Infantry Close Combat

L129A1-Infantry-Sharpshooter-Rifle-

This is a follow up to the excellent post on small arms calibres by monty, the number and quality of comments is also a big tick in the Think Defence box, cheers fellas.

As was recognised by Monty and many commenters the issue of ammunition calibre is but one part of a more complex machine comprising a case, weapon, man, team members, training, logistics and a variety of other ‘stuff’. The best ammunition in the world is no good if it is not available when needed or those using it are not well enough trained to be effective and without proper tactics, it is nothing but an exhibition.

So rather than repeating the arguments for an intermediate calibre, I am going to look at a selection of wider aspects of close combat.

Let’s start with a joke…

“I might be hung like a donkey but there is no need to bloody well treat me like one!”

It’s a joke I trot out every time the wife asks me to carry another shopping bag, when she has finished laughing, at me, not the joke that is, I pick up the bag and trudge to the car! In a supermarket car park it’s only a joke, but in Afghanistan, in 40-degree heat, another ‘shopping bag’ isn’t very funny at all.

The weight of equipment that an infantry soldier has to carry is ridiculous, 60kg is not unusual, even for relatively short patrols.

As technology progresses, equipment generally becomes lighter as new lightweight materials are developed but this is rarely translated into an overall reduction in carried weight, we just seem to find a new kit to carry or just more of the same. If you look at video and images of infantry soldiers in Afghanistan you can see the effect of this, they are trying to fight an enemy who wears a dish-dash, carries an AK and half a dozen magazines, whilst wearing bulky body armour and carrying a small armoury and the contents of a G10 and sigs store.

Compare these images of soldiers in fighting order in Afghanistan with similar images of the conflict in Vietnam, Burma, Aden or Dhofar. Have we surrendered our mobility for protection and equipment carriage, instead, fighting in marching order?

The subjects below attempt to look at effectiveness with an eye on weight reduction, its a long rambling post but as with so many areas I try to cover, it is such a complex subject that it is impossible to cover in any depth.

So apologies in advance if this is a bit disjointed.

Have We Surrendered Manoeuvre?

Every engagement will be different but taking the defensive aside most engagements will be a deliberate attack or counter-ambush and there are many approaches to doctrine and tactics that dictate how each is handled whether that is the destruction of the enemy, being able to break contact and withdraw or forcing the enemy to withdraw.

There have also been many experiments with different section/platoon/company organisation and weapon distribution by the UK and overseas forces. Some say the role of the light machine gun is key, with sections arranged to support it, others say this should be the other way around. Each configuration has its advantages and disadvantages and like the ‘great calibre debate,’ there is no right or wrong answer, just differing degrees of compromise.

The government has been rightly criticised for failing to provide adequate equipment and protection for the armed forces. The press and public can relate to the simple subjects of body armour or boots so these become iconic items of equipment with tales of soldiers having to buy their own more grist to the mill. Personal equipment has never been a large an issue as it is now and speaks to any serving personnel and, squaddy moaning aside, they will tell you the personal equipment is superb.

There is also an obvious political and human desire to reduce casualties and minimise injury, whatever we might think, politicians, are human.

These two factors combine to create a corporate culture at the MoD that has removed the flexibility of local commanders and made the experimentation in organisation and tactics discussed above, very difficult.

With centrally mandated protection levels and more and more equipment adding to the weight an infantry soldier has to carry, have we been forced to rely on predictable tactics and the supporting capabilities like close air support, attack helicopters or artillery, to bring an engagement to a decisive conclusion?

If our rules of engagement are such that these offensive support capabilities are now increasingly difficult to justify and deploy, have we simply reduced the infantry to overloaded target practice for the enemy to take potshots at before departing?

Unburdening the infantry would mean that instead of relying on suppressing fire to hold the enemy in place whilst the indirect fire is organised that same fire could be used to enable a super featherweight team to rapidly execute a flanking manoeuvre, closing the distance and getting into a position to apply overwhelming and decisive shock imparted by speed and firepower.

Commanders in the field should have the freedom to make their own decisions based on the type of operation and local conditions. In some cases, this might mean no body armour, or plate carriers without the plates, letting them make decisions without the fear put operational decision making where it should be.

