Tag Archives: history

The Armored Squad

Like many armchair strategists, I like thinking about questions of organization. And this includes examining some unconventional ideas from history. Today, we have a really neat one: The Armored Squad. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I have also dubbed it the “Super Squad” in conversations with Fishbreath.

This squad idea comes out of World War 2, and the question of tank-infantry cooperation. Tanks and infantry are better together, which leads to questions of how this should be organized in order to promote unit cohesion. Some American units organized into Armored squads, where an M4 Sherman tank was paired with an infantry squad in an M3 half track. This gave a tank, with all the armored firepower that entailed, plus ten dismounted infantry who had their own transport to keep up with the tank. On paper the Sherman had a crew of 5, and the M3 half track had a crew of two: one driver and one machine gunner, so this is a total of 17 men.

This wasn’t an ad-hoc formation; particular tanks and particular squads were paired together for training and were kept together. They ate together. They fought together. In the Hurtgen Forest, the tankers took turns in the foxholes with the infantry, and the dismounted infantry got turns in the vehicles to warm up. Training together meant that infantry and tanks were much more intimately familiar with their respective counterparts’ limitations.

Moving up the organization table, we have five armored squads per platoon, and three such platoons per company. There were three of these tank-infantry companies per “Combat Command”, which is another organizational curiosity of the US Army in the Second World War. In brief a Combat Command was basically a brigade sized unit comprised of companies and platoons. There was no battalion-level organizational structure, and this was thought to increase flexibility. So, in the combat commands in question, there would be three tank-infantry companies plus a host of supporting units.

The advantages are the obvious increase in firepower over a regular mechanized squad, and it provides a tank with much more effective close-in protection than it would have otherwise. The disadvantages are on the logistics side. There’s a much larger fuel burden, plus there are two dissimilar vehicles that need maintenance, which increases the burden for maintenance personnel. Where a normal tank or mechanized infantry company would only have one sort of vehicle to maintain, with one set of spare parts to stock, the tank-infantry company has two.

In combat, the armored squad and associated units built from it were very effective. The 5th Armored Division was organized along this model, and it suffered notably fewer casualties than either 6th or 7th Armored Divisions (which were more conventionally organized), all of which were deployed to the European Theater of Operations at about the same time. 6th Armored went in on July 27th, 5th Armored went in on August 2nd, and 7th Armored went in on August 14th. Each division was deployed for the duration. 6th Armored took 5,194 casualties and lost 196 tanks, 5th Armored took 3,043 casualties and lost 116 tanks, and 7th Armored took 4,781 casualties and lost 360 tanks. Combat situations are, of course, not identical, so we should be careful not to read too much into these numbers. But it might suggest some tactical improvements by putting tanks and infantry together for the duration.

We can also see a very similar organization almost 60 years later. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, aggressive divisions driving on and into Baghdad often organized their forces to combine a pair of Abrams tanks with a pair of Bradleys. The force could fit down most streets with the Abramses in the vanguard. The Bradleys and the dismounts provided effective cover for closer threats, or for higher threats the Abramses couldn’t tackle. The Abrams tanks could also use their guns and fronts to breach buildings, which would then be cleared by the dismounts. Plus, putting the Abrams tanks forward meant that they drew the ambushes, and they were much harder to kill with RPG-7s than Bradleys.

In 1944 and again in 2003, the concept has been proven in combat in a variety of environments. To be sure, there is an increased logistics, maintenance, and training burden. But we made it work in 1944 with a conscript army. So we can make it work now with a professional army from a training standpoint. And if the US Army’s long drives with Abrams tanks have taught us anything, it’s that the correct answer to logistics is more trucks. The TO&E should reflect how we fight. And we should train like we fight.

I really like this organizational setup. I’d probably go with three tank-infantry teams per platoon, and three tank-infantry platoons per company. I’m usually a triangular organization kind of guy.

TO&Es for ’44!

Last time, we looked at the result of the German combat testing of the StG-44, and how they thought it compared to the MG-42. Their conclusions were that the StG-44 was very good, but could not completely replace the MG-42.

I’ve chosen to look at the relevant tables for 1944 because at that point (or at least when the tables were written) the situation wasn’t so desperate as to put economy uber alles. Lots of the ’45 tables do just that. Also, keep in mind this is what the planners envisioned, which wasn’t necessarily what was fielded in great numbers.

