The U.S. Army combat brigades' usefulness for European NATO

I'm sometimes annoyed by accusations of anti-Americanism because such labels are stupid in themselves, but today I'll resist the desire to stay away from the mess. I'll rip the U.S.Army for its macro TO&E, and all readers should know that I do so because I think the widespread perceptions are way off. The Italian, Portuguese, German, Greek, Canadian and most other NATO armies have similar shortcomings, but (save for the German one) I never see others asserting the contrary concerning those other armies.

I wrote "macro TO&E". This means I'll take into account brigade organisation down to battalion level, the most important anti-tank (AT) munitions, the most important armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) types and primary artillery types as present in those structures. There will be no taking into account of other details such as doctrine, dismount quantity, training, ammunition et cetera to keep this manageable. It's a blog post, not a paid fifty grand worth study, after all.

- - - - -

First, a quick overview. For the purpose of simplicity I will take the mostly current wikipedia entries as basis. Feel free to criticise if I take into account errors from Wikipedia, and feel free to feel stupid if you want to criticise me right away for using Wikipedia*:

The U.S. Army combat formations are mostly of one of three basic types of brigades:

17 Armored Brigade Combat Teams (tank or mechanised brigades)
8 Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (protected lorries with little armament)
20 Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (para, airborne, mountain)

Armored BCT Stryker BCT Infantry BCT
Primary AFV
Abrams MBT,
Bradley IFV
only 10 Stryker MGS
None really
Major artillery
M109 Paladin
Major AT
120 mm gun, Javelin
Javelin, few TOW2, very few 105 mm gun
Javelin, few TOW2
(primarily) dismounted combat battalions
(Stryker vehicles)
(primarily) mounted combat battalions
(mixed MBT/IFV)

M1 Abrams MBT and M2 Bradley IFV are first class AFVs with shortcomings, the handful Stryker MGS are almost negligible in capability and relevance while almost all other Stryker family vehicles are support or transportation vehicles.

Stryker 8x8 vehicle, infantry squad carrier version
M109 Paladin is a much-modernised self-propelled gun (155 mm L/39) which can achieve competitive ranges with practically unavailable exotic munitions only.

M777 is a classic 1930's-style howitzer** with the performance of 1970's designs and an unusually high price because of expensive materials for a low weight (it can be lifted by H-60 series helicopters). It is unsuitable for very responsive fires (slow turning beyond the narrow traverse) and as a system not survivable in face of counterfires (average range + too slow at leaving fire positions, thus unable to shoot & scoot).

the manually loaded, manually turned M777
The 120 mm L/44 gun of the M1 Abrams is among the top tank guns in the world thanks to ammunition modernisations, but it's still questionable whether it could penetrate the newest MBTs head-on (except in tiny ballistic window areas).**
Javelin depends on both an unreliable guidance principle (easily countered by IR jammers and multispectral smoke) and shaped charge warhead (questionable effectiveness against well-protected areas of a tank). Its speed is low enough to enable (so far rarely deployed) hard kill countermeasures. Javelin is more than 20 years old, and the Russians thus no doubt long since countered it (probably the Chinese too).
TOW is a serious AT weapon only with the TOW-2B top attack munition which approaches a target horizontally and then explodes its shaped charge/EFP warhead downwards. Its guidance, trajectory, dependence on uninterrupted line of sight, seriously slow speed make it an AT munition one shouldn't depend on.
- - - - -

The typical remark about the U.S.Army in context of conventional warfare (that I get aware of) asserts that it's by default a mighty force.

Well, the Armored BCTs are mighty (though far from perfect), but they wouldn't arrive early. All those tracked vehicles would be deployed by sea and rail as much as possible. A final 500-1,000 km road march to the area of operations would last additional days including the necessary maintenance afterwards. A single active Armored BCT (3rd ABCT) is based in Germany.

The Stryker BCTs have no real concept of combat for conventional warfare. They cannot fight mounted against a First World force, and their ability to resist a First World mounted combat force in tank-friendly terrains is most questionable. Even defensive missions in terrain that suits their infantry well (which would counteract their dependence on long range sensors) would be in peril because the artillery would fail, and there are hardly any powerful short range AT munitions. Stryker BCTs can road-march towards their fate pretty well, though. A single of these brigades is based in Germany.

The Infantry BCTs are even less powerful, though not by much. They can be deployed by air, though it's questionable how close to the warzone they would be deployed by air, and whether they would get sufficient air transport capacity at all (competing with the air force's own needs to deploy combat aviation to the theatre of crisis or war).

