“You have a Russian mechanized brigade trying to come through the Blackrock Pass. What now, Colonel?”
This is the scenario templated for Marine infantry battalions as part of the culminating exercise for Integrated Training Exercises at the Marine Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. And virtually the only feasible option to commanders is to withdraw.
Even with supporting tanks, light armored reconnaissance assets, and notional air support, a Marine infantry battalion in a blocking position or a defense would not survive an assault by an enemy mechanized, motorized, or armored regiment. We are not equipped for such a confrontation, nor are we trained for it. We have long taken pride in being the “tip of the spear,” an organization that “does more with less.” But enemy armor is a problem we are not equipped or organized to solve, at least not without herculean effort from supporting aircraft. And at a time when our aircraft expect to be operating in closely contested skies, their unhindered support would be the first casualty of any near-peer conflict, a prospect that is triggering increasing anxiety in the force.
Similar unpreparedness for enemy armor capabilities has resulted in the wholesale annihilation of first response forces before. During the first days of the Korean War, Task Force Smith, an Army formation hastily assembled and ill prepared, was overrun by North Korean forces in Soviet-supplied T-34 tanks in only a few hours. A complete disaster, the brief engagement has become synonymous with military unpreparedness. But the lightly armed Task Force Smith’s key capability gap was the lack of effective anti-armor weapons and training provided to a unit that was, in effect, an emergency response force—a role the Marine Corps proudly fills today.
Adversary armor and mechanized units are not niche capabilities that we can expect to avoid on the battlefield. Russia has thousands of tanks in its inventory and uses them as the core of their ground forces. They do not field dismounted infantry; even their airborne units are fully mechanized, and they may still be intending to incorporate main battle tanks into airborne formations. China fields over 6,000 main battle tanks of various types and also puts a premium on armored and mechanized maneuver units. Some of the tanks fielded by our potential adversaries are outdated, but many are comparable or even superior in quality to the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank that the Marine Corps currently fields. As a service we need to recognize that a return to conventional or high-intensity conflict does not just require improvements to the force in terms of cyber, stealth, and other high-end capabilities. It also means that our ground combat element will be facing armor—and lots of it.
Even our sister services have noted the increased threat that enemy armor poses to our rapidly deployable forces. The Army recently announced that it is increasing the firepower of its own rapid response force—the 82nd Airborne Division. The armored component of the division, disbanded after the First Gulf War, is being reactivated and equipped with the LAV-25, (before being disbanded, the unit fielded the M551 Sheridan light tank).
Currently a Marine infantry battalion has only a handful of true anti-armor weapons in its armory: eight Javelin missile systems and eight Saber missile systems. The Corps is in the process of eliminating the wire-guided Saber systems and replacing them with four more Javelin systems. This will leave the battalion with only twelve shoulder-fired anti-armor missiles, or about one system per seventy Marines. This is far from enough; the battalion should have enough to put six systems in each company, for a total of twenty-four at a minimum. This would give company commanders the flexibility to employ mass surprise fires, a requirement to defeat emerging active defense systems like the Russian Afganit system. Six systems per company also enables the commander to attach a pair of systems to each rifle platoon. The currently fielded Mk 153 Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon (SMAW), even with the coming upgraded version, is only a marginally capable anti-armor weapon at best, ineffective past a few hundred meters and reliant on a spotting rifle for accuracy. It is a generation behind at a time when even nonstate actors in Syria can field advanced anti-tank guided missiles. The SMAW’s replacement at the infantry squad level by the Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, sometime in the next few years, will add anti-armor capability; but even this upgrade leaves infantry companies with a massive shortfall in sufficiently ranged anti-armor capabilities. Even the Javelin, with a maximum effective range of 2,500 meters, cannot come close to outranging the tanks it is intended to be used against.
Typically, infantry battalions organize their heavy machine guns and anti-armor weapons into platoon-sized units called combined anti-armor teams, or CAAT platoons. That organization is only one of several proposed in MCWP 3-11.1, Infantry Company Operations but has become so ubiquitous that it even has its own Wikipedia page. CAAT platoons use armored Humvees as their basic platform. These vehicles were initially designed in 1979, and despite having been upgraded in the years since, are completely outdated. The addition of thousands of pounds of armor has turned what were originally vehicles that lived up to their name (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle—HMMWV) into inflexible behemoths. Humvees today are often restricted to roads, difficult or impossible to deploy by air, and ride on suspension that is buckling under the weight of their armor. The intended sixteen-inch ground clearance is usually reduced to far less, and they are unable to even fit a litter with a casualty in an emergency. Furthermore, the platoons are usually outfitted with a mix of heavy weapons—Javelins, Saber systems, Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers, and M2 .50 caliber machine guns. Nominally, the heavy machine guns contribute to the combined anti-armor team by providing a suppressive capability that affords the missile crews time to engage armored and mechanized assets, the logic of which is faulty at best: current and even previous-generation adversary armor will not be suppressed by 40-millimeter grenades or .50 caliber rounds. Equally as ineffective will be the cumbersome armor on the Humvees that will do little against anything more potent than 7.62 rounds; even cheap and mass-produced rocket-propelled grenades will destroy the vehicle and its occupants. Humvees are also less mobile and often slower than the armored and mechanized vehicles they are supposed to be hunting. When we add loud, hot, and large to their list of attributes it becomes clear that a gun truck in a CAAT platoon, even when armed with a Saber system, is inferior by nearly every metric to the vehicles it is supposed to kill. When combined with dated anti-armor doctrine, the result is a looming gap in the capabilities of the Marine infantry battalion.
