Boots on the Ground: Why America Must Invest in Dominant Infantry Forces

Boots on the Ground: Why America Must Invest in Dominant Infantry Forces

"Our enemies today no longer fear our ships and planes. They have learned to minimize the destructiveness of our big shiny objects."


There is an old saying that generals and admirals are like bass…they’re drawn to bright shiny objects. The same holds true in spades for politicians. America has sought to win its wars by investing huge sums on big shiny objects that float and fly in the hope that our wars can be won by expending materiel rather than men.

To avoid bloodshed in battle we plan to fight our wars by assuming (or hoping) that our allies will substitute their soldiers for ours; that we will fight using “non kinetic” forms of national power such as diplomacy, information and economic leverage; that tomorrow’s warriors will fight in cyberspace and that if any killing is necessary it will be done by armed drones.


Unfortunately throughout the “American Era of War,” that period of conflict since the end of World War II, America’s hopes for bloodless battle has rarely been realized. Our great fleets are intended to sink enemy fleets. But America’s last major ship-on-ship battle was fought in 1944. Our expensive flights of fighter jets are designed principally to shoot down enemy planes in air-to-air combat. But the last time the air services fought against a serious aerial opponent was the Christmas bombing offensive over North Vietnam in 1972. We have yet to bury the first cyber soldier on either side.

Why don’t our enemies fight us like we want them to? Simple. Over the past seventy years they have learned and adapted. Here’s what they’ve learned: First, spot the Americans the air and the sea (and space). Our enemies have proven that they can win on the ground alone. Second, they win by making the war last and by just killing Americans. They want to kill Americans not as a means to an end by as an end in itself. They know that our great national vulnerability is public opinion. The surest way to affect public opinion is to kill Americans as publicly and dramatically as the global media will allow. A useful corollary is to highlight to the media our killing of innocents through mistake and miscalculation.

And it seems to be working for our enemies. The score for non-western enemies who use western-style, conventional weapons against western militaries is 0 and 6: four Arab Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), and two against the American military—Desert Storm in 1991 and the March to Baghdad in 2003. These same former colonial subjugates are (arguably) on the winning side when fighting western militaries their way…on the ground, using unconventional tactics and means: against the United States in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; against Israel in Lebanon, against the French in Indo China and the Soviets in Afghanistan. 

So if a football coach were virtually undefeated on the ground it would make no sense to switch to a passing game. The same holds true for our adversaries.  There is absolutely no reason for any future enemy to deviate from this winning strategy. So if the enemy will continue his ground game and if his end state is to kill Americans what should the next Administration do differently? The answer to that question and the secret of future victories is embedded in three numbers: 81-4-1.

Let me explain: in wars fought in the American Era, since the end of World War II, eighty one percent of all Americans killed at the hands of the enemy (not resulting from accidents or disease) have been infantrymen, not Soldiers and Marines but infantrymen, a group of men numbering four percent, or about 50,000 out of 1.2 million men and women on active duty. Most men and women in uniform perform jobs no different from their civilian counterparts. They fix trucks, cook meals, punch away on computers and do routine administrative tasks.

Infantrymen are different. This small band of brothers is our intimate killers. They go out every day to close with and kill enemy infantrymen. In combat an infantryman lives an animal’s life. The primal laws of tooth and fang determine whether he will live or die. Killing is quick and close. A typical firefight in Afghanistan is fought at less than three hundred meters. Experience with close combat in Afghanistan reinforces the lesson that there is no such thing in close combat as a “fair fight”. Infantrymen advance into the killing zone grimy, tired, confused, hungry and scared. Their equipment is always dirty, dented or worn. More than half of American infantrymen die by surprise while trying to find the enemy. They die on patrol in ambushes, sniper attacks or from booby traps and IED’s.

Pilots, artillerymen and missile crewmen also kill to be sure. But they kill from a distance. An infantry soldier and marine looks into his enemy’s eyes as he shoots him and watches as the life pours out of his body. The “one” in 81-4-1 is the shocking part. All together this band of brothers who collect together in small units, squads and teams, receives less than one percent of the total defense department budget allocated to pay for equipment and small unit training. IF our greatest vulnerability is dead Americans and IF infantrymen are the ones most likely to die then wouldn’t it make sense for the richest country in the world with the world’s most expensive military to try to do all it can to keep these men alive?

Well, sadly, after fifteen years of war, we still spend overwhelmingly on stuff that will never be employed for its intended purposes while we continue to shortchange those who do the dying…with tragic consequences. Why? One answer comes from Beltway insiders who proclaim confidently that after fifteen years of war our political betters will never put “boots on the ground” again. One candidate, Secretary Clinton, has stated that under no circumstances will she allow ground troops to fight against ISIS. Truth is more than five thousand soldiers and Marines are fighting ISIS now. If she wins Clinton will put more boots on the ground not because she wants to but because her enemies will force her to. As my friend Dr. Conrad Crane writes about ground forces throughout our history, “We will never be able to never do this again.”

What if the next Administration took the bold step to make our close combat Soldiers and Marines truly dominant on future battlefields? Could they put paid to the consequences of too many “fair fights?” Of course they could. And what’s so amazing is that such a reform would be both certain and cheap…and decisive. The challenge of achieving dominance in the close fight is political not fiscal or technological. The technology is “popular mechanics” not “star wars.” The cost isn’t pennies on the Defense Department dollar but bits of pennies. Much of what will save soldiers lives can be bought today at Walmart, not Lockheed Martin.

Let’s begin reform at the tactical level of war by looking up. Most Americans die in combat trying to find the enemy. So why not give them the means to identify the enemy from a distance? The next Administration should establish the policy that no ground unit go into harm’s way without a constellation of drones orbiting overhead: strategic drones in the stratosphere linked to small units capable of sensing the approach of large enemy formations; smaller “killer” drones orbiting at lower altitudes capable of immediately taking out enemy soldiers at very close range with just a push of a button on the squad leaders “killer app”; and small hand held drones, perhaps no bigger than a small bird, capable of silently intruding into vehicles and buildings to spot ( and perhaps kill) enemy soldiers waiting in ambush. These swarms of drones would constitute an “unblinking eye” that will always see the enemy no matter how hard he tries to hide.

All American teenagers tweet. So, why, please tell me, do young infantry soldiers, many just out of high school, find themselves isolated and out of touch with their buddies in what can only be the most horrific circumstances of direct combat? A simple soldier “combat internet” would easily mitigate combat isolation, the most debilitating aspect of a soldier’s close combat experience. Borrowed technology from sports science would allow a soldier cell phone to monitor his emotional state in combat by measuring galvanic skin response (sweating), heart rate, respiration and (soon) brain activity.  Just imagine a commander with an emotional “dashboard” that would tell him in exquisite detail the psychological fitness of his soldiers. What a huge difference in fighting prowess such a simple capability would give to a small unit command team.

Decades of research tells us that a soldier should never carry into combat more than about a third of his body weight. That’s why the World War II soldier’s load was about sixty pounds. Today our Soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan carry more than a hundred pounds…in 100-degree heat at 11,000-foot altitude just before closing with and striking the Taliban. Is it any wonder that the Taliban can easily retreat when the fight gets too hot? So, why can’t we provide our infantry with some means to lighten his load? How about a small follow along, unmanned robotic vehicle? Google and Uber are already experimenting with robotic vehicles. How hard would it be to pay them to develop a soldier’s robotic companion?