All three brigade types may or may not receive support from divisional artillery (especially MLRS), which may or may not reduce artillery shortcomings in the latter two brigade types. Likewise, army aviation with Apache helicopters adds to the anti-tank capability (unless it doesn't due to battlefield air defences and other countermeasures). On the other hand, battlefield air defences are almost non-existent in the U.S.Army; Stinger missiles are practically all they have.

So American brigade types would either be late to arrive or poorly configured for conventional warfare / fighting against a great power's army. They could arrive in impressive numbers within several months, but the U.S.Army's contribution in the first two weeks of a Baltic defence scenario would likely be smaller than the Polish army's. And the first week or two may be all that matter at all.

- - - - -

I implied these assessments many times already.  The aforementioned diagnosis is the reason why I insist so much on the role of the German army in European collective deterrence and defence: We are the only large NATO member close enough to Northeast Poland to matter much with early reinforcements. That's why I think we should have a rapid deployable army corps (not a mere battalion!) meant for this Northeast alliance defence role, capable of intervening in force within days (not weeks).

The Americans tend to have a high opinion of themselves and their military, and many people adopt this opinion without checking the facts themselves. Fact is in my opinion that with all of their excessive spending they actually produce very little capability that could intervene quickly in the Baltic region or only Poland. They're much better at beating up Third World regular forces after months of preparations.

European armed services cannot and do not need to compete with the mass or global reach of the American military, but they could and should excel at rapidity of deployment within the continent. Even a single well-configured Czech or Hungarian brigade could prove more decisive to the defence of Lithuania than all of the U.S.Army, for example. A hundred fighting men are worth much more in a battle than a thousand men elsewhere, and a hundred fighting men with real artillery support are worth much more than a hundred men with only theoretical artillery support.

I don't see the key to Europe's collective defence in higher (or in much) military spending. Instead, I see it in an appropriate orientation of enough forces at rapidly effective defence. Two corps worth of first week ground forces are what we need for defence, not an increase in the quantity of already available extremely slow brigades and divisions.


*: I've kept an eye on and off their structure for two decades. Wikipedia is my first choice because it's so easily accessible and readable to most people.
**: The conceptual differences are in the incorporation of a muzzle velocity measuring radar and more propellant charge graduations. The ability to fire at more than 45° elevation was uncommon, but not unknown in the 30's already. 


  1. I discussed exact this matter several times with US Army Soldiers. Although they were not Air-Force (Army !) they all claimed, that the ground forces are sufficient because modern first world war would be fought primarly from the air. So the tanks of the enemy would not be from any relevance because they would all be destroyed from the Air. They also claimed, that the role of the army in a first world power war would be only that of a "police action" - mopping up the shattered and destroyed and fleeing rests of the enemy.

    This Air-Only Doctrine is in my opinion deeply in the brains even of the US Ground Forces. The Air will solve everything and the enemy is absolute defenceless against the Air Force.

    Some of them even claimed, that all MBT are useless and obsolet in a first world war because everything will be solved from the air. And that mechanised ground forces are useless because they are to slow and only Air-Units, especially the F-35 will destroy everything the enemy have.

    This extreme and in my opinion wrong thinking is perhaps the reason for this macro TOE and the old, sometimes bad / unsufficent equipment which falls more and more behind the qualitiy of ground systems of other first world powers.

    Moreover, the Stryker Brigades were originally only planned as Interim Brigades until the FCS will become available. Now the FCS is dead since years and the Interim Brigades become the new standard. This (the failure of the FCS) adds also to this TOE and the extremly expensive air-programms (F-35, B-21 and so forth) bleed out the ground forces.

    1. The U.S.armed services have an almost exactly 1:1:1 budget distribution between navy, air force and army. The army sure gets enough funds. It has wasted too many of them and was unable management-wise to get a modern SPG.

      I don't understand why they never purchased LOSAT or CKEM in quantity. I understand such missiles are no good at very short ranges, but that's another weak spot that they should patch up anyway. They lack an equivalent to RPG-29, Panzerfaust 3, PF-89 etc. AT-4 is no serious anti-MBT munition, except the CS version in settlements.

    2. I've observed much the same attitude on many internet forums, although they are slightly more cautious about it. They acknowledge that CAS planes and helicopters will get mauled by even semi-competent SHORAD, and that strike aircraft will have trouble getting through an IADS. Overall though, they still have a totally misplaced faith in airpower that bears much in common with the 1930s belief that 'the bomber will always get through.' These people exert a dangerous influence on public opinion about warfare. I feel that greater effort should be devoted to refuting them.

