Rethinking the 'Rifle' Platoon

By Capt Phillip K.S. Sprincin - published April 2007

Ever since the German Army developed storm troop tactics in World War I (WWI), the effects and employment of crew-served weapons (CSWs) have dominated infantry combat. A distinguishing feature has been the migration of these weapons to smaller and smaller units. Most armies started WWI with machineguns (MGs) as a regimental-level asset, but by WWII automatic weapons were being used as the nucleus of squads and even fire teams. The Marine Corps was a pioneer in this area when it reorganized the infantry squad into fire teams built around an automatic weapon-the Browning automatic rifle.1 However, today CSWs do not penetrate in a meaningful way below the company level, potentially leaving Marine units dangerously short of firepower in a future high-intensity conflict. This article proposes reorganizing the rifle squad and rifle platoon into infantry squad and infantry platoon and providing each with organic CSWs.

Integration of CSWs and their use in combined arms is a basic principle of current infantry doctrine. Infantry units have three types of CSWs: MGs that provide a high volume of fire to suppress targets, indirect fire weapons that provide extended range and the ability to engage targets in defilade, and assault/antiarmor weapons (rockets and missiles) that provide destructive high-explosive force against point targets. Organizationally the pattern is for three maneuver units to be paired with a weapons unit containing each of these three weapon types. Thus the company weapons platoon has M240G general-purpose MGs (GPMGs), M224 60mm mortars, and Mk153 shoulder-launched multipurpose weapons (SMAWs) while the battalion weapons company has M2 .50 caliber and Mk19 heavy MGs (HMGs), M242 81 mm mortars, and TOW and Javelin antitank guided missiles. Combined arms integration is also advertised as belonging to the infantry squad-and even fire teams-using the M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW), the M203 grenade launcher, and M136 AT-4 rockets.

There is, however, a significant gap in this pattern. The rifle platoon and squad possess no organic CSW assets.2 The trend for the last 100 years has been for combat to become more decentralized and for CSWs to be used by smaller units. Today the focus is on operations conducted by platoon- and squadsized units, yet there are no CSWs to pair with them. In some ways this makes us less tactically/organizationally advanced than the Wehrmacht of WWII who built their squads around a full-sized GPMG, the excellent MG38/42.3 As a practical matter, many company commanders resolve this issue by atracking MGs, particularly SMAWs, from their weapons platoon to their rifle platoons. This strategy, however, robs the company commander of weapons with which he can influence his fight and does nothing to increase the number of CSWs or trained operators. Also, the probable replacement of the M249 SAW by an "infantry automatic rifle" (IAR) (with reduced sustained fire ability due to a smaller 100-round magazine and no belt feed, no specified quick change barrel, and no requirement to mount on a tripod4) will only serve to reduce further the organic firepower of the platoon.

The Infantry Platoon

The recommended solution is to reorganize the rifle platoon into an infantry platoon. Each rifle squad would become an infantry squad with a rifle team, an MG team, and a rocket team. Additionally, a mortar team would be attached to the platoon headquarters. The result would be a balanced combined arms team at the levels in which we currently operate the most-the squad and platoon. The following organization assumes that the IAR replaces the SAW and that the M4 is available for issue as an individual weapon.

The first team in the infantry squad would be a rifle team. (See Figure 1.) It would be organized very similar to the current fire team. The IAR replaces the SAW in the hands of the automatic rifleman, and it is proposed that the grenadier carry the new M32 multishot grenade launcher (MGL) derived from the Milkor MGL-140. The M32 is currently being fielded to units in Iraq. Although the M32's range is approximately the same as the M203, it can provide heavy firepower (six shots in 3 seconds) or sustained suppression (six shots without reloading) better than the M203. It also can accept longer rounds than the M203, providing greater lethality and flexibility (heavier rounds, longer illumination, less lethals, etc.). Additionally, the rifle team would possess a designated marksman (DM) equipped with whatever appropriate weapon the Marine Corps decides upon. He would replace the current assistant automatic rifleman who is not needed given the SAWs current and IARs projected employment as an individual not a CSW. The value of a DM was demonstrated in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM I with the early arrival of M16A4 rifles with advanced combat optical gunsights (ACOGs). Some units received just one rifle and optic per squad, yet the capability provided by a trained Marine with an optic made a huge difference. The DM should be a table of organization (T/O) member of any reorganized infantry squad.

