care and support of infantry units is grossly overshadowed by the large acquisitions programs like the F-35 and F-22.
Air superiority assets are prioritized over close air support capabilities—the favorite of infantry units. Even within the Marines, air power assets are acquired at greater rates than ground vehicles, so much so that the Rep. Niki Tsongas, the ranking member of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, raised her concerns.
It is more than just equipment. It is fundamentally about leadership as well. In War on the Rocks, Maj. Gen. Scales and his co-authors write “today, only 19 percent of the Marine Corps’ 648 active-duty infantry rifle squads are led by the appropriately trained, sergeant squad leader they are required to have.” That’s a staggering figure when one steps back and remembers the importance of the NCO cadre in battlefield leadership. NCOs are the backbone of combat leadership. Without adequately trained leaders, combat effectiveness can drop precipitously.
Where Maj. Gen. Scales is at his weakest is at two parts. First, his fixation on technological solutions to the challenges of the infantry somewhat undermines his earlier criticism about the fascination with technology. There are undoubtedly immediate solutions to the challenges of front line infantry—solutions that we should and must adopt. These are bread and butter solutions: better and lighter body armor, more effective small arms and crew served weapon systems, personal radios and communications, lighter equipment, etc.
There is a cottage industry of firearms and tactical equipment manufacturers that could scale up to meet service-wide requirements. Indeed, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has broken through the acquisitions morass and made getting the best equipment for its personnel the most important mission. One need not look further than this month’s SHOT Show to see the range of tools potentially available to our warfighters.
But these solutions fall well short of the high speed, low drag technological solutions articulated by Maj. Gen. Scales and are solutions that can and should be fielded today. Squad-level drones, person-to-person battlefield communications, and the like are slightly longer term propositions the benefits of which need to be weighed against the costs in terms of weight, combat effectiveness, and other factors such as security.
Look at the recent concern over DJI-manufactured drones and the company’s link to China. A sensible potential solution—a personal quadcopter—is one that could carry operational security risks. Helmet-mounted cameras, also proposed by Maj. Gen. Scales, raise the specter of operational commanders drilling all the way down to an individual soldier or Marine’s position on the battlefield—something that would bring new meaning to the 10,000-mile screwdriver.
Maj. Gen. Scale’s strong arguments about the infantry are undermined by broad brush generalizations about politics and political leadership. To be sure, there are plenty of criticisms that can and should be levied against the political class, but his statements lack the focus and poignancy of his solid analysis of the infantry and the short shift it receives. The book could easily have dispensed, and in all likelihood should have dispensed, with these arguments and it would have been all the stronger for its concision.
It is easy to pay lip service to supporting the military. It is much more difficult to put the money where it matters. The Marine and Army infantry are the literal tip of America’s spear and deserve the best equipment and strongest support. Fielding top quality equipment that would do the most to arm and equip our infantry is likely a rounding error for many of the big budget weapons programs like the F-22 and F-35. Without frontline infantry, air superiority is worthless.