18 November 2009

Light vs. Heavy: Brigade Combat Teams

While the Obama White House debates the exact troop numbers for the new counterinsurgency strategy, it's safe to say that there will be an increase of around 20,000 to 40,000 additional "combat troops" (definition to follow). While the troop numbers must primarily take into consideration the desired effect in Afghanistan, planners must also take into account one additional factor: how many brigade combat teams we have available. (Based on over 100,000 troops in Iraq and over 60,000 in Afghanistan)

The Washington Independent (H/T Spencer Ackerman) has the rollup of current US Army force strength (including a really good chart). Before I begin, let me define some terminology. There's been a huge debate at Tom Ricks' "The Best Defense" blog regarding what "combat troops" are in this era of asymetric war and non-contiguous battlefields. Using the term "combat troops" and "support troops" is somewhat of a misnomer, as even cooks and lawyers have been shot at and returned fire during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the purposes of this entry, however, we will use the term "combat troops" to refer to troops who serve in brigade combat teams, as opposed to aviation brigades or support brigades. (See also "combat brigades")

According to the Washington Independent, there will be some 50,000 troops in 14 active-duty
brigade combat teams available for reinforcements in Afghanistan, based on a 12-month "dwell time" at home for rest, refitting, and re-training. However, of those 50,000 active-duty troops, 19,000 are in "heavy" brigade combat teams. That means they fight in tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles, which are unsuited for Afghanistan. The 30,000 remaining troops are a mix of light brigades and "Stryker" brigades--using the Stryker wheeled armored vehicle for transportation.

Light infantry units can be deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, but heavy units have only been used in Iraq. While serving in Iraq, most brigades fight as "motorized infantry"--trading their usual vehicles for up-armored HMMWVs and MRAPs--so there really isn't much of a difference. Afghanistan is a different story--only light and Stryker brigades have participated, leaving about 1/3 of the force unsuited for combat operations.

Solution? Re-train tankers and mech guys as infantrymen. I'll admit that I'm recycling this story, but The Capatain's Journal had a great piece about physically training mechanized infantrymen--who normally ride in Bradleys--for operations in Afghanistan by conditioning them to 50-mile long excursions in the Appalachians.


Unknown said...

I made a comment about Appalachian training at The Captain’s Journal and I’ll repeat it here: This kind of training is important but it ought to be done in environments that are closer to what troops are going to see in Afghanistan. In the Hindu Kush, it’s not just the mountains that can wear you out, it’s the altitude as well. To my way of thinking, the Army ought to formalize this conditioning by shipping these guys off to someplace like Ft. Carson and run them up, down and through some real mountains with some real base altitude. (Full disclosure: while I no longer live there, I spent most of my professional life in Utah. I’ve probably hiked 1,500 to 2,000 miles in the Rockies during that time. There’s a HUGE difference between hiking at 1,000 feet and hiking at 7,000 or 8,000 feet.) Another suggestion: they should be wearing a full combat load — maybe not right away, but before they’re finished. The only way they’re going to train their “mountain muscles” is by exercising at full load in conditions similar to what they’re going to be facing.

Looking at those charts and reading the Washington Independent article, by the way, causes me some concern. I know that the Army is far from “broken,” but it’s quite apparent that the anticipated tempo of operations can’t be maintained indefinitely. Maybe it’s time for Congress to authorize another increase in the size of the force — another 40,000 to 60,000 personnel, perhaps. Now would be a good time to recruit them, what with a 10% (and rising) unemployment rate.

Unknown said...

Guys in my old branch of field artillery have been fighting dismounted as infantry in Iraq and quite possibly Afghanistan for quite some time now.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/20/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.