The Infantry Squad

The second team would have three 0331 machinegunners and an 0311 infantryman. One 0331 would be the team leader, one the gunner, and one the ammo man for an MG. There are several possibilities for what weapon they carry. One is simply the M249 SAW, but with the express intent of using it as a light MG (as it is defined in Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-15.1, Machine Guns and Machine Gunnery 5) rather than an automatic rifle. Light MG means that it is operated by a crew of trained machinegunners to provide sustained suppression from a base of fire using belt feed and a spare barrel. It is not just another weapon a Marine carries while rushing. The 5.56 x 45mm round is underpowered for this task though. Thus, the preferred options are to equip this team with the Mk48 mod 0, a 7.62mm version of the M249 SAW without a magazine feed option, or the M240B.6 The Mk48 mod 0 weapon remains relatively lightweight (3 pounds more than the M249) while adding the greater range, penetration, and lethality of the 7.62 x 51mm round. The M240B incurs a large weight penalty, but the reliability and firepower of the weapon is unmatched. A promising development is the testing of the M240E6, which has a titanium receiver.7 The primary mode for any of these weapons would be to fire from the bipod, but tripods, flex mounts, and spare barrels should be stock list 3 for each weapon (even if not carried normally) to make full use of each weapons capabilities, especially in the defense. The rifleman who rounds out the team would carry an M203 grenade launcher to balance the direct fire capability of the MG and keep some of the current fire team flexibility of an automatic and an indirect fire weapon.

The Infantry Platoon

Provision of organic MGs to the platoon and squad is long overdue. As already noted, this was a principal feature of German Army organization in WWII. Light infantry formations in the Army have platoons with a fourth squad manning two or three MGs.8 All advanced field exercises at The Basic School (TBS) involve a rifle platoon with an MG squad attached. This includes convoy and urban operations exercises and is done even when platoons are understrength and manning the two M240Gs requires smaller rifle squads. A unit with recent combat experience in Afghanistan always carried M240Gs when its platoons patrolled in the mountains, despite the weight, because only the 7.62mm round had the reach to engage the enemy from mountaintop to mountaintop.9 Units in Iraq frequently break up their MG sections so that one squad of two guns is attached to each platoon. It is also common for those squads to be split up so that two squads would each receive an MG. MG fire was much more responsive and effective when directed at the squad level, particularly during urban operations, such as Operation AL FAJR in Fallujah. If our instruction at TBS and our experience in combat recognizes the need for MGs at the platoon and squad levels, why don't we organize appropriately?

The final team would be a rocket team with three 0351s (assaultmen) and an 0311. Again, one 0351 would be the team leader, and the other two would man a SMAW. The SMAW, particularly with the thermobaric round, has proven to be one of the most effective weapons used during urban combat in Iraq. Many observers have pointed them out as one of if not the key infantry weapon during the battle of Fallujah in November 2004 and have recommended that their numbers be increased or that one be provided in support of each squad.10 Due to the range and employment of SMAWs, the company assault section is almost always attached to rifle platoons rather than employed in a unit. Providing each squad with its own SMAWs is a natural step that vastly increases the platoon's firepower. The presence of 0351 Marines would also give each squad resident knowledge in preparing basic demolitions for breaching. Again, the 0311 would balance the team by carrying an IAR to complement the direct firepower of the SMAW.

The proposed T/O for reorganizing the rifle platoon for distributed operations (DO) involves reducing the rifle squad to 12 Marines and moving a rifleman from each squad to the platoon headquarters. The squad leader would take charge of a command and control team in the rifle squad. It would be necessary to have a larger platoon headquarters with alpha and bravo command groups to control squads operating independently and carry a more robust platoon communications suite.11 For the infantry squad, however, a squad leader, separate from the fire teams, needs to be retained. Whether employing all of its CSW assets in a combined arms assault or operating as three separate fire teams on patrol, the squad will have too much going on to not have a dedicated leader. The squad leader should not be dual-hatted as a team leader as well.