The difference we’re interested in happens in the infantry platoons. The previous table had squads of nine men: one leader and eight soldiers. It also had one MG-42, and there was a designated gunner and assistant gunner. The gunner and assistant gunner both also carried P-38 pistols for personal defense. The squad leader had an MP-40, and the other six men had Kar 98ks. Moving up the table, each platoon had three squads. It also had a command element consisting of a platoon leader, two message bearers, and a litter bearer.

For the standard rifle squad, total ammunition allotment (i.e ready and reserve rounds) was as follows:

Member9mm Parabellum Rounds8mm Mauser rounds
Squad Leader1,536
Assistant Gunner993,450
Rifleman 199
Rifleman 299
Rifleman 399
Rifleman 499
Rifleman 599
Rifleman 699

Of course, the assistant gunner’s ammunition was in 50 round belts, often carried in drums, and a good portion of his allotment might be distributed to the rest of the squad or left on any vehicle the platoon might have. The gunner was the one who got to carry the MG-42, of course.

The table of ammunition allotments for the new squad was quite a bit simpler:

Member9mm Parabellum Rounds8mm Mauser rounds8mm Kurz rounds
Squad Leader720
Assistant Gunner720
Rifleman 1720
Rifleman 2720
Rifleman 3720
Rifleman 4720
Rifleman 5720
Rifleman 6720

(I’ve left the titles as-is from the previous table for comparison’s sake, but they don’t quite fit when everyone has an StG-44.)

Readers who are interested in the soldier’s load will note that this is a savings of about 13 lbs over the previous one in terms of total load carried for the entire squad.

The new assault platoon had two such all-StG-44 squads. The third squad contained all of the long range support weapons, including two MG-42s and three rifle grenadiers. This support squad consisted of eight men altogether, including the squad leader. Snipers were concentrated in the company headquarters squad.

This new organization was pretty easy to command, a bonus for the Wehrmacht Heer as its supply of well-trained veteran squad leaders dwindled.

A few more things stand out to me, looking back seventy-odd years later. First is that we could replicate this platoon pretty readily with three IFVs that each have a six mount capacity, if we used the IFVs themselves as a “support squad”. While this would be a small, easily commanded platoon, it does tie the IFVs closely to their dismounts, and perhaps that is not desirable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment briefly on what the 1944 tables said about the Panzergrenadiers. Panzergrenadier platoons consisted of three identically-equipped squads. Each squad was made up of ten men, including vehicle driver and assistant/gunner. No StG-44s were assigned at this time. Instead, the eight dismounts had two MG-42s, with a third MG-42 remaining in the halftrack.

StG v. LMG

I got the awesome book Sturmgewehr! recently from Collector Grade Publications, and it contains tons of great stuff. It’s got a detailed history of the crazy internal politics and the various iterations of the prototypes that would eventually become the world’s first assault rifle.

All of that is awesome. And that alone would be worth the price of admission. Engineering prototypes are cool, and it’s great to track the evolution of an idea as it intersects with operational realities in testing. Plus, despite (or perhaps because of) being a dictatorship, the Third Reich had some crazy political struggles, with all kinds of subterfuge and pet projects and competing notions. Right there, I had my money’s worth.

But I was hoping for more, and happily Collector Grade (and the Waffenamt’s obsessive documentation) delivered. What I was really interested in was how the Germans figured they would be deploying this new weapon. Clearly, an assault rifle can replace bolt action rifles, semiautomatic-only rifles like the Gewehr 43, and submachine guns like the MP-40. That’s most of the weapons of the squad right there. But what about Hitler’s Buzzsaw? Can the StG-44 plausibly replace the MG-42? Did the Germans figure this was a net gain or a net loss?

Let’s look at the technical considerations for that very comparison, comparisons forged in the hellish engagements of the Eastern Front. I’ll have a follow up where I look at the 1944 organization tables built with the StG-44 in mind. Note that the Germans frequently deployed prototype StG-44s to combat units to gain feedback. One of the questions asked was “Can this weapon replace the MG-42 in an infantry squad?”

