Small Wars Journal

The Perils and Prospects of the Infantry Brigade Combat Team in the Twenty-First Century

The Perils and Prospects of the Infantry Brigade Combat Team in the Twenty-First Century

Andy Forney

This July marks the centennial of the Battle of the Somme. No other battle better encapsulates Armageddon in the Anglo-American mind - mud, barbed-wire, and the futility of “going over the top.” During the assault on the first day of the battle, over fifty-seven thousand soldiers died, with many British units not even reaching the German main line.

For all the appearances of widespread martial horror, though, the Somme marked the beginning of the widespread adoption of automatic weapons, airplanes, mechanization, and wireless communication. These technological adaptions impacted combat and changed its character, setting the stage for a technological evolution that led to Blitzkrieg and Air Land Battle.

One element has not benefited from such change, however - the infantry brigade. Today’s infantry brigade combat teams (IBCTs) share striking similarities with their World War I antecedents. While the transition to the modular BCT and Army 2020 force designs has seen the inclusion of wheeled reconnaissance troops within the IBCT, the primary combat power of the Brigade remains its dismounted squads and the various crew-served weapons and mortars that provide direct fire support. The Army must address the IBCTs lack of tactical mobility and lethality immediately. Ignoring this yawning capability gap creates a striking amount of strategic, operational, and tactical risk within the Army and the Joint Force. Cost effective, rapidly deployable, and easy to train, the IBCT has come to dominate Army force structure. Fully thirty-three of the army’s fifty-six Total Force (Active Army and National Guard) BCTs are IBCTs – 59%. The National Guard witnessed an even more pronounced IBCT growth: nineteen of twenty-six (73%) Guard BCTs are IBCTs. This ratio made sense during the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. IBCTs could rotate into either theater and fall in on pre-positioned stocks of HMMWVs or MRAPs and conduct stabilization missions.

The current BCT mix should give army planners pause as they reorient towards a broader range of contingencies. Changes in IBCT combat capabilities occurred as part of its integration into the joint force. The IBCT can now rapidly deploy via strategic lift and then synchronize a wide range of joint fires. But these new capabilities have not paired with evolutionary upgrades in tactical mobility and lethality. While an IBCT can respond to any contingency within twenty-four hours, once there, it travels at less than four miles an hour and struggles to counter entrenched or mobile adversaries.

The future operational environment presents several Somme-like scenarios for Army IBCTs.

Increased investment in Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities by our potential adversaries has complicated early entry operations. Infantry formations will increasingly have to maneuver from drop zones/landing zones offset from their objectives to evade the A2/AD threat. Once deployed, IBCTs risk being overmatched by moderately equipped and trained adversaries that utilize complex terrain to nullify the impact of joint fires. To a shocking degree, IBCTs face similar prospects to that of their World War I antecedents: grinding battle over complex terrain against an entrenched enemy.

The U.S. Army Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy, published in 2015, proposed a trio of platforms to address the existing and projected capability gaps within the IBCT:

Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV).  GMV will provide a rapidly deployable expeditionary maneuver platform down to the squad level. GMV will provide speed and mobility to travel cross-country, thus avoiding primary and secondary roads and enemy strong points.  GMV can be employed by C-130/C-17 air-drop or UH-60 helicopter sling-load.

Light Reconnaissance Vehicle (LRV).  Cavalry Squadrons equipped with LRV will perform mounted and dismounted reconnaissance, route and area reconnaissance, and wide-area security operations. The LRV will host appropriate sensors and C4ISR, carry and protect a six scout squad, provide sufficient lethality to gain and maintain contact and with the enemy, and be transportable by CH-47.

Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF). MPF will protect infantry formations on their approach march, defeat entrenched enemy positions, and provides precision direct fires in support of dismounted infantry squads.  Air-droppable, the MPF provides the ground commander the lethality needed to maintain freedom of action while in close combat with the enemy.

Adding mobility and lethality into the IBCT creates a more capable formation. Based on force structure, the Army will increasingly have to rely on the IBCTs to rapidly execute a wide range of missions in austere, complex, and chaotic environments. While further discussions are needed to determine the level of equipping and logistical requirements necessary, we should determine now that not resourcing IBCTs to accomplish their 21st century missions threatens 20th century failures.