    3. Some overmotivated air force folks (and fanbois) think so in many countries, but most of the top brass doesn't.

      I would still expect no more than one brigade to be airlifted with equipment across the Atlantic before the USAF deployed its own wings.
      The army and combat aviation compete for airlift in such a scenario, and there's little reason the army would get more than a fig leaf lifted since airlift is owned by the USAF. Furthermore, fighter wings would have less casualties than infantry brigades!

  2. Dismount strength of the mechanized infantry:
    90 Bradleys x 6-7 = 540-630 men.
    For the entire brigade.

    No AC above 25mm, either for Drone defense or flushing out infantry.

    No organic mine clearing vehicles, had no mine clearing vehicle until 2010 at all.

    1. They knew how to blow stuff up, though:
      (introduced 1988)

  3. Hello Sven, I always appreciate your thoughts on how to organise defence. I think you made the shortcomings of the current concept clear - but did you write a post on how a quick reaction corps or brigade should be organised? I do remember something like this, but it would be nice if you could add a link to the post above if such an older post exists. Thank you!

  4. Sorry for the little slip, of course there is a link to the Bundeswehr structure. I think that's what I had in mind.

    1. https://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2015/11/an-army-corps-for-germany.html

    2. Yup, thanks - the link is actually there, I found it at a second glance - after I wrote the first comment ;)

    3. No, the link in the comment is a different one, with much more details.

  5. A few comments. My figures indicate that a stryker brigade has 27 mobile gun systems, rather than 10. The M777 howitzer is an odd mixture of impressive and dissapointing. The limited traverse is a well known shortcoming which some have claimed was fixed by ARDEC. They were working on something called a traverse assist kit back in 2012, but all indications are that it was never put into production. As for the shoot and scoot point, doesn't it have a better displacement time than the M198 howitzer? I remember carlton meyer once wrote an article about the benefits of fleeing vs digging in.

    Your bulletpoint for the 120 mm L/44 gun is missing, and you are probably wrong to assume it can't handle main battle tanks. The 120mm cases have numerous advantages over the 125mm cases used by the russians, and the actual projectiles are being updated every few years by some of the worlds best metallurgists. I believe the javelin is still viable against an MBTs frontal arc, though this may not be true with regards to counter-measures. You claim that a stryker brigade cannot fight mounted against a peer opponent. Are you basing this on their equipment or their tactics? Also, do you know for certain that they use surveillance instead of traditional reconnaissance? I thought that was only a trend in armored brigades!

    1. They reduced from 27 to 10, and never bought enough of them (142 < 8 x 27) anyway.

      Displacement time of such heavy field howitzers is about 2 minutes, still more than 1 minute if the spades aren't stuck, crew is super-trained, ground is favourable etc..
      Combine this with the sorry rate of fire and the howitzer can shoot at most 4-6 rounds before shells of a well-drilled OPFOR arty would arrive.

      Western tank guns have lagged Warsaw Pact top of the line MBT frontal protection almost at all times during the Cold War. The newest American 120 mm APFSDS is believed to be able to overcome Kontakt-5, which means it can defeat Russian 1980's tech. There's good reason to believe that at least the few Russian top of the line MBTs (non-export T-90s) are proofed (with Relict ERA among other protection). The Americans acknowledged this by ordering M829A4 into production, but at most a few hundred may have been delivered so far and it's still to be seen whether and at which ranges the M829A4 penetrates top of the line MBTs frontally.

      Javelin has been known for 20 years. Show me one ATGM that remained effective against top of the line tanks for 20 years during the Cold War! A simple salvo of near-instant (2 seconds) multispectral smoke blinds Javelin and breaks the lock-on. The tank merely needs to project smoke forward and drive through it to achieve this.

      The Stryker BCT has an extra "RSTA squadron" that's all about surveillance. It was part of the sales argument for the concept; supposedly you didn't need tanks if you can see farther than the enemy.

      Stryker brigades have a few TOW and 105 mm gun vehicles for mounted combat (though no real "shoot on the move"), all other vehicles have at most a machinegun for self-protection until the army adds the planned 30 mm turrets.
      Of course they cannot fight mounted as a brigade or battalion against a great power army. That's why they are planning to add 30 mm guns, trying to turn APCs into IFVs.

  6. You may not approve of this, sven, but I decided to feature your post on SB.com. Thats why you've been getting extra traffic to this article. I felt it made some solid points that would shake people of their contentment. They tried to make a few rebuttals, but its weak stuff for the most part. Heres a link: https://forums.spacebattles.com/threads/the-u-s-army-combat-brigades-usefulness-for-european-nato.413576/

    1. I saw the conspicuous spike in the "last day" visitors statistic before I saw your comment. They received a one-of-its-kind set of explanations. I wasn't impressed.

  7. You made an excellent response to them. They'll try to LOL at you and get the last word, but thats about all they can do.