Anyway, let’s grab some relevant figures for comparison, so we have them all in one place. The MG-42 weighs 25.51 lbs, is chambered for 7.92x57mm Mauser, is belt fed, and fires at about 1,200 rounds per minute. We’re concerned primarily with the light machine gun use case, so not supported by the excellent tripod. While the MG-42 could be operated by one man, in practice a second man was designated to be the ammunition bearer, and would also help carry spare barrels.

The StG-44 weighs about 10 lbs unloaded, is chambered for 7.92x33mm Kurz, is detachable box magazine fed, and fires at about 500-600 rounds per minute (cyclic). A lot like a modern assault rifle.

When comparing the two options, it should be noted that this was not a one for one replacement. That is, the StG-44 would not be issued one per squad or fireteam in the fashion of the M1918 BAR. Rather, it was a shift to a ‘distributed firepower’ model, something like that of the Soviet submachine gun regiments. Clearly the StG-44 was a lot handier, and could be easily used in a trench or in built-up areas. A squad of StG-44s didn’t provide one obvious target for enemy suppression, and when relocating, did not have a significant drop in effective firepower as the machine gun was moved.

While the firepower of one MG-42 was significantly greater than that of one StG-44, given the different rates of fire and the relative capacities of a belt and a box magazine. Since the StG-44 was to be deployed en masse, this wasn’t a focus of comparison. It may interest the reader to know that Wehrmacht planners figured three StG-44s were roughly equivalent in close-in firepower to one MG-42.

The one big advantage the MG-42 held was at range. The MG-42 was still effective at ranges beyond 500 meters, but the StG-44 was never designed to be effective at these ranges. In the evaluations, units that were stationed in areas of Russia with long sightlines placed a high value on the MG-42 and keeping it available. Units that did not have many long sightlines available at the time of evaluation tended to value the handiness of the StG-44, and reckoned it could completely replace the MG-42.

Next time we’ll look at the units equipped with the StG-44, at least as they were drawn up on the organization tables.

Parvusimperator Reviews the F-22 Raptor

No fighter discussion would be complete without mentioning this one, even if it’s technically not available for the procurement games.

To understand the F-22, we should first look at the ATF, or the state of military aviation in the ’80s. The core of the USAF was the F-15 and the F-16. These were great fighters, but the Soviets had counters, namely the Su-27 and the MiG-29, which were at least the equals of the American fighters. In the maneuverability area, they might even be considered a bit ahead.

American doctrine was heavily invested in air superiority, and the USAF was always looking for the next big thing, so they put out a design concept for the ATF. It was to fly faster and higher than other fighters. Or, more precisely, to cruise higher. Speed is good, since speed is energy that can be converted into maneuvers. Energy is life. But supersonic speed meant afterburners, which burned fuel rapidly. So most fighters couldn’t sustain supersonic speeds for very long. The USAF’s idea was to use new engine technology to push the envelope of cruise speed, not maximum speed. The resulting fighter would not be faster than the Eagle, but it would be able to maintain supersonic speeds without lighting its afterburners (to “supercruise”). These engines would be designed to work at higher altitudes, because altitude can be converted into energy. Energy is life. Energy is winning.

Of course, there were secret projects in the works too, and so the USAF added stealth requirements. Stealth demanded careful shaping, special skin, and internal carriage of weapons. This helped the supercruise, since it reduced drag. A protracted development period due to the end of the cold war, and a competition between the Lockheed and Northrop Grumman entries eventually resulted in the F-22 we know today.

The F-22 is the king of the skies. Full stop. There is no better aircraft at aerial combat. None. Fighting with a Raptor really, really sucks. The Raptor has a massive, powerful, highly advanced, low-probability of intercept radar, and the obvious stealth features. So it’s going to see you first. And because it cruises at mach 1.2-1.4 at a higher altitude than you, the Raptor has the energy to decline any engagement it pleases, or dictate the range as it pleases.

If the Raptor chooses to engage BVR, as we’ve mentioned it’s going to get the first shot. It sees you first. It gets to position favorably. Plus, if you’ll recall, it’s flying higher and faster than you. So its missiles get that much more energy, because they start from a supersonic platform, and get a gravity assist as they dive down. Which is a great recipe for an intensely frustrating exercise. And by ‘exercise’, I mean ‘simulation of being smote by an angry god’.

