The search for new ‘concepts’ has been underway for twenty years, and nothing of great consequence has appeared. This is not because there are no new concepts available. The real problem lies with those who are hunting for something new. They want a new look, but one that is familiar enough to suit their own tastes.
- Colonel Robert P. Zeigler (1966)
Bruce Cameron’s recent interrogative piece on the acquisition of an Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) in Land 400 Phase 3 asks some hard questions about current force structure but offers much less on the future of the armoured force for the Australian Army. His conclusions, couched as observations, are largely open-ended statements to fuel further debate with narrow focus on distinctly tactical implications. At first glance, there appears to be utility in this approach, but Cameron demonstrates a personal viewpoint that appears firmly anchored in Vietnam without accounting for the history behind some of his propositions. Accounting for this history is crucial because the reasons for developing hybrid infantry-armour models are varied but tend to become mired in myopic discussions on numbers of infantry or who should rightfully sit in the commander’s seat. Truthfully, these discussions are also important, but not at the expense of the bigger issue – coming to a shared institutional understanding on what the IFV would do relative to the overall combat system it resides in.
It should be noted from the outset that Cameron’s opinions on force structure, tactical command and control, and infantry specialisation are not unique or particularly controversial. They reflect a greater institutional struggle for the Australian Army in understanding what a ‘mechanised’ force should look like, the utility of the ‘mechanised’ label, and ultimately what a hybrid infantry-armour capability should do for future joint land combat. Cameron intentionally grapples with the idea of injecting complex technology into a cogent system for fighting but really sprinkles tactical observations over some capability-centric language and an aged C2 construct. As such, his article merits the response as part of the debate he himself call for.
This examination of Cameron’s opinion piece is designed to account for some of the history behind his assertions and provide the casual reader with some more depth as to the importance of the debate to prevent recycling the mounted-infantry paradigm drawn principally from Australia’s experience in the Vietnam war.
The history of mechanised infantry
From the outset, Cameron asserts that forfeiting the ‘mechanised role’ to another organisation (in this case the RAAC) allows an infantry unit to specifically train infantry skills and adhere to normal career progression. This troubling claim is at the heart of the problem with understanding mechanised infantry in the Australian Army. Cameron would therefore logically believe that IFV-equipped infantry is divisible between man and machine – that you can definitively divorce infantry from ‘mechanised’ and retain a useful capability, which is the first premise underwriting his flawed conclusion. In stating this, Cameron inadvertently taps into the early 1980s US Army debate surrounding the implementation of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV), but also possibly channels the Australian Army’s resource-constrained approach after Vietnam. In 1999, Michael Evans described the approach whereby in circa 1975 General Hassett articulated the requirement for armoured tactics absent armoured infantry. At that stage in history, an argument could be made that Hassett’s approach was more about available funding for the Army. In the present day, the opposite could be stated to apply – acquisition of an IFV reflects a modern force requirement. A logical extension behind Cameron’s argument is more about the definition of a ‘mechanised role’ relative to the acquisition of the IFV. Instead of a narrow question over training of the force, the extant doctrinal tension to resolve is whether infantry equipped with an IFV is a unique type of infantry - that is, infantry with a more unique set of tasks than more traditional (M113) mechanised infantry - or if IFV equipped infantry should be capable of the full set of traditional infantry tasks.
Establishing an effective definition for what mechanised infantry ‘is’ versus what it ‘does’ has been a persistent challenge for the Australian Army based on the dual mode of employment for the M113 manifest as both a mechanised battalion and APC Squadrons for the past 53 years. Cameron’s assertions are a product of that duality. The present ‘mechanised battalion’ is loosely defined by the possession of the M113AS4 and purported interoperability with the M1 Main Battle Tank. The most recently available definition for the M113-based capability is offered by the LWD 3-3-7 Employment of Infantry (2008) as: 'A standing organisation of infantry that has organic armoured personnel carriers.' If the doctrine is explored further, a reader can also establish somewhat disjointedly: 'Mechanised infantry has protected mobility and firepower that allows domination of a larger part of the battlespace and faster transition from one activity to the next… [and] even dismounting to achieve the mission.' What can be deduced from this is the mechanised battalion is a generalist force that is expected to conduct tactical actions with or without the APC. This is not a sophisticated description and is easily confused with that of an APC Squadron in the context of providing lift to an objective versus close combat on an objective with tanks. Cameron’s writing invites continuation of this paradigm at the expense of integrated infantry capability.
