The 21st Century Infantry Company

By: Capt M.M. O’Leary, The RCR

cdn-lav3.jpg (26593 bytes) lavapc3.jpg (27995 bytes)

Throughout history, the sudden or accumulated advance of technology has driven the reorganization of armies.

In 1914 the infantry company looked much as it had for over a century, 100 men, an Officer Commanding, and a couple of company officers (more understudies to the OC than platoon commanders). NCOs provided technical expertise in musketry, drill and daily living for the soldiery; they were the professionals while the officer corps still dabbled in chivalric ideals of command through example rather than knowledge.

The rifle and bayonet remained the mainstay and only true infantry weapon of the time. Battalions might have a few machine-guns or infantry howitzers, but these were seen as anomalous to purists. Tactically, the company was handled much the same as it had been in Wellington’s era. 100 man companies grouped in battalions; deployed in close order to repel cavalry, or open order to minimize the effects of artillery. Lines of infantry trading volleys, until one or the other was morally weakened enough to be defeated by the bayonet.

Between 1914 and 1918 a fundamental evolution occurred in the structure of the infantry company. Four murderous years in the crucible of the western front acted as the catalyst, where the tactics of the 19th century ran headlong into the battlefield technology of the 20th. Regimental esprit alone was not enough to stand against machine-guns. Thousands of soldiers died before this was absorbed and the slow integration of new weaponry down to the company level led to a change in company organization and command structures.

By the end of the First World War, the infantry company had achieved the rudiments of today’s platoon structure. The integration of a new weapon mix as low as platoon and section level and the need to accept the fact that small group tactics and more freedom and flexibility to junior commanders were fundamental to achieving victory through the stalemate. This enabled the Canadian Corps to turn Passchendaele into Vimy.

The platoon and section structure survived the war. It became the infantry company that we know today, and it continues to serve well at the dawn of the 21st century. With time, the platoon structure evolved slightly as new weapons were integrated: machine guns down to sections, light mortars, and other technical novelties. But the restructuring of the company in 1917 and 1918 remains visible in the background.

Even as the infantry achieved mechanization the company structure survived. The armoured personnel carrier (APC) was a new way to get to work, but the dismounted infantry company remained the primary fighting unit. Infantry APCs as often as not were sent to a "Zulu" harbour. This eliminated the ‘distraction’ of directing them (though usually reasoned as for their protection).

When APCs mounted machine-guns, the machine-guns were dismounted as often as they were considered for use from the vehicles. If APC mounted machine-guns fired in support of the company’s operations, junior personnel remained to man the Zulu vehicle guns.

The Canadian Army entered into an experiment with the concept of an Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) with the GRIZZLY APC, a wheeled vehicle with an enclosed one-man machine gun turret. The original vehicle design had the commander in a hatch behind the driver while a dedicated gunner manned the turret. But this meant the commander was ‘hatches down’ for the guns to fire - he lost vision and directive command and control. The "solution" - commanders often took over the turret. They were not trained gunners and there was a significant lack of momentum and firepower while the commander dismounted and a gunner (if one was designated) took over the turret. Then, as often as not, the GRIZZLYs, like the M113 APC, were sent to a Zulu harbour and their potential firepower was lost.

APC drivers were trained and changed over at short intervals. Drivers learned their vehicles, but there was no more systematic dedication to the infantry APC than there was to any truck in the battalion. Machine-gunners were trained and assigned with even less dedication to the requirement. We treated the APC and the GRIZZLY casually, and now its time to pay the piper.

The APC and the GRIZZLY represent lost opportunity. The Canadian Infantry has avoided facing the tactical and organizational problems of how a company should employ and fight an IFV. The Army has lost significant time to prepare itself for the Generation Three LAV APC. We’ve been talking about Infantry Fighting Vehicles for a long time: "Corps 86", "Corps 96", now the "Modified Leavenworth Corps." Our officers can speak volumes on the theory of tactical employment of IFVs at the combat team and higher, but we’ve never seriously figured out how we’re going to tactically integrate these vehicles within the infantry company.

