Saturday, January 31, 2009

Withdrawing "Combat" Troops

In his campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2008 and again in the race for the White House, Barack Obama pledged that, if elected, he would remove all U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of assuming the presidency.
Undoubtedly, this promise alone influenced many voters. But what does the promise include – and what does it exclude? First some background.

At the most basic training level, everyone who wears a uniform is in the infantry. With the exception of chaplains and medical personnel, every soldier is issued a rifle of side arm and is taught how to use it.

Through most of the 20th century, the Army’s structure focused on the division as the principal self-sustaining warfighting and administrative level. Divisions consisted of some combination of combat (infantry, armor, artillery, aviation), combat support (engineer, communications, intelligence), and combat service support (logistics, transportation, maintenance) units. The division “type” – (infantry or armor) was based on simple arithmetic: if infantry battalions outnumbered armor battalions, the division was “infantry.”

The Army’s recent shift to the brigade (one level below the division) as the principal self-sustainable warfighting level is intended to speed response times to events. The result has been the creation of modular Brigade Combat Teams and Support Brigades whose strength runs between 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers.

Unchanged in all this is the historical system originally used to name combat units at the regimental (roughly equivalent to the brigade) level. The two world wars of the last century dissipated the regimental system which survives now only in the designations of combat arms battalions (one organizational level below brigade).

If someone says that all combat troops will be withdrawn from a geographic area within a set time, a listener would be justified in assuming that all units whose nomenclature includes the terms, “infantry,” “ armor,” “ cavalry,” “ artillery,” or “attack” or “combat” (such as “combat brigade”) would be totally withdrawn. The distinctive warfighting “Brigade Combat Teams” will be pulled out to meet the 16 month campaign pledge. But among the anticipated 50,000 or more “support” troops will be smaller units whose primary functional missions will include or even may be fully oriented to what ordinary people would label “warfighting.”

For example, an aviation company might draw a battlefield surveillance mission to prevent an enemy force from surprising a friendly ground unit. Should the aviation unit discover the approach of the enemy, it is not going to simply relay the sighting; it will either strike the enemy with its weaponry or (and) transport other friendly forces into a position to attack. Even more straight forward, an infantry unit might be kept in-country with a mission of “force protection” for reconstruction efforts.

The military will not count the unit as combat because that is not its mission – moreover, the unit is supporting the reconstruction team, which is the reverse of its normal position as the supported unit. Quick-reaction units and ones assigned convoy protection also will not be considered “combat” because of the functional nature of their missions which always include the right of “self-defense” if threatened by a hostile force.

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