The M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers have provided the Australian Defence Force with a protected mobility and armoured fighting capability since the Vietnam War.
As a way to criticise the possible reduction in dismounted infantry and to further the argument supporting the dated mounted infantry model, Cameron cites the Bruce Held (et al) RAND study conducted in 2013 concerning US Army infantry squad sizes and the future of the BFV. Unfortunately, he omits the decades of cultural inertia in an institution wedded to a squad size that had been employed since 1920. This, in itself, is a cautionary tale on failing to adapt to new technology. Writing in 1999, historian W. Blair Haworth Jr. describes the crucial issue that plagued the US Army in establishing infantry with an organic IFV that Cameron could explore further; 'The vision of a mechanised force wedded to armoured fighting vehicles yet preserving the general-purpose nature of the earlier force repeatedly led the Army to pursue unrealistic goals and forced it to make awkward trade-offs when they proved unattainable.' These trade-offs manifested themselves in the US Army’s persistent efforts to restructure infantry platoons and continually place the BFV under the proponency of the Armour school despite its infantry-centric employment. Diana L. Urbina reinforced this observation also: 'Confusion or misunderstanding in some circles regarding the role of an APC versus an IFV was a long-standing problem in the US Army.' Cameron misses one central proposition in his observation about the problematic reduction in dismounted infantry: To propose a distinction for a future mechanised infantry is to specify different sets of tasks and functions that are linked to intended employment, not simply adding a new set of ‘tracks’. Forcing an IFV toward the general-purpose tasks of today, whilst ostensibly configured for the specialist tasks of tomorrow, ensures that it will do neither well. The seemingly minor tactical aspect of dismounted section size is one determinant but speaks to a greater issue of combat mass that Cameron does not fully engage with. By not making this distinction effectively, the US Army experienced issues with training and support, distorted force designs, and a doctrine that was incomprehensible to outsiders. A possible definition for the future ‘mechanised role’ revolves around the speciality of fighting with an IFV, tactically structured to do so due to a smaller dismounted element, and with the ability to enable tanks though intimate support in both weapons and doctrine. The start point for transition away from M113-based battalions is to define the key differences between ‘mechanised’ and ‘armoured’ relative to close combat. Cameron’s first conclusion markets an old paradigm without truly accounting for the change in technology that should trigger a change to another type of infantry that is fundamentally indivisible, namely, APC to IFV.
The lessons of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle
The Australian Army might gain some insight from the US introduction of the BFV in 1983. The BFV created a problem for the US Army due to challenges in reconciling an intended operational approach matched with the new technology against that of a conservative infantry community and strong vested interests from the armour branch. General DePuy’s vision of armoured warfare (which carried weight as he was then TRADOC Commander) was articulated in the doctrine of Active Defence and fielded an infantry fighting vehicle that could not accommodate the standard infantry squad of the mechanised infantry division. Concept had essentially outpaced structure. Led by the infantry branch, the Army conducted three changes in force structure for BFV-equipped infantry between 1984 and 1989 as it struggled to discover the best approach based on assumptions about the traditional role (and size) of an infantry squad that had persisted since 1920. Haworth further observed: 'The Army proposed to change the role of the infantry armoured vehicle from transport to combat while expanding the role of the troops they carried; at the same time, it proposed to do so by evolving the new [vehicle] from the old, although the characteristics of the two diverged sharply.' Is this a paradigm that the Australian Army will inadvertently fall into? An APC-based model diverges from an IFV-based model significantly. In 1986, Colonel Huba Wass de Czege asserted that: 'With the arrival of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, we have a new situation. The Bradley infantry is designed to support the M1 tank, and Bradley infantry is significantly different from M113 infantry… although they cannot put as many soldiers on the ground for dismounted operations, they can more than make up for this with high speed mobility and firepower.' When it came to the BFV, army-level assertions gave way to branch-level proponency that confused doctrinal primacy between infantry and armour and, ultimately, who really owned the BFV.
