Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Combat Arm of Decision

I'm sure most of you have read Gian Gentile's latest at SWJ on the death of the Armor Corps. I don't intend to dissect the entire paper here, but I do want to talk about a couple of points.

Gian is absolutely correct that today's mechanized force does not know how to do a combined arms operation at the brigade level (he mentions division, but I'm not so concerned with that - I'm not sure what that would even look like). Now, being a cavalryman, I have no time or patience for breech operations - I'm more of a bypass, re-gas, haul ass kind of guy - but you older tanker folks know how hard a battalion/brigade-level obstacle breech is. If you think COIN is graduate-level war, a brigade breech is something closer to post-doc. And we don't train it anymore at NTC with live bullets like we used to. If I recall correctly, my brigade was one of the last to do it and that was back in 2004 sometime. Someday, somewhere, the U.S. Army is going to have to do that and we won't be prepared for it.

Gian is also partially correct on individual crew skills. I think that gunnery skills are important for tank and Bradley crews and it's true that we don't spend the time we used to on those skills. On the other hand, tank platoons are doing what they can to prepare their units for combat. Rest assured, the M1 series tank has been used quite a bit in Iraq. In 2008, one of my favorite tank platoon sergeants was slinging 120mm all over Sadr City when that area rose against the government again. And he and his platoon did it very well and played a big role in pacifying the area. I don't imagine he was the only SFC making sure his crews were ready for a big fight and I don't think that gunnery skills have eroded to the point where the Armor Corps is now dead.

Many of our readers will dismiss (or embrace) Gian's paper out of hand. I don't agree with all of it nor do I think all of it is accurate, but there are a number of points in it that need to be heeded. The Armor Corps is certainly not dead and is not nearing its demise. Yet. Hopefully longer dwell times will help bring competencies back to the level where they were and provide the time to train those skills required in today's fights.


  1. YOu're right. Armor isn't dead. FA is dead.


  2. That is a comment that I will not try to dispute.

  3. I think we were both on that NTC rotation (Mar/Apr 2004)- the one where we got to do a repeat of the final BCT exercise so the the planners could fix their issues with unit boundaries. I was Wildbunch 5 (A/1-64 AR) back then. Lots of fun.

    I never understood why NTC forced us to do a breech. I'd ask why we couldn't bypass, and the OC would respond that we couldn't change our unit boundaries. I always thought that approach was limiting and teaching the wrong lessons.

  4. Yup, that's the one. I was a scout platoon leader in A/3-7 CAV at the time. Since we didn't get time to do a gunnery before the rotation (thanks to the whole "you're not DIVCAV anymore and you're going to NTC in 5 weeks"), we couldn't play in the live fire and had to "screen" the brigade's western flank. It was pretty boring.

    And yes, the scenario was pretty jacked up. They could have come up with a better reason (though again, I'm all about bypass) just to make the brigade go through that nutroll. They also could have given me bullets to shoot, too.

  5. That was my last venture with the "Send Me" brigade and Marne Division. My daughter was born in May, and we were off to Knox in June. I think a couple of my friends (Doug Hoyt and Brandon Shell) made their way over to 3/7 as y'all transitioned to a RSTA. I'm not sure if they went to y'all or 4BCT RSTA.

    If you have some time, I think your experience in 3/7 would help the discussion on the death, rebirth, or adaption of Armor in small wars. From the intitial invasion as DIV Recon and some absence of leadership (I apologize but I can't remember which troop commander quit Alpha or Bravo) highlighting your success and failures through transition to a RSTA and follow on deployments to Baghdad, you've kinda gone full circle in this debate.

    So, in that regard, you've seen a lot.

  6. On SNLII's comment - I liked the explanation an FA battery commander once gave me as to why his troops were all acting as provisional infantrymen and hadn't seen their guns in who knows how long - "FA is the opposable thumb on the iron fist of justice!"

  7. "If you have some time"... Boy, I sure wish I did. I like the idea though. And it was definitely B Troop that had commander issues. The FSO seemed to command the troop for most of the invasion.

    @ Tintin. Hilarious.

  8. That is funny, Tintin.

    Actually, Gunslinger, I don't think many people will dismiss Gentile's perspective out of hand (Starbuck and Ricks the only ones).

    I think we all know that there's a ring of truth (worn on the middle finger of the hand of justice) to what he writes.

    My beef with his essay is that it's not empirical. There actually are studies that have been done about declining skillsets, what is taught and retained during the train-up, what exercises are conducted now at NTC, JTC, et al.

    Those are the empirical stuff that sells a point, not the misty notion of "an Armor way of thinking" that he discusses.

    Yes, there is a bureaucratic culture that scabs together over time in a branch that defines how it will engage in certain types of warmaking. Having come from the infantry (USMC, then Army, mostly light and special), I can certainly rattle off some of our branch cultural assumptions.

    But I also would attempt to present this sort of essay in a more systematic format, not the j'accuse indictment of the creeping Petraeus/Ricks/Starbuck matrix of COINophilia that it became.

    Why should we hope to retain this "culture?" What is this "culture?" What parts are being lost? What can be done to mitigate that?

    He failed to answer those hard questions.


  9. I remember the breach exercise. NTC March-April 1989, but I was in an arty battalion of an infantry mech brigade, so we didn't have to dance too much other than suppressive fire missions. Damned cold, that's what I remember most.

    Re: Gian, he does exaggerate to make his point, but as you said, he does have some good points to be made.

  10. Great discussion, thanks, enjoyed it much! However, saying 'FA is dead' is like the grunts I've heard saying 'Armor is dead', then wondering why it's so hard for them to accomplish a training mission without the support they could have asked for (one reason I didn't last as grunt after being a 19E and K). Go visit a Paladin Battery, see how 'dead' artillery is. :)