Is the Infantry Brigade Combat Team Becoming Obsolete?
The infantry community has a problem. The centerpiece of the Army’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the infantry brigade combat team, is in danger of becoming obsolete in the face of near-peer opponents. This formation of three infantry battalions, an engineer battalion, an artillery battalion, a cavalry squadron, and a support battalion needs to be restructured to maximize an infantry brigade’s chances of success in an era of fast-paced and rapidly evolving multidomain operations. For the first time in 50 years, the infantry brigade can expect to have its artillery outgunned and be under electronic and aerial attack. Army leaders often note that multidomain operations will not only have an impact on Army organizations and operations but will drive Army modernization efforts as well. I suggest that the Army needs to shift away from three infantry battalions in an infantry brigade to two. This will allow the brigade to bring in sorely needed electronic warfare and air defense capabilities that currently do not exist in the unit and increase other existing capabilities that will prove essential in a future fight.
Imagine the infantry brigade as a weapon system similar to a guided missile. You have the missile’s brain (brigade headquarters), the rocket motor (support battalion), the guidance system (cavalry squadron), the penetrator (engineers and artillery), and the warhead (infantry battalions). The purpose of the missile is to put its warhead on a target to destroy it; the purpose of the brigade is to put the infantry on their objectives. A big warhead is useless if the missile is spoofed, fired against the wrong target, or shot down. While I may be advocating for a smaller warhead (less infantry), I am simultaneously arguing that we need to improve the other components of the missile to ensure the missile still reaches its target to deliver the payload. A more precise and reliable missile will be more effective even with a smaller warhead. In this case, the infantry brigade is no different.
There are four limitations and four assumptions to note before getting into the argument for such a drastic change. The first limitation is that any change must exist within a zero-growth Army. In other words, to create a new position, an old one must first be eliminated. Next, the infantry brigade, while being optimized for multidomain operations and decisive action threat environments, should remain flexible enough to support other missions — such as ongoing counter-terrorism, security, base support, and advising operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa. Third, all numbers for this article are drawn from official Army publications, which may or may not reflect actual manning numbers. The final limiting factor is that recommended changes are only for the infantry brigade force structure and not for Stryker or armored brigade formations.
The assumptions driving these recommended changes are as follows. First, in a multidomain fight, enablers — such as engineers, air defense, and soldiers who specialize in electronic warfare — will be as important as infantry, if not more, to ensure the infantry is able to conduct its mission. Thus, the priority of an infantry brigade will remain to put the infantryman on the objective. Third, electronic warfare, air defense, and manned reconnaissance assets will increase in importance as communications and unmanned assets are increasingly disrupted, degraded, or destroyed. Finally, taking into consideration zero growth and the Army’s push to modernize the force technologically, it is more practical and socially acceptable to build and field new equipment than it is to grow the Army.
The Three-Battalion Team
The current infantry brigade combat team consists of approximately 4,413 soldiers assigned to seven subordinate battalions. The three infantry battalions form the core of the brigade’s combat power. This structure is the result of decisions made when the Army was downsized from four brigade combat teams in a division to three. Simultaneous with downsizing were the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and recently concluded operations in Iraq.
While the current structure is suitable for activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is anachronistic and ill-suited to perform well in the complex and fast-paced operating environment that current Army leadership expects in the future. Why? This is due in part to a lack of assets internal to the brigade that can deny opponents the use of airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, but also to the 2015 downsizing and a general overreliance on airpower.
The current structure assumes that there will be time for a deliberate train-up and for “enablers,” like additional soldiers for electronic warfare and explosive ordnance disposal, to integrate with the brigade before being thrust into a combat environment. The current infantry brigade is well-suited for wide area security missions and stability operations in places like Iraq, where it is possible to have deliberate preparation and where the operating environment is mature — with supporting elements already in theater such as civil affairs, additional route clearance, additional intelligence, and more. But in a rapidly evolving fight where an infantry brigade could deploy as part of an immediate response force, commanders will not have the luxury of time to meet their external supporting units and go through a deliberate training progression with them. If the brigade is to remain the primary fighting formation in the U.S. Army, then it needs to be outfitted to succeed unilaterally.