The DO experiments still saw a definite need for a larger platoon headquarters to control independent squads and should not be discounted. Also, while the infantry squad has limited indirect fire capability with grenade launchers, they do not match the capability of MGs and the SMAW. The solution is to place a three-man mortar team in the platoon headquarters. (See Figure 2.) This T/O would also fill the need for a larger platoon headquarters without eliminating valuable squad leaders. The mortarmen would carry a 60mm mortar for use as an assault gun in the handheld mode. The current M225 cannon with the M8 base plate would do fine, but a South African company, Denel, makes a small mortar, the M4 Mk1, optimized for handheld use that weighs slightly less and is another option.12

Providing an organic mortar to the platoon is also overdue. The 60mm mortar is the most versatile weapon in a rifle company. Its destructive power is beaten only by the SMAW, and even when limited to handheld fire, it outranges everything except an M240. Its ability to engage targets with overhead cover and in defilade is unmatched, and it can provide numerous support functions, such as illumination, marking, and obscuration. The Army eliminated company 60mm mortars after Korea as "outmoded," but at least one enterprising Army platoon in Vietnam saw their utility and bought one on the black market.13 The Army later rein traduced them into light infantry units. More recently during Operation ANACONDA in Afghanistan, one company commander "had chosen to leave his 60mm mortars behind to make room for more riflemen. It was a decision he'd regret. . . ."14 Under heavy fire from al-Qaeda and Taliban mortars only one company commander brought his own 60mm mortars with him and could effectively respond. A rifle company commander in Ramadi broke up his weapons platoon and attached it equally to his rifle platoons because after several initial battles "[t]he two times I needed mortars I didn't have them."15 The lessons of these experiences should not be lost and neither should mortars at the company level. The answer is to give each platoon its own mortar.

The T/O described above points the way but may not be ideal. A DM usually operates best from a position of overwatch. MGs often do as well; perhaps the DM should be a member of the MG team supplying precision fire to supplement or complement the area fire of the MG. The M32 is much heavier than the M203 and might not be best suited for the rifle team, the "maneuver" element of the squad. Maybe it should go in the rocket team as another means of supplying high-explosive firepower. Or maybe the M79 grenade launcher should be brought back as a lighter and more accurate way of supplying short-range indirect fire. Maybe every member of the MG and rocket teams should be 0331s and 0351s. Note that the organization of the infantry squad neatly matches organization into an assault (rifle team), support (rocket team), and security (MG team) layout.

Disadvantages

Making this change would not come without cost or possible disadvantages. The two most immediate are adding three Marines to each platoon for the mortar team and the cost of purchasing additional CSWs. (The issue of where to source the additional three Marines will be addressed in another article.) Of greater concern to most would be the loss of 0311 riflemen in each squad and platoon. Many will argue that we are destroying the heart of the infantry by reducing the number of riflemen. However, while the credo, "every marine a rifleman," is a strong statement of the Marine Corps' willingness to fight, the fact is that the rifle has not been a dominant weapon on the battlefield since the turn of the last century-that is since the widespread introduction of MGs during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Despite our obsolete retention of the terms "rifle" platoon and squad, not even these small units are going to base their operations around the capability of the M16A4 (or any other rifle) except under the most limited combat or restrictive rules of engagement. While the rifle combat optic (RCO, also know as ACOG) has greatly increased the capability of the rifle, the firepower of even the smallest unit comes from MGs, indirect fire, and especially assault/antiarmor weapons like the SMAW. Furthermore, it could be argued that the increased capability provided by the RCO reduces the need for as many riflemen, freeing up Marines to man more powerful CSWs.

Some will say that we will be overburdening our squads and platoons with the weight of heavier weapons. The "soldier's load" is a concern but not an enormous one. Units fighting in Iraq today (and the mountains of Afghanistan no less!) often carry and use these weapons at the platoon level and manage the weight. So too did the Germans in WWII; the MG42 they used so effectively at the squad and platoon levels weighed only 2 pounds less than an M240G. Being tightly integrated with the squad, all members are available to share the ammunition burden, not just the designated gunners and ammo men. Finally, if modern infantry combat requires the use of these weapons then our Marines have to have diem, regardless of weight. At that point the focus has to be on technical ways to reduce the weight of CSWs, like the titanium M240E6, not on leaving CSWs behind.