Soldiers are professionals and its about time we let them get on with their jobs, they understand the risks and the corporate culture of the MoD, no matter what the political cost, needs to reflect this. The reality is that in the majority of cases full protection would be the order of the day but commanders must have the flexibility to act as they see fit.

However, scratch the surface of these questions and there is a complex and often conflicting array of evidence and opinion but ultimately, the complex relation between rules of engagement, equipment, weapons, organisation and tactics is something we should be exploring on a continuous basis.

What works against one enemy, in one location and in one conflict will not always work in another, flexibility and unpredictability is the key to success but there are common elements, shock and manoeuvre being but two but both are significantly affected by weight.

Can We Reduce Weight?

Or even, should we?

One response might be to emphasise upper body strength in training regimes but would this rob valuable training time from other areas and lead to a reduction in other necessary physical attributes, it is not as simple as saying more PT. British forces are incredibly fit but in seeking yet more strength and changing the approach to physical training would be simply treating the short term symptoms and not addressing the cause?

There are many approaches to reducing the fighting load of dismounted soldiers involved in close combat.

It is also fair to say the MoD and other military organisations have long since recognised the problem and are doing as much as possible to address it but sometimes these efforts are neutralised by a lack of funding, new equipment requirements, a lack of integrated planning and non-joined-up thinking. The speed at which equipment is introduced, influenced by operations, can also have an adverse effect, as we know, things are never as simple as they might first appear.

In looking at weight the first thing to do is list what they carry, generally, it’s bullets, bombs and batteries but water, food, medical supplies, communications equipment, demolitions supplies, access platforms, metal detectors and ECM all add to the list. Plus, body armour of course and even there is a debate on the trade-off between protection against fragmentation, blast and bullets

Technology has its role to play but so do many other factors; doctrine, tactics and training are equally important.

I think that the answer to ‘can we reduce weight’ is ‘can we afford not to’

Weapons and Doctrine, a Complex Relationship

The Taleban are not stupid, they will probe for weakness, have shown great tactical skill and are seemingly immune to being dislodged from a position even by large calibre weapons. Putting down large volumes of fire to reduce cover, force a relocation in order to expose a better target or fixing in place whilst the big boys are organised is one of the reasons we seem to be carrying very large volumes of 5.56 and 7.62mm link. As good as Javelin is, it is difficult for an infantry foot patrol to use unless vehicle-based or in a semi-static location. Again, heavy machine gun and grenade machine gun are unsuitable for extended foot patrol work.

So, the foot patrol is left with nothing but a heavyweight of fire to locate and suppress, aided by hand grenades, launched grenades and various types of rockets. Add in the different calibres and natures of ammunition being carried and you can see how weights start to balloon.

If we have surrendered light and rapid movement for protection this,  also means we must have greater firepower, firepower usually means weight and so around the circle, we go. The relationship between protection, mobility and firepower is of course as old as warfare.

I tend to think the pressing need for an intermediate round still uncertain from a lethality/range perspective but more so for its commonality (I bet you knew I was going to say that)

The key question is, would a single intermediate round, whilst heavier than 5.56mm, still result in a reduction in total weight of ammunition carried by an infantry section or platoon, all things being equal or better. i.e. can we have our cake and eat it?

What weapon/s and what intermediate round I will leave for others, it certainly seems to promote vigorous debate but suffice it to say, the holy grail is a single round that combines all of the advantages and none of the disadvantages of having two types. If we can get it right, a single weapon with a choice of barrel lengths becomes the next logical objective, a short carbine for vehicle crew, standard service weapon, light machine gun and a longer barrelled sharpshooter weapon for example.

Caseless ammunition seems to be a forever tomorrow technology with many significant challenges to overcome but plastic-cased telescoping rounds are showing much greater promise and there is a possibility that these will provide the benefits of an intermediate calibre without the weight penalty when replacing 5.56mm.

As we all know, weapon weight does have certain advantages in terms of accuracy and with a more powerful round, unless recoil can be mitigated, this might become more of an issue. Producing a weapon that has the requisite reliability, maintainability, ergonomics, simplicity and accuracy is no small challenge but whilst the SA80 might now have the reliability and accuracy issues sorted, the others still present challenges.

We also have to consider the opportunity to maximise the benefit of greater long-range/lethality/penetration, again, it is not certain that even with the advantages of an intermediate round we could actually make much use of it so any study would also need to consider a number of other issues.