But that’s BVR. The Raptor owns BVR. What if we force the merge and go to WVR? Probably by stipulating in the exercise rules that it’s a WVR fight, but still. Well, here go some of the advantages, though it’s still a massive pain to acquire a lock on the Raptor. At least you can see it. And you can engage with IR seekers, but not super well. Everybody dies in WVR. The Raptor is no exception. But it has the best aerodynamics of any fighter around, with a very high thrust/weight ratio and very low wing loading. It also has thrust vectoring. So even in WVR engagements, the Raptor is a winner more often than everybody else. It’s kill to death ratio at Red Flag is hilariously lopsided, and that’s against pilots who dogfight for a living.

If you’re thinking this is quite gushy, and excessively positive, you’d be right. I love this thing. But it’s not tops at everything. The internal weapons bays are somewhat limiting. The Raptor was designed around a warload of six AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders internally. This isn’t a bad loadout, though it could be bigger. However, those bays are not very deep. So the F-22 can’t carry much in the way of bombs. And it can’t carry any bombs that are all that big. The F-35 can’t carry many bombs, but it can carry two of just about any air to ground weapon you please. The F-22 is limited to bombs of 1,000 lbs or less, and that size class also rules out most standoff weapons. Plus, it only recently got ground-oriented radar modes. Ground attack is not its thing. Though the USAF is trying, and has made special small GPS-guided glide bombs so the Raptor can bomb more stuff.

Oh, and it’s out of production. Even when it was in production, it was super expensive. You could theoretically restart the production line, but that would cost a whole bunch of money. And the USAF only bought 187, which isn’t a lot. And there are have been issues with the onboard oxygen generating system, which have restricted that flight envelope. Those should be fixed by now.

So it’s an expensive, gold-plated, air-superiority fighter with gimped ground attack in a world of strike operations. Would we buy it?

Well, we can’t. Production lines were closed in 2011. Sorry. Blame Rumsfeld, not me.

Feels like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Okay, fine. Suppose they got their act together and started making them again. Raptors rolling off the production lines. Would we buy them?

Well, we still can’t. Even if the production lines were reopened, there’s a pesky act of Congress in the way. Really. There’s a law in the United States that says Thou Shalt Not Export the F-22. Even to one of America’s favorite and closest allies, like Japan or Australia or Israel. No Raptors for you.


Okay, that’s another cop-out, right? I’m still avoiding the question. Fine, fine. Remove both pesky intrusions of reality. Would. We. Buy. One?

We’d need a price, right? Well, let’s be awful and take the figure from an offhand quote of an Israeli Air Force general of $200 million, rather than the much more favorable wiki flyaway cost of $150 million. So. 200 million dollars a copy. Would we buy?

Hell fucking yeah, we’d buy.

Did you really think I’d say no to the greatest aerial combatant of all time? Are you mad?
We’d be all over this, if the above conditions were met. Even at $200 million. It’s got Wunderwaffe-class awesomeness. It’s also an absolutely beautiful fighter. It looks right. It is right.

Since this is a game, you might be thinking I should try to trade Fishbreath something so we can both skirt our self-imposed rules a little. He’d never go for it though. He doesn’t like spendy wunderwaffe.

Author’s Notes: This review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by Lockheed Martin, the Fighter Mafia, or members of the United States Air Force.

Resurrected Weapons: Douglas F6D Missileer

We looked at the long-range, high performance Eagle missile on Tuesday. Now, let’s look at the plane to carry it.

As ever, the US Navy was concerned about saturation attacks on its carrier battle groups. To counter the new threat of bombers armed with large, long-range antiship missiles, the Navy had two projects under development in the late fifties. One was the Typhon long range SAM, with a projected range of 200 nautical miles. The other was the Eagle/Missileer project.

Missileer was, unusually for the jet age, a subsonic fighter. Given that it had to stay on station more than 200 nautical miles away from the fleet, and that more loiter time was significantly better, the decision was made to keep the design subsonic. Long loiter also conveniently sidestepped delays in interception from launching alert fighters, since the fighters could be orbiting and ready. Subsonic design made mounting a large, advanced radar and large, advanced missiles easy. We’ve already talked about the massive, 1,284 pound Eagle missiles. The Missileer was designed to carry six of them. It was also designed around the large APQ-81 radar.

