Since the end of World War One it has become common practice for an infantry battalion to include a Heavy Weapons company armed with mortars, heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons and (more recently) automatic grenade launchers.
The US Light Infantry Battalion structure given here has 56-65 wheeled vehicles, a considerable number for a force of 576 men that theoretically is designed to operate on any terrain including that impassible to vehicles. The battalion has 20 HMMWV mounted TOW launchers and between four and six 81mm mortars. There is no dedicated HMG or AGL unit. Instead weapons are stripped from the armament of vehicles and mounted on tripods should there be a need for ground mounted weapons.
There is a train of logic that challenges just how useful such battalion-level infantry weapons are in light of modern weapon capabilities and tactics. In particular the role of battalion-level tripod-mounted direct fire weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank weapons and grenade launchers is called into question. To understand this point of view we must consider how modern non-mechanized infantry are used.
From a practical point of view the largest main cohesive unit of an infantry action is the company. An infantry battalion or larger formation attack or defence is in reality several company level fights occurring in close proximity and/or at the same time.
For most of our history, the company or (US Cavalry) troop has been an autonomous unit and very rarely have we fought as a unified Battalion, Regiment or Division. The two exceptions are our Civil War and WW II. Although we have fought wars in the more traditional unified commands, once the fighting starts, we always fight as companies or Plts. I know you're thinking about WW I and Korea. If you read unit histories carefully you'll notice that once the fighting starts, the company is on it's own, and tends to downright ignore Batn and Batn HQ for the most part tries to support the Company. This is our greatest strength and greatest weakness. This is my personal opinion and many others don't agree, particularly above Batn commander.
One of the main threats that infantry face is enemy artillery. Weapons manufacturers and Milicrats promise that the artillery of the future will be more deadly, more accurate and with even shorter response times. Even if these promises don't materialize for some time artillery is still a major concern. Mortars and air-strikes are also a concern, as are some of the newer infantry weapons. The Russian thermobaric RPO is considered to have a destructive effect equal to a 122mm shell. Range is 1,000m and a single Soldier can carry two. The infantryman's most practical defence against such threats is to be mobile and/or inconspicuous. Both of these capabilities are facilitated by operating in small units so it is unlikely that infantry formations greater than company size will be common in the near future. This suggests that the capabilities of platoons and companies needs to be expanded. On this page I propose a new infantry company TOE. It will be noted that platoons are given their own light mortar and GPMG capability. The company also includes its own assault pioneer, scout-sniper, mortar, machine gun and an ATGW/direct-fire recoilless weapon capability. There is also provision to equip each platoon with ATGW capability should this be needed. All systems suggested are man-portable.
The infantry are a combat system that has applications for the full spectrum of military operations. Infantry are used for everything from major combat operations (Major Theatre Warfare or MTW) to Humanitarian Aid (HA) or Disaster relief. Between these two extremes are various operations such as Counter-terrorism, Counter-insurgency, Peacekeeping and Non-Combatant Evacuation.
Mao Tse Tung stated that infantry should be capable of guerilla, mobile and positional warfare and capable of switching from one to the other at a moment's notice. It will be useful to examine the role of battalion-level weapons in light of these three categories.
For our purposes let us take the term guerilla by its literal meaning, little war. In this category we can also group Counter-Insurgency, Humanitarian Aid, Disaster Relief, Peacekeeping and various other Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). Heavy weapons can be useful for some of these missions but they are most useful if deployed at platoon or company level.
The category of mobile warfare can be divided further into mobile operations where infantry can operate with vehicles (Mech-traversable terrain) and those where it cannot (Pedestrian terrain).
In most mobile operations the infantry will normally operate as part of a combined arms force. With the possible exception of the mortars most of the battalion-level weapons are not necessary since accompanying armour and artillery units can provide fire support in a more mobile, better protected and more potent form than tripod-mounted armaments. If a light infantry company is patched to supply it with APCs or IFVs then the patching would give it its own supply of organic heavier weapons. Each squad will have a vehicle mounting heavy machine guns, autocannon and ATGWs. Company mortar teams will be able to transport more ammo and/or use heavier 81mm or 120mm weapons.
Infantry are also called upon to operate in a mobile role in terrain that does not allow the practical or large scale use of combat vehicles. Are battalion-level weapons useful in such situations? Battalion level weapons are usually deployed in one of two ways. They are either attached directly to a company to provide support or they are placed in a commanding position so that they can provide fire support from long range.
