The dragoons' problem lingers on

Modern people could mistake the dragoons from before the mid-18th century for cavalry, but they were in fact infantry on a mount (horse), typically a 'light horse' (low cost and too small and weak to carry a cuirassier and his equipment well).

The dragoons were supposed to fight on foot. Their officers were attracted by the more prestigious real cavalry and dragoons became more and more cavalry-like out of this bureaucratic self-interest over time until they were absorbed into a general cavalry (which ultimately had to give up mounted combat anyway but didn't want to be renamed into "dragoons").
17th century dragoons. I think the stance on the right may be ahistorical.
The original dragoons were a weird creation. Most European armies had lost their archery skills (especially horse archery skills if they ever had much of them, unlike the Ottoman armies. This meant ranged combat on horseback was reduced to harassing and signalling (firearm noise telling nearby forces about the enemy's presence) and incapable of decimating the enemy as known from Asian and Persian steppe peoples. Cavalry had thus at most only a (weak) carbine or long pistol ("dragon", thus "dragoon") for firepower, and dragoons had to fight dismounted to possess more than this merely harassing firepower.

Mounted dragoons were inferior to real cavalry due to less training in mounted combat. Yet once on foot, they had to fear cavalry, for their firearms weren't effective enough to stop well-sized cavalry charges and their carbines (shorter muskets) were largely useless as a pike replacements even with extra-long bayonets. Dragoons weren't used in large-enough groups to enable a good defensive square formation (due to the cost of even their small horses).
The worst problem was no doubt that the horses didn't disappear once the dragoon intended to fight on foot: As a rule of thumb, one third of the dragoons (and later general cavalry) had to stay back with the horses to keep them under control and to protect them. Dragoons and late cavalry weren't merely weaker in dismounted combat than infantry, but also decimated by 1/3!

This problem lingered on with the 20th century descendants of the dragoons: Motorcycle troops and later motorised troops.
A two ton truck may be a very efficient transportation vehicle for a squad, but it still requires one in about ten men to stay back with the vehicle - and probably wait there instead of hauling supplies next. This 1/10th figure isn't representative, though: A late 20th century division of about 15,000 men (+/- a few thousand) had about 4,000 vehicles (+/- hundreds), and most of them were not combat vehicles. About one in four men in a modern army field formation is a designated driver not meant to engage in combat. The share is high in combat units, too.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 produced an event with high public attention; a successful intercept of a platoon of a maintenance company. Much attention was on the prisoners, on the (ironically) poor maintenance of their weapons and the like, but the news back then also revealed to the public that the 18 vehicles were 'manned' by only 31 soldiers; only 1.72 per vehicle. This isn't uncommon among support units any more; vehicles are now plenty and manning instead of motor transportation is the bottleneck nowadays. Back in 1940 those vehicles would be cramped because getting a free ride instead of a foot march was great. Nowadays we've got only a driver in some vehicles. The peacetime TO&E doesn't matter much in this regard, as units are almost always well below 100% nominal strength on a campaign.

The Korean War revealed some dangers in the current concept of motorisation; North Korean and Chinese infantry infiltrated through the poorly manned front-line and attacked the rear - mostly non-combat units, which were cramped in the valleys and bound to them due to their high quantity of motor vehicles and high share of drivers. The Americans and their allies proved to be resistant to this lesson, as they feared the nuclear battlefield more.

It got even worse with the introduction of the HMMWV* and its copies: Often times two such low capacity (1 1/4 ton, later 2 ton) trucks are being used for what could (and should) be done with a single medium three to six ton truck with one instead of two drivers. Other times they are used by a single senior NCO or officer to move around; something which could be done on a single motorcycle instead (possibly parasitic to cut down convoy size).

I consider this to be one of the actually long-known defects that need be corrected in Western ground forces. The general clumsiness of Western manoeuvre formations wasn't much of a concern on small training areas or on desert terrain or in computer simulations, but it's a dragging problem. Officers write many monographs, memos and books on agility and mobility and manoeuvre - but in the end the forces need to be able to realise the theory in face of competent and not terribly outnumbered hostiles. This is in doubt, and Third World armies demonstrated what happens when you attempt mobile warfare with unsuitable forces repeatedly.

The absence of much of a conventional military challenge to the EU doesn't make this issue less dire: For one, we should do reform when we're not under pressure, for it's much more difficult to pull off once there's a short-term risk of war. Second, more competent and better organised military forces are more efficient and can do more with less - saving on manpower (=freed for the economy) and funds (=lower taxes or less public debt).



*: The French ACMAT VLRA concept was actually much superior and was introduced in 50 countries since the 60's. The 4x4 VLRA base vehicle is more capable than a HMMWV militarily and the family extends to true light and medium trucks with an impressive parts commonality.


  1. And what is the "result" of "realising" that there are too many [vulnerable, unmobile] soft vehicles? Adding another kind of vehicle: the unmanned replenishment helicopter...

    1. A weather-dependent vehicle that needs to burn for for fighting gravity, whereas ground vehicles only fight gravity when they climb a slope...

  2. I always thought that the M151 jeep was better transport than either a HMMWV or a motorcycle.

    The latter have their charms, but the m151 had just enough refinements to make it usable without the gold plating you (rightly) complain about.