Shock of the Mundane: The Dangerous Diffusion of Basic Infantry Tactics


Conventional wisdom focuses on technological superiority as the key source of American dominance on the battlefield. Even though the United States is clearly still struggling at the strategic level in its fight against terrorists and insurgents, it is supremely confident in its ability to defeat these groups in combat at the tactical level, due in no small part to technological advantages such as total air superiority, remote surveillance, command-and-control systems, precision munitions, and night-vision capabilities. Observers are largely focused on these technologies – such as drones and night-vision goggles – and their potential diffusion to violent non-state actors. What has been overlooked in the debate over the combat potential of violent extremists is the diffusion of something much more rudimentary and potentially more lethal: basic infantry skills. These include coordinated small-team tactical maneuvers supported by elementary marksmanship. The diffusion of such tactics seems to be underway, and it may generate serious concerns for U.S. security policy in the future if ignored.

The historian David Edgerton authored a book entitled The Shock of the Old in which he argues that our society’s collective obsession with rapidly changing technology often blinds us to the older tools and techniques that actually drive most of what we observe around us. We believe this logic can be applied here. The diffusion of 100-year old combat techniques, coupled with readily available technology, may create serious threats that are not currently being considered.

To be clear, we do not argue that the diffusion of such skills will allow extremist non-state groups to defeat U.S. forces in a stand-up fight. America’s enemies have largely (and wisely) avoided sustained combat operations designed to militarily defeat U.S. forces, but have rather developed effective asymmetric offsets – such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – designed to sap political will. This strategy will not change. We do, however, argue that the marginal improvement of tactical prowess in violent non-state groups may lead to outcomes that have strategic implications for global U.S. counter-terrorist and counter-insurgent operations in two other ways. First, it will make it more likely that violent non-state groups will be able to more frequently impose casualties on and overmatch small, isolated U.S. elements, as occurred in the tragic Niger ambush of October 2017. Given the current American practice of deploying small units across remote regions of the world, coupled with the extreme political sensitivity surrounding the death and capture of U.S. servicemembers, such outcomes could be a game-changer. Second, the large conventional partner forces the United States has spent billions creating in Iraq and Afghanistan often struggle to simply tread water on the battlefield when operating independently. Any increased combat capacity of extremist groups could lead to the type of collapse the world witnessed with the meteoric rise of the ISIL caliphate in 2014. In sum, improved tactical prowess may open the door for strategic success for these groups, despite their continued inability to defeat U.S. forces in conventional battle.

Stephen Biddle explains that the modern tactics still practiced by the world’s most advanced militaries were developed by the German army in the closing year of World War I. After four years of brutal trench warfare, all participants were struggling to overcome the stalemate they had created on the Western Front. The proliferation of bolt-action rifles and machine guns, coupled with highly effective field artillery and mortars, fundamentally changed how infantry operated on the battlefield. A Napoleonic infantry battalion of 1000 men with muskets could fire 2000 rounds (with poor aim) per minute to a range of about 100 yards. In comparison, a World War I-era battalion armed with rifles and four machine guns could fire 21,000 rounds (with precise aim) per minute to a range of 10 football fields (1000 yards). The result of this increase of focused fire was to force armies away from the massed formations of the Napoleonic Wars to trenches and bunkers in the face of this “storm of steel.” By distilling and updating skirmishing tactics that stretched back to the 18th century, the Germans developed dispersed, well-trained, small groups of soldiers who were empowered to work as teams. They exploited cover and utilized “fire-and-maneuver,” in which one element of the team suppressed enemy fire while the other element moved to flank the opponent’s position.

Such tactics remain essentially unaltered a century later. On the one hand, military technology as a whole has changed tremendously over the last 100 years (nuclear weapons, satellites, missiles, et cetera). On the other hand, small arms are almost unchanged. The current Colt M4 carbine has more similarities to the Springfield M1903 (adopted in 1903) than differences. And the Colt M1911 pistol (adopted in 1911) is considered by many to be a superior side-arm to the Beretta M9 that has been issued to the U.S. Army for the last 30 years, and perhaps even the Sig Sauer that is set to replace it. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the core tactics that comprise modern combat have remained largely static.

It should also not come as a surprise that the U.S. military is extremely good at these basic skills. U.S. military doctrine is thoroughly imbued with these tactics. They were acquired during World War II and embedded into the military’s DNA over the following decades as it prepared to defend the Fulda Gap against the Red Army. To this day, America’s military forces are masters of the maneuver warfare operational concepts within which these tactics play a crucial role. As a result of simply being really good at basic infantry skills, the U.S. military has enjoyed a significant asymmetry over its enemies at the tactical level. This fact appears to be almost entirely lost amidst the current debates over cutting-edge technologies or “the battle of the narrative”.