Fielding, a single round that is an acceptable compromise is only worthwhile if we can also reduce weight, both on an individual component basis but also across whatever organisation we chose to deploy.

The 7.62mm GPMG is now being routinely carried on foot patrols and as ever, being pushed down the organisational tree. Even if the new H&K version can shave some weight off it is still heavy and needs feeding with massive amounts of ammunition. It is being used more and more because clearly there is a need for it and we might speculate why this is but clearly something is lacking in our conventional approach, either from equipment or doctrinal perspective.

We should not be afraid of experimenting with different subunit organisations, should we retain the homogenous section or use specialist section structures based on task and weapon mix for example.

Shock and Awe

If we cannot change our rules of engagement, provide the professional with operational freedom or reduce weight with existing approaches then a complementary approach might be to provide the dismounted infantry with a leap in firepower beyond small arms and a number of technology areas that improves response. This would hopefully reduce the weight of ammunition used for suppressing fire both from individual and support weapons. If what you carry is more lethal and you can apply it in a shorter timescale then the theory goes you should need less of it. Whether this would actually be realised in the very real and unforgiving environment of infantry close combat is another matter but surely it is worthy of investment and investigation.

In a reactive engagement, in response to an ambush, for example, the first and most significant challenge is locating the position of the firer(s) and any supporting forces. Once located the information needs to be quickly and accurately disseminated to others so they can bring to bear individual and supporting firepower, for whatever reason.

Without location and indication, all the firepower in the world is next to useless.

It is also an area that has seen surprisingly little sustained innovation or investment.

Two technology areas that have shown promise in meeting the location and indication challenge are acoustic shot detection/location and augmented reality.

US forces have used the well known Boomerang acoustic detection system for some. It is a vehicle-based system that uses a microphone array to provide an indication of distance and direction, a reverse bearing. Attacking a networked vehicle convoy equipped with these and their customary heavy weapons is a dangerous occupation.

UK forces have trialled these but for some reason have yet to be fielded. Of more interest to this post is the UK manufacturer, Ultra Electronics Rifle Mounted Gunshot Locator system. Ultra have a great deal of experience in underwater acoustics and have applied this to the land environment. Looking into the specs, its accuracy is claimed at plus or minus 7 degrees azimuth or elevation and a 10% range variation. These are early developments and now doubt things will improve, a technical paper here and another brochure.

BBN, the manufacturers of the Boomerang system also have a wearable system called Boomerang Warrior and QinetiQ have the Ears SWATS, there are other manufacturers as well.

It is interesting to see the different approaches, wearable or weapon mounted.

Once the location has been determined that information has to be reliably distributed to individuals and any wider group that is relevant. This is traditionally done by pointing and usually, a lot of shouting

centre of arc, 200m, small tree, 10m to the right, grassy knoll!

Other means can include tracer rounds, observing fall of shot or even a smoke grenade or mortar. Augmented Reality (AR) or Mixed Reality (MR) is a visualisation technology allowing the user to see virtual information added over reality in real-time, in our example, this would be are gunshot indication trace.

Make no mistake, military augmented reality has the potential to push a traditionally low tech activity into revolutionary new areas. In some regards, this is nothing new, aircrew has been using related technology for some time and the various future soldier programmes in the US, UK, France and Germany have all explored the concepts but only now is the technology sufficiently mature to start serious development work, in no small part to the civilian smartphone market. There’s an app that might just be one of the defining milestones for infantry combat, have a look here for a few ideas, maybe Halo isn’t that far away after all.

Despite being a promising technology there are a lot of significant challenges to be addressed before practical military systems can be fielded, power usage, ergonomics and the dissemination of information across the infantry team being just a few.

Yes, these two technologies increase power requirements and drive up weight and aren’t that the whole point of this post, but if we can make the infantry force so much more agile and potent the need to carry huge quantities of weight and volume absorbing small arms ammunition is reduced.

If with a combination of technology and training we can compress the engagement time there is still a need for something more than small arms and that traditionally means high explosives, whether from direct or indirect weapons. There is, therefore, a need for greater self-sufficiency, tailored effects and high precision for the infantry. If the use of indirect means is increasingly difficult then by definition, infantry has to be more self-sufficient.