If we look at the first case, direct attachment to a company, it will be appreciated that battalion-level weapons are usually physically heavy and their presence may slow the company down. Since the company is already operating in restricted terrain this may or may not be significant. A more crucial problem is that such weapons cannot be easily moved around once combat has started. These weapons tend to be used in a more static role than lighter weapons that can shoot and scoot. Once a weapon has revealed itself by firing it becomes a priority target for the enemy and will face such counters as grenades, rifle-grenades, light mortars and the ubiquitous RPG, among others. To counter this problem battalion-level weapons are often used in a long range role. While this removes them out of the range of many common infantry weapons they are still vulnerable to mortars, artillery and air-strikes. It can be argued that they have now become more likely targets to these counter-measures since they are no longer in close proximity to enemy troops and the enemy therefore has more freedom to use large-scale barrages. Another important factor in trying to use battalion level weapons at long range is that many of the kinds of terrain that prevent infantry operating with the support of combat vehicles are also characterized by restricted lines of sight. This severely limits the range of direct-fire battalion-level weapons and may result in dangerous dead zones in their field of fire.
To avoid the threat of large scale counter-fires battalion-level weapons must either move frequently or be well dug in. The latter option brings us to the final type of infantry warfare that we will consider. For our purposes positional warfare will be taken to mean an infantry position where there has been time to create something more than a hasty fortification. As well as basic entrenchments constructions will include bunkers, bomb shelters and the like and the men manning the position have a reasonable chance to withstand artillery and mortar bombardment and air attack. A good example of this would be a Vietnam-era fire-base or any other outpost in potentially hostile territory. For positional warfare direct-fire heavy weapons are obviously an asset. The long range of such weapons can greatly extend the kill zone around the position and therefore increase the area of territory that the position commands. The direct fire capabilities of machine guns, ATGWs and Automatic grenade launchers are supplemented by fire from mortars which can cover terrain dead zones. Recoilless rifles can also be a useful weapon system having both anti-infantry and anti-vehicle capabilities.
In light of the above considerations the question arises as to how useful the heavy weapons held at battalion-level really are for modern warfare? If the infantry are part of a combined arms force the weapons are not really needed. If operating as a mobile force in restricted terrain it is dubious as to how useful these weapons will be.
To understand the new battalion-level structure I'm going to propose it is necessary to look at the structure of the companies that I have proposed and what they have available.
These are supplemented by the numerous LAW, MBIL, RPG and NLAW systems and held by the tactical teams. If we assume that the battalion has four such companies we see that we have twice as many ATGW firing posts than a British Armoured Infantry battalion and four more than the American Light Infantry Battalion. It is also worth remarking that Spike-LR is a far more capable and longer range system than either Milan, Javelin or TOW. The Spike launchers are held by the Battalion HQ Company when not with the Platoons so it is feasible that more than 6 could be issued to some companies. Training level for the Spike is six men per platoon so each company has enough qualified gunners to man all of the battalion's weapons should this be desired. With this sort of capability the need for a battalion-level dedicated anti-tank platoon is reduced. An ATGW section entry may appear in the HQ TOE but this unit will be more concerned with the maintenance, supply, issue and administation of the ATGWs.
Instead of the more traditional arrangement the Battalion HQ Company now includes two Weapon Platoons. One platoon is a Mortar platoon with 6-8 81mm Mortars and Mortar Fire Control/JUS teams. In some battalions some or all of these systems may be replaced by 120mm weapons. If the Battalion is Patched with vehicles there is an understandable temptation to field 120mm systems. A case can be made for giving the Battalion Mortar Platoon sections of both 81mm and 120mm mortars as part of its basic TOE, allowing mortarmen to be fully familiar with both weapons. Until a few years ago the French Foreign Legion 2e REI battalion had a mortar platoon with 6 x 81mm and 6 x 120mm. The 81mm could be used as a battalion assett or attached to companies as needed while the 120mms gave the Colonel artillery level firepower under his direct control, which was useful for situations short of Major Theatre War. On this page I mention that at least one army has taken the step of phasing out its 81mms in favour of Long Range 60mm weapons. 98mm mortars also have the potential to fill some of the roles of both 81mm and 120mm weapons, especially in armies subject to the CFE treaty.
The other Weapon Platoon is best termed a Direct-Fire Platoon. This platoon has four stretched M113s or other vehicles, six .50 HMGs and six AGLs. Two of these weapons are carried in each carrier while a third doubles as the vehicle's defensive armament. Each vehicle also carries a 106mm RCLR mounted on its roof. The platoon has 16 gunners, one assigned to each major weapon and 8 assistants who's duties include serving as loaders, drivers, porters etc. While the Direct-Fire platoon's weapons can be fired while mounted on the vehicles they are mainly intend to be operated in a dismounted role to increase the firepower of a company position or the battalion base camp. Where practical weapons or vehicles can be attached to companies undertaking a more mobile role. When a gunner and his weapon is assigned to a location or company any available personnel will be used to bring the weapon crew up to full strength. The Direct Fire Platoon therefore offers a considerable increase in the capabilities of a battalion for relatively modest manpower levels. In addition to their M113s the Direct Fire platoon will also be equipped with trailers and other vehicles to transport ammo and additional equipment.