Is there evidence that the bad guys are getting better at basic tactics? Yes. Consider Boko Haram. Having only launched its military campaign in 2009, it has already mastered the use of coordinated fire and maneuver elements at the tactical level to execute complex raids, ambushes, assaults, and even withdrawing by echelon when on the defensive. It even staged an amphibious assault that overran a Nigerien Army garrison on an island in Lake Chad. Another example is from much closer to the U.S. homeland. Utilizing tactics diffused through U.S. military training, drug cartels such as the infamous “Zetas” and “Jalisco New Generation” have institutionalized combat training that allows them to regularly wreak havoc on Mexican security forces. In the wake of a recent downing of a Mexican military helicopter through the employment of rocket-propelled grenades, the disturbing discovery was made of tactical gear emblazoned with “CJNG – High Command Special Forces” (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion). Further evidence comes from the Iraqi campaign to defeat ISIL. Conventional forces struggled mightily to eject ISIL from Iraq’s territory, and only succeeded due to the heavy use of Iraqi special operations forces and liberal American airpower. The battle of Mosul, for example, lasted for nine months despite significant material U.S. support and a 20:1 force ratio against the ISIL defenders. Afghan conventional military forces are often defeated by an increasingly competent Taliban. On the other side of the world, Filipino forces had to destroy much of the town of Marawi to liberate it from jihadist insurgents during a five-month siege last year. Furthermore, these enemies seem to be gravitating towards operations in urban areas. These environments hinder the United States and its partners from utilizing their high-tech advantages, resulting in a playing field that could get ever more level. Finally, given the ease with which such groups can infiltrate poorly vetted partner forces, the U.S. military has probably provided tactical instruction to the enemy directly and indirectly for a long time. As one U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan told one of us: “Sometimes a trainee just doesn’t show up right before graduation, and then – sure enough – you are fighting him on the next objective.”

In summary, rather than celebrating the (shockingly slow) destruction of the ISIL caliphate, the U.S. military should realize that one of its enemies just learned a whole lot about combat: basic infantry tactics, urban operations, and the clever blending of emerging technologies. These lessons will spread globally, and faster than many expect.

What should be done in response? First, the United States has to recognize that the bad guys will get better. Rather than perpetuating the comforting myth that enemy ranks are saturated with incompetent wackos, planners and policymakers must understand that these groups have highly motivated and – with the right training – potentially capable fighters.

Second, we need to remember that humans are more important than hardware. The welter of debate over high technology widgets has obscured the fact that technologies are leveraged by individuals and organizations. Biddle wrote a prescient article back in 1996 entitled “Victory Misunderstood” about the implications of the 1991 Gulf War in which he challenged the hypothesis that technology would be the deciding factor on 21st century battlefields. His analysis showed that basic soldiering skills were crucial to the lopsided victory over Iraqi forces. He argued that technology may simply “be magnifying the effects of skill differentials on the battlefield. If so, then a given skill imbalance may be much more important today than in the past”. We proposed a similar argument here. Therefore, the U.S. military needs to not only be wary of the changing skill sets of the enemies of the United States but also keep a similarly watchful eye over the maintenance of our own human capital. U.S. forces are only as good as the men and women they select, train, and develop.

As a consequence, the U.S. military should stop being one of the best suppliers of tactical instruction to the bad guys. Planners should be more discerning when it comes to building partner capacity. Additional scrutiny should be placed on which partner nation military units are being trained, what roles they will play in the fight, and how large and good they need to be. Most of these nations do not need a Western-style conventional military, but rather a politically reliable force dedicated to internal security and counter-terrorism. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, large (and probably unsustainable) conventional partner forces fight poorly (when they do fight) and, therefore, the specialized counter-terrorism and elite units U.S. mentors have carefully crafted are consistently overused as assault troops. In the words of another U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan, speaking of the country’s elite commando units: “Eight percent of the troops do 80 percent of the fighting.” Rather than choosing to train large numbers of poorly vetted partner conventional forces, the United States should probably choose to save such training (and resources) for smaller numbers of higher quality and better vetted forces. Such efforts will inevitably involve the diffusion of training and technology (and the risk of a future “Zetas” blowback). Therefore, the United States needs to be more mindful about who gets what, and for what purpose.

Finally – and most importantly – the citizenry of the United States needs to scrutinize leaders’ policy choices more closely when the lives of military personnel are at risk. The days of imposing America’s will on others with impunity may be over. The diffusion of skills and technology, the increased likelihood of messy urban operations, and the waning political appetite for military adventurism should be sobering to our leadership. If the loss of four soldiers rattles our nation, we must think much harder about when we are willing to put our troops in harm’s way.


Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis Department of the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and co-editor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure (Georgetown University Press, 2015).  

Kai Thaxton is an Army officer with over 20 years of military service. His experience spans multiple theaters and combat rotations working closely with indigenous forces to work toward indigenous solutions. He earned his Master’s Degree in the Defense Analysis Department of the Naval Postgraduate School, where his research focused on the fostering of collaboration among organizations in the face of cultural barriers and incentive challenges.

 Mike Alexander is a special operations officer with 26 years of active service, with extensive combat experience while advising partner nation forces. He earned his Master’s Degree from the Defense Analysis Department of the Naval Postgraduate School, where his research focused on organizational influence among collaborative networks. He currently works on security cooperation and security assistance operations.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Sgt. Cody Quinn