This article should start with the statement that this isn’t an attack on Major General Robert Scales at all. Scales recently wrote an intriguing piece on how to try to “bottle SOF” and make our United States infantry units in the Army and Marine Corps as good as our SOF operators.
Scales earned a Silver Star for his actions during the Battle of Hamburger Hill. He commanded units at home and overseas and was the Commandant of the Army’s War College. He has been a military analyst on Fox News for several years.
Scales has written several excellent pieces on the U.S. military, and on many of the points he makes in his recent BreakingDefense.com piece, I’m in total agreement with. But trying to bring large conventional infantry units up to the level of SOF operators? It won’t work for a variety of reasons.
The conventional infantry, especially light and airborne infantry units, has traditionally lost many of its best and brightest NCOs to SOF units. That has always been a thorn in the backside of the conventional military. Just when an NCO reaches the level of his maximum effectiveness, he volunteers for a SOF unit and if he passes Selection then he’s off to up to a year, and in many cases more than that, of training to become a qualified special operator.
Special Operations Forces Cannot Be Mass-produced
Therein lies the first rub, trying to mass-produce troops to either be Special Operations Forces or to be trained as similarly as SOF operators is a non-starter. It is a familiar refrain heard with the SOCOM units and it is one of the “truths” that we’ve adopted. You can’t mass-produce special operators.
Most SOF units are under-strength right now. With the military shrinking, the Army has a strength of less than 500,000. The cream of the crop, the NCOs who traditionally volunteer for Special Operations units, is shrinking as well. The well is drying up.
NCOs, good NCOs, are the backbone of a military, and especially so in the U.S. military. With a decentralized leadership culture in the U.S. military, NCOs, and many times junior NCOs, have as much power as mid-level officers do in other countries. That’s what makes our military so strong…and unique.
But the NCOs are talking with their feet. Many, too many, are leaving the military. It used to be rare to see NCOs leave the military around the 10-year mark. Not so much anymore. And the more that leave, the smaller the talent pool to draw from becomes.
The idea of creating an “excepted” infantry force from the ranks of the infantry units is sure to meet with challenges from both the conventional as well as the Special Operations sides of the house. SOF is having a hard enough time fielding a fully manned force and having to account for another drain on manpower is sure to draw fire.
On the other hand, the conventional infantry units are already seeing a lot of their finest NCOs transfer to Special Operations, while others have started going to the new advisor Brigades, the SFABs. And losing yet more — this time to an “excepted” force, an infantry unit on steroids if you will — won’t sit well with the Division and Brigade commanders. Besides, the Army already has such a unit — and man, what a unit — the 75th Ranger Regiment. We don’t need to create another similar one. I can’t see a unit, such as the one General Scales is suggesting, getting any kind of support from senior leadership.
Having the selected infantry units go through a Selection and Assessment for a lateral transfer isn’t going to fly. Neither is recruiting junior NCOs from other career fields. NCOs in the infantry are raised from privates to positions of increased responsibility. That’s why they recruit the younger people straight from high school.
Part of what makes Special Operations troops so valuable is the level of maturity within the force. Most of the operators are in their thirties and have had the background and experience to fall back on when dealing with deployments and training.
However, I firmly believe that the way he’s proposing such a unit to be trained has merits, and the senior military leadership should look at these suggestions and make the necessary changes.
So, how do we make the Infantry more lethal, or as General Scales said by borrowing a phrase from General Mattis, better at “intimate killing” on the next battlefield, which may be against near-peer adversaries? General Scales hits the nail on the head here.
Eliminate all the chickenshite training that doesn’t make our infantry better at what they are supposed to do: closing in with and eliminating the threat. So much needless training is driven down from the Army to the subordinate commands and has no bearing on whether the force is ready to go to war. That is a familiar refrain even in Special Forces. Team sergeants have far too much of their training time dedicated to BS that has nothing to do with preparing the teams for war.
End the silly post details and make the infantry exempt from these. Increase range time and incorporate as much live-fire training as humanly possible. It may take some creative training scenarios by commanders, but we owe the men (and women), who will answer the call as infantry, no less.
We don’t need to create another elite infantry force, but we can make the ones that we already have better trained, better equipped and more than ready for the next war. Because there always is the next war. Our nation has been at war for nearly 20 years since 9/11. Our military is still the best in the world. But it can get better.
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