Without even realizing it, the Canadian infantry lost its greatest opportunity in the GRIZZLY APC - the opportunity to figure out how to balance dismounted infantry strength against maintaining tactically integral crewed vehicle fire support. The GRIZZLY could have been both the physical as well as the conceptual tactical forerunner of the LAV APC - but we blew it.

The LAV APC is as great, or is a greater still, technological shift for the Canadian infantry company as were the changes wrought in the trenches of WWI. It will take a similar dedication to face the challenges, embrace the technology and accept that the current company organization may be unsuited for the LAV APC.

The LAV APC represents a leap from the 1960’s era M113 and GRIZZLY to a 21st century design and complexity. We can’t treat it casually, and we better not wish the dilemma away to a Zulu harbour. While the dismounted infantry company will always remain the infantry’s core fighting unit, it must now embrace the fact that the LAV APC will constitute a significant component of its firepower and tactical capability.

But what now? What direction do we go to adapt the existing structure to the new systems.

Firstly, and fundamentally, we must agree that there can be no ‘sacred cows’! We must be prepared to critically examine the infantry company’s strength, organization, weapons, even the manning and career processes for the soldiers, NCOs and officers in the company.

The Crewed Vehicle Concept. We have a few things to learn from our brothers in arms. While we want and need this to be an infantry vehicle, the Armoured Corps has a lead on us regarding some fundamental truths respecting crewed vehicles. Philosophically, the Armoured Corps understands the crewed vehicle concept in a manner the infantry never has, or has been willing to accept that it should. It is as fundamental as the fact that while infantry battalions sent their drivers to execute vehicle maintenance, armoured regiments still parade all ranks for "Stables." To the infantry, an APC was just one mode of transport, to the armour, their tank is as important and required the same dedication and care as their horses. This dedication is manifested in the care the crews give their charges, in the names carefully painted on tanks to personalize them. The LAV APC will require this same level of care, dedication and commitment at the Corps and crew level to ensure it provides service and fire support to the extent of its capability.

The crewed vehicle concept also requires the establishment, training and maintaining of dedicated crews for each vehicle. We cannot frequently reassign drivers, gunners and commanders and expect a high level of effectiveness, for single crews, platoons or companies. The infantry must consider structured career profiles which see a soldier trained as a LAV crewman, and spending the bulk of his career in that role. It’s no different that the career progression of battalion pioneers or mortarmen – between ‘dues paying’ tours at each rank level in the rifle companies, they always return to the seat of their technical expertise.

The LAV Doctrine Cell at the Infantry School has suggested that the position of a company LAV Sergeant be created. This seems a little too much like a glorified Transport Sergeant and, I contend, does not go far enough to address the need. The company needs an internal hierarchy committed to the LAV APC, from drivers and gunners, to platoon LAV NCO crew commanders, a company tech sergeant and a company battle captain. Once the OC and the platoons dismount, the LAV APCs must be crewed and trained to fight as a component of that company. And that is only possible with a full complement of dedicated personnel. The presence of LAV crew at all NCM rank levels ensures that an internal line of progression is possible; the Corporal/Private driver or gunner becomes a Master-Corporal crew commander of a section vehicle, then a company tech sergeant, perhaps even a battalion LAV Sergeant-Major. These positions may remain balanced with experience in dismount positions, or may of necessity evolve into a de facto sub-trade.