Of concern to others is the usefulness of this organization to counterinsurgency operations, such as those underway in Iraq. This argument is that engagement with the local community by patrols of riflemen is more important than firepower. This premise is correct, and reorganization into the infantry platoon and squad will not directly affect counterinsurgency operations. Neither will the addition of CSWs. Yet there is still a need for the proposed reorganization. First, the intensity of combat at the tactical level in an insurgency can be as high as in conventional operations. Many people misinterpret the notion of a "three block war" and state that conventional operations are a block three environment while counterinsurgency is block two. They miss the point of the three block war, which is that all three blocks exist simultaneously at different places or in the same place at different times. Even conflicts that are largely counterinsurgency or unconventional will have situations where combat is as intense and conventional as the assault on Normandy. Witness the current experience in Fallujah and Ramadi with insurgents attacking using HMGs, mortars and, of course, the ubiquitous rocket propelled grenade (RPG). Operation ANACONDA was another conventional fight in an unconventional campaign where al-Qaeda and Taliban forces dominated the Shah-i-khot valley and "pounded" U.S. troops "with an arsenal of crew-served weapons."16 Even in The Village, the counterinsurgency classic about the combined action program in Vietnam, the squad in question faced a conventional nighttime attack led by enemy sappers.17 In these situations CSWs continue to reign supreme. The compound in The Village was saved by its MG, while the respect given to the RPG (and its integration by insurgents into the smallest teams) should be all the argument needed about the importance of CSWs in a counterinsurgency fight.

Furthermore, for stability and support or peacekeeping operations, the infantry squad and platoon can always be utilized as a pure rifle unit. The proposed T/O is close enough to the current rifle squad to allow easy transition to that role. Every Marine carries an M16A4 or an M4, and the distribution of IARs and M203s for balanced fire teams has already been mentioned. Carrying a CSW could be overly intimidating when trying to connect with the local populace, so in an environment that does not pose a high-intensity threat, CSWs can always be staged at an outpost in favor of rifles and carbines.

There should be advantages to the infantry platoon reorganization for the blocks one and two portions of the fight. Counterinsurgency operations, like most others, are focused on platoon- and squad-sized operations. The proposed T/O directly supports this focus by explicitly making these units the smallest combined arms formations, with all possible infantry assets at their disposal. It should be advantageous in counterinsurgency to have squad leaders with the mindset that they conduct their own fight. There is also the practical advantage of squads and platoons being armed enough to safely operate independently. (Remember the squad in The Village and the MG that saved its compound.) Also, squads and platoons with their own CSWs should be better prepared to make decisions about the appropriate level of force and not as dependent on more powerful and less accurate fire support agencies, such as artillery and aircraft. Finally, the three platoon mortarmen, even if they never employ a mortar tube, provide a base for an expanded platoon headquarters, as proposed by the DO program, supporting control of an independent platoon area of operations and greater intelligence gathering. None of the above advantages will be decisive in a counterinsurgency fight, but can be used in conjunction with effective tactics, such as integration with the population.

Another possible disadvantage is losing the ability to mass CSWs where they will be most effective. A platoon in a support by fire position might not have much use for its SMAWs but could usefully employ the mortar attached to the platoon in the assault. There are two responses to this criticism. One is that the majority of operations in the future will be platoon and squad engagements, not full-sized company battles. This will likely be true in conventional fights as well as counterinsurgency operations. Thus the CSWs need to be integrated at the level where tactical decisions will be made-the platoon and squad levels. The company commander will still possess CSW assets in the company weapons platoon that he can use to weight or reinforce his subordinates as appropriate. As mentioned above, in practice, weapons platoon assets are often diluted and spread among the platoons due to the necessity of CSWs to small unit combat. Making CSWs organic to the rifle platoon will enhance the ability of the company commander to mass those CSW assets under his direct control.