Writing publicly in the US Army’s Infantry magazine in 1982, a special operations officer in Europe, Major John P. Gritz offered a similar cost-based argument to Cameron: 'Ironically, light infantry can be organised, equipped, and trained for a fraction of the price of mechanised forces… the purchase price of one new Bradley fighting vehicle, about 1.5 million dollars, could provide six or seven light infantry battalions with enough money to cover their operations and maintenance for a year.' Not alone in his opinion, Gritz largely reflected the voices of those opposed to infantry’s ownership of the BFV through his simplistic argument of cost-effectiveness, without considering General Starry’s operational approach under Air Land Battle. The debate was again furthered by then Colonel Wass de Czege in articles he wrote to counter similar claims by BFV-infantry opponents like Gritz, entitled Three Kinds of Infantry (1985) and More on Infantry (1986). Highlighting early 1980s confusion of APC-mechanised infantry newly equipped with fighting vehicles, Brigadier Richard Simpkin in the United Kingdom stated: “With mechanised infantry, the difficulty lies in arriving at a meaningful and lucid definition of the role of infantry in the armoured battle and the way it should fight… something at the grass roots level but broader than simply minor tactics.” DePuy and Starry sought to address this through development of new doctrine coupled to superior technology, but the modifications to the BFV were based on fiscal and political conditions rather than Simpkin’s description of ‘grass roots’ requirements. DePuy and Starry’s attempts were further exacerbated by the twenty-year acquisition and subsequent capability trade-offs. At the branch level, this approach was at odds with the 1978 Mahaffey study’s paradoxical assertion on the need for an 11-man mechanised infantry squad. This ultimately highlighted the tension within the US model of M113-based mechanised infantry as a generalist force under the proponency of the infantry branch, using organic armoured vehicles under the training auspices of the armoured branch to carry out the whole spectrum of infantry missions. The casual observer might say the same thing has repeated itself in the back and forth between mechanised battalions and APC squadrons in Australia over the last five years.
The crux of the argument - is the IFV a core capability or Corps capabilities?
Cameron offers his concluding observations on force structure, but never really asks the polarising question to best distinguish it from the old paradigm: 'Is the mechanised infantry force a body of infantrymen who happen to be issued armoured vehicles or are they armoured vehicle crewmen who happen to dismount for some combat situations?' Australia has traditionally had the former, but a history incorporating the Mechanised Trial of the 1980s and the co-existence of the APC Squadron suggests a real struggle with the latter.
DePuy’s observations of the Arab-Israeli War from 1973, embodied in Active Defence, boldly argued the latter for the US Army: 'The Infantry’s role is to support the tank. That has been quite hard for the Infantry School to stomach . . . the decisive offensive weapon is the tank . . . the Israelis, Egyptians, Syrians, Russians, British, Germans, and I accept it.' Needless to say, the US Army’s infantry community resisted this observation. DePuy was a product of his Second World War experience in the French Bocage, an advocate of lessons derived from tank and anti-tank combat observed in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and an admirer of the German army’s approach to combined arms warfare. Despite his outwardly radical idea of ‘Active Defence’, DePuy insisted that institutional change was to be evolutionary and that a concept must lead action. Contemporary US Army doctrine and tradition implied the former; though practice and technological developments in the early 1980s also moved toward the latter – any persistent effort to reconcile the duality within the same soldiery was continually problematic.