The 106mm RCLRs can be used with the Israeli Lahat missile to act as long range anti-tank systems and supplement the Spike-LR. Their capabilities are broader than this, however and they will prove very useful for demolition, sniper suppression, defence of road blocks and perimeter defence. The AGLs used by the battalion will hopefully be a lighter system than the Mk-19. A system such as the Chinese 35mm, Russian AGS-30, SLWAGL or XM307 OCSW would be preferable.
The Direct Fire Platoon are the battalion's specialists in positional warfare so will also carry weapon systems other than those described above. A supply of trip-flares, sensors and claymore mines are an obvious asset. Several manufactures have offered multi-barreled salvo grenade launchers intended for the defence of positions. Some of these use standard rifle grenades or 40x46mm grenades and can be used to dominate large areas of ground of several hundred metres size. The Russians have issued at least two models of remotely controlled Sentry Guns. Their versions are armed with a 30mm AGL with 300rds and one man can control four. Similar systems using machine guns, rockets or ATGWs should also be possible and there is the interesting possibility of combining such a system with a small remote controlled vehicle similar to those used for bomb disposal. There may be room in the Direct Fire Platoon's vehicles to include a few such systems.
While writing this article I came across an equipment list for a US Infantry Battalion Pioneer platoon in the Osprey Publication US World War II and Korean Field Fortifications 1941-53. The equipment of the 27 man platoon included a 2 ½ ton truck carrying 250 D-handle Shovels, 125 Picks, 27 Axes, 26 assorted saws, 9 Wire cutters, 4 56 Crowbars and various Mauls, spare tool handles and other gear. Obviously this is more equipment than a 27 man unit needs and in reality this was a pool of tools that could be supplied to any company digging entrenchments. This webpage has a similar allotment of equipment for a 1914-18 British Army Battalion, which included 120 Shovels, 73 Pickaxes, 20 Felling Axes, 8 Hand Axes, 46 Billhooks, 20 Reaping Hooks, a Hand Saw, 32 Folding Saws and 8 Crowbars. It is possible that a similar collection of tools would be held by the Direct Fire Platoon. A modern list would doubtless also include chainsaws and excavating charges.
In my SIF article I suggested that operation alongside more poorly equipped allies may see the return of specialist formations intended to boost the capabilities of such units, and terms such as "Machine Gun Company" might reappear on organizational charts. Many of the current direct-fire weapon systems held at battalion-level may be moved to independent support units. We may see a return to division/brigade controlled Anti-Tank Weapon and Machine Gun battalions that are allocated to units that need their capabilities.
There are ample precedents for this. In the British army during the 1970-80s Long Range Anti-tank Guided Weapon (LR-ATGW) capability was the province of Swingfire-armed mechanized battalions of the Royal Artillery and detachments from these units were attached to a maneuver force. Currently Swingfire-armed vehicles are organic to Armoured Reconnaissance Battalions. TOW equipped units could be used in the same way, although weapons such as Hellfire and EFOGM would offer far greater capability. Cross training with systems such as 106mm RCLR would give the unit useful applications when there was not a tank threat present. Some of the weapons of the Group Strike Battalion I suggest could be used to increase the Anti-armour capability of a Infantry position.
Independent Machine Gun companies were common during the mainly positional warfare in Europe during the First World War. Motorcycle equipped Motor Machine gun units served in both a static role and as a mobile force when terrain and situation permitted. Each brigade had a machine gun company (usually three platoons of four MMG) and a fourth company was held at division. On some TOEs the four companies are grouped together as a MG Battalion. Many World War Two TOEs include a divisional MG battalion. In British and Commonwealth Divisions from 1943 onwards the MG battalion included a company with twelve to sixteen 4.2 Heavy Mortars organised into four platoons. Universal and T-16 carriers were used to move the MGs and Mortars. Some TOEs include half a dozen flamethrowers in the strength of the MG battalion. This TOE for a Canadian Independent MG company has twelve MMGs (in three platoons), a platoon of four 4.2 mortars and six WASP Flamethrowers. It is likely that the modern version of the Machine Gun Battalion will probably have a mix of weapon systems and more accurately be called a Infantry Support Weapon Battalion. As well as Machine Guns, Automatic Grenade Launchers and Mortars it makes sense for this unit to also include anti-armour weapons. An enemy with armoured forces is likely to task his armoured vehicles to destroy MG or AGL positions. The current US Light Infantry Javelin section has six CLUs divided among three four-man teams.