APQ-81 was an early pulse doppler radar. In an era when a fighter radar with a 24 inch diameter dish was considered large, APQ-81 had a dish 60 inches across. It could detect a standard radar target1 at 120 nautical miles, and track sixteen of them simultaneously at 80 nautical miles. It had a track-while-scan mode. It was designed with innovative anti-jam features from the beginning, including a narrow, 3° beam with a 24 kHz bandwidth, both chosen to avoid most available jamming systems.

Unsurprisingly given that it had to carry such a large load, the F6D was fat and ugly. It was 53 feet long and had a wingspan of 70 feet. It was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF-30s, engines that would go on to power the F-111 and the F-14A.

Like the AAM-N-10, he Missileer was cancelled by McNamarra to free up budget space for other things. The aircraft itself would be easy to develop but the radar and systems integration (and the AAM-N-10) would be risky and expensive. Plus, they’re overspecialized for a single mission. The F6D had to be bought in conjunction with another, more conventional fighter, since it could not provide strike escort capability or establish air superiority. It was a project that was somewhat ahead of its time, like Typhon. The US Navy would later get a much more reasonable set of systems with similar capabilities in the 1980s with Aegis and Tomcat/Phoenix.

Verdict: Funding request denied by the Borgundy Aircraft Procurement Board

  1. In the late 1950s, the standard radar target was assumed to have a radar cross section of 5 square meters. This corresponds to the radar cross section of a B-47 bomber. 

Resurrected Weapons: AAM-N-10 Eagle

Let’s continue our look at some vintage projects. The AAM-N-10 Eagle was a US Navy air to air missile program optimized for enemy bomber interception in the fleet air defense role from the last years of the Eisenhower administration.

The problem, evident even by the late 1950s, was that Soviet bombers could mount antiship missiles. So the bombers had to be engaged at long range, because intercepting large numbers of small, high-speed missiles is very difficult. To do so, and to get the fleet defense fighters outside the range of new surface to air missiles under development, the Navy proposed a subsonic, long endurance “fighter” and a high performance missile. This missile was the Eagle.1

The Eagle was developed by Bendix, in conjunction with Westinghouse’s big new APQ-81 radar and the Douglas F6D Missileer fighter. It was a two-stage missile, with a booster stage and a sustainer stage that would fire after a glide period. Both stages were solid-fuel rockets. The booster gave a speed of mach 3.5, and the sustainer could get the missile to peak at mach 4.5. Midcourse guidance updates were to be provided by the APQ-81, and terminal guidance would be an active radar seeker with a home-on-jam mode, much like a modern AMRAAM. AAM-N-10 flew a lofted trajectory, and had a 160 nautical mile (300 km) range.

That’s pretty impressive, but to get that performance in 1959, you needed a big, expensive missile. AAM-N-10 was 16 feet long ready to launch. The booster was 16 inches in diameter, and the second stage was 14 inches in diameter. The booster’s wings folded, and the second stage had a finspan of 34 inches. Weight was 1,284 pounds, with a 110 pound warhead.

The AAM-N-10 and the F6D were cancelled by Robert McNamarra in 1960, to free up money for other urgent programs2 and to establish the authority of him and the new Defense Department over the various services.

So what do I think of all of this?

Well, it’s hard for my opinion to not be colored by my opinion of Robert S. McNamarra, and I hate Robert McNamarra. His decision making process is suspect. And his “commonality” fetish got abused into some mind bogglingly dumb ideas.3 But he did get some good programs to completion/procurement, like the Polaris SLBMs and the M-16 (my favorite rifle). And here, I’m inclined to agree with McNamarra again. The Eagle was very specialized, and very expensive. It was useable from only one platform (Missileer), and for only one mission (engaging non-maneuvering bomber targets at extreme range). Missileer could not do any other mission either. Conceivably the AAM-N-10 could have been launched from the A-6 Intruder, but that would have required a different radar, or depending on an E-2 for all guidance updates. However, the core concept was a good one and we’ll see this become much more refined and sensible in the AIM-54 Phoenix.

