In the rush to augment the infantry’s firepower with new advanced small arms technologies, we may be on the precipice of crippling their ability to fight wars. The push to equip the infantryman with more powerful rifles and machine guns risks reducing his mobility to critical levels, and “locking out” his capacity to carry powerful supporting arms. Although more potent basic infantry weapons are undeniably desirable, current attitudes towards their purpose – exemplified by the concept of “overmatch” – may compound problems that already have reached crisis levels.
An image of “warfighters”, struggling alone and without support against enemies equipped with “overmatching” weapons that out-range and out-class our own, is being sold to the military planners who will write the book on next generation small arms. However emotionally compelling this picture is, however, it is fantasy. Conventional infantry do not operate alone, but as part of a combined arms effort that leverages supporting capabilities from the entire military. The idea of equipping the Infantry with individual weapons which are designed to counter enemy supporting arms through “overmatch” not only is incompatible with established doctrine and best practices, but also establishes a dangerous principle that could cripple US infantrymen in the future.
To understand why this idea is dangerous, a fundamental fact of the infantry must first be recognized: One man can only carry so much. In fighting vehicle or combat aircraft design, the mass of more potent armaments can be offset with augmentations to the craft’s engines, enhancements to the vehicle’s structure, or improvements to its suspension. However, when planning arms for the infantryman there is a hard limit to how much mass of equipment each person can carry. Therefore, any increases in this mass must be very carefully weighed in the balance along with their corresponding increases in effectiveness.
In clearer terms, the US Army Infantry Rifle Platoon is comprised of about 39 men. Each man can produce about a third of a horsepower during a march, and the average approach march load for an infantryman is 102.1 pounds, according to the 2003 report The Modern Warrior’s Combat Load. This means that the Infantry Rifle Platoon approximated as a single “vehicle” produces less than 12 horsepower total. The average power-to-weight ratio of the loaded infantryman is just 2.4 hp/ton (2.6 hp/tonne), compared to the 25 hp/ton of a 60 ton M1 Abrams main battle tank. Analyzing the platoon in the same way as we would a vehicle is a dramatic oversimplification, of course, but these figures nonetheless help illustrate just how power-limited the platoon as a whole is.
Not only is the platoon power-limited by the physiology of the infantryman, but this presents a medical problem, as well. When a vehicle breaks, it can be readily replaced with another and sent for repairs or surplused. When a soldier or Marine is injured and must be hospitalized, his unit is denied one of its integral parts. A replacement can be sent to fill his place, but the benefits of the relationships built over time between the injured soldier and his unit are lost, possibly forever. Likewise, while a replacement rifle or HMMWV may be better in every way than the objects they replace, a new recruit cannot replace the knowledge and experience of a hospitalized infantryman. Knowledge and experience in warfare cannot be manufactured; they must be cultured the hard way.
Today, our troops are already overburdened. Roughly a tenth of the Army today cannot fight due to medical reasons, a figure that has sadly become the norm since the beginning of the decade. Soldiers are often expected to carry over 100 pounds of gear on marches that destroy knees, ankles, hips, and backs and leave tens of thousands of good men with 100% disability ratings. Experienced troops are forced to retire early with crippling medical issues that will affect them for life. This situation already threatens to destabilize the entire force, creating what Chief of Staff Milley called “a hollow Army”.
Therefore, it must be accepted that an increase in the soldier’s load is much more than just a minor nuisance, but a serious problem with multiple second-order effects that has a directly deleterious effect on Army readiness as a whole. As this problem continues to grow past crisis levels, comprehensive weight management programs must be implemented for every element of the infantryman’s load. From this, three iron tenets for the infantry weapons planner emerge:
Although augmented firepower and and ballistic performance are also desired, reducing the load of the infantryman must be an overriding priority.
Any improvement in performance of infantry small arms must be considered against not only the mass it will add to the infantryman’s load, but also against what other weapons and ordnance could be carried instead.
Any infantry small arms configuration which results in a substantial increase in the mass of weapons and ammunition carried by the platoon must be modified or rejected.