By the end of 1991, the mechanised infantry community as a whole welcomed the BFV capability, even while they struggled to reconcile the difficulties in placing the BFV-equipped infantry into traditional infantry missions. The US Army didn’t solve the problem, they compromised and validated the compromise in action against the Iraqi Republican Guard. Maintaining larger squad sizes split across multiple BFVs appeared to be the compromise. The lesson in adaptation that Cameron perhaps wants to highlight is that the US Army had difficulty acquiring and accommodating an infantry fighting vehicle because it insisted on effecting a radical doctrinal change by incremental means. This same observation was echoed by Wass de Czege in 1984 but adaptation was slow to follow. Cameron comfortably resorts to a model for mounted infantry established in Vietnam, but casually ignores the larger infantry-centric issue when it comes to enabling close combat. The following from LTCOL K.E. Newman, Commanding Officer of the 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, writing in 1972, reflects a frustration in a lack of organic armour to enhance manoeuvre whilst remaining at the mercy of inefficient C2 structures: ‘Infantry cannot achieve these skills and knowledge when they are merely itinerant passengers in strange vehicles, when commanders are hampered because they can’t see and most important of all, don’t command the vehicles or communications they are using.’
The fundamental issue of duplicate tactical headquarters’ is at odds with the argument behind efficient training. The individual crews may be assumed as well trained, but the real inefficiency is creating additional headquarters to do it – an IFV-equipped infantry battalion only needs one chain of command whereas Cameron’s approach proposes two. Lastly, Cameron makes the salient point that there are either too few tanks or too many IFVs that ultimately unbalance the brigade structure. This is the key problem when it comes to establishing a generalist force. For the IFV-equipped infantry, a specialised battalion structure creates balance through additional sub-units that can essentially increase the effectiveness of a small number of tanks – not be dependent upon them. That both infantry battalions of the brigade should not have the same number of rifle companies is probably one indication that integrating the IFV requires a rethink of future structures beyond the model Cameron describes in his 3rd Brigade example.
An Australian Army Rheinmetall Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle on display during Exercise Chong Ju at Puckapunyal training area, Victoria, on 16 May 2018.
Looking to the future
The acquisition of a true IFV changes the landscape for the Australian Army and, in his final observation, Cameron aptly points this out. Basing the model for IFV-equipped infantry on anecdotes of APC-equipped infantry is likely going to be the standard response for those considering the future of mechanised infantry and, unfortunately, Cameron’s premise is no different. This decade the M113 clocked up over 50 years of service – it is the definitive experience the Australian Army has with an APC throughout the its history and an easy fallback position for those wishing to contribute to the debate.
However, IFV-equipped infantry can no longer retain the outward label of ‘mechanised’ with the accompanying cultural baggage that they can be usefully separated from the IFV – that’s the paradigm shift Cameron has failed to uncover and the adaptation the US Army resisted for over a decade. Part of Cameron's argument is that armoured vehicles should belong to the armoured corps because they will be better at using them – this simply lacks any data to be useful. It ignores the central reason for generating a hybrid armour-infantry force with an ‘infantry fighting vehicle’: to be more lethal in close combat. A better argument is that equipping infantry battalions with an IFV fundamentally transforms their capability; the reasons why they are employed in the context of Brigade operations also requires revision. Models for this with varying numbers of dismounted infantry are offered by the US, Germany, Norway, and South Korea with the accompanying ability to study their transition points from APC to IFV in recent decades.
Ultimately, Cameron’s argument is useful insofar that it challenges the thinking behind a significant acquisition. It is less useful in that it offers an old model. The anachronistic idea that an infantry force shouldn’t inherently own the mobility and firepower advantage available to them is dangerous because it forces anchoring to an old paradigm ahead of examining the real potential for the future.