Verdict: Funding request denied by the Borgundy Air Ordnance Procurement Board

  1. AAM-N-10 is the old designation system for air to air missiles developed by the Navy. 
  2. viz. the Polaris SLBM program and rebuilding the tiny and useless US Army 
  3. cf. the F-111B. 

Resurrected Weapons: A-6E Intruder

If my father’s generation wanted precision strike from the sea, they’d call up the ugly but effective Grumman A-6E Intruder. Looking like a drumstick with wings, the Intruder had a two-man crew, a radar-navigation system for night/all-weather guidance, and a FLIR system in a small turret under the nose for target identification. It was subsonic, had an approximately 600 nautical mile (a bit over 1,100 km) striking radius, and it could carry up to 18,000 lbs of bombs.

The long strike radius was a direct consequence of optimizations and the choice of subsonic speed. Grumman opted for subsonic speed, because even the big F-4 Phantom was subsonic when heavily laden with bombs. Accepting a lack of supersonic speed meant that more fuel efficient engines could be used, providing a long strike radius.

In the Intruder’s day, there were no smart weapons. The delivery vehicle was responsible for all of the precision (or lack thereof). This alternative is a lot easier, since the plane is a lot bigger and easier to fit sensors and targeting computers into. As a brief aside, this sort of precision-on-aircraft delivery of dumb munitions is still used by Russia, and was the delivery method of choice for the airstrikes in Syria.

The Intruder proved very effective in Vietnam, where it was the Navy’s most accurate bomber. It was also the primary Navy delivery platform for dropping laser guided bombs in Desert Storm, since the -E models had a laser designator in their FLIR turret.

Despite the Intruder fleet getting new wings in the early 90s and having a solid combat record, the Intruders were taken out of service in 1996. There really wasn’t a perfect replacement. It was supposed to be replaced by the A-12 Intruder II, a poster child for bad project management. This project was cancelled1 without anything new being proposed in its stead. In the late 90s, the Intruder’s role was supposed to be filled by F-14 Tomcats with LANTIRN pods, which could not match the payload capacity of the Intruder. In 2005, the Tomcats were also removed from naval service, and their roles were taken over by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. These could not match the range of the Tomcat or Intruder (both of which have a strike radius of about 600 nautical miles).

I really don’t like the loss of strike radius in the newer platforms. Super Hornets are nice otherwise, but they could really use longer legs. Yes, I know tankers have worked in recent conflicts, but the Navy shouldn’t rely on them. Or else what’s the point of naval aviation? If you can make tankers work, you can probably make land-based strike work. The whole point of naval strike is to be deployable quickly, and to come from additional vectors. In Vietnam, carriers at Yankee Station brought strikes from the east, in addition to the USAF strikes from the west out of bases in Thailand. If they required tankers, that makes life a lot more difficult for the planners, since tankers are fat and vulnerable.

The Intruder was cancelled to reduce the number of airframe types in the fleet. Understandable, but likely premature. The limited wars of the 2000s and 2010s would have been a good match for the capabilities of the Intruder. The A-6E isn’t very survivable in a high-threat environment, but Al Qaeda doesn’t have any serious SAMs. Long range would also make for long loiter time, and adapting a plane for JDAMs isn’t exactly hard.

On the one hand, restarting A-6 production would be silly. On the other, they were taken out of service way too early, and there’s no real replacement out there.

  1. The A-12 is a program that even I think deserved to get cancelled. 

Book (Series) Review: The U.S. Army in World War II — European Theater of Operations

I have a number of these volumes. They are published by the Whitman Publishing Company, though the originals were published by the US Army’s Military History Department. They are a staff-officer level view of the war. They provide an excellent battalion-and-above level perspective. Discussion of command decisions, command reasoning, politics, and large scale maneuvers is handled well. The author, Martin Blumenson, is also good at covering logistical matters, which is a very important side of war that few bother with.

As fitting a staff level account, the maps in the text are first rate. They are very clear and carefully reproduced. These are not crude, cheaply printed duplicates. However, the maps within chapters are somewhat sparse. We might expect more within the text, but the back of the book has something better: color gatefold maps.

That’s not a delusion or an ungodly typo. I’ll write it again.