High explosives allow a group of infantry to apply a significant shock against the enemy and it is this shock that contributes greatly to achieving a decisive outcome. Dismounted infantry, without vehicle-based fire support from HMG, GMG and other crew-served weapons have a limited repertoire.

Grenade, extremely effective but limited to extreme close ranges

Low Velocity 40mm Grenade, a range of effects but range limited and unguided

66 M72A6 or AT-4CS type weapons, large warhead but cumbersome (7.5kg for the AT-4CS ILAW) and unguided with limited accurate range

Anti Structure Munition, again large warhead but large and heavy (10kg)

60mm mortar, wickedly effective and can be accurate but it is still heavy.

What characterises these systems is their guidance system or lack of one. This means for a range of effects we need a high degree of training and they are the types of weapon that unfortunately most personnel receive only limited training on. Expertise is difficult to achieve and maintain and without it, because they are unguided, accuracy and therefore practical usefulness can be limited, needed many to achieve the desired effect. The shoulder-launched weapons like the 66 and AT4 have their roots in the anti-tank world so although multipurpose warheads are now available they do not have any air burst or selective effects. The ASM is an interesting weapon because it has been designed specifically for infantry combat against something other than armoured vehicles but still it has a lack of long-range precision.

The ASM is based on the 90-mm Matador (Man-portable Anti-Tank, Anti-DOOR) that Dynamit Nobel had developed for the Singapore Armed Forces. The 9.8-kg weapon, marketed internationally as the Panzerfaust 90, is designed for use in urban operations. Its multi-purpose warhead, designed by parent company Rafael, is effective against fortifications and armoured vehicles to a maximum range of 500 metres and in the delay mode, the warhead punches a hole larger than 450 mm diameter in a triple-brick wall. The ASM for the British Army can be programmed before launch to achieve either a maximum breaching effect or a greater behind-armour effect.

Moving into the guided domain we have Javelin and NLAW. Both are highly accurate but still based on an anti-armour requirement and arguably too large for foot patrol use unless there are vehicles in support.

As we find ourselves increasingly using larger small arms calibres because of extended engagement ranges, the accuracy at range limitations of the UGL/M72/AT4/ASM become more exposed. To compensate for the lack of long-range precision the warheads get larger and heavier or again, we have to revert to offensive support and if these are being potentially closed down a gap is opening up.

The US has been experimenting and started to field a 25mm weapon (XM-25 Individual Airburst Weapon System) that might be a genuine innovation, at least they think it is worth a serious go. This weapon fires 25mm grenades that can selectively air burst beyond or above cover although some believe the size of the round may be too small, time will tell. With an effective range of 500 though, they are still inside the effective range of 7.62mm weapons and the newer medium velocity 40mm grenades.

I think there exists a need for a guided system that can place a grenade sized warhead directly onto a target approximately 1,000 to 1,500m away and so do the British Army and MBDA.

The MBDA CVS101 innovation stream includes the Sniper, Enforcer/Thumper which are shoulder-fired missile systems linked to sophisticated target acquisition and guidance system. The Sniper system fires a 40mm diameter, 380mm long 0.9kg 1.5km range soft-launch missile with a 200g warhead, a standard 40mm grenade has about 30-50g of explosive filler.

The larger Enforcer anti-tank system weighs in at just 4.5kg, firing a 1kg warhead from the Thumper shoulder launcher. Enforcer can also be fired in Non-Line of Sight Mode which I also think is going to be a very important feature in future operations. The range is said to be 2.5km in direct mode and 5km in indirect mode.

Compare these weights with the 18kg Javelin and it is clear that they will have a significant weight advantage for dismounted operations, accepting the smaller effects.

If we cannot make these systems light enough to carry in addition to a standard infantry weapon a difficult choice is presented. Does the firepower advantage outweigh the disadvantage of in effect, losing a standard infantry weapon in a finite section or platoon?

This is a tough question but in most Western armies the answer seems to be no, so we just load up the rifleman with yet more kit. I do wonder if reorganising a section to include a greater number of dedicated ‘explosive’ capabilities and fewer assault rifles is something worth pursuing, another long and complex debate no doubt.

There is also the role of the light vehicle-mounted or semi-portable systems in dismounted close combat. Many infantry operations are supported by vehicles and beyond the traditional SF GPMG or vehicle-mounted GPMG/HMG/GMG, there is a debate to be had about direct fire weapons. I for one would be interested to see a single shot, manually loaded, lightweight 40mm weapon using the cased telescoping rounds from the CTA FRES cannon that could be mounted on a Land Rover/Ocelot/ATMP/Jackal class of vehicle.

