Study: U.S. Soldiers Not Adequately Equipped for War
The Army champions its soldiers as the most important weapons in its arsenal, but yet continues to shortchange them in how they are equipped and trained for war, says the report, titled, “Making the Soldier Decisive on Future Battlefields.” The 255-page study, released May 10, began three years ago at the request of the assistant secretary of the Army.
A group of retired officers and researchers who participated in the study concluded that the Army's procurement methods and policies have not caught up to the realities of combat.
Testimony from hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were interviewed for the study reveals that the current “suite of equipment and support does not afford the same high degree of overmatch capability exhibited by large weapons platforms,” says the report.
Soldier weapons and gear are designed to be technologically advanced, but often do not take the “human dimension” into account. As a result, equipment designs do not “adequately include the complexities of individual soldier tasks and human interactions within teams.”
Army leaders have touted small units as the center of gravity in current and future battlefields. That requires a different way of thinking about weapons and gear that soldiers will need when they operate as a small unit, the study says. While the Army provides soldiers with advanced rifles and other small arms, it does not offer them other “less-than-lethal alternatives” that might be useful in low-intensity conflicts or situations when they need to control civilians without injuring or killing them.
The Pentagon’s acquisition policies are harshly criticized in the report for being counterproductive. The Defense Department’s procurement apparatus is geared to buy big-ticket weaponry, and soldier gear does not receive the attention it deserves, the study says. “The goal of achieving overmatch capabilities cannot be accomplished until small-unit and soldier requirements are accorded the same high levels of attention as major materiel systems requirements.” It is unlikely that “solutions to achieve overmatch capabilities can be successfully implemented within the Army’s current acquisition framework.”
Army officials have recognized these shortcomings, and havekicked off a modernization plan that focuses on the needs of the squad. But it could take years for these efforts to materialize.
The NRC report also stresses the value of training. “Focused training is essential to improving the performance of soldiers and tactical small units to levels that can assure overmatch,” the study says. “With the tactical small unit as the centerpiece of future Army operations, small- unit leader training will be more important than ever.” It recommends the Army invest in more individual and collective training events, including live, virtual, and constructive simulations and electronic games.
Another major point in the study is the need to integrate soldiers and small units into the Army’s information networks. “The Army has already recognized the important role of the network in achieving expanded capabilities in combat,” the report says. “Yet, dismounted soldiers and tactical small units today have limited organic capability, such as radios, to take advantage of networking in all mission environments.”
When a small unit leaves a forward operating base or disembarks from a vehicle, it has very limited access to technology for command decision tasks such as communicating, developing situational understanding, and understanding the human terrain, the report says. “A squad leader's communications system provides bandwidth rates in the tens of kilobits per second — a far cry from the multiple megabyte rates available within a FOB.” Sand tables and paper maps are used for mission rehearsal and execution. Sensing during a mission is primarily dependent on the eyes and ears of members of the unit. “These shortcomings prevent small units and soldiers from achieving optimal performance in making and executing personal and team decisions.”
Soldiers should have “timely, relevant information on the location of friendly assets, the identification and location of enemy forces and equipment, the identification and location of noncombatants, and the ability to document and communicate this information to each other and higher echelons. … Information must be timely to ensure that units are not surprised in tactical situations.”
A small unit lacks the capability to send and receive secure data, voice, and streaming video at adequate ranges and with sufficient reliability, the study says. The Army is attempting to address these needs with the Nett Warrior program, and with experiments using smartphones. The Nett Warrior, however, is limited by low bandwidth, and the smartphone effort is dependent on commercial networks, the report says. “High-bandwidth communications networks are needed that can operate in austere locations, in complex terrain, in all weather, and under day and night conditions.”
Information exchange — especially for digital images and streaming video — is currently “very poor” at the small unit level, the report says. “Bandwidth rate is one issue. Another is that operation tempo does not give units time to download, evaluate, and make judgments on available information. … Soldiers would benefit from advances in dynamic information networks that enhance information exchange.”
The NRC panel also raises the issue of combat load, which has been asubject of much debate in the military over the past decade as troops’ rucksacks grew heavier and more cumbersome. “Excessive soldier loads degrade not only maneuverability of both individual soldiers and units but also their resilience, survivability and effectiveness,” the report says. “With such heavy burdens, traversing rough terrain and making rapid changes in direction, speed, and orientation greatly increase soldiers’ susceptibility to injuries." One possible solution, the panel suggests, could be to offload gear to robotic carriers.
Massive loads of batteries that soldiers need to power their devices contribute to the problem. “There is no doctrinal philosophy for the small unit to recharge the battery; there is no organizational equipment to support recharging; there is no hint of the training required; there is no parallel materiel development of a recharger or fuel reformer to exploit new rechargeable battery or fuel-cell technologies,” the study says. “Advances in portable power will contribute to the decisiveness of small units by giving future soldiers high confidence that their equipment ensemble will have sufficient energy to carry out the mission. Achieving this goal will help to reduce fatigue, eliminate the anxiety associated with resupply.”
Many of the topics covered in the NRC study echo critics, such asretired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, who have blasted the Pentagon for not paying enough attention to the needs of small infantry units.
Scales, a military historian and analyst, has pointed out that ground forces are “not dominant” in combat partly because of inadequate equipment and training. Compared to the overwhelming superiority that the United States has in naval and air warfare, when it comes to ground combat, the American military “hasn’t come as far as it should,” says Scales. “It doesn’t dominate in the tactical fight.”
Scales blames these deficiencies on a Beltway culture that is fixated on expensive weapon systems, on “picking a fight with China” and on hypothetical wars in space and cyberspace. Washington policy makers dodge meaningful discussions about the tactical aspects of war on the ground because close-contact combat is “dirty, horrific and bloody,” says Scales. “People just don’t want to talk about that.”
Photo Credit: Army