I’ve never seen any other book do this. Each volume in the set has approximately twenty (20! That’s Two-Zero!) full-color, fold-out maps at the back for your analytical pleasure. Now you feel like you’re sitting in a warmer, nicer version of SHAEF. You can see terrain features and force depositions like never before. It’s spectacular. And yes, the text has inline references to the maps, which are numbered for your convenience. This is the best way to get a great mental image of the campaigns of the European Theater of Operations.

All that said, these are very much in the old-school of history writing. Unless someone gets a mention in dispatches, individual soldiers on the front line do not get called out. And we do not get the perspective of individual soldiers at the front lines. That is not the objective of these works. As I mentioned before, they’re oriented to the staff level, and they do not deviate from that.

The series comes highly recommended, whether they are list price or on sale.

On Squad Automatic Weapons

When equipping that base unit of infantry, the squad, with automatic weapons for support fires, there are two schools of thought. These are the magazine-fed ‘automatic rifle’ vs. the belt-fed ‘light machine gun’. In World War 2 terms, this might be seen as the BAR/Bren vs the MG-42. We can see the same question being asked today, with the US Marine Corps using the M27 IAR, and the US Army using the M249. Let’s look at these options.

First, the M249. Made by FN, this is a belt-fed weapon. Unlike the M240, the M249 is chambered for the same 5.56×45 mm round as the squad’s M4s. It is also generally considered to be operable by one man. No assistant gunner required. It has a quick-change barrel to facilitate sustained fire and help deal with heat buildup. It can be operated from 100 or 200 round belts. It weighs 17 lbs empty and 24 lbs loaded with a 200 round belt in a plastic box (sans optics). It has an integral bipod, and is most effective when fired from the prone position with the bipod for stability and support.

Second, the M27. Made by HK, this is a magazine-fed weapon. It is also intended to be operated by one man. While it has a relatively heavy barrel profile, it lacks a quick change barrel. It can only be loaded with standard detachable box magazines. While there are some higher capacity magazines on the market1, the US Marines currently only issue the standard 30 round box magazines. These are the same as what the rest of the squad uses for their M4s, so there’s some commonality there. Weight is 7.9 lbs empty, and a bit less than 9 lbs loaded with a 30 round box magazine (again, sans optics or other accessories).

Note that both weapons fire the same 5.56 mm round. So effective range and lethality are roughly equivalent. Specifics will depend on the skill of the shooter and the round being fired. I will not discuss this further.

It is also true that the M249 has a greater capacity for sustained fire than the M27. Even the M27’s proponents agree there.

A more useful question is “Is the greater suppressive capability of the M249 outweighed by what you give up?” The M27 is less than half the weight of the M249 (even after we add appropriate optics and other accessories to each weapon). The M27 is a more accurate weapon than the M249. The M27 can be used in a stack for room clearing, whereas the M249 cannot due to safety concerns stemming from its open bolt mechanism and the bulk of the weapon. Weight and bulk also means that the M249 gunner is harder pressed to keep up with the other members of his squad.

Let’s also briefly talk ammo weight. The basic load of a SAW gunner is 1,000 rounds, or five 200 round boxes, which comes out to about 35 lbs. It takes thirty four 30 round magazines to get about the same number of rounds,2 and that weighs about 34 pounds. Note that by-the-book loads for the M27 IAR gunners in a USMC squad vary from 16 to 21 magazines (480-630 rounds). Variance due to the weapon being new, and TTPs being worked out. That’s 16-21 lbs of ammo. This neatly side steps the question of weight of the spare barrel assembly for the M249, but I can’t find its weight. Assume several more pounds of weight for the barrel assembly, if it is carried. If it is not carried, then the quick-change barrel feature is not useable, and sustainable rates of fire will be lower. However, they will still be significantly higher than those of the M27.

There’s also a temptation we should avoid when considering infantry tactics. While it is easiest to ponder loadouts one organizational level at a time and build from the smaller levels to the bigger ones, we should remember that the smaller ones don’t fight alone. A squad is not going to be running around the battlefield on its own. Ad hoc room-clearing units can be assembled from the manpower from a few squads in a platoon without difficulty. If flexibility is desired, additional carbines can be stowed aboard the squad’s organic transport.3 We have lots of assault rifles already, which look an awful lot like the automatic rifles in question.