Slower Infantry Brigades Will Be Sidelined
If the current formation had to go to war today against peer and near-peer opponents, the brigade would not be set up for success. Leaders would quickly find that the infantry brigade is too slow, too dependent on external support, and unable to control large swaths of land compared to Stryker and armor brigade formations. This is readily apparent when one looks at the differences between the National Training Center in California, where Stryker and armor brigades conduct pre-deployment training, and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, where infantry brigades conduct theirs. The environments and simulated combat scenarios at both locations are as different as night and day, and from personal experience at both, the operational environment at the National Training Center is many times more “lethal” than at the Joint Readiness Training Center — the faster-paced, more mobile, and longer-range fights experienced at the National Training Center have only served to highlight the importance of mounted formations in a peer fight. Infantry brigades would quickly be forced into niche roles to enable armored formations to conduct the main operation.
This is not to say that current infantry brigades would not succeed, as success is dependent on more than just how a unit is structured, but the current setup does the brigade no favors. This would cause the formations not to survive a major war as they currently stand, likely either being drastically changed during the conflict or replaced completely afterwards.
In order to reorient the brigade’s capability to maintain relevance in a future combat environment, changes should be made to the current structure. Unfortunately, with zero growth as a constraint, there are no options where every military occupational specialty wins. The brigade must lose a perceived capability in one place in order to improve elsewhere. The challenge is how to do so while improving the brigade as a whole.
My recommended, and no doubt controversial, change is to remove of one of the three infantry battalions to open up positions for use elsewhere. This is not the first time cutting elements of a brigade to stand up additional units elsewhere has been brought up, either. The positions freed up will allow the brigade to stand the special troops battalion back up, increase engineer and reconnaissance capabilities, and add additional firepower to the remaining infantry battalions. (Prior to the brigade combat team redesign, the special troops battalion was home to military intelligence, signal, and one engineer company. When the redesign occurred, a second engineer company was added, and the battalion was reflagged as a brigade engineer battalion.)
Why remove an infantry battalion, one might ask? The infantry battalions are the largest subordinate formations, and by removing one, the brigade maximizes the availability of new positions. The removal would make approximately 729 positions available (including the forward support company) for repurposing. By going from three to two infantry battalions, the brigade can increase its ability to better support the remaining two infantry battalions with a higher ratio of enablers to “shooters.” Lastly, remember that the move to a two-infantry-battalion brigade core is not a new idea, as there were only two infantry battalions per brigade before the 2015 reorganization.
Who’s Who in the New Brigade
Bringing back the special troops battalion increases brigades’ ability to affect the enemy in the air and the electromagnetic spectrum during combat operations. The special troops battalion would gain the signal and military intelligence companies currently in the engineer battalion and the forward support and headquarters companies from the defunct infantry battalion. Additionally, the battalion would be assigned an electronic warfare company to fill a critical gap in capability. The last addition to the new battalion would be an air defense company with short-range air defense platoons and a man-portable stinger (MANPADS) platoon. The short-range platoons and man-portable missiles will create a layered air defense that will be able to protect the brigade from both enemy attack jets and attack helicopters. This will prove crucial to preserving the brigade’s ability to fight throughout a high-intensity conflict. These layered air defense units will provide a critical resource against not only hostile drones but also opponents who have been improving their own ability to conduct close air support over the past decade.
Once the military intelligence and signal companies transfer to the special troops battalion, the engineer battalion will be able to focus entirely on engineer tasks and missions. With manpower positions freed up by the removal of an infantry battalion, the engineers can add one additional 35-man sapper platoon, bringing the total in the battalion to four platoons. The addition of more sappers will increase the brigade’s ability to conduct breaching and demolition operations in both high- and low-intensity conflicts. The engineer battalion can additionally reorganize its horizontal platoons into one horizontal company. This new company would consist of three horizontal platoons and one route clearance platoon. The horizontal platoons, with their backhoes and bulldozers, will increase the brigade’s ability to construct defensive obstacles and destroy buildings in an urban fight. Finally, the battalion headquarters would gain a single explosive ordnance disposal platoon to further aid route clearance and explosive disposal operations. The battalion forward support company would also see a slight increase in size to account for additional vehicles added to the battalion. These changes increase the flexibility of the engineer battalion and allow it to focus on engineer operations for both decisive action and low-intensity conflicts. The 2-to-1 ratio of sapper platoons to infantry battalions grants the brigade additional flexibility in how it wishes to use its sappers.
