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One of the long time beneficiaries of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns will be the infantry. In addition to all the invaluable combat experience, the infantry is getting attention to its equipment needs in a way rarely seen before, even in wartime. For the past sixty years, defense spending went into big ticket items, even for the ground forces. More expensive tanks and artillery got most of the cash, and things like better packs or weapons for the grunts took second place.
The current infantry-intense wars have changed all that, and the army is under pressure to cut back on big ticket items, and put lots more money into what the infantry needs. The new Crusader self-propelled artillery system, and the Comanche helicopters have already been cut, and other high priced systems are threatened as well.
Now the pressure is on to cut the billions budgeted for developing the next generation of armored vehicles (FCS, or Future Combat System.) The navy and air force are also being forced to make cuts, so the army, mainly the infantry, can have whatever they need or, increasingly, whatever they want. Putting more money into the infantry seems like a good investment. The current generation of infantry is the best trained and most effective in American history.
It’s about time. The infantry has been left in the dust for several centuries, as most money went into mobile forces (cavalry then, tanks now), artillery and, in the last century, the biggest money pit of all, air power. Ironically, precision weapons have made much of this shift towards emphasis on infantry possible. With things like inexpensive guided missiles and smart bombs, the infantry can quickly call in enormous amounts of fire power to eliminate enemy forces a hundred or so meters in front of them.
Speed and accuracy changes everything. So does technology. New lightweight and strong materials make it possible to provide very effective body armor. The U.S. Army is also testing a new assault rifle, a multi-billion dollar project that has been put off for years because of the expense. But now it’s the infantry that are the only ones who can do the fighting in low-intensity wars, so you put your money where it will do the most good.
Some credit has to go to the elite infantry of SOCOM (Special Forces, Rangers and Delta Force commandoes). They showed what could be done with an expense account. SOCOM has long had a pot of money they could use on any weapons or equipment they thought might be useful. Out of this came a lot of new stuff that would have never made it through the torturous army procurement process. But if something new works in combat, it’s combat tested and the bureaucrats can’t keep it away from the troops. All combat units now have made money for whatever the commander wants to try out, and no one wants to reverse the practice.
The army knows it has good infantry, it’s paying larger and larger reenlistment bonuses to experienced NCOs in uniform. Often the bonuses are larger than fighter pilots got in the past when such pilots were scarce. Billions are going into combat simulators for the infantry, again more money than the fighter pilots ever got for their simulators.
Two decades of being selective about who they let into the infantry, and spending more money on equipment and training, has paid off. Of course if you ask a marine, he ‘ll allow as how the GIs have gotten better, and some might even make it as marines. The marines have always stressed excellence in training, but, like riflemen everywhere, did it on a short budget. For too many generations, the infantry were seen as unlucky saps who got a bad break when they were handed a rifle and orders to the front. But infantry fighting is a complex business.
Studies done during World War I and II showed that. But this realization that putting your best people into the infantry never translated into spending more money on them. Except for the development of elite infantry like commandos, it wasn’t until recently that it was discovered that all infantry could be elite if you spent enough time and money training and equipping them. It’s about time.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, units are often out for days (or, in Afghanistan, weeks) at a time. Even troops traveling in hummers or armored vehicles are traveling light, and have little protection from the elements besides a poncho and sleeping bag. Some troops pack commercial camping tents, as the military issue ones are bulky and a hassle to put up and take down. And once again, the commercial camping gear manufacturers came up with a solution; the tent-cot. Weighing 18 pounds, and folding up to fit in a 30" x 35" x 6" carrying case, it opens to produce a 24 inch high, 30 inch wide, 7 foot Long cot with a tent built in. Especially important is the built in mosquito netting. The cot sits 11 inches off the ground, keeping you away from the bugs and such. There are also rain flaps, all for $150. The U.S. Air Force has bought lots of them for the personnel it sends in to set up forward air bases. But SOCOM, soldiers and marines have all bought them. Special Forces like them because they make long term operations that much more comfortable. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping the bugs away at night is a major plus. The cot supports up to 300 pounds.
January 19, 2005: American troops are issued about three pounds of cleaning equipment and materials for their rifles. Many have been spending $70 to buy the half pound Soft Pak Kit. This system uses a flexible cleaning rod, and a set of special tools for dealing with just about any rifle cleaning situation. Troops include a lot of those situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of the abundance of fine dust in both places. Thus the kit is not only easier to lug around, but also more capable at what it does. The kit also includes tools and materials for cleaning scopes. The Marine Corps is buying the kits for its riflemen, as have some army units (using special funds made available for the commander to use for items like this.)
January 14, 2005: During the November battle for Fallujah, a U.S. Marine sniper made the longest range kills so far in Iraq. Reservist sergeant Herbert B. Hancock, chief scout sniper for the 1st battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, shot four Iraqis at a range of some 970 meters. The 35 year-old marine is a Texas police officer in civilian life. The shooting was done with the bolt action 7.62mm M40A3 rifle. Based on the Remington 700 short action rifle, the M40A3s are handmade to marine specifications. The rifle weighs 16.5 pounds, is 44.25 inches long and uses a 10X scope. The rifle comes with a bipod, and a rail that can also mount night vision scopes. Marine snipers operate in teams of two men, with the other man, who is often also a qualified sniper, acting as a spotter (usually with a 20X scope and binoculars.) A 970 meter shot is difficult for a 7.62mm rifle, especially in Iraq, with it’s heat and humidity (which interferes with the predictability of the bullets flight). A 7.62mm rifle rarely gets hits at more than (or even close to) 1,000 meters, and anything over 500 meters requires a high degree of skill. Shooting is easier in Afghanistan, where higher elevations provide thinner, drier air, and cooler temperatures. A Canadian sniper made a record shot (2,400 meters) in Afghanistan, using a 12.7mm rifle.
The U.S. Army has been following the marine example by training more snipers and supplying each infantry battalion with at least half a dozen of them. The snipers are particularly effective in Iraq, where the enemy fighters are generally amateurs, and don’t know how important it is to constantly stay under cover.
January 12, 2005: The U.S. Army is shipping 18 armed Talon 2 UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) to Iraq in the next few months. The 120 pound robots are equipped with an mechanical arm designed to use weapons ranging from a light machine-gun to a rocket launcher. The UAV can also be for unarmed scouting.
The earlier Talon 1 weighed 85 pounds and also carried day and night video cams, plus microphones and other sensors (chemical, radiological, Etc.) Talon will right itself if knocked over and can climb over most obstacles because it runs on tracks. The Talons are waterproof, and can be driven under water. That’s how one was retrieved when it fell into an Iraqi river. Max speed is about six feet a second (6.5 kilometers an hour, or a fast walk).
The operator, using a CRT or VR (virtual reality) goggles, could be as far as 1,000 meters from the robot. The control station weighs 33 pounds and is carried in a small suitcase. Batteries provide up to 12 hours of operation, depending on how much the Talon is moved around. If put into sleep mode, with just a few sensors operating, the battery will last up to seven days. Talon 2 is intended mainly for armed reconnaissance and guard duty.
The operator can move a Talon 2 out into a dangerous (for a human soldier) position and use the vidcams and other sensors to keep on eye (ear, etc) on things. If an approaching enemy is detected, the Talon 2 can use its weapon to take care of it. Or human troops can be called in to double check. In 2003, 18 Talon 1s were sent to Iraq, where they handled roadside bombs and the like. These UGVs were used 20,000 times (often in missions that took less than half an hour). Talon 2s cost $230,000 each, although that cost will go down to $170,000 for the second 18, and even lower if the UGVs are mass produced.