The ground combat element’s lack of fangs extends beyond the infantry battalion. The Corps has only two active duty tank battalions to support three divisions and the legacy amphibious assault vehicles are no better armed or armored than the Humvees used by the infantry.
So what is the answer to this dangerous lack of capability? The right weapons, the right platform and the right tactics. Utility Task Vehicles (UTVs) have recently come to the infantry. These small, fast, and highly mobile vehicles can carry four Marines and gear across nearly any terrain. This platform, coupled with Javelin missile systems and existing small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS) can turn the hunter into the hunted.
Organizationally, small, agile, anti-armor teams would represent an improvement over the cumbersome CAAT platoon construct. Each team would be led by an experienced noncommissioned officer and consist of four Marines: a driver, a two-man Javelin team, and a SUAS operator flying an RQ-11 Raven or RQ-20 Puma. The team would be tasked with operating independently ahead of its parent battalion as an advanced guard or reconnaissance formation. When it locates enemy armor, its preferred method of engagement is an ambush at maximum range, and the team’s superior mobility allows it to move into ideal terrain for an ambush ahead of enemy units. The team would not mass fires unless necessary, and would work in coordination with other teams to disrupt, delay, and ultimately destroy enemy armor over a deep engagement area. The teams’ mobility would allow them to operate this way, ahead of the battalion, during either offensive or defensive operations. It would be conceived of primarily as a covering force, intended to gain time and space for the commander while intercepting, engaging, and delaying the enemy—a low-cost force optimized for distributed and potentially limited-support operations in constricting or compartmentalized terrain.
The team’s superior battle space awareness, provided via organic SUAS, enables it to locate enemy assets and maneuver into position to attack or ambush them with anti-armor missiles. The SUAS integration is essential so teams can find and identify enemy armor and mechanized assets with sufficient time to then maneuver on them—something a larger, heavier, or slower force couldn’t do. These teams’ superior speed and mobility then allows them to egress after firing, their small size and low-signature vehicle helping prevent them from being seen and targeted. To the adversary, it would appear that there are dozens of dismounted Javelin teams along all of his maneuver corridors—whenever he finds a new route, the Javelin teams are waiting for him. What he doesn’t see is that it is only a few Marines maneuvering around him with superior mobility and drones that pinpoint his tanks and allow the Marines to anticipate his axes of advance.
This team has been imagined in a contested or distributed environment where external support may be unavailable or unreliable. If significant artillery, mortar, and close-air support are available their support can be leveraged simply by including a trained joint fires observer; a company fire support team mounted in another UTV traveling in coordination with the teams could also be utilized to coordinate supporting fires and dramatically increase their lethality.
To be clear, the infantry would never want to go it alone against enemy armor or mechanized forces. But that doesn’t mean the Corps should eschew changes that give the infantry the capability to do so if needed. The Marine Corps Operating Concept has envisioned a future in which Marines will need to fight and win in environments where “even the non-state actors will further challenge our use of low-altitude airspace for maneuver, supply, and fire support.”
This organizational recommendation draws on many similar and earlier proposals. The arguments for integrating SUAS capabilities into more and lower-level units are innumerable, and most infantrymen understand the utility of the new UTV without argument. But what we need is an amalgamation of capabilities for the purpose of filling our anti-armor gap. If, as a service, we cannot create a credible anti-armor capability organic to our infantry we will limit ourselves to operations on the periphery. The trend toward increasingly distributed operating concepts further underlines the need for battalion- and company-size units to have organic anti-armor capabilities.
However, by integrating the tactical reconnaissance potential of already fielded SUAS, leveraging the speed and mobility of our new UTVs, and further increasing the number of Javelin systems fielded by our infantry units, we can create a relatively cheap but effective anti-armor capability without acquiring any new systems. To develop a distributed operating capability against peer and near-peer adversaries for the ground combat element of America’s “911 Force” we need to significantly increase the organic anti-armor capabilities of the infantry battalion.
1st Lt. Walker Mills is currently a student at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. 1st Lt. Michael Rasmussen serves as a company executive officer with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Cpl. Kowshon Ye, US Marine Corps