Do American infantrymen carry too much gear?

I came across this interesting blog post recently. Ignore the horrid-looking header and just scroll down to the beginning of the post.

The author’s contention is that American infantry is overburdened with excessive gear. The essay idealizes “light infantry” and gives examples from around the world of highly successful light infantry, both from guerrilla movements and organized armies.

I’m no military man, but when I see photos like this, I have to wonder…really? Is all that really necessary?

I’ve read that infantrymen today carry up to 120 pounds of gear. By contrast, a fully armored knight of the late middle ages would have only been wearing 40 to 50 pounds of plate armor, and that would have been evenly distributed over his entire body and fully articulated!

I know there are former and current infantrymen here from various generations. What do you all think about this?

Too much gear for what?

Surely it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it? Is there some evidence somewhere that this is counter-productive or something? That US Infantrymen are not as effective as they could be? And, if so, why? They don’t engage in one-on-one unarmed martial arts acrobatics duels with their enemies.

Also, a lot of the stuff in the linked picture is put down in a safe place before actually engaging the enemy, they don’t fight with all of that on their backs.

Yes, leaving anything behind is a risk, and commanders find it easier to load up the soldiers than to accept risk. A man cannot be a tiger and a donkey at the same time.

I’m not infantry, but that’s not a standard pack soldiers carry around all day on patrol, or are likely to get in combat with. Those guys are likely going from their plane to their barracks or some such.

Part of the issue is that we are increasingly unwilling to take casualties, even in successful pursuit of a mission. A lighter force is going to have less equipment, which will inevitably lead to situations where troops have to (e.g.) take on a tank without sufficient anti-armor capacity or attack a more heavily-armed enemy. And when that happens, there will be media and public anger about how these troops were ill-equipped.

If a hundred soldiers unencumbered by body armor narrowly scurry to safety, nobody will know. If a dozen soldiers get shot in the spot where body armor would have been, there will be a congressional inquiry.

In the early days of Iraq, there was controversy about Hummers being unarmored. The brass claimed that they were better off unarmored, that putting steel plates on them would weaken their best defense – speed and manueverability. After criticism and under political pressure, they started armoring the hummers. For all I know, the criticism was warranted; but AFAICT, the decision was not made based on changed military doctrine, but on political concerns.

And that’s a shame.

  1. The author refers to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” a sure sign he’s a crank.

  2. As has already been alluded to, it’s not really all that clear if the author is comparing apples to apples. What weight are U.S. soldiers carrying in BATTLE? What they carry when doing a combat jump or, as in the first picture noted, obviously just carrying all their shit from one place to another in a non-combat situation, is not the same thing.

When I was in the Army, if we were carrying all our shit, it was about 50 pounds, plus weapon. But geez, we didn’t carry all that if we were fighting.

  1. Where’s the evidence this is reducing the effectiveness of U.S. fighting forces?

Basically, from what I’ve read, speed is a lifesaver in combat, whether we’re talking about a tank, a person or a ship. If you’re not there to be hit, or not exposed as long, it doesn’t really matter how good your armor is.

That’s hard to quantify though; politicians and procurement people want to be able to quantify that the troops are well equipped, even if “well equipped” means heavier, slower and less combat effective.

Looks like they need to switch their first perk from Flak Jacket to Lightweight.

Not only that, but judging by most of his “successfull” examples of true light infantry, it seems the “light-as-air infantry” is a staple of armies on the loosing side. Maybe that has an appeal to someone that talks about “The War of Northern Aggression”…

Moreover, nowhere in the article are there details of how the increase in load specifically impairs infantrymen. That should have been the core of the article, not some more useless fanwank on “kickass infantries”.

But who are American troops fighting right now that uses tanks or any armor at all? The Taliban doesn’t have tanks, do they? (Maybe they have a few left over Soviet tanks? I really don’t know.) Seems like all our current enemies are very lightly equipped.

So equipping soldiers has become an example of political meddling? Wasn’t it just a few years back that the same crowd was complaining about how politicians weren’t equipping soldiers enough?

Mobility is nice in battle but it’s way down on the list. Armor and the ability to shoot back are going to do a soldier a lot more good than a pair of running shoes.

1.) Some famous people have described an ivory tower ideal
2.) We are not meeting that ideal.
3.) Ergo, bad?

As Capitaine Zombie notes, the armies of most (all?) of his examples lost their war.

The article comments on how the Japanese only carried a few weapons and, effectively, nothing else. Well so, are you telling me that they lived on air? Most people I know require water and food. Modern militaries must have working communications. Yeah it would be nice if you could live off the land, but that effectively means pillaging the locals unless you’re in Hawaii – let alone the desert.

On book TV today they had Bing West , who wrote a book about the Afghanistan war, say exactly that. He said the heavy equipment the American soldiers carry made it impossible for them to catch the Afghani fighters on the hilly terrain. They shoot across valleys at each other and then can not catch them when they run after them.