Cavalry Grows in Importance and Size
As seen in the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, the vast increase in the use of drones has also led to an increase in the ability to counteract them. With an increasingly crowded electromagnetic environment making it harder to properly employ drones, traditional manned reconnaissance assets will again increase in importance. To support this, the cavalry squadron would grow with one additional 92-man mounted cavalry troop and gain one 28-man platoon to the dismounted troop. This would increase the cavalry squadron’s size from two mounted troops and two dismounted platoons to three and three. This increase improves the squadron’s ability to perform reconnaissance and security operations. Additionally, this growth preserves the brigade’s reconnaissance assets if a mobile protective firepower armor troop is added: Currently the Army is deliberating how to incorporate these light tanks into the infantry brigade formation. The Army will likely have to do so by removing one of the mounted cavalry troops in favor of the armored troop. Expanding the cavalry squadron to three mounted troops means the cavalry squadron will not lose any reconnaissance capability if this occurs.
The size of the two remaining infantry battalions would increase as well from approximately 726 (including support company personnel) to 770 each. Each battalion would gain an additional two weapons platoons and an additional weapons company headquarters, changing the battalion from one weapons company of four platoons to two weapons companies of three platoons each. This increases the options the infantry battalion commander has available by increasing the number of anti-armor platforms in the battalion and provides an additional company commander to help manage the fight. At the same time, the total number of anti-armor assets within the brigade remains the same. This ensures that there is no loss of TOW-ITAS missile platforms, a key weapon that will be essential in a near-peer fight.
After this realignment, there are approximately 60 positions left. These 60 positions could either be spread out among the brigade to go to a true zero-growth change or be inserted into the brigade’s field artillery battalion (likely accompanying additional equipment coming to the battalion as well) or support battalion. While improvement to the artillery battalion and their associated warfighting function would be ideal, I believe that this can be accomplished through the fielding of improved equipment and does not need to rely on a change to manpower. Another option is that those 60 positions are removed from the infantry brigade altogether for use elsewhere in the Army. The 60 positions multiplied across the 13 active-duty infantry brigade combat teams equals 780 positions, or roughly an infantry battalion’s worth of personnel, to stand up additional units elsewhere. Approximately 1,200 positions would be freed up for the National Guard if the same changes were applied to its 20 infantry brigades.
In summary, the current design of the infantry brigade combat team should be updated to better fight and win in a multidomain fight. The organization needs to change if it is to avoid being marginalized in future high-intensity conflicts. Restricted in its ability to grow the force, the Army does not have the easy option of simply adding additional personnel to meet the need. It is my recommendation that one of the three infantry battalions per infantry brigade combat team be removed to reorient the brigades for multidomain operations. With the loss of one infantry battalion, the brigade adds to the protection (air defense), fires (electronic warfare), movement and maneuver (engineers and infantry weapons companies), and intelligence (cavalry squadron) warfighting functions. This trade-off will increase an infantry brigade’s chances of success in a future conflict while retaining the flexibility to accomplish a wide variety of other missions.
The Army is not alone in the difficult decisions it currently faces — all of the U.S. armed services are coming to terms with what drastic changes may be required in order to ensure they remain capable of supporting the plans outlined in the National Defense Strategy. We live in an unstable world with even less stable defense budgets. The strength of an infantry brigade is that it is a rapidly deployable and flexible option for commanders. This flexibility, when coupled with a structure designed for multidomain threats, will ensure that the infantry brigade can continue to fight and win the nation’s battles for the foreseeable future.
Capt. Daniel Vazquez is a 2013 graduate of Norwich University’s Corps of Cadets and has a B.A. in history. Commissioned as an infantryman in 2013, he has served in both Stryker and infantry brigade combat team formations as a rifle platoon leader, company executive officer, and scout platoon leader. He is currently serving as the battalion operations officer in an Infantry Brigade Combat Team infantry battalion. He is the author of The War Yet to Come: A Story of the Future Battlefield, available on Amazon Kindle. The views and opinions described in the paper are his and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army.
Image: U.S. Army