Finally, it is worth noting the advances in sights, rangefinding, environmental detection (wind etc) and the computational power available will also be an influencing factor in the discussion as will the viability of very small, semi-disposable UAV’s.

Other Weight Issues

To compensate for an increase in weight we often have to resort to using quad bikes or even developing ever more complex and expensive exoskeletons, unmanned load carriers, the big dog mechanical robots real mules. This is not the answer, quads need fuel, maintainers and in the terrain in Afghanistan, often get bogged down or cannot traverse selected areas of terrain.

Other equipment includes heavy BOWMAN radios, ECM, Vallon metal detectors, night vision, laptops, non-BOWMAN radios, charging equipment, first aid kit, FFD, water and the ever-present batteries. This is before we even start looking at the different calibres and types of ammunition (link, ball, tracer etc), grenades, mortar rounds, rockets, PE4, ladders/gap crossing equipment and Javelin rounds.

Batteries seem to be a recurring problem, not only with the frankly criminal and well-known quality issues with BOWMAN batteries that has now thankfully been resolved but also with the proliferation of types. The MoD has recently announced a series of improvements for batteries and now has a very effective integrated approach to power generation and storage but it masks the problem of too much power being required. BOWMAN is very power-hungry, one possible means of reducing the power demand and hence battery requirement is to use UAV or mast/aerostat communications payloads. Like cell networks, the power requirement is transferred away from the portable device. The ideal end-state would be a TETRA/TETRAPOL network across our area of operation, thus allowing mobile phone style handsets rather than the heavy BOWMAN backpack we now use.

Could we reduce the need to carry so much in rations, water and ammunition if we had a better resupply system, more numerous semi-permanent fixed location, helicopter lift or precision airdrop?

If we did have more numerous fixed locations it would support ground dominance and provide a basis for greater ground/radio coverage using towers and aerostats.

Training Has Its Role to Play

The last time the British armed forces were dealt a rather shocking blow was the Boer War when so-called irregulars were consistently outshooting the professionals. The conflict was a chastening experience and although the Army eventually prevailed it was at a cost of over 5,000 dead in combat and over 16,000 from wounds or disease. The conflict prompted the Haldane Reforms and one subsequent output was the Musketry Regulations, Part I, 1909. These covered the full breadth of activity from weapon handling to target identification which culminated in what was likely the most fearfully effective small arms handling anywhere in the world. It was often remarked that the Germans could not quite believe that the rate of accurate aimed fire they received was not from machine guns. Accurate fire at several hundred yards was not uncommon, no fancy marksman rifles, no optics and 15 rounds a minute with a bolt action rifle!

Here is a quote that is as valid today as over 100 years ago

High scores in range practices bear no relation whatever to the results to be expected under service conditions, even in peace time.

Perhaps we need to start training for realistic conditions as a matter of course and routine for all arms, whilst a reasonable argument could be made for the need to reflect a variety of conditions the fact is, we are more likely to be involved in Afghanistan/Iraq type conflicts than any other and our training facilities and locations need to reflect this.

There also needs to be a significant investment in equipment scales that match those used in theatre and an expansion of hot weather training facilities with greater use of modern simulation and range equipment and easier access to the ammunition of all types.

This section does not of course say that training is not superb, because it is, but it, like anything else we do, can be improved.

Yes, this will be expensive but at what price improving effectiveness?

Summary

This is a bit of a rambling post but the semi-random selection of subjects is just to show complex the weight v mobility v effectiveness equation is. There is no right and wrong answer but one of the overriding goals for the MoD, legal and research capabilities must be the reduction in weight for dismounted close combat and increase in firepower beyond a new calibre.

Once that has been achieved we should avoid the temptation of adding yet more equipment onto the overloaded backs of the infantry soldier.

Make no mistake, the MoD is making great strides with personal equipment, reducing weight and improving utility but let’s not be hidebound by bogus political considerations, uncoordinated thinking or overly complex gold plating.

If we cannot get back to the light order fighting of our not too distant forebears, we might just end up needing those Starship Trooper exoskeletons just to move out of the base.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
71 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments