Some food for thought

Back in 2002 'we' laughed at Afghanis who when trained by Western special forces would resist the prone position or crawl in the dust. It was culturally not nearly as acceptable to them as to us, apparently. Well, that is if I remember this correctly.

Here is something militarily sensible which we resist for cultural reasons; porters.

Southeast Asians and East Asians did incredible things with porters during the 20th century, an the use of porters could almost solve the infantrymen weight issue. 
Back in ancient times the most heavily armoured Greek hoplites were also the most wealthy ones (save for horsemen). They brought a porter with them; either a slave servant or a young son. This porter functioned at the very least as shieldbearer (the aspis was a rather elaborate shield weighing 7 kg or more for several centuries), and they probably also carried additional equipment such as spear or the very uncomfortable bronze helmet of that era.

A porter does not relieve the infantryman of the weight of the equipment in battle, but he allows him to be less exhausted when it begins. Modern porters could also carry ammunition, batteries and medical supplies, thus reducing the consumables load of an infantryman.

The Western world has largely given up on this model since Marius' mules (the late Republican unitary legionaries). Medieval squires are a notable exception, but squires were for men used to have servants, and -hear hear- supported the most heavily laden warriors, the knights.

So think about this; on purely rational grounds, would porters be a relief for the problem of overburdened infantry?
Next, think about how much the very thought is still appalling to you (I presume).

In fact, we DO have porters in Western infantry forces. Not all men are equal. Some are quite useless in combat and are effectively porters. Except that the bureaucracy still pretends they're full infantrymen and lets them carry mostly their own equipment, not primarily others'.

We also don't totally refuse the use of porters; just think of expeditions in the Himalaya. It's just that thinking of 'our' people as porters is in my opinion a cultural taboo.



  1. Certainly a cheaper acquisition cost than the assorted robotic mules and transport UGVs being developed. Perhaps not in long term costs though. In units I was in, the riflemen were used as porters for extra mortar and/or AT rounds, MG ammo, and batteries for the platoon radio.

  2. It depends on the cost of the arms.

    In ancient times, bronze equipment was very expensive. Similarly knight's equipment was very expensive. It makes economic sense to have expensive weapons "crew served" even if it is only wielded by a single person at the end.

    However, once arms become cheaper than the soldiers it makes sense to arm everyone.

    1. The sunk costs issue says that the purchasing price is irrelevant at the time of use; the utility is still relevant, though.
      I suppose the right angle to look at it is to see that the availability of a shieldbearer made a heavy panoply more practical and thus made the purchase more sensible in the first place.

  3. The rifle platoon is already perceived as 30-40 porters for platoon weapons. Anon. above already discussed carrying mortar, antitank and MG ammunition.

    So when we discuss porters, we're thinking of something different than this already established concept, which does nothing to decrease the troopers' weight load.

    Two questions arise:
    1) What do we do with them when their load is being consumed? Do they "Zulu Harbour" like the APCs of yore while the Infanteers conduct the fight?

    2) What is their load? It simultaneously cannot be anything critical and it cannot be anything superfluous. If we lose the porters and are left without water and food, we're fucked in the long term (short term after immediately on hand water is exhausted). If they have more ammunition, it's kind of at odds with your concept of short, sharp infantry fights wherein the fight should be over loooong before there is any need for resupply of ammunition.

    So, third question: Where do the porters go in terms of TO&E? The above two were predicated on a direct translation of the ancient concept to the modern context, with porters directly supporting the primary combatants.

    Assigning porters (this is/was effectively the job of the bulk of artillery gun crews until automation and budget cuts reduced crew sizes) to crew-served weapons makes a great deal of sense and could go some distance to improving their dismounted mobility... 100kg of weapon and ammunition is a lot for three guys, but not so much for six. And that would let us retain combat loads for self defence needs and sustainment (food, water, shelter).

    I suspect a lot of opposition to the idea will come from those leveling charges of racism ("It's a good use for ANA troops, hurp hurp hurp") or neo-colonialism (two sides of the same coin) etc.

    SO, earlier you had a paper by I believe one Wigram, regarding British Infantry in Italy. In it he states that X number of troops can be relied upon to fight, Y will follow them, and Z will run away to be herded back together later. In this, I should think that the Y figure already performed, effectively, as porters as ammunition was redistributed after a fight. According to some thinking on the psychological basis for battle/will to combat (Keegan, Grossman et al) it would perhaps improve matters if some men were not designated to fight and instead to support the fighters as porters/modern squires. Relieved of the burden of killing, as Grossman would have us believe, they might stay in the fight and support effectively. If they're still armed, then if things start going poorly they might engage in self defence and that will be useful.

  4. http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2011/12/the-chinese-wheelbarrow.html
    Is a good article on wheel barrow transport network that is at the roots of the Asian system of "porters".
    Since the invention of the wheelbarrow, handcart and bicycle, porting is carried out with tools and a corresponding decrease of porters per mile and tonnage. Your requirement for porting is to carry things close to the fighters. A dog or a mule are current solutions for that.
    Using humans for that task without mechanical gear is considered degrading and a threat to our social system that has all men created equal. It's more dangerous to freedom than Prism.
    Much carrying capability can be located on a mechnical device that travels on narrow roads and is powered by a motor or by an animal. This not being the case, has a lot to do with human capabilities. There are few animals that beat us in endurance and carrying capability per own weight.

  5. My guess is that the primary issues would be 1) logistical and 2) tactical.

    The logistical issue would be the increase in sustenance needs versus combat power. You'd have to feed, clothe, and shelter these guys and in a logistically challenging AO like the wilderlands of Afghanistan that's not a small thing. I think any experiment would have to show a significant increase in overall combat power to sell the tradeoff to a Western military.