The most important matter, whether the greater sustained fire rate of the M249 means it is a more effective suppression weapon than the M27, is not something I have the means to test. I would question most tests of suppression on the grounds of failing to adequately simulate combat. Setting aside the intangibles, not having a belt-fed weapon in the squad does not have a good historical record for staying power. Let’s review it:

  • In World War 2, the US Army and US Marine Corps both had BARs as their squad-level automatic weapon. They considered a new Automatic Rifle version of the M14, but declined, and switched to the belt-fed M60 (and later the M249).
  • In World War 2, the British Army had the Bren gun, which is also more or less an automatic rifle, being fed from a magazine. The replacement for the Bren Gun was the L7, which is a licensed version of the FN MAG.4
  • In the 1980s, the British attempted to put a new 5.56 mm automatic rifle, the L86, into service to compliment their new 5.56 mm assault rifle. Caliber commonality. They were dissatisfied with the loss of firepower in the squad, and switched to using the FN Minimi as the squad automatic weapon.
  • The Germans had plenty of experience fighting American troops equipped with BARs in World War 2. The German soldiers were armed with the MG42. The American soldiers wanted MG42s instead of their BARs. The German soldiers agreed with them. They did not think the grass was greener on the other side of the fence, and stuck with the MG42 (rechambered for 7.62×51 mm NATO as the MG3).
  • The Russians built a belt-fed 7.62×39 mm machine gun, the RPD, to compliment the AK-47. It lacked a quick-change barrel, and proved to be unsatisfactory. They replaced it with the RPK, an automatic rifle version of the AK-47. They stuck with it through the caliber change to 5.45×39 mm. The Russians are very doctrinally disciplined. Once the Russians hit actual combat in Afghanistan, again the automatic rifle proved unsatisfactory and soldiers exchanged their RPK-74s for belt-fed PKMs (chambered in 7.62x54R mm). This happened again in combat in Chechnya. The belt-fed weapon was favored over the magazine-fed weapon for support purposes, even though it was heavier and bulkier. Russia is moving (albeit slowly, for want of money) towards equipping mechanized forces with PKP machine guns as squad support weapons. In the meantime, the PKM sees lots of service in that role.

There is a clear trend towards real combat driving the use and purchase of belt-fed weapons at the squad level. The US Marine Corps is bucking the historical trend, which gives me pause. The US Marine Corps tends to favor large, 13-man squads, and doesn’t fight mechanized. This might influence their decision somehow. The US Army, which uses 9 man squads (more similar to other powers at present), and does fight mechanized, has not followed the Corps in switching out M249s for M27s. Given the firepower and limited dismount capacity of the M2 Bradley, this switch would seem attractive for them. Perhaps they don’t agree with the conclusion of the USMC tests which said the M27 was better at suppression.

Without knowing the details, I could not possibly comment on the tests. Offhand, we’d want to make sure we weren’t favoring the M27s in test parameters, or putting new M27s against old, well-used, and worn-out M249s.

Here the Corps and I part ways. I much prefer a belt-fed machine gun or two at the squad level. Given the choice between the M27 and the M249 to support a squad, I’ll take the M249 every time. Belts all the way. Sometimes heavy is best.

1.) Magpul makes a 40 round box and a 60 round drum magazine, and Surefire makes a 60 round and a 100 round quad-stack box magazine. There are a bunch of others, but these come to mind first for being quality. That said, when the M27 was adopted, the USMC did not find any existing 100 round magazines to be reliable. I am unsure of their test protocol or which magazines were tested (or if 40/50/60 round magazines were considered).
2.) This works out to 1,020 rounds, but mais n’enculons pas des mouches.
3.) Admittedly I’m a big fan of mechanized infantry, but is there any army worth talking about that doesn’t provide some form of motorized transport for its infantry units?
4.) The American M240 is also a licensed FN MAG.

Remember the 7th

Seventy five years ago today, the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan.

I could say a lot more on the matter, but I am merely an amateur analyst. Instead, listen to the stories of some men who were there, courtesy of C-SPAN.

Stories, Part 1

Stories, Part 2

Perhaps they are the lucky ones to have survived. Perhaps not–they lost a lot of friends that day.

Let’s spare a thought and a prayer for the men who gave their lives that day. And for those who had to wait so long to see their brothers in arms again.