2010/09/13

Glorified cannibals

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Much has been written about how certain U.S. special forces moved away from training foreign forces towards "direct action" during the last two decades. This trend was accelerated since 2003 in part because the training requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan could not be stemmed even by the badly inflated USSOCOM, but required training by conventional combat troops as well. The extreme casualty avoidance of the same period led to a preference for highly trained special forces for deliberate raids.

The old paradigm is best displayed by the old assertion that if you send a special forces squad into the hills, you'd have an indigenous militia army there in a few months.

The "direct action" paradigm is best illustrated by the Delta Force's involvement in Somalia in the early 90's.

The trends look a bit different in other nations, but many Western nations have some sort of much-enlarged "direct action" special forces establishment today. Germany kept its special forces very small with exaggerated entry requirements, so the following text is not really about the Bundeswehr.


The problem with these special forces organizations is one that has already been complained about many times (1), but the complaint doesn't seem to have much effect: The special forces leech quality personnel from the infantry, grow in numbers way beyond what's necessary for real "special" missions and in the end the SF replace the infantry in many challenging missions. The infantry branch deteriorates, loses the trust of superiors in its competence and its own confidence.

The leeching effect on infantry personnel is especially problematic because it concerns only the best personnel. This loss can indeed cripple the regular infantry because this best fifth of its personnel is vital for infantry effectiveness in battle.


If you left them alone then some ten percent of the soldiers were the ones who actually took the initiative, moved, fired their rifles, threw hand grenades, and so on. The other 90% would defend themselves if they had to, but would not do the other things unless an officer or a sergeant directly ordered them to do it, in which case they usually would do it. I learned that you couldn't depend on them doing things simply because there was a plan to do it, or because of some generalized order to do it, and this included the junior officers. You had to say, ""do this," "do that," "now fire here," and "now move there." You would always end up with a good sergeant or a good officer and three or four men doing all of the work. Unfortunately, the rest contributed to the casualties.... I came away absolutely impressed with the fact that the average man, like nine out of ten, or eight out of ten, does not have an instinct for the battlefield, doesn't relish it, and will not act independently except under direct orders....

It's absolutely essential to mix great personnel with average personnel in order to form powerful line-of-sight combat units. This applies to infantry as well as armour.

The general infantry performance of many nations wasn't stellar in Afghanistan, which is largely an infantry war. Many raids and other normal infantry actions were reserved for special forces while infantry was often easily pinned down and calling in fire support.

The glorification of special forces and their inflation should be reversed. Infantry should be capable of most jobs assigned to special forces today. Even quickly-trained World War infantry was capable of difficult infiltrations and exfiltrations, reconnaissance, night combat without night sights and GPS, river crossings under fire and many other difficult missions. Regular infantry - even quickly trained conscript forces led by well-trained superiors - can do most of today's "special forces" jobs; the "direct action" thing. They won't do it as quickly, as neatly - but they can do it a hundred times as often per month.

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The path to special forces is a path to the icing of the cake without the cake. It's a path to tiny quality forces with a disregarded, largely ineffective conventional force.

We should not focus on tiny SF missions, but on the ability to defeat conventional opposition, for that is the only kind of opposition that could really dare to invade us (wars of necessity) while we will face "insurgents" only if we invade other places (wars of choice). This requires forces which pay attention to quality AND quantity, not only quality. It's a long-known fact that peacetime armies focus on quality in peacetime, but rally towards the necessary quantity at the expense of some quality in wartime. A focus on quality alone is no preparation for (against) war, but a primitive and typical peacetime mistake.

It's about time to reform the infantry in many if not all Western armies. The Special Forces establishments can provide the necessary manpower for this reform.


Sven Ortmann

(1): One example is the Article "We Were Soldiers Once... - The Decline of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps?" in the Autumn 2008 issue of the Australian Army Journal.

edit: I just looked at this published blog post (it appeared on a set time) and the beginning looks a bit awkward. "Glorified cannibals" directly followed by "U.S. special forces" is not the intended link. I wrote "glorified" because of the SF-related hype of the last two decades (which was most likely pushed by B-movies and video games) and I wrote "cannibals" because I had all Western special forces in mind which draw selectively many of the best soldiers from normal combat units.
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8 comments:

  1. Agreed, you've managed to put into writing and expand upon something I have long believed.

    This phenomenon of an expert group or elite monopolising skill to the detriment or the remainder is not new. The 'commando' units in the German Air Service of World War One did exactly that, with the likes of Jasta 11 and Jagdgeschwader Ricthofen concentrating the most successful and accomplished fighter pilots under single commands. While successful, it is (as you identified) the opportunity cost involved in removing the most able from the majority that can really impact on a force. In the WW1 air war the British system (where the experts were not centralised) allowed for a more effective air service inclusive of a reconnaissance function - the most important aspect to WW1 aviation, hands down - than that of the German system.

