An Infantry Squad for the 21st Century


Since the firearm’s creation, firepower has aggregated at increasingly lower echelons in armies with each century, allowing smaller number of soldiers to dominate larger amounts of terrain and inflict greater amounts of damage on enemies. Today, a pair of soldiers handling a 20th-century machine gun can exceed rates of fire achievable only by an entire regiment of 19th-century riflemen. Advances in robotics, miniaturization of technology, and most importantly, exploration of human-machine combat teaming concepts will continue this trend and render the infantry squad of the 21st century the deadliest yet.

Insurgents in Syria have already begun incorporating inexpensive quadcopters and other commercially available drones at the squad level, even using them as airborne improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  Man-portable and inexpensive, a remote-controlled gyrocopter modified to hold anti-personnel or anti-armor warheads gives infantrymen a new way to clear a room, attack enemy infantry in cover, or destroy hostile tanks. While currently susceptible to electronic jamming, advances in robot object recognition should allow future drones to autonomously acquire targets, leaving electronic attacks designed to sever connectivity less effective. Rules of engagement, the intensity of conflict, and the nature of enemy forces will determine the extent that this autonomy can be used.

Russian use of drones as forward observers in Syria and Ukraine also highlights how machines will increasingly take on what were formerly human responsibilities. Future infantry platoons deserve a persistent overhead drone presence that tracks enemy forces and possesses the ability to drop miniature precision-guided munitions from above. Loitering above small-arms range, a small drone could identify enemy forces with electro-optical and infrared sensors, lase targets for indirect fire, push full-motion video down to ground forces, and relay communications for infantry squads.

On the ground, quadruped drones like Boston Dynamic’s “Spot” could even become combatants themselves, carrying crew-served weapons over complex terrain and accompanying infantrymen. These same quadrupeds could also help solve the logistical challenges created by drone usage. Boston Dynamic’s LS3 (Legged Squad Support System) can already carry hundreds of pounds of fuel, food, water, and ammo across extremely rugged terrain, thereby reducing the need for aerial resupply of units operating away from main supply routes.

For the most part, these advances do not bring new capabilities to land forces; they simply miniaturize existing capabilities. Legged and tracked robots provide an avenue to place tank-like capabilities at the squad level. Precision indirect fire and close air support, once the  domain of divisions and brigades, can be inexpensively placed in the hands of a platoon leader guiding remotely piloted aircraft. Modern infantrymen have always coordinated with armor, artillery, and airpower, but these new systems under development will be under the organic control of infantrymen themselves, creating an opportunity for even greater synergy in combat arms and greater lethality. These technological advances will trigger the most substantial changes in infantry tactics since World War II.

Future Squad Tactics

Most current offensive squad tactics involve achieving fire superiority to enable maneuver on the enemy and gain advantageous positions. Assault elements undertake great personal risk as they work their way around nebulous enemies, attempting to gain access to a vulnerable flank or rear. Like mini-tanks, quadruped robots could take on this role and absorb the risk of crossing open terrain mid-firefight. Smalls arms-resistant and fearless, these drones would allow an infantry squad to begin maneuvering on the enemy before friendly forces even establish a base of fire.


While ground drones increase the ability of infantry squads to rapidly maneuver, miniature precision guided munitions (PGMs) and organic air support will increase the squad’s ability to suppress foes.  Today, a U.S. infantryman’s first line of fire support comes from his company’s 60mm mortar section. Light mortars need to be fired en masse for best effect due to their inaccuracy, preventing a company from dispersing its mortar section to its platoons. Inaccuracy also prevents light mortars from being used in close combat. An infantryman needs to be over 100 meters away lying in the prone to avoid significant risk of injury from impacting 60mm mortar rounds. Guided mortar rounds will hit within five meters of their target, and new warhead designs will have more focused fragmentation patterns, allowing mortars to suppress enemy forces until seconds before infantrymen close on them. Miniaturization of PGMs will also enable smaller aerial drones to provide close air support. Proliferation of this technology to the platoon-level and below will make fire support more responsive than ever.


In urban combat, extremely small assets that perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions will reduce the risk to infantrymen performing the difficult task of room clearance. Smart grenades — remote-controlled spheroids with a camera system — could be rolled into rooms ahead of soldiers to scan for non-combatants. If none are present, the grenade could be detonated, incapacitating hostiles in the room. In caves, a small gyrocopter could carry similar sensors and ordnance, reducing the danger for human soldiers following it underground.


Drone on Drone

The battle drills above explore scenarios wherein one side has a clear technological advantage, but what if the opposition possess similar weapons? How would U.S. infantry respond to an armored foot-mobile drone or a tactical armed ISR asset? The FIM-92 Stinger works fine against traditional aerial targets, but might be next to worthless against a low-flying gyrocopter carrying explosives. Similarly, the infantry anti-tank weapons of today may not be rapidly employable enough to protect troops from armored ground drones — legged drones will likely be quieter than tanks. Even today’s electronic warfare systems will need to be reengineered to shield infantry against developing threats.

Drone-on-drone combat is another issue. How do you best employ an armed quadruped drone against its counterpart? What does a remotely piloted aircraft dogfight look like? The world’s militaries will soon experience the 21st-century equivalent of the first tank-on-tank battle at Villers-Brettoneux in World War I and the first aerial dogfight.

On the eve of World War II, the U.S. Army sent 350,000 men to Louisiana to fight a mock war and bring concepts like the use of large airborne forces and armored maneuver warfare from the classroom to the battlefield. The U.S. Army tested comprehensive employment of new technologies for the first time and vetted its future combat leaders.

It’s time for the modern-day version of this exercise. Teams of soldiers should be paired with drone prototypes, PGM systems, and other advanced technologies to test their utility through repeated squad versus squad exercises. These infantrymen-driven drills will help forge new tactics, identify design deficiencies, and suggest future developmental focuses. Some of these technologies will need to be simulated — and that’s actually preferable. As simulated technologies prove their usefulness, exercise observers can feed bottom-up design and lessen the chance of fruitless research and development. As tactical concepts mature at the squad level, the exercises can grow in scale. Platoon-, company-, battalion-, and even brigade-sized forces can fight each other using simulated and developing systems, adding legitimacy to concepts developed at squad level. Fifteen years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq have made U.S. grunts the most experienced in the world. Let’s entrust the development of the 21st infantry squad to their capable hands.


Jules Hurst is an Army Reserve Officer and the former Senior Intelligence Analyst of 1st Ranger Battalion.  He has deployed to Afghanistan four times in support of a USSOCOM Task Force.  You can follow him @JulesHawke.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army. 

Image: Sgt. Eric Keenan