Splitting the Section – Who Dismounts … and Where Do They Sit? One of the most awkward moments in the operations of an M113 or GRIZZLY company was the dismount. The delay and loss of continuity (of fire, observation and control) as the commander switched with the gunner was always simply ‘accepted’ as part of the cost of doing business. With the LAV APC, the cost is now too high. Firstly, the turret basket requires that the gun be traversed centre before the crew commander can dismount through the hull. This means every vehicle dismounting its crew commander will surrender the tactical advantage of a 25 mm stabilized chain gun firing on the objective. To consider a full company, or battalion, doing so just to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done is simply bizarre. The lack of room to move freely in the turret, the difficulty of quickly getting out of the commander’s seat into the body of the vehicle (I’ve tried) and the potential problems of moving about in the loaded vehicle are real problems. It should be an essential factor in the ‘dismount problem estimate’ that as few changeovers as possible should be executed. I would suggest that, as a rule, only the Company and Platoon Commanders switch places, and when battle procedure permits, all or some of these appointments switch places before entering the enemy’s field of fire.

This concept will likely meet the staunchest resistance within the Corps. Commanders, even section Commanders, surrendering the commander’s seat – what heresy! The LAV APC provides a section Commander in the back of the vehicle something no other infantry carrier has: a Situational Awareness monitor mounted on the back of the TURRET cage. Now all dismount personnel can watch the upcoming objective on the approach, and the Commander can ensure that the vehicle is where he needs it.

The following table shows my proposed organization of the LAV section:

Dismount Section Sgt Sect Comd
MCpl Sect 2IC
Cpl/Pte Sect Machine-Gunner
Cpl/Pte Sect Machine-Gunner
Cpl/Pte Rifleman
Cpl/Pte Rifleman
Cpl/Pte Rifleman
LAV APC Crew MCpl LAV APC Crew Commander
Cpl/Pte Driver
Cpl/Pte Gunner

One vehicle in the platoon is crew commanded by the Platoon LAV Sergeant, but not the Pl HQ vehicle, as the LAV Sergeant needs to be in the turret continuously to seamlessly take over tactical control of the platoon’s vehicles once the platoon commander dismounts. And the Platoon Warrant dismounts with the platoon, bringing with him expertise, skill and knowledge vital to the platoon’s operational effectiveness – expertise, skill and knowledge which was undeservedly banished to Zulu harbours in M113 companies for many years.

At the company level, at least two LAV will be needed in the HQ, one for the Company Commander, and one for his Battle Captain. I suggest the term Battle Captain here rather than the Company Operations Officer to focus the role of this officer’s responsibilities in controlling the company’s LAVs in accordance with the OC’s plan. The Battle Captain, like the Platoon LAV Sergeant remains mounted throughout, taking over tactical control of the vehicles for the Company Commander.

Who’s in Charge? At all levels, the infantry commander is the leader of the dismounted force and it’s supporting LAV component. The LAV APC is a firepower, mobility and protection asset supporting the ground battle waged by the dismounted infantry – but it must be crewed and directed with as much consideration as any other component of the battalion’s combat power. Platoon and Company Commanders should be in the turrets when they must direct movement and have directive operational control over their mounted commands. But keeping the Section Commanders in the back means they are on the ground faster and are more effective sooner when it’s time to do their job. And that’s also why, when time and preparations permit, it should not be unreasonable to see the platoon and Company Commanders making the final approach in the back of their respective LAV APCs for the same reason.

The LAV APC is a 21st century infantry fighting vehicle. It is not just another battlefield taxi, and its maintenance cannot be a second priority for the infantry. Neither can the Infantry Corps neglect to make an appropriate commitment to the development and sustainment of battlefield crew skills. The Infantry Corps must be prepared to consider a fundamental reorganization of the infantry company to maximize the potential of the LAV APC. But, as we have seen, reorganizing the company to meet new threats, or to integrate new technology, is a traditional approach in itself. Adoption and commitment to the crewed vehicle concept, a consistent and supported crew hierarchy within the battalion, and development of drills that minimize disruption through the continuance of outdated practices are necessary waypoints to the 21st Century Infantry Company. If we treat the LAV APC as just another M113, we’ve already lost our way.

This article has been published in the February 1999 edition of The Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin (Vol. 2, No. 1).