Some might question how this reorganization fits into the DO concept. DO sees maneuver units, including platoons and squads, acting in "disaggregated fashion . . . dispersed beyond the range of mutually supporting organic fires" yet still possessing "significant combat power."18 Yet the combat power of the current rifle platoon and squad is insufficient by the standards of 1945, when all such German units had organic MGs. DO intend supporting arms to allow units to act with greater separation,19 but supporting arms are never reliable enough for this greater separation. During Operation ANACONDA, despite being the only action in Afghanistan at the time, close air support was not as responsive as needed, artillery wasn't even available, and there was a blue-on-blue incident involving an AC-130.20 Dispersed squads and platoons must have the high-volume and high-explosive firepower provided by CSWs to close with and destroy the enemy while dispersed. In fact, one of the lessons of a recent experiment with a tentative DO platoon was that the current rifle platoon T/O was insufficient to protect squads operating outside the range of battalion 81 mm mortars and with only limited air support from a Marine expeditionary unit. (A DO platoon operating as part of an expeditionary strike group with an aircraft carrier would be in better shape, but weather can still shut down air support.) MGs and mortars organic to the platoon were seen as a possible solution.21 The proposed reorganization is not only compatible with DO, but it might be vital for the concept to work. DO is described as enhanced capabilities available to units with traditional command structure and organization able to conduct the full range of infantry operations.22 Thus, whatever model is used for DO, it should be based on what is most effective in high-intensity conventional combat. That is, it should be an infantry platoon with organic CSWs.

The last disadvantage would be in training. The infantry platoon commander would be faced with having to train four disparate sets of techniques and procedures. Also the MG, mortar, and assault teams would be very small, reducing the likelihood that each platoon would have experienced gunners to build expert weapons handling. The solution would likely be for the platoon commander to outsource some of his CSW training to the company-level or division-level schools. On the other hand, exposure of 0311 riflemen to the employment of CSWs would improve dramatically, and platoon tactical training would advance because it would be forced to always include CSWs. Based on many after-action reports from Iraq, increased CSW training is something that all infantry and most other units need during their workups.

The final considerations are second and third order effects. Clearly the number of Marines trained in the weapons military occupational specialties (0331, 0341, 0351) would increase, requiring a restructuring of the Schools of Infantry. However, if we redefine the infantry squad to include CSWs, it would affect other training and organization. It was already noted that student platoons at TBS train with an attached MG squad as a matter of course; they would now have to also include SMAWs, MGLs, and mortars. (Currently SMAWs are only used during military operations on urbanized terrain training, and mortars are fired at one range but not by students.) This requirement affects the individual training lieutenants would receive, equipment allocation, design of ranges and training scenarios, and ammunition allotments. TBS is in the process of rewriting its program of instruction, and greater emphasis on CSWs is already planned, but much more would need to be done. The same logic applies to units expected to function as infantry in provisional or emergency situations. Reconnaissance battalions, military police units, artillery, combat engineers, and security units of the Marine logistics groups and Marine aircraft wings would all need significant change in how they are equipped and organized for combat if the basic squad formation has an MG and SMAW. The combat engineer squad is already well placed in this regard with an organic M240G and SMAW.

Conclusion

Rifle marksmanship and the concept of every Marine a rifleman are heavily ingrained in the Marine Corps ethos. CSWs have dominated infantry combat for over a century, however, and continuing to field rifle platoons is an anachronism. The infantry squad should be reorganized around an MG and SMAW, and a handheld mortar should be added to the infantry platoon. The result would be Marine infantry units that are both stronger and better organized for independent small unit combat. Many would argue that the threat faced today fighting insurgencies emphasizes the rifleman and not CSWs. However, small unit combat is intense at any level, and our enemies make extensive use of CSWs. If we expect our small units, platoons, and squads to swiftly close with and defeat elusive small teams of enemy then they must have the firepower to win without waiting for reinforcements or calling in destructive supporting arms. They must be reorganized with organic CSWs as infantry squads and platoons. Given the history of infantry combat in the 20th century and recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, this reorganization is long overdue.