In a sense it’s always been that way. In World War II people saw the necessity of winning at all costs. They built equipment just as fast as they could and people went into combat with a fraction of what they have now. That started to change with Korea and Vietnam, and now the belief is that every soldier’s life is valuable, so we need to do more to protect them. Of course, every soldier’s life is valuable, especially to the soldier, but that has always been the case so something has changed in the beliefs about the way we conduct wars.

Technology has helped, but even in the Air Force we have a remarkable amount of equipment that we have to train with that we’ll never, ever use. Why? Because the commanders have determined that we need that equipment for some largely hypothetical eventuality, something that might have been useful in some other situation that may never happen again.

The politicians have long since realized that if they send people off to war, they need them to come home as intact as possible so they don’t have to face the political fallout of sending people to their deaths.

I thought that too until I saw minute 26:00-27:00 of this program.

The author highly over idealizes “light infantry.” Just some examples:

Undaunted by terrain until they have to rapidly move across it, that is. Heavier infantry using wheeled and tracked vehicles move a hell of a lot faster with a hell of a lot more gear and supplies and don’t get where they’re going exhausted from a forced march.

This all sounds nice until the land doesn’t provide them with food and ammunition. In particular see Japanese infantry below.

This is a weakness of light infantry, not strength. Conventional tactics are no good for light infantry because they lack the heavier gear to put up a stand-up fight against a heavier conventional force and live through it.

Which is why they can’t put up a stand-up conventional fight. It’s rather hard when anything heavier than a 60mm mortar or a 7.62mm machine gun is classified as heavy ordnance.

Relying upon the enemy and the land for supplies is a shortcut to disaster and starvation barring exceptional circumstances. The Japanese relied on this a lot in WW2. It worked fine in the first 100 days when they were able to get the “Churchill ration” of captured enemy supplies. It proved utterly disastrous once they faced more determined resistance; starvation was a leading cause of death for the IJA in campaigns such as Guadalcanal and Imphal/Kohima. This is just rot and really takes the cake:

What this ignores is the deplorable state of Japanese logistical support; IJA soldiers starved to death by the thousands when the land and the enemy failed to provide food. When such lightly equipped IJA infantry was forced to fight much more heavily equipped and supported American and Commonwealth infantry after their initial run of success in the first 100 days, the result was frequently heavily lopsided casualties of 10-1 in favor of the Allies.

Or Strong Back. “War. War never changes.”

Okay, first of all, you never run full force after your enemy, lest he be drawing you into a trap. You establish positions, set up converging fields of fire, and draw your opponent into you or wait for him to travel along an established route. Bing knows this because he wrote extensively on the topic of small unit tactics in his monographs.

Second, a 120 lb loadout is by no means a load a soldier or marine would carry on combat patrol, much less an active operation unless most of it are consumables (ammunition, mines, et cetera) intended to be set up or used from a fixed position. A 60-70 lb loadout is a practical maximum for the 95% infantryman, and that is generally only carried by the radioman or mortar operator.

Third, a lot of the additional weight that soldiers carry today versus previous conflicts are batteries for comms and target devices. Being able to call in a strike and able to target precision-guided munitions from the ground is a dramatic force multiplier, especially for light infantry who are basically incapable of taking on armor or heavy arms by themselves (The Guns of Navarone not withstanding). This is especially true in the mountainous and unfamiliar terrain of the Afghan Hindu Kush, where American infantrymen are dramatically disadvantaged against even poorly equipped Afghan natives who are experienced in moving around and navigating terrain.

Fourth, the blog post linked to by the o.p. has a few salient points, but appears to come from a position of dramatic ignorance about the role of modern light infantry and what is practicable. Light infantry do not “live off the land” or generally “operate separated from their lines of communications by depending on enemy and indigenous supplies.” Light infantry (the newest moniker is actually “fast infantry” despite the fact that they are actually the slowest of all infantry forces to tactically deploy) is intended to be a scouting and skirmishing force, not generally a deep penetration force, and is not intended to operate independent of communications, though it is supposed to be logistically self-supporting for durations of up to 14 days. The concept of generalized light infantry has largely given way to task-oriented fast infantry or expeditionary units which rely upon close air or artillery support for any objectives of significant strength.

In Afghanistan, the light infantry has been used to pursue small groups because it is more mobile that mechanized infantry, and more reliable than air assault in high altitude mountains where LZs are scarce and cover for the opposition is plentiful (as seen during Operation Anaconda. However, the most typical tactics are for light infantry are to call in air support like the AC-130U ‘Spooky’ to obliterate the opposition and then mop up rather than engage in direct combat operations whenever feasible.


Does the author realize that ‘living off the land’ means stealing food from the locals whose hearts and minds you are trying to win?!

I am currently reading the “Chindit War” (“light” troops in 194 Burma.) They were expected to carry something like 70-80 pounds of equipment, plus food and water. They were supposed to be extremely light, fast moving and able to survive in the jungle for long periods. I think leaders, given the opportunity, will load soldiers until they reach the practical limit of what a fit human can carry, which appears to be 60-80 pounds for normal purposes.