    And the tactical question is the one NW asked; what do you do with these guys when the shooting starts. It's worth noting that a lot of premodern forces that depended on auxiliaries like these, whether they were the Greek slave-servants or Zulu idibi boys, were pretty vulnerable in nonlinear combat where enemies were able to get to these noncombatants and butcher or drive them off. This would seem to apply in SW Asia; how do you secure these guys while the grunts move forward to fight if there is no "forward" and "rear"?

    Not saying that this isn't worth a thought. But I think you'd need to come up with some pretty creative tricks to make it work...

    1. That seems to have been no issue historically.
      An analogy; motorised troops are like cavalry troops; not all of them can dismount and fight. Some need to stay with the vehicles (up to a fourth of a brigade's personnel!).
      What do we do with these guys when the shooting starts?

      It seems it has been proved a gazillion times that this problem is acceptable.

    2. A good solution. Take the Asian porter system. One guy with a bicycle packs 100 kg (add electric power and the load can increase). That can include some self-protection gear and serves several comrades as supply transport. Like mechanized infantry, he stays back while others move forward. So here comes a definition of porters, armed stay back unit with heavy stuff.
      Heavy stuff can be water in bullet protected containers, additional ammunition, medical gear and light artillery and surveillance gear to direct fire.

  6. I dont realy see were this is going. First of all, because its obscure to me, what you are talking about: extending a supply chain over impassable terrain (because you dont want to use human carriers if there is any other option) or making a unit self-sustained for a longer time.

    In case of latter using dedicated non-fighters is a waste because most weight is invested in ammunition, food and water. All of them tend to deplete over time, leaving more and more men free to be incorporated into the fighting force. Task organized carrier sections on the other hand are standard military practice. All this boils down to proper load planing at the appropriate level.

    The former is a rare need in todays world, because some kind of driveway for vehicular traffic reaches all but the most isolated settlements, and usually the the comparative advantage is with controlling those spaces with a better infrastructure. A force centric approach to COIN should usually not rely on fragile supply lines like carriers. If you positively have to supply a mountain fortress or combat patrol far in the outback, use helicopters. They are far more economical, flexible and secure than human carriers.

    About the supposed "western bias": most carriers in history were not exactly volunteering, but in in some sort of forced labour sheme. This is especially true for military ventures, because military spells troubble, and most people try to avoid troubble.

    PS: Medieval squires, being noble sons themselves, were no load carriers. The crew served weapon analogy fits the situation much more precisely.

  7. The late byzantines fielded the best heavy infantry of their time. They provided a servant (or slave? i dont remember...) for every two soldiers. Not just as porter, but also to cook, maintain equipment, etc...

  8. The use of porters seems to me to go along with the notion of living off the land. It can be done, but there are reasons why most armies have moved away from the practice.

    Battalions have occasionally tasked a platoon or two to be ammo bearers for specific engagements (and sometimes it was to carry ammo forward and casualties back). More recently we've also seen ATVs attached to companies or platoons to carry kit. Perhaps we need to revisit a culture of carrying 100lb+ of gear. How much of that is really useful? Why does an American GI need to look like RoboCop to waddle after Taliban, when a South African soldier could chase Angolans wearing not much more than belt kit and shorts?

    I only see porters being useful in mountainous or jungle terrain - which suggests expeditionary operations and so drafting the locals as porters. Or are you suggesting we bring along our own porters - because if so there's another factor to consider: physical fitness and acclimatisation. Canada made this work in the World Wars with whole companies of porters, but those men grew up doing manual labour and so were accustomed to such hardship. McDonalds doesn't include tumplines in their happy meals today.

    So for anything other than jungles or mountains, vehicles (truck - not helicopters) carry good loads. They exchange the logistical burden of food and medical attention for POL and mechanics, with the benefits of increased capacity and speed.

  9. I believe this is one of the few areas where me and the boss agree.
    I'm not sure "porter" is the correct word, or employment of the concept though, at least in my view.

    Its also somewhat untrue that squires and servants were just that. In all but the largest battles, a knight would fight with his squires, rather than with other knights. They would cover his rear and flanks, and get him in to position to win the battle. Hopliteish armour bearers would form up as light infantry, with javelins and slings and short bows (everywhere but greece)

    Forget "army of one", its army of four (or five, or another small number)

    We already recognise this in sniper/spotter teams, its just a case of expanding that.

    Today, in theory, an 8 man section splits in to two 4 man fireteams.
    Each made up (by equipment rather than rank) of 3 riflemen and a specialist, either a marksman or a machine gunner.
    The specialist is at least as "effective" as the three other squad members combined.
    The LMG has 7x the ammunition capacity and twice the effective range of the L85.

    The fireteam *is* the special weapon in almost every sense.

    Theres no reason everyman in the fireteam shouldnt be able to operate the fireteam weapon. But theres little reason to expect every man to fight without it either.

    As I said, I dont think "porter" is the right way of looking at it

    Its a compelling argument that an L85 with 180 rounds of ammunition is less useful *to* the fireteam than a P90 with 300 rounds and another 100 rounds for the GPMG, or better comms gear, or a laser range finder / target designator.
    The iPadsation of warfare being an idea of mine I am particularly proud of.

    One could argue that the P90 is more useful to the individual soldier in short range and sustained combat as well, just because they have more bullets to fire.

    What do they do during the fight?
    They aquire targets for the main gun, they load the main gun, they defend the main gun.

    Where do they sit?
    Within the fireteam