The concept of “overmatch” violates these tenets. From this perspective, concerns about increases in weapon and ammunition weight are easily dismissed as unimportant relative to pursuit of the concept. Improved weapon ballistics is considered, not with respect to the additional burden it would place on the infantryman, but with respect to raw performance alone. The result will be a substantial increase in burden to the Infantry, and reduction in combat capability as a consequence.
Consider that increasing the Infantry’s load means reducing their capability to perform their most fundamental mission. This mission is laid out in the respective infantry manuals of the Army and Marine Corps:
The mission of the Infantry is to close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver in order to destroy or capture him, or to repel his assault with fire, close combat, and counterattack. The Infantry will engage the enemy with combined arms in all operational environments to bring about his defeat.
– FM 3-21.8 (FM 7-8), The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad
The mission of the rifle squad is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.
– MCWP 3-11.2, Marine Rifle Squad
These manuals illustrate that the Infantry’s offensive power is not just a product of their weapons, but a product of their mobility as well. The Infantry must have the teeth to strike the enemy, true, but they must also have the legs to bring the fight to him. When seeking to augment the infantryman’s firepower for the next generation of small arms, it is crucial to not – in doing so – cripple him.
At this latter task, we are already behind the curve. Any load increase over 25 kg (55 lb) will decrease the speed of the infantryman by approximately 0.1-0.2 km/h per each of 5 kg (11 lb) added (page 167). By this, the average 2003 infantryman’s burden of 102.1 pounds (46.3 kg) reduces his speed by between 0.4-0.9 km/h – over 10%. In the long term, extreme burdens such as those typical today will compound the problem, with mobility further aggravated by fatigue and injury.
Any unnecessary mass carried by the infantryman therefore directly impacts his mobility and leaves him vulnerable to enemy fires. Not only is this a reason to avoid further burdening the Infantry with greater loads, but it may also be reason for reflection. We might ask: If “overmatch” supposes that our infantrymen have become vulnerable to fire from enemy weapons which have existed for 50-100 years, then how did they get that way? Is it possible that their vulnerability stems from a lack of mobility, as well as (or possibly instead of) a lack of firepower?
It is useful to understand quantitatively how “overmatch” can negatively affect the Infantry in this way. To do this, we shall consider three rounds of similar size and mass which have become centerpieces of the conversation: the 7.62x51mm NATO, .260 Remington, and 6.5mm Creedmoor. Not accounting for the mass of the weapons themselves, were any of the three adopted in brass-cased form as a universal standard round for the Infantry Rifle Platoon, it would add approximately 216 kilograms (476 lb) to the burden of the platoon as a whole, resulting in an increased average individual load of 114 pounds per soldier. This increase in load is equivalent to giving each soldier an additional 2 ESAPI plates, or 6 guided 40mm-launched missiles, or 24 40mm HEDP grenades. Polymer-cased ammunition can moderate these increases, however it is not a panacea. With a composite polymer/metallic case, the average soldier’s load would still increase to 110 pounds per soldier, on average. Put in terms of reducing the soldier’s load by 30 pounds, these two ammunition configurations would increase the magnitude of that task by 40% and 25%, respectively.
The situation may only get more unforgiving, too. Future infantry technologies are already being proven that could become essential force multipliers for small units in the next decades, yet each comes with a price in pounds. Guided 40mm-launched missiles, kamikaze surveillance drones sporting explosive warheads, ultralight platoon-level 60mm mortars with guided projectiles, and other emerging technologies already show promise. Computer and networked systems continue to grow smaller and more rugged, as well. If and when any of these become must-have equipment for the Infantry, their inclusion will add that much more to the platoon’s shared burden. The additional weight must either be offset by leaving something else behind, or simply be borne on top of what was already carried, with all the consequences of reduced mobility and increased injury that implies.
If “overmatch” becomes the rule by which future small arms decisions are made, it will become a significant risk to the infantry’s ability to fight. Decreased mobility, increased risk of injury, and reduced ability of the infantry to carry along their own sophisticated supporting arms could all become cords that tie the the Infantry’s arms behind their back. If overburdened, under-strength, and under-equipped infantry are sent into combat against a mobile and healthy enemy equipped with advanced infantry support weapons, then all of the ballistic advantages of their “overmatching” small arms will be rendered moot. Put simply, no amount of ballistic brilliance can compensate for a lack of mobility and supporting arms.