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  2. There is historical precendent, sort of.
    In the past, there were usualy 3 official levels of soldiers.

    The Line.
    The Grenadiers.
    The Guards.

    The Line, were the bottom 80% who were fine under orders and capable of self defence on their own, were organised into Line Companies and made up the majority of the armed forces.
    The Grenadiers were the next 10-15%, who were organised into Grenadier Companies, and with the Line Companies formed standard Regiments.
    The Guards were the top 5-10%, who were organised as Grenadier Regiments.

    Currently in the US, as it appears to me, the "Guards" Regiments appear to be wildly oversized, and the Line Regiments have been stripped of their Grenadier Companies to provide the men.

    This has, as you say, left the "line" companies(and regiments), virtualy useless, because they lack organic assault troops to accomplish anything above stand here and shoot back.
    However, if the top 20% are divided amongst the bottom 80%, the line companies will improve a bit, but the majority will still be useless on the attack.

    I believe we should return to the old system.
    The top few percent are creamed off for the "proper" special forces stuff.
    The next tier are formed into a Grenedier Company
    The final Tier are formed into Line Companies.

    The Special Forces can be ignored for our purposes, which leaves a battlegroup of 750 men
    5 Line Companies of 125 Men, good for keeping watch, defending fixed points and themselves, along with a Grenedier Company of 125 Men, good for assault work.

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  3. One aspect you ignore in this post is the role of the additional training special forces troops recieve. It's not as if the difference in quality between special ops troops and normal infantry is purely based on their natural talents, most of their skill comes from special training.

    Perhaps these special ops units should be mixed in with normal infantry rather than placed under their own independent command, but if these soldiers remained in the infantry and didn't recieve the extra training their talents would be wasted.

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  4. RagingTory, in concentrating assault troops in "Grenadier" companies you are in danger of leeching the "Line" companies of their best troops. Your battlegroup would be more flexible if your best troops were Corporals and Lance Corporals leading and directing each fireteam.

    Of course, there are formations, such as the Paras, who maintain levels of training and ethos that are closer to Special Forces. So a if battlegroup had a company of Paras added to it I would not object.

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  5. Actually I took a glance at the numbers and if you put the 60,000-odd man USSOCOM back into the infantry, you'd could probably have a special forces soldier in every squad, definitely in every platoon. Of course I don't have the data to break down to see if that would hold true once soldiers in supporting roles are excluded, but maybe we should look at making NCO training tougher rather than putting everyone in special units.

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  6. @Jasons
    I must admit I'd forgotten about NCO's, but you have pretty much "got" what I was suggesting.
    1st company of every battalion/battlegroup would be the soldiers most capable of acting on their own thnking.
    These can do the difficult flnaking, assaulting and such.
    The rest can be the soldiers who arent capable of aggressive movement on their own, and they can be assigned to tasks they do, holding fixed points alone and moving under micromanagement.

    I dont think it would make the line groups any weaker, they already have their best men stolen for SF work anyway, but it wouldnt make them any stronger either.
    It would just give them an organic "special forces" capability, which to my mind, is the best of the three outcomes.

    Dr Luny
    This isnt about learning to parachute/dive/snipe.
    Most people are sheep, we are, even after 16 weeks of basic training, most soldiers remain sheep.
    It would be great if it wasnt the case, but we cant turn a sheep into a stone killer. We can give them the training to not piss their pants and shoot back when fired upon, but its either in your nature to take charge of a crisis, or its not.

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  7. Potentially elite forces do better in elite units. They hate the medicocrity and worse of conventional units and they have never been able to improve any aspect of conventional fighting. By keeping the best men tied up in low level US and other western infantry units, you only cause ultimate defeat. I have known numerous elite NCOs and officers, refused exit from mediocre units, who became steadily depressed over the years, because their crummy "leaders" would allow no innovative improvements . If they could not escape, they eventually quit or early outed.By growing ever large direct action power , obtained by elite units, a nation's survival and hope for victory is enhanced. Sven, you are nothing more than another US military "analysts" too inexperienced and poorly trained to think.

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  8. Me US military, huh?
    Me thinks you're quite a quick shot with allegations.

    By the way; I blocked some of your comments for 1x insult at another commenter, 1x gibberish and 2x advertising for a commercial website.
    Refrain from such comment content in the future, please.

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