Small Unit Organization

I frequently find it fascinating to observe discussions on squad composition and tactics. As a Marine Infantry Squad Leader one of my hobbies was finding out how 'others did things'. I was always talking with or watching other military forces to see how their teams, squads, platoons and companies were organized and equipped. I've got a lot of thoughts and opinions on the topics, the interesting thing is that everyone has a different experience. Some people have no experience though and this article is designed to help. While I concentrate on current military organization, this same logic should apply going forward. The basic concepts have not changed, just the variety and capabilities of weapons. I could talk for many hours on the subject.

Troops are not just handed a bunch of weapons and thrown at the enemy. There is usually a lot of thought and planning that goes into the weapons and equipment of a unit. These considerations revolve around the different things, from the capability and target of the weapons, to training and availability. For instance, it would be ideal to send every trooper out into battle armed with a heavy machine gun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher and if things go wrong a pistol or two. Unfortunately, weight, training and costs prevent this. Planners always have to get the best bang for their buck and that depends on knowing the mission and enemy, then figuring out what they can send.

Arming everyone in the squad with grenade launchers for instance and sending them to rescue hostages is likely to result in all the terrorists dead, but it is unlikely any of the hostages will survive. Arming the assault team with sniper rifles might insure accurate pin-point fire but they probably won't be quick enough if they get engaged by an enemy force armed with machine guns.

Most board games, video games and role playing games have those players that know the rules in minute details, exploiting the system to get every little bonus they can. There are people like this in some military organizations that use the same mentality when trying to organize fireteams, squads, platoons, companies and battalions. If the military is lucky then those brainiacs have combat experience.

Military forces units can be organized from the top down, or from the bottom up. A lot depends on the organization, history and type of military hierarchy. Military forces evolve, and gain experience. If they are good, they learn from those experiences. The best leaders are able to take the weapons and tools in their unit and use them to the best of their ability.

Let's look at the most basic unit. The individual trooper. Regardless of the weapon, they can only look and shoot in a single direction. If they are human, they are susceptible to fear, tunnel vision and can easily miss important details on the field of battle. Missing a detail can be the difference between life or death. This individual has many different limitations besides the limitation of their weapon. They cannot carry everything. They cannot be taught everything. There is a world of difference between a new recruit and a veteran. On his own a noob probably does not have the experience, or mindset to survive for very long. The veteran as well will know how vulnerable a single trooper is.

Let's look at the most basic combat team first. A battle/buddy team. Two troopers. This kind of team dramatically increases the capabilities of the individual trooper. While one person is firing, the other can be moving, or looking for the enemy, preparing a grenade, calling for help, etc. If you have one person taking up the slack of shooting at the enemy, it suddenly gives the other person more options. Of course they can both fire at the enemy but if nobody is firing at the enemy then you can rest assured the enemy is not going sit there and do nothing. Another person also provides a massive morale boost. The individual troopers knows they are not alone and they usually know that other trooper will protect them with their life because that is how the first trooper feels. Someone 'has your back' provides a massive morale boost in many ways. Putting an experienced veteran together with a noob increases the chance of the noob surviving to be a veteran as well. Also, depending on weapons, they can provide support. A machine gun team may have a gunner and a spotter, or at least someone to make sure the machine gun doesn't run out of ammo. If the machine gunner goes down, then the other trooper can pick up that weapon and continue the fight, keeping the more effective weapon in the fight.

So after the buddy team, there is the fire team. One of the most basic fire and maneuver elements on the battle field. Usually it consists of two buddy teams and with the exception of sniper teams, this is where weapons and load outs begin to diversify. Many fireteams are built around a machine gun. One of the most effective infantry weapons. It is usually belt fed and can put a lot of fire down range. The machine gun is frequently the back bone of a fire team and all team members support that machine gun because it can usually put out more fire then everyone else combined. So why not equip everyone with a machine gun if that is the case?

Weight. Machine guns are heavier, they also use up more ammunition. Every member of the fireteam is probably carrying ammunition for it. For instance, a regular rifle uses a 30-40 round magazine. A light machine gun has a box with 200 rounds, medium machine guns, 100 rounds. That 200 round box can get heavy and that can be expended very quickly. A long discussion, but in summary, giving everyone a machine gun sounds good on paper, but just doesn't work in most situations.

So if a fireteam is built around a machine gun, and is the most basic maneuver element, one way to increase the effectiveness of that fireteam is to add a grenade launcher. Grenades can get those hard to reach places a machine gun cannot reach. Ditches, rooms, etc. So, add one trooper with a grenade launcher. Now some fireteams might have more than four people. They might have less. Again, depends on roles and organization. The USMC has had 4 man fireteams for eons. They are now experimenting with 3-man fireteams, but essentially is just the removal of the 4th rifleman while adding two new roles at the squad level. An assistant squad leader and drone operator.

Now moving up in the combat hierarchy is the squad. Different ways to organize. There could be two fireteams, or three. Maybe even four.

One thing to keep in mind is that in a hierarchy, it is frequently difficult to manage more than 2-6 people. Keeping track of that many people on a battle field is a serious challenge. So, a fireteam leader just keeps track of his fire team. A squad leader has 2-4 fireteam leaders to coordinate with. A platoon leader with 2-4 squad leaders, etc.

Another factor that can influence squads and teams is transportation. Most armored vehicles may not be able to fit a full 13 man squad aboard, so they may have two four man squads instead. Additionally, because dismounted infantry do not generally go very far from their vehicle, they may carry a variety of heavier weapons. Machine gunners might carry medium machine guns instead of light, and they are likely to have more rockets and grenades than light infantry who may have to travel longer distances on foot while packing critical items like food and water.

In combat a light infantry squad may be reinforced with a medium machine gun from the company's weapons platoon. Usually a company commander will allocate his machine gun squads (or teams) to the platoons, giving each platoon 2-3 medium machine guns, which the platoon commander may assign to squads depending on the mission. The company commander might also keep the machine gunners at the company level in the defense or as a cohesive unit to support a specific platoon.

Squads are also likely to have specialists. Designated marksmen, with specialized rifles, drone operators, radio operators, demolitions experts, robot operators, medics, canine teams, intelligence specialists, computer hackers, anti-tank, anti-air, sensor operator specialists and so much more. Some of these specialists might spend most of their time training with others like them and only assigned to the infantry units in combat. Some might just have gone to special schools (medics) or just assigned special weapons (designated marksmen).

There are other ways to organize squads as well. The Brits used to have two light machine guns in a team of four, and the other team of six just carried rifles. The machine guns would lay down a base of fire to suppress the enemy while the riflemen moved forward. The Soviets didn't have fireteams, just big squads that had a variety of weapons.

